Jan 15, 2015
The 2014 Greek Protests over Syrian Chemical Weapons Destruction and their Political Impact, with Complete Timeline of Events
The internationally-negotiated decision that saw the Syrian government’s chemical weapons stock neutralized by hydrolysis in the Mediterranean Sea in August 2014 caused widespread public anger in Greece and Italy, from the moment it was announced several months earlier. However, under strong pressure from the Samaras government, major domestic media were discouraged from reporting about it. The issue was also relatively under-reported in the international mass media, as well, particularly in the crucial early months before the event became a fait accompli.
Given the media’s relative indifference, the issue was kept alive, and did receive considerable public attention, primarily through the work of grassroots activists. The Greek popular outcry took the form of public protests and criticisms from everyone including common citizens, fisherman, marine biologists, politicians and other public figures. The protests peaked in July and August, when the actual operation was carried out on the US Navy vessel MV Cape Ray, in an area southwest of the island of Crete, in international waters between Greece and Italy.
At the time, the controversial nature of the mission was exacerbated by the US military’s acknowledgement that since such a process had never been attempted, an ideal result could not be guaranteed- though everything would ‘probably’ end safely. Greeks and Italians, particularly those who live near the southern coasts, considered this plan irresponsible at best and demanded their governments cancel a project they believed to be dangerous to the environment and to their livelihoods.
A Political Issue during the Political Off-Season
During the politically-slow summer months, the chemical weapons issue was one of the few major points of criticism (other than the ruling coalition’s tax and economic policies) targeting the Samaras government. However, after the US Navy and Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons announced on 13 August that the mission had gone according to plan, with no apparent environmental damage, the issue was quickly forgotten and disappeared from the media altogether.
Nevertheless, despite the disappearance of the issue from daily politics after the summer recess, the following previously-unpublished list of all Greek protests and similar actions against the chemical weapons destruction policy indicates that the organized resistance did have a sustained and significant role in increasing latent mistrust of the unpopular Samaras government, which is now facing forced elections on 25 January.
Therefore, while Greek activists were in the end unable to change their government’s sponsorship of the hydrolysis plan, the nationwide publicity that their public protests and social media campaigns generated indeed helped bring together a wider range of citizens to the side of the opposition SYRIZA, which jumped ahead in the polls after European Parliamentary elections of early summer.
Thus, in the cumulative analysis, the opposition-led protests and public actions seem to have helped in sustaining support for SYRIZA, and even winning it new voters, during the typically slow summer months, when opinion polls were put on hold. One result of this was that Samaras and his team received a rude shock when, returning from vacation in early September, they were confronted with new data that put SYRIZA even further ahead of the Nea Dimokratia-PASOK coalition.
The Chemical Weapons Issue and Larger Perception Shifts
The prime minister, fearing further protests over his unpopular economic and financial agreements with international creditors, was forced to move Troika talks to Paris; immediately after this came the spectacle of police in riot gear shutting down large parts of Thessaloniki, ostensibly to safeguard Nea Dimokratia luminaries who came to speak indoors to their own staged audience, at the annual HELEXPO opening in September, despite a lack of any significant protesters on the streets outside. Such activities indicated the kind of paranoia gripping the government.
Samaras’ decision to offer up Greece as the willing recipient of toxic chemicals became a self-serving stratagem: he used it to project an image of Greece (and his government in particular) as being a ‘key NATO ally.’ However, this decision was also made at a time of general pressure on the country due to the slow pace of mandated economic reforms and privatizations. Therefore, the same economic predicament that Greece found itself in at the time eliminated any leverage the government might have had to prevent the operation from occurring. As such, the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons off of Greek shores indicated the government’s relative weakness, not strength.
Institutional Arrogance and the Further Politicization of the Issue
Interestingly enough, however, even though the reportedly successful naval hydrolysis operation had been forgotten by media by November 2014, Foreign Minister Venizelos went out of his way to bring it up again in an op-ed for the pro-government Kathimerini (republished on the Foreign Affairs Ministry website here).
In the 2 November piece, the widely despised politican pontificates on ‘national consensus on foreign policy’ and the meaning of ‘true patriotism,’ tacitly denigrating SYRIZA (and the many ordinary citizens who shared their environmental concerns in the hydrolysis matter). After citing examples of what he considers cases of positive national consensus in action, Venizelos specifies the chemical weapons concerns as a contrasting one:
“…the reckless public debate carried out a few months ago regarding the supposed environmental hazards in the Mediterranean from the operation for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, under the control of the UN itself and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – an operation that was accomplished in complete safety – is a reverse example.”
The total condescension evident in this statement indicates again why so many Greeks have had enough of their current leaders and their mindset of unquestioned superiority over their citizens. It should be remembered that while many people who protested or expressed concerns about the chemical weapons plan were not members of SYRIZA, the party is set to win many more votes than otherwise might be the case, and especially in Crete and the Peloponnese, specifically because of the government’s inability, or disinterest, to understand that this was an issue that motivated even apolitical Greeks to act.
An ‘Atmosphere of Distrust’
The most widespread public concerns over the Samaras government’s plan were felt in the area closest to the destruction: Crete. This large and independent-minded island has historically always demonstrated a mistrust of authority, whether it was the Venetians, Ottomans or today’s government in Athens. The chemical weapons affair only drove the island more towards the opposition. But environmental concerns were felt elsewhere in Greece as well, and helped form international alliances with communities sharing their concerns, particularly in southern Italy. Indeed, the Italian (along with the Spanish) left has become one of SYRIZA’s key allies, and in 2014 the chemical weapons issue was one of those that had an effect on increasing their mutual cooperation.
Primarily, as sources indicate, a large part of the damage the Greek government sustained was unnecessarily self-inflicted. The problem was the perceived absence of participatory democracy- something further enhanced by Venizelos’ definition of public debate as ‘reckless.’
Indeed, one senior SYRIZA foreign policy advisor told Balkanalysis.com recently that “the local community was not consulted or informed about the chemical weapons decision- they were entirely marginalized in the process. This includes not only the local political leaders, but also regular citizens, fishermen whose livelihoods depend on the sea, people in the tourism business, environmentalists and others. This lack of consultation created an atmosphere of distrust of the Samaras government.”
The SYRIZA advisor further characterized the hydrolysis imbroglio as a ‘tactical defeat’ but one with positive effects for party activity, especially in Crete. “While the public’s opposition did not lead to a change in the government’s policy,” noted the advisor, “it did increase the existing widespread public distrust of the Samaras government, and the desire for a different kind of leadership.”
SYRIZA has put an emphasis on local activism and maintains an image of listening to local population’s needs, something that the aloof incumbent government is often criticized for not doing. The fact that the chemical weapons issue had such a strong local focus made it one that was ideal for political strategists to use, to emphasize the differences in approach between the ruling and opposition parties.
Activists Achieve a Measure of Success, Despite a Lack of Media Exposure
As the following previously unpublished list of public activities surrounding the chemical weapons issue reveals, there was a steady and sustained stream of events that had an effect on changing opinions, from Crete to Brussels to Italy. However, the result could have been much greater, activists believe, had the mainstream media covered the issue more seriously. The suspicion that the government through the first half of 2014 influenced media to downplay the dangers of the operation, or not to report on it altogether, was widespread. One dispatch from Cretan activists in July, made available to Balkanalysis.com, indicated what they felt this meant for the national awareness of the issue:
“People in Crete thought that the Greek mass media would be sensitive to such a serious issue and give publicity to it, but the mass media did not. In many places in Greece, people do not know about the hydrolysis in the Mediterranean Sea, even though it affects them too. The news reported on TV does not cover the gatherings in Crete. As a result, people in other places in Greece have no idea about the issue.”
Activists at the time stated that the Greek government had quietly but forcefully urged the media to not report on the issue. By July 2014, the situation had become farcical: locals pointed out that even at a moment when an unprecedented international military operation was about to take place near their island, the most widely-reported news story from Crete concerned a missing pet crocodile that turned up in a lake.
This offbeat (and irrelevant) story was breathlessly reported in several major international media bodies, as well as in the Greek ones. Nevertheless, despite the relative lack of media coverage in Greece (and in the rest of the world), the following list does attest to the fact that a significant and sustained campaign of activities did occur in 2014, and that it did have a galvanizing effect on local political activism as well.
Whether or not the currently opposition SYRIZA prevails in this month’s elections, it is certain that the drama over chemical weapons destruction has had an important, if underreported, role in bolstering their voter base in specific areas of Greece and among specific electorates
Full List of March-July 2014 Events and Activities in Greece against the Chemical Weapons Destruction Plan (in reverse chronological order)
28/7/2014: A press conference is held to present the review of the activists’ movement with the three boats which had gone to find the US Naval vessel transporting the chemicals in the Mediterranean Sea, south of Crete.
27/7/2014: The three boats that had gone to find the US Naval vessel transporting the chemicals arrive back at the old port of Chania.
26/7/2014: Two of the three following boats reach a point at sea of 120 miles west of Crete.
26/7/2014: The boat called Agios Nikolaos returns to Palaeohora because of bad weather.
25/7/2014: Two boats leave from the old port of Chania (in northwest Crete) while another one, Agios Nikolaos, leaves from Palaiohora (in southwest Crete). All of them go to find the US Naval vessel transporting the chemicals to be destroyed by hydrolysis. Many people come to the ports to support the movement.
22/7/2014: At an open assembly in the Labor Centre of Chania, local people decide on the details about sending three small boats, manned by local Greeks, to try and locate the large US Navy vessel transporting the Syrian chemicals, as a symbolic show of opposition. The assembly nominates a group of people who will be responsible for the communication with the people on the boats and for dealing with any problems that might arise.
20/7/2014: For a second day, local people block the entrance to the NATO naval base at Souda Bay, near Chania.
19/7/2014: Demonstrators congregate in the center of Chania, at the agora, and from there are transported to Akrotiri and the NATO base at Souda Bay. A symbolic blockade of the naval bases starts.
17/7/2014: The group of people who are leaders of the whole movements against the hydrolysis of Syria’s chemicals visit the Russian and the American Embassies in Athens.
11/7/2014: A demonstration is held in Syntagma Square in central Athens.
28/6/2014: Greek mayors send a letter to the US president, expressing their concerns about the chemical weapons destruction program.
25/6/2014: A benefit concert is held in Heraklio, Crete for financial support of the movement against the destruction of chemical weapons off the Cretan southwestern coast.
21/6/2014: Greenpeace and the WWF Hellas communicate with OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemicals Weapons) in order to be informed by OPCW about the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons at sea.
The representatives of WWF underline the following four concerns.
- No estimation of hypothetical environmental danger has been made regarding the scenario that the hydrolysis of chemicals weapons at sea goes wrong. No estimate has been made concerning whether the operation could have any adverse consequences for the environment.
- There is a general absence of legislation concerning this operation.
- There is serious danger of an accident, disorder in the operation and environmental dangers for the Mediterranean Sea as a result of this operation.
- There is a need for much more information about the operation’s progress. There has been a demonstrated lack of negotiations with local authorities and local institutions.
Further, representatives of Greenpeace from Greece and Italy underlined the security measures for the operation that should be taken. They have sent a letter to OPCW regarding this. They also underline the need for early and valid information about the operation.
Representatives of both Greenpeace and WWF Hellas underline that the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs must take responsibility, and must disclose the relevant information. These representatives state their opposition to any operation that would have environmental dangers. They ask OPCW to give information to the public about the operation and to act with transparency, according to the relevant international treaties.
17/6/2014: Konstantinos Pylarinos, head of the Association of Former Members of the Hellenic and of the European Parliaments, has a meeting with Karolos Papoulias, President of Greece. Two days before, Pylarinos and this Association had passed a resolution declaring that the operation of hydrolysis of chemicals weapons would be in violation of Greek and international law. It noted that the Greek government is also responsible for this case.
10/6/2014: An event titled, “the impacts of chemicals weapons on people’s health” is held at the College/association of Doctors in Crete’s capital, Heraklio. The event has been organized by the Heraklio movement against the destruction of Syria’s chemicals weapons and by the Maragopoulou Institute for Human Rights.
10/6/2014: The mayor of San Ferdinando, an Italian town in Italy near the port of Gioia Tauro where the Syrian chemicals had been held, announces his opposition to the destruction of chemicals weapons at sea, and his comments are noted in Greece.
8/6/2014: A group of protesters assemble in the port of Heraklio, Crete. It is organized by the student body of the local sailing team, the 47th open sea school of Heraklio.
6/6/2014: A major movement “Zakynthos renaissance” supports people from Crete who protest against the hydrolysis plan for destroying the Syrian chemical weapons.
5/6/2014: A protest is held in Gythio port by the Association of Fishermen from East Mani (southern Peloponnese).
5/6/2014: A mass congregation of thousands of local people opposed to the hydrolysis operation gathers in Chania.
5/6/2014: An Italian group named “Mesogeios SOS” (or Mediterranean SOS), based in San Ferdinando, in Calabria connects with Greek citizens to protest against the misinformation being given to them about the danger of hydrolysis.
011/5/2014: An open discussion is held in San Ferdinando, Italy about the planned programmed for destroying Syria’s chemicals weapons in the sea between Greece and Italy. Vangelis Pissias, a Greek candidate for MEP from the Green Party, takes part in this discussion through an internet feed. The coordinator is journalist Alfredo Cosco.
10/5/2014: An educational event is held in Gythio port in the south Peloponnese. People from Lakonia who are against the hydrolysis of chemicals weapons encourage the fishermen of the region to take an energetic part in the movement.
9/5/2014: A group of 50 SYRIZA parliamentarians in the Greek Parliament the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Environment, Energy and Climate change and the Minister of National Defense the following questions:
- Has the maritime region of the Eastern Mediterranean in fact been chosen for the hydrolysis of Syria’s chemicals weapons? Where exactly and when is hydrolysis planned to occur?
- Does the Ministry of Foreign Affairs plan to officially and completely inform the opposition, the other parties and the relevant commissions, and if so, when?
- Which measures have the Ministry of Foreign Affairs taken for the dangerous operation of hydrolysis, especially now that Greece is holding the EU presidency? Have coordinated movements with other Mediterranean countries been organized in order to prevent the hydrolysis? Has the Ministry of Foreign Affairs taken any initiatives, and how is it planning to make the best of Greece’s EU presidency as far as the hydrolysis issue is concerned? Does the ministry have the intention, even at the last moment, to take action in order to prevent the hydrolysis operation?
- Why is the destruction of chemical weapons not to be held in a country with the relevant technology and the technical know-how to execute it? How dangerous is hydrolysis to the maritime environment?
- Why is the destruction of these chemical weapons not going to happen in the country where these weapons are produced or in a country which sells them? Or, why will the hydrolysis not happen in the maritime space of countries which have the relevant technical know-how, if the operation is as sensitive as is being said?
- How many total tons of chemical gas are going to be destroyed?
- What is the constituent and predominant content of these chemical weapons? What is the amount of this content? How is this content going to be destroyed, since some of this content cannot be destroyed by hydrolysis?
4/5/2014: In a four-day event in Rethymno (north-central coast of Crete). Informational material on the chemical weapons issue is distributed in many languages.
3/5/2014: Citizens meet Ms Vlahou, a lawyer and prosecutor. They seek a judgment to research if the Greek government has penal responsibilities for the outcome of the hydrolysis operation, or if there is a legal government exemption.
29/4/2014: A report on the hydrolosis issue, which has been presented to the Areios Pagos (Greece’s Supreme Court), is given to the public prosecutor of East Crete in Heraklio.
27/4/2014: A congregation of citizens concerned about the possible hydrolysis program meets in Hora Sfakion, on the southern coast of Crete.
24/4/2014: A letter by Maria Damanaki, Greek commissioner in the European Commission for maritime affairs, questions the proposed chemical weapons destruction plan.
11/4/2014: A group of commissioners from Crete gives a report to Areios Pagos. The Greek Supreme Court. This report concerns the transportation, the temporary containment and the management of Syria’s chemicals weapons. It is also about the specifications of the operation of the ship in which the hydrolysis operation will be conducted.
This group of Cretan commissioners, after the meeting in Areios Pagos, goes to the Parliament. The group had asked Greek political parties to meet them and discuss the hydrolysis issue before the question of a SYRIZA MP in parliament. However, the only parties who accept to meet this group are SYRIZA and the Anexartiti Hellines (Independent Greeks). The ruling Nea Dimokratia and PASOK refuse to meet the concerned citizens.
After the official discussion in Parliament about the question SYRIZA’s MP had made, the group of Cretan commissioners asked to see the undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He accepted but he did not give to them any specific or solid answers to their questions. The group insisted it be given a responsible answer regarding why the hydrolysis should be conducted in this way (in Mediterranean Sea), and what the official opinion of the Greek government about the issue was. The only answer the undersecretary gave them was that the Greek government would closely oversea the whole operation.
10/4/2014: The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), in cooperation with the Spanish government, organizes an informative event on the US Navy vessel Cape Ray, which is in the Spanish naval base in Rota. It is announced that the hydrolysis of Syria’s chemicals weapons is going to be done on this ship.
23/3/2014: More than 10,000 people take part in a mass gathering in historic Arkadi Monastery in Crete. Groups representing the local authorities, universities, church, scientists, political parties, labor organizations, activist movements take part in this event.
9/3/2014: The first mass gathering occurs near the NATO base in Souda Bay near Chania, Crete.