GREECE: Under attack from within

For more than two weeks, the administration headquarters of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, the largest in the country, has been occupied by youths, members of non-parliamentary leftwing organisations and sundry other anarchist groups. They have prevented staff from carrying out their duties and are causing serious disruption in the management of the institution.

The youths are protesting at the university's intention to hand its cleaning services to a private contractor. They are also expressing their support to Constantina Kouneva, a heroic trade union official who is still seriously ill in hospital following a craven attack more than three months ago.

During the attack, Kouneva had acid thrown to her face and subsequently was forced to drink it, as a result of which she suffered severe external and internal injuries.

Universities, the youths claim, should not have dealings with private contractors who evidently not only transgress the rights of their staff - often poor, immigrant women working long hours uninsured in dreadful conditions for very low wages - but also terrorise them if they dare to protest as in the case of Kouneva.

During the occupation, staff and academics of the Aristotle University have been unable to carry out their duties and the services of the institution have come to a standstill.

University Rector Anastasios Manthos appealed to the youths to end the occupation but they refused. He contacted the District Attorney to discuss the situation but was told that under the law governing academic sanctuary, the authorities could not intervene unless criminal acts were being committed (occupation is not a criminal act) or if the university's senate committee expressly asked the authorities to intervene.

Manthos and the senate face an extremely delicate situation. They want the occupation to end but they are extremely reluctant to call in the authorities.

In previous similar circumstances police intervention has not been distinguished by discretion or sensitivity. It could easily result in more damage to university property by the withdrawing youths who would not only return once the police left the premises but would also accuse the university authorities of contributing to the abolition of the sanctuary themselves. A university under constant police guard is a contradiction in terms.

The option of calling in the authorities therefore has been rejected and instead Manthos has called on the academics, staff and students of the university to participate in a form of peaceful counter-occupation.

This incident is indicative of the position universities find themselves in. They are becoming the scapegoats and the victims of a society which cannot resolve its own contradictions while being undermined by the same people who are supposed to defend their existence as well as their independence.

Universities find themselves at a centre of a peculiar tug of war which prevents them from fulfilling their mission. On one side motley anarchist groups use the university as a springboard for nefarious activities and a refuge to avoid apprehension; and on the other a weak government, unable to deal with the increasing wave of violence sweeping the country, is all too keen to lay the blame at the universities' door and accuse them of sheltering the offenders.

In this peculiar situation the universities are on a hiding to nothing. They also face a dilemma extremely difficult to resolve: how to stop the marauding youths who not only cause damage to shops, cars, private and public property in and out of the university but also terrorise academics and staff and ultimately prevent the institution functioning effectively.

University authorities want to preserve open, free, easily accessible institutions for their staff, academics and students but they lack the resources to do so and are reluctant to appeal to the security forces.

The situation appears to suit the government's plans to abolish the academic sanctuary and allow police to operate unchecked inside university premises. A recent public relations survey found the public overwhelmingly in favour of such an eventuality showing that the propaganda, if nothing else, is effective.

Instead of improving an untrained and demoralised police force after the traumatic events of last December, which brought them into conflict with the suppressed anger of teenagers, the government is resorting to measures of dubious quality and effectiveness.

The last two introduced by the Justice Minister Nikos Dendias were a long-abolished and long-forgotten 'abuse against authority' and the wearing of a hood.

In the first, if anyone was heard during a demonstration to swear at a police officer he or she could be arrested and given double the sentence provided by the law. In the second, anyone wearing hoods, masks, handkerchiefs, large sunglasses and even make-up deemed to cover wholly or part of the face would be severely punished. Such perspicacity!

Not to be outdone, Athens District Attorney George Sanidas ordered an investigation into all university departments occupied by students or other groups to determine whether criminal acts had been or were about to be committed.

Asked to comment on the recent developments, Education Secretary Aris Spiliotopoulos said in his opinion the current legislation was adequate to deal with the phenomena and that new measures were not necessary.

Spiliotopoulos did not lose the opportunity, however, to restate his earlier proposal that the law school and the architecture department of the Athens University be removed from the centre of the city so that marginal groups would not find ready-made refuge; a proposal the university authorities staunchly reject.

Two things are obvious: social unrest is gathering momentum and will become more difficult to control as the local economy and the international crisis deepens. Second, neither the government nor the police with its present composition are capable of dealing with the situation as they slip and slide towards more and more authoritative measures instead of dealing with the real problems.

The autonomy of the universities in general and the academic asylum in particular are a thorn in the flesh both of the government and the police. Their inability or reluctance to apprehend any of the trouble-makers so far and use the state's legal arsenal against them indicates either a pronounced lack of operational efficiency or a certain amount of complicity.

In either case, the institutions most at risk are the universities and it is incumbent on them to safeguard and retain whatever privileges or freedoms they have. In this light, the initiative mounted by Aristotle Rector Manthos to attempt to reoccupy its institution by peaceful means may prove to be extremely significant.