Can Greece Look Forward to a Coup d’Etat?

by Timothy Chilman

email: timothychilman@yahoo.com

A Greek flag next to a pleasing body of water, where shit creek would perhaps be more appropriate. Photo: Aster-oid

Well, isn’t Greece in a pickle? The country was living beyond its means even before joining the euro, but it borrowed heavily and embarked upon a spending spree after admission. Public spending, including public sector wages, has almost doubled within the last ten years. Tax income has been hampered by widespread tax evasion. This country of 11 million people now has around $470bn of debt – 140 percent of GNP. One conservative politician suggested that the government sell off a few islands to help settle its debts.

In May, Greece was given a bailout of more than $150bn by the European Union and International Monetary Fund, with another $150bn promised in July. Even that has proved insufficient, and Greece is seeking a third installment of $179bn. European banks hold between $50bn and $60bn of Greek debt. Default is very possible.

The British Times newspaper pointed out that the cuts demanded of Greece are of a similar scale to those which resulted from the Treaty of Versailles, which did not have such a good effect on democracy.

The austerity measures required to secure Greece a third bailout are startling. People would retire at 65 rather than 61. Sales tax would be increased from 19 to 23 percent. Property taxes would be raised. Pensions of more than $1,380 a month would be reduced by between 20 and 40 percent. Tax on alcohol, fuel and cigarettes would increase by one third. People would have to work for 40 years to qualify for a pension. Public sector salaries would be reduced by between 20 and 30 percent – around two thirds of the population of Greece is employed by the state. Only a tenth of retiring civil servants would be replaced. 30,000 civil servants would find themselves shelved on less than full pay. Every temporary contract for workers in the public sector would be ended. There would be a new tax of between one and five percent on household incomes. It is no surprise that the suicide rate in Greece has doubled. The British Times newspaper stated that the cuts demanded of Greece are similar in scale to the reparations imposed upon Germany at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. The German reparations were not exactly beneficial to democracy. Hitler used the Treaty as a battlecry.

In an article which attracted feverish attention in Greece and elsewhere, Forbes magazine said that in financial circles it is increasingly said, “half in jest,” that Greece would benefit from a coup d’état. Fuss over the article caused the author to change the title from “The real Greek solution: a military coup” to “The appalling Greek solution: a military coup.”

A policeman afire during rioting in Greece. Photo: filippos_hellas

Is a coup a possibility? A report by the Albert Einstein Institute identified the circumstances under which a coup becomes more likely. First, there is dissatisfaction with the performance of the government. In Greece, this has gone so far as striking and widespread rioting, which has been met by tear gas.

Next, there is no confidence in democratic procedures. George Papandreou’s replacement as Prime Minister of Greece, Lucas Papademos, had never previously held public office. While Papademos received support upon taking office, the urgency of the situation in Greece dictates that the honeymoon will be brief. Anti-austerity campaigners, headed by ever more vocal trade unionists and other leftists, condemned him, saying his appointment was the fruit of the “logic of banks and markets.”

The Albert Einstein Institute said that a coup is more likely if there is a lack of diversification. This is true of Greece, one fifth of whose GDP comes from tourism. A coup benefits from low participation in politics by the citizenry. The government of Greece has acknowledged that the level of political participation is low. For a coup to be successful, soldiers must be more loyal to their officers than to the government. Defense minister Panos Beglitis said that the military was like a “state within a state” and accused its representatives of acting anti-democratically.

The Greek Orthodox Church has been riven by scandal.

On the plus side, a coup is more likely to succeed if non-state institutions are weak, and Greek trades unions are very strong. The Greek Orthodox Church, however, was severely weakened by sex and corruption scandals in 2005. There were photographs of a 91 year-old bishop nekkid and abed with a young lady. One churchman, Archmandrite Iakovos Giosakis, was suspended after being charged with the smuggling of antiquities after valuable icons disappeared from his former diocese. Thanos Dokas, a political scientist, said, “What all of this has confirmed is that corruption is not limited to the public sector.” Homosexuality is rife among senior clerics sworn to chastity, despite the Church describing it as an “abomination.” Greek national identity is inextricably linked to the Church, as it kept Hellenism alive during 400 years of Ottoman rule. 97 percent of people in Greece are Orthodox.

A CIA report warning that the dire situation in Greece could result in a coup was first detailed by the German tabloid, Das Bild. People say the only things in this newspaper which are true are the cover price, the weather, and the sport results, however the report was mentioned by more respectable sources, such as the Turkish newspaper, Daily News & Economic Review, and the website, Business Insider.

In a shock announcement, Defense minister Beglitis, one of Papandreou’s closest allies, announced the dismissal of the chiefs of the Greek National Defense General Staff, army, air force, and navy. Military chiefs are usually replaced every couple of years on the basis of party loyalty, but changes rarely affect the entire military. The British newspaper of the ruling class, the Daily Telegraph, was one of many to speculate that the Papandreou regime replaced its top military leaders with more sympathetic people to prevent the possibility of a coup.

George Papandreou, Prime Minister of Greece in 1963

Greece is no stranger to coups. In 1963, George Papandreou, grandfather of the newly ex-prime minister, was himself Prime Minister. Different people wanted to unite Cyprus with Greece (enosis), divide it into Greek and Turkish sections, or be leave Greeks and Turks living together. The Cypriot president, Archbishop Makarios, caused ructions when he attempted to reduce the influence of the Turkish minority upon his government. Turkey rattled sabers and began preparations to invade. President Lyndon B. Johnson is reported to have told the Greek ambassador: “Fuck your parliament and your constitution. America is an elephant. Cyprus is a flea. Greece is a flea. If those two fleas continue itching the elephant they may just get whacked by the elephant’s trunk.” UN peacekeeping troops were deployed, and Turkish Cypriots sent to enclaves.

The United States proposed that Cyprus be united with Greece but with an independent Turkish area containing Turkish military bases and with the island of Kastellorizo given to the Turks. George Papandreou annoyed the United States by rejecting the idea. He then began to release communists who had been held in prison since the end of the civil war in 1949.

Andreas Papandreou, who was strongly disapproved of by the U.S. government, later in life

The United States was wary of the Prime Minister’s son, Andreas, who was educated at Harvard and had been head of the Department of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley. Andreas had returned to Greece with his American wife and his children to participate in his father’s government. Declassified documents revealed that the CIA, fearing a communist resurgence, wished to spend hundreds of thousands of dollar on candidates who could defeat Andreas. The CIA said that he belonged “to the camp of individuals opposed to US interests” and was “particularly strong in his views.” A declassified memo shows that the U.S. embassy believed Andreas would greatly reduce military spending, direct Greece away from NATO, and gravitate to what it mis-spelled as “the Soviet block.” The embassy said Andreas was allied with communists. The State Department disagreed, with Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, remarking that the risk of an operation against Andreas being revealed was considerably greater than any political gain that might result. The truth of the matter was that in the United States, Andreas had worked on the campaigns of Adlai Stevenson and Hubert Humphrey.

King Constantine II of Greece

King Paul died in 1964, to be replaced by the 23 year-old Constantine II, whom some viewed as being in the pocket of his mother. On July 5, 1965, he deposed the government, which was by then in confrontation with the King, the establishment, and the Americans.

Minister of Defense Petros Garoufalias and some officers claimed Andreas was conspiring with young officers to overthrow the government, eject the king, and establish a dictatorship. The operation was said to be called Aspida – “shield” – and it is not certain that it ever existed. George Papandreou requested that King Constantine permit him to take over the Ministry of Defense, but the King declined, claiming the the Prime Minister had a conflict of interest. The Prime Minister offered his resignation, saying he should be allowed to select his cabinet. His resignation was accepted.

A new government was formed by a faction of dissidents from the governing Center Union party known as the July Apostates, or apostasia, which was led by Konstantinos Mitsotaki, who had founded the party. The group had little popular support. The King blamed the political upheaval on communists in his New Year’s Day speech in 1966.

Elections were to be held on May 28, 1967. By the end of 1966, it was obvious that George Papandreou would win, possibly with more of the vote than in the previous election. A group of officers led by Col. George Papadopoulos overthrew the government on 21 April using a NATO plan called Prometheus. Papadopoulos was the liaison officer between the CIA and the Greek intelligence service, the KYP, had been trained in the United States, and had collaborated with the Nazi occupiers in the 1940s. Prometheus was a plan for the neutralization of a communist uprising by the arrest of subversives in the event of an attack by the Soviet Union. Recently, Professor Christopher Pissarides, the Greek-Cypriot Nobel economics laureate, said that when politicians were embroiled in argument, “the military came in and said, ‘Come on now, let’s stop, there’s military rule until you sort it out.”

The five officers who led the coup in Greece in 1967

Four of the five officers who took power were close to the U.S. military or CIA. They were known as “the colonels.” A week later, the U.S. government recognized the dictators. In Britain, there was deep soul-searching over whether to recognize a dictatorship, and it took a whole one more day before recognition was given. Shortly after the coup, the King was photographed taking the hands of the coup plotters.

More than 10,000 people were arrested in the first few days, including politicians, trade unionists, students, and social activists. The coup was justified as a response to the communist threat. Martial law was imposed, including censorship, banning of political parties, beatings, torture, and killing. A sign at the military police building where opponents of the regime were interrogated and tortured said, “He who enters here exits friend or cripple.”

Educational textbooks were re-written. Books by such authors as Shakespeare, Aristophanes, and Chekhov were prohibited. Mini-skirts for wimmen and decadently long hair for men were banned. When Mick Jagger threw red flowers into the crowd at a concert he gave in Athens, he was taken offstage by officials who believed he was showing support of communism. The slogans “Greece is Risen” and “Greece of the Christian Greeks” were used. There was a plan to rebuild the Colossus of Rhodes. The colonels claimed to oppose communism and corruption, but the rising pay of officers showed the true motive for the coup.

The music of the left-wing Mikis Theodorakis, who wrote the scores of Zorba the Greek, Z, and Serpico, was banned on Greek radio. He had led a defunct communist organization, the Lambrakis Youth, and his music was said to serve communism: “These songs arouse passions and cause strife among the people.” A short time later, the man himself was arrested.

The specialties of the junta’s police were beating with rubber hoses, electric shocks, sexual violation, and removal of fingernails. One of the most infamous torturers is said to have told his victims, “Behind me there is the government, behind the government is NATO, behind NATO is the US. You can’t fight us, we are Americans.” In his first press conference, Papadopoulos justified his government’s harsh measures by saying, “We are facing a patient on the operating table. Unless he is tied to the table, he cannot be cured of his illness.”

Tricky Dicky sent "warm love" to the military junta which ruled Greece.

By 1970, Greece was accused of violating human rights by the Committee for Human Rights of the Council of Europe. It withdrew from the body before it could be expelled. In December, 1971, it was announced that Athens would be the home port of the U.S. Sixth Fleet. The junta made a donation of half a million dollars to the election campaign of Tricky Dicky and Spiro Agnew (born Anagnostopoulos). Nixon conveyed “warm love” via Agnew when the latter visited Greece in 1971.

Robert V. Keeley was a political analyst at the U.S. embassy in Greece at the time of the coup and later became ambassador. In his book, The Colonels’ Coup and the American Embassy: A Diplomat’s View of the Breakdown of Democracy in Cold War Greece, he said, “The CIA was in bed with the palace, the army, the Greek intelligence service, the rightist party, the conservative business community, the establishment in general.” The CIA made almost no effort to contact liberal political groups such as the Center Union party.

Papadopoulos abolished the monarchy in 1973, after quashing an attempted counter-coup attempted by the King. The junta lasted until its displacement in a bloodless coup carried out by another group of officers led by Brigadier Dimitrios Ioannidis, the head of the military police, in 1973. Constitutional rule was restored in 1974.

Some people say the Greek army is not capable of a coup, probably on account of those shoes. Photo: ahtsong

Could this happen again? Pepe Egger, of the London-based consultancy, Exclusive Analysis, said, “The Greek army of today is not likely to even mull coup ideas.” Costas Panagopoulos, head of the ALCO market research company, said, “The army is not even mentioned in polls anymore, because we don’t think it affects the political scene at all.” Constantinos Loukopoulos, a retired Greek general, said the idea of a coup was “total fantasy” and “ludicrous.”

In 2010, the head of the European Commission, Jose Manual Barroso, warned that the debt-ridden countries of southern Europe could fall prey to military coups if public services collapsed. Spain, like Greece, only became democratic in the 1970s.

In Germany’s principal financial daily newspaper, Handelsblatt, editor Gabor Steingart wrote: “If I were from Greece I would be amongst those who are alert and worried. I would keep a wary eye on that military machinery which governed the country until 1974 and which might lie in wait for an opportunity for revenge. We know from many countries: Dr Shock is an enemy of democracy.”

On the high profile British Newsnight television program, a Greek MP was asked if a coup might happen, and he replied: “I hope not.” He did not say “no.”

In recent years, the Greek army has been active during earthquakes and floods. In 2011, it collected garbage which had amassed in Athens due to a strike. A survey showed the army beat the church as Greeks’ favorite institution. The army has endured large payroll cuts, with more to come. Mary Bossis, professor of international security at the University of Piraeus, said, “The army is part of the people, they also suffer from austerity.” There are 156,000 active soldiers and 237,000 reservists, a greater proportion of the population than in Libya or Syria. Spending on the Greek military is the highest in all the European Union – 3.2 percent of GDP, compared to the EU average of 1.6 percent. Marc Ostwald of Monument Securities said that cuts to the military could cause a split within it. And what will happen when there is no money to pay the army?

Tanks on Red Square during the 1991 coup attempt in the Soviet Union; the putschists wrongly believed they would receive public support.

In his 1968 book, Political Order in Changing Societies, Samuel P. Huntingdon listed guardian coups as one type of coup. Here, the putschists claim to be ridding their country of an incurably corrupt regime, improving public order, and/or restoring democracy. Greece cannot hope to function unless it improves tax collection, which is avoided by corruption. A regime promising to hunt tax evaders and corrupt politicians would attract public support. Public order is currently at a low ebb in Greece, and police and soldiers have joined in with rioting. A coup could be justified on these grounds, and hence hope to have some public support. Even if no public support would be forthcoming, conspirators could wrongly believe that it would, as was the case in the Soviet Union in 1991.

The distinguished political scientist, Eric Nordlinger, pointed out that nearly all coups are, in truth, carried out for the military’s own interests: rent-seeking behavior. The Greek military would have much to gain in this respect.

If a coup is to succeed, there must by acquiescence or at least indifference internationally. A coup in Guinea-Bissau succeeded in the face of disinterest. The removal of the top tier of the Greek military went unreported by the Washington Post and New York Times, and perhaps a coup would not attract so much opprobrium.

What would a coup look like? The president does not have the power to dismiss the government, as the British Queen’s representative, the Governor General, did in Australia in 1975. Coups generally occur around August, Christmas, and the New Year, when key staff are on holiday. If enough of the U.S. president and Secretary of State and the Greek experts of the French, British and German foreign ministries are on holiday, reaction will be delayed, and the first few hours are crucial. It is said that the First World War began because key advisers such as those of the Tzar, the French prime minister, and the Austro-Hungarian emperor were not near their posts.

To overcome the larger forces of the incumbent regime, putschists would have to maximize surprise and act quickly. Most successful coups take hold within 48 hours. If there are few rumors of a coup, so much the better: the incumbents will not be on alert. Power in Greece is dispersed throughout the country, so multiple targets would have to be taken. Buildings such as the headquarters of the military and the police and television stations would have to be seized, and the top personnel of the incumbent regime dealt with. Officers who are no part of the coup might not resist as their livelihoods would not be endangered by it.

Protestors during a strike in Greece on 5 May. 2011; Photo: euronews

The British newspaper, the Daily Mail, printed the complaints of ex-pats living in Greece. The article was written by one ex-pat during a 48 hour general strike: banks, government schools, airports, bus and taxi drivers, customs officials, doctors, and bakers were not at work. When gas station staff went on strike, there was no gas for a week. Bear in mind that this scale of industrial action led the establishment, including the army, to contemplate a coup in the United Kingdom in the 1970s. Many young people are emigrating. There is widely perceived to be no hope. A tax collector was quoted as saying, “The Greek people never learned to pay their taxes because no-one is ever punished.” How much support would coup plotters anticipate if they offered to stop the rot by ending industrial unrest and making everybody pay tax?

A military junta might be acceptable to a Europe where the right-wing, Dutch politician Gert Wilders enjoys success.

Would the European Union be happy to have a military regime within its ranks? The rest of Europe shows some signs of going the same way, as the success of the Dutch nationalist, Geert Wilders, the True Finns, and the United Kingdom Independence Party attest.

Greece itself has gone that way. Its government now includes people who would be inclined toward a coup. The coalition government cobbled together by Papademos includes the thoroughly right-wing Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) party. It has been given one ministerial and two deputy ministerial positions. The party says it is “hellenocentric,” rather than racist.

The incoming Infrastructure and Transport Minister, Makis Voridis, was previously the general secretary of the very right-wing National Political Union (EPEN) party, which was founded by the imprisoned coup leader, Papadopoulos. Voridis was expelled by the Law School Student Union and then sued by the National Union of Students for taking part in fascist attacks on other students. Deputy Minister of Development, Adonis Georgiades, was a great fan of the book, Jews: The Whole Truth, which supported Hitler and advocated the extermination of Jews. He plugged the book repeatedly on his television show. The leader of LAOS, Georgios Karatzaferis, was reported by Athens News to have made anti-Semitic remarks. He denies making such comments, but failed to convince the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece, which said that LAOS members had “expressed in the past propaganda against the Jews.” The American Anti-Defamation League called LAOS’ inclusion in government “deeply troubling.”

A coup was attempted in Trinidad and Tobago on 27 July 1990 by more than a hundred members of the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen Islamist radical group. The Islamists stormed parliament and a television station, and took the prime minister and all other occupants hostage. One MP, Rawle Raphael, had received three warnings of a coup attempt, but did not pass them on to the National Security Minister or the police because he “believed it was a big rumor and big joke.” Any member of the Greek government who says the prospect of a coup in Greece is a joke just might also find themselves standing before armed men before very long.

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