The 17th of November and democracy: international political games

Article published on Nov. 18, 2002
community published
Article published on Nov. 18, 2002

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Having existed for a long time at the margins of democracy, the 17th of November movement, now eliminated, reflects the ambivalences of the strategic struggles surrounding Greece, between the Balkans and the Middle-East.

The 17th of November movement gets its name from a student protest at Athens Polytechnic University, which was violently repressed by the Colonels regime on November 17th 1973. Thus from its origins, it has stood for a cult of martyrs, not without resemblance to the Irish or Palestinian cases, where the weight of the dead rises against the process of peace and negotiation.

The movement was formed on a Marxist basis, tinted with Greek nationalism and anti-imperialism. One can suppose that the first sketches of the movement were drafted in Paris towards the end of the sixties, among Greek Erasmus students, around Alexander Giotopoulos, who was recently arrested as the presumed founder of the group. (cf. Yahoo Actualité)

The 17th of November was born as a reaction to the dictatorship of the Colonels, but its ideological intransigence was directed not so much against democracy as it was against American, British and Turkish imperialism. In 1975, the first victim, Richard Welch, chief of the CIA in Greece, was shot. This was followed up by the death of a former torturer of the Colonels. In total, the 17th of November is responsible for 23 assassinations up to the British defence attaché Stephen Saunders death in June 2000.

Indulgence from the Greek governments

From its birth, in line with the opposition to the Colonels, and a very present nationalism in both the Greek Left and Right, the 17th of November movement benefited, and continues to benefit, from a certain indulgence by Greek society. Indeed, there has not been in contrast to the other European countries which were hunting for Red Terrorism any large popular demonstrations nor any firm condemnations of the movement by any of the political parties. On the contrary, the United States have not ceased to criticise the different Greek governments, without mincing their words, for the lack of zeal that the Greeks were bringing to the struggle against the 17th of November.

Greece is a small country, and whats more a new country, which contains anthropological structures which favour communitarism (see E. Todd, Le destin des immigrés). This resulted in the formation of strongly welded Greek communities among students and expatriated intellectuals, especially during the dictatorship. Back in Greece, and occupying key administrative and political posts, they did not mobilise to condemn a movement which was in line with their generations aspirations.

Most importantly, the 17th of Novembers actions could only generate a favourable response in public opinion which was extremely sensitive to close strategic stakes. These are questions which are unfortunately absent from democracy, as from ethics, being in the domain of the Realpolitik of the different powers. Strongly linked to Cyprus and Yugoslavia, Greece viewed Turkeys invasion of Cyprus, the privileged partnership between USA and Turkey and the creations of spheres of influence in ex-Yugoslavia very unfavourably. In addition, Nixons support of the Colonels regime provided a solid base for anti-Americanism. Linked somewhat reluctantly to the western bloc (cf. civil war of 1949, Marshall Plan, NATO...), Greek democracy couldnt afford to play against its camp, to lead a political strategy too opposed to Americas influence in the zone Not without frustration.

Seen from this point of view, the 17th of November played the role of a counterespionage service with muscular actions for a long time, conforming to the wishes of the population and perhaps of the political class.

However, because of its uncontrolled nature and its choice of violence, the 17th of November has been drawn into a murderous spiral and committed acts much more reprehensible than the elimination of foreign spies. In 1985, Nikos Momfertos, director of the conservative newspaper Apogevmatini, was assassinated. This is a sign which showed that the instrumentalisation of terrorism by democracy a process which sadly is common can only harm democracy, in this case freedom of speech.

The neutralisation of the movement and the arrest of 15 of its members, probably the quasi-totality of its active members, occurred in a context which evolved rapidly. In this new deal, the elimination of the 17th of November suddenly represented a major interest for the Greek government.

Since the September 11th attacks, American pressure on Greece multiplied, forcing it to cooperate in the war against terrorism. Equally so for the establishment of a war against terrorism at the European level. However, it is mainly the perspective of the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004, and its economical and political stakes which made the elimination of the troublesome 17th of November movement an obligation for the Greek government. Congratulations from America and Europe were joined by those of the president of the IOC, Jacques Rogge, who had expressed considerable worries regarding the security of the games.

Thus finishes the action of this movement and its cohabitation with democracy. Nonetheless, police action presents another major problem for the relations between democracy and terrorism, that of the respect of Human Rights. The three Xiros brothers, suspected members of the 17th of November, have indeed gone back on certain parts of their statement, which apparently had been taken under threat, perhaps even torture (cf. Amnesty International site).

This is the hottest stake in the democratic struggle against terrorism, to which it must be hoped that the values which underlie it bring an answer without concessions.