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Golden Dawn seeks to exploit Greek refugee crisis

The neofascist Golden Dawn party has returned to the national spotlight, stoking tensions over the creation of refugee hot spots and reception centers in Greece. Pavlos Zafiropoulos reports from Athens.

At midday on February 9, residents of Piraeus and surrounding neighborhoods were invited to participate in a demonstration against a planned refugee center in the nearby area of Schisto. The protest was ostensibly organized by a local "residents committee," one that is remarkably elusive, having shown few signs of existing before or since the protest. It is widely believed that the "committee" was a front for the neofascist Golden Dawn party rather than a nonpartisan group of concerned citizens.

Roughly 150 individuals attended the Schisto protest, waving Greek flags and chanting slogans typical of Golden Dawn rallies: "Greece belongs to the Greeks" and "They are selling out Greece and bowing to the foreigners." The rally reached its peak when several Golden Dawn MPs and key members of the party's leadership took to the microphone to make brief rabble-rousing speeches.

Among them was Ilias Kasidiaris, the party's well-known spokesman and the potential heir to leader Nikos Michaloliakos. "The problem all these sellouts [in government] have is not that Greeks will soon be a minority in our own country, but that Golden Dawn's poll numbers will rise. Of course Golden Dawn's numbers will rise, because Golden Dawn is the Greek spirit!" he told the crowd to loud cheers.

From the courthouse to the streets

The overt role Golden Dawn played in promoting the Schisto rally drew a counterprotest on the same day, with roughly 100 anti-fascist campaigners assembling on the other side of the street to denounce the party. A large police presence kept the two sides separate, although scuffles were later reported to have taken place.

police and protesters on a street copyright: Pavlos Zafiropoulos

Golden Dawn has been making its presence felt but the opposition has been out in force too

"Golden Dawn is trying to get out of the isolation imposed on it after Pavlos Fyssas' death, and is trying to do so by playing the racism card," Petros Konstantinou, the coordinator of KEERFA (the Movement Against Racism and the Fascist Threat), told DW at the rally, referring to the anti-fascist rapper who was slain at the hands of a Golden Dawn supporter in September 2013. That crime prompted a crackdown on the party and its leaders, who are currently in the midst of a large and complex trial. They stand accused of operating a criminal organization that directed Fyssas's murder, as well as dozens of violent attacks on immigrants, among other crimes.

Yet the much publicized trial, which marred Golden Dawn's narrative of being the only "clean" political party, has since fallen out of the headlines, stalled because of an ongoing strike by the country's lawyers over planned social security reforms. Even if that were to end soon, it is unlikely that the trial would conclude within the year. The party's leaders have also since been released (under conditions) from pretrial imprisonment after being held for 18 months - the maximum allowed for such detention under Greek law.

Now, with the government increasingly taxed by the dual economic and refugee crises, an emboldened Golden Dawn is seeking to reassert itself.

Thanasis Kampagiannis is a lawyer in the trial against Golden Dawn, representing a group of Egyptian fisherman who were brutally attacked, allegedly, by one of the party's "attack squads." "Golden Dawn's use of supposed resident committees is a strategy it has used in the past in an attempt to portray itself as a supporter of broader groups of frustrated citizens," he told DW. "They do this to gain better access to neighborhoods and because they know they are on the back foot as a party due to the trial."

Aside from the Schisto demonstration, Golden Dawn has been accused of stoking violent protests against refugee reception centers in Diavata, near Thessaloniki, and on the island of Kos. In the case of the latter, the demonstrations have delayed the completion of the Kos hotspot which was one of the five Greece was due to have completed before this week's EU summit. It is the only one that is not yet operational, although it is expected to be completed in a matter of days.

Watch video 03:09

Violent protests against migrant center

National insecurity

The Schisto reception center itself has now been completed, with large white tents erected in the grounds of a disused military base located in an industrial zone several kilometers away from the city. It is slated to house roughly 1,200 refugees and migrants - although when, and for how long, remains to be seen.

For Vangelis, 43, a local contractor and Golden Dawn voter, the reception center is unwelcome. "They cannot assimilate," he says of the migrants. However for him, as for many others, so-called national issues related to the refugee crisis are more pressing, such as the impact planned NATO patrols may have on Greece's disputed maritime borders with Turkey. The upgrading of Macedonia's international standing at Greece's expense is another hot-button issue. "I vote for Golden Dawn because they are patriots," he says, adding that he believes the government is dangerous. "Everything that is happening day by day is a boost to the party."

The journalist and political commentator Pavlos Tsimas says that though it was an aggressive anti-immigrant stance that helped catapult Golden Dawn from a footnote to the third largest party in parliament in 2012, any increased support today is more likely to come from a broader sense of insecurity engendered by perceived government incompetence.

"Now the main driver is the very high youth unemployment," Tsimas told DW. "That is why people who turn to Golden Dawn tend to be young and unemployed." He said that, in addition to the demonstrations over hot spots, Golden Dawn had made its presence felt at roadblocks set up by farmers to protest social security reforms.

a view of a camp copyright: Pavlos Zafiropoulos

One of the five reception centers, Schisto is supposed to house over 1,000 refugees

"The main threat from the refugee crisis is that it leads to a wider destabilization which would benefit Golden Dawn," he said.

A poll released on Wednesday found little change in the overall support for the neofascist party. But an emboldened Golden Dawn can nevertheless do much to muddy the political discourse in the country, as Ilias Kasidiaris demonstrated during a parliamentary committee meeting about the refugee crisis. The meeting descended into chaos when Kasidiaris and fellow Golden Dawn MP Christos Pappas unleashed an obscene torrent of abuse aimed at Defense Minister Panos Kammenos and the leadership of the armed forces, whom they accused of being 'traitors' and the 'Filipino [servants]' of migrants.

The debacle ended when the Golden Dawn MPs were forced to leave the meeting by the Parliamentary Guard. A video of Kasidiaris's tirade, apparently recorded on his own phone, was subsequently uploaded to Youtube to the evident delight of many of his supporters.

As one old Greek saying puts it, 'in the chaos, the wolf is pleased.'

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