Golden promises, dark future
from John Malamatinas
This is – of course next to “Grexit” – one of the greatest unclear questions of the last six months in Greece. How will “The fight for Gold” in the much beloved vacation spot of Chalkidiki end? Although there was a lot of media attention – especially from media of the left – on the internal arguments of the new government of Syriza on foreign policy questions, little attention is given still to inner political developments. Included in these are the conflicts of the new government with social movements. The continuation of the project for the mining of gold by a Canadian company with the comic name “Eldorado Gold” continues being a very big point of conflict – between the local population and the company, between social movements and the government, as well as inside the governing party itself.
Utterings of Alexis Tsipras, which suggested a change of course in this matter, heated up again the unsolved conflicts. In the meantime, in the best known “Gallic villages” of Northern Greece resistance seems to be forming again, after the great movements against the gold mines had reached a low point. At the end of August will take place in Chalkidiki the international Camp of the antiauthoritarian platform Beyond Europe, so that along with the collaboration of activists a new high point of protests is expected. The existence of these socioecological struggles well known for years, and exactly now, in this critical situation of the battle of Greece with the Eurozone, raise correct and necessary questions.
Alexis Tsipras had not imagined all this in this way. In an exclusive interview by the radio station Kokkino which supports Syriza, he was asked about the situation in Chalkidiki. The interview was intended to improve his image with supporters of the Party and the overall public of the Left. The focus should have been on the difficult negotiations with the creditors and the European institutions. After an hour of questioning, the moderator asked how the government was going to handle the gold mining. The introductory questions of the moderator were: „Was it not in Skouries where the citizens have been defending themselves against the company? Was it not in Skouries where the right-wing government was hitting people? Was it not in Skouries where the company is still operating after six months of the government of the Left, while people are still beaten up?“ Tsipras said that justice for this struggle can not be reached by taking revenge against the company or its workers. Along with the rights of the local population, “social justice” should also be protected, that is the employment that will be generated by the project. More than anything else, the figure of “5000 workers” he mentioned caused a great deal of resentment, since in reality only 1996 workers are employed there – out of which one third are security personnel. This way Tsipras set off an enormous storm of indignation at the hastag #skouries on twitter – the name of the construction site – which lasts until today.
Many tweets speak of a complete turn around of Tsipras. Even T-shirts with a relevant picture in caricature were made. Many are wondering why they voted for Syriza. Some are trying to exercise greater pressure on the politicians. Several tweets were directed to the Syriza member of the Parliament from Chalkidiki, Catherina Iglessi, and they were asking her to take a position against this turn around. And they have been circulating pictures of the construction site: “The new Sahara Desert is in Greece”. The municipality of Aristotelis where Syriza has the majority, has also criticized that the company is creating a “fait accompli” and that it is high time that the government makes finally a clear decision on all this.
A dramatic debate in the Syriza Central Committee followed all this. The situation of course has been dramatic for other reasons apart from the side story of the gold mines. Syriza needs to decide finally how it will handle the internal strife in the Party. Yes, to a Conference on the future of the Party, but when and how? The result was a clear vote for the position of the Tsipras fraction for a conference in September. The Left Platform had asked for an earlier date, even before the closing of the negotiations over a possible third credit programme. This, however, was only the main story.
The Parliament representative Catherina Iglessi read a statement of Syriza Party members from Chalkidiki. They stress in their statement that already five months earlier they had collected information which showed that the company was undertaking illegal works on the mountain, and demanded from the Ministry the closing of the Skouries construction site. The government had disposed of enough time and legal possibilities for the control of the legality of the project to take place. It was also stated that: “We are facing here a clear hypocritical attitude from our own comrades. They are postponing the saving of our country side which is being destroyed permanently under the pretext for an uncertain future”. “The movement is only giving promises while the company is continuing its catastrophic activities, with which they are transforming the mountain Kakavos into a devastated desert”.
Tsipras corrected in his answer the mistake he made the previous day to use the figure of „5000 workers“. However, he stressed again the central message he had presented the previous made: the right of the struggle of Skouries can not justify the revengeful option for workers to lose their jobs. The solution can be found in the acknowledgement of the struggle and at the same time of the defense of the social cohesion.
During the election campaign, however, different promises had been made, as stipulated not only by the local Syriza party but also by the municipality of Aristotelis. Syriza had always been on the side of the fighting population either through visits by Tsipras in Chalkidiki or the participation of high ranking Syriza politicians in big demonstrations in Thessaloniki and Athens. During the election campaign Tsipras had promised the immediate stop of the works in Skouries. It is not surprising that these early promises of Tsipras had also to disappear in the context of his changing position in the negotiations with the creditors. For years, Syriza had been participating actively in this movement – in some cases aggressively and not only in Chalkidiki but also in many other solidarity committees existing in the whole country. The youth organisation of Syriza has continued to press during the past months in order to end this international investment and the state repression. The movement and its big demonstrations have been an important support to Syriza. The election has proven this point. A big part of the movement voted for Syriza. The current mayor of Ierissos comes from Syriza and for the first time since the seventies this region voted for a leftist parliamentarian. This was in the context of the programme of Syriza, which included action against Greek oligarchs, against international big capitalist investor interests and against privatizations, i.e. The perfect anti-memorandum package on a local basis.
In fact the ex-Minister for Productive Reconstruction, Environment and Energy, Panagiotis Lafazanis, has made the life of the company more difficult since he came to power and satisfied some of the local people at least for some time. All licenses were taken away and certificates for example for the environmental impact of the extraction methods were requested; these have not been delivered until today. German media among others were reporting the stopping of the extraction of gold. The committee of citizens in Chalkidiki are criticizing however, that part of the work is continuing, for example, the infrastructure of the building of the further destruction of the mountain forest. Till today there is no decision to stop the project. For this there are very good legal reasons: high compensation for Eldorado Gold, which would have to be paid not only because of the investments made already but also because of the future profits to be lost. Up to now it has not been clarified in legal terms whether only a delay can be achieved or a complete stop of the project.
Things today stand as follows: it is expected that the Ministry will make a decision according to the environmental criteria. The company had already been asked by the former Syriza Minister Panagiotis Lafazanis to present a complete report on the metallurgical questions and to prove the environmental compatibility of the flash melting method. Many people are expecting that the answer of the Ministry will determine the future of the investment. The debate within Syriza will also play a big role: as in the case of the Memorandum, there are two camps of opinion within the Party. The gold mines question is part of a difficult mosaic of decisions that need to be taken in the near future.
Recent declarations have made clear that the hope that the government would do something here has disappeared since the agreement with the Troika. It was also this hope which along with the continuing repression of the government that has reduced the activity of the movement. Although a big part of the movement believed that after the victory of Syriza the situation would be changed, it is now evident that either the limits of the leftist government policies have been reached or that the movement has been again betrayed. This is a living example of the „critical relationship“ between a movement and a Party which many movement activists in (West-) European countries dream of.
Since 2009 already there is a strong resistance of the local population of this well known holiday destination against the expected environmental catastrophe and its social and economic consequences, especially for tourism and agriculture. It is true that there are jobs created and more are expected for this gold mining operation, but there will also be job losses because of the reduction of other economic activities and emigration of the young people is expected. From the expected billion of profits hardly anything will go to the state budget. Already the sale of the land and of the gold mining rights could already be seen as a very good deal for the company. In 2003 the so called Kassandra mines and approximately 300 km2 area has been given to the company Hellas Gold for €11 million. Eldorado Gold bought Hellas Gold for €1.8 billion in 2011. There is an expected profit of €9 billion and Greece could become on of Europe’s biggest gold suppliers.
The struggle of the local movement was reinforced since the take over by Eldorado Gold, which led to a phase of big demonstrations with more than 20.000 participants in Thessaloniki and mass actions at the mountain itself. The final peak was the fight of 17 February 2013, when more than 40 activists with covered faces entered the Skouries mine and burned cars, machines and offices. This event had an enormous media attention even beyond Greece’s frontiers. The former Prime Minister Antonis Samaras wanted “to protect the foreign investment in this country at any price”. And immediately after this the repression against the inhabitants started. There were daily house searches as well as arrests with DNA testing. Some of the arrested people were refused contact with their families or lawyers for a whole day. Even a member of Syriza was arrested because he had made a public call for protest. Several media reported that on the basis of DNA testing together with clothes and cigaret buts found at the scene of the crime as well as mobile phone data led to heavy accusations against 20 activists of the region. Some of these accusations were: founding of a criminal organisation, attempt to murder and possession of inflammatory materials. Parallel to this there are investigations against a total of 350 activists because of unruly demonstrations and other accusations. The movement will still have to deal with all these accusations in the coming years.
Two weeks after the above attack, workers and their relatives mobilized by the company were protesting in Megali Panagia, the village closest to the mine. One of the prominent speakers was Antonis Georgiadis, ex-member of the right wing populist party LAOS and former health minister of the Samaras government. The same day the company placed in newspapers a whole page advertisement with pictures of the workers defending their jobs. This attitude of the company which reminds of strike breaking actions has been continuing up to today. This counter mobilization by the company and the State has a history as long as the protests themselves.
It is however certain that the resistance because of its history and its varied composition will not disappear very fast. For the protesters the networking with people having similar problems not only in Northern Greece but also with protests against big projects in Europe and even beyond is very important. Despite the confidence coming from Athens for a solution, many of the committees have survived the winter layoff, especially in the important centers of resistance in Megali Panagia (the village closest to the construction site), Ierissos (the village at the beach) and Polygyros (the capital of Chalkidiki). Only recently there was a ten-days resistance camp close to the mountain organised by the inhabitants of Megali Panagia. The state television ERT3 covered this camp. In between there have been several other actions, for example the spontaneous blocking of the road to the building site by a chain of people, which had been cleared violently by police riot units. Five persons were arrested. Currently, there are more and more meetings and activities in different villages.
There will also be direct support from abroad coming. From 18 to 25 August will take place in Ierissos the international camp of the antiauthoritarian platform “Beyond Europe”. Topics to be discussed will include the struggle against the Crisis, the fight against “Fort Europe”, transnational networking and solidarity with Rojava. And of course the relationship of the “new type” of Leftist Parties with the social movements will also be discussed. Just from Germany, more than hundred activists are expected to take part. Besides discussion and exchanges, also the support of social struggles in Greece should be efectuated. In addition, there is a demonstration planned on the 23rd August at the mountain. There are already public statements made that “on the 23rd we lose our patience”.
Fotos: Sakis Stafidas
(The text was first published in German in the Lower Class Magazine)