Less than a month before saying goodbye to the present year comes the time of reckoning. For Greece, this year has been extremely difficult and especially troubled. Reports of clashes of anarchists, protestors, discontented and trade unionists with police in Athens were presented worldwide and remained the top news for a long time. Suddenly people began to imagine that Athens is like Kabul during intense military actions and that the Greeks sleep with guns under the pillow and do not do anything but strike, shout in front of Parliament and throw Molotov bombs at police. However, this is not the case.
All riots and incidents are a matter of hours or, at worst, a matter of two days (28-29 June, 2011) in which after the outburst of anger everything subsides, and their arena is within one square kilometre. Despite frequent protests, Athens remains a tourist city that reveives hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, who often exclaim, "Wow, this has nothing to do with what is shown on the news." The reason is that the employees responsible for the cleaning are always in place to bring back the "human" appearance of the capital centre and repair the damage caused by constant protests. For the reckoning of the troubled 2011, Athens Deputy Mayor for Sanitation Andreas Varelas talks with Victoria Mindova.
Today Athens has prepared to meet the Christmas holidays. How easy was it to prepare the city for the Christmas holidays after the destruction following the protests of December 6 in memory of Alexis Grigoropoulos?
The damage after the latest incident this week is not so great because this year we took preventive measures. We removed all waste containers from the city centre near Syntagma. Thus, we reduced to a minimum the damage inflicted by the burning of waste bins in such cases. Molotov bombs that fell on the waste citizens had placed where there is usually a bin caused some fires, which were quickly extinguished. We did this for the second time. The first time was during this year's celebration of the events in the Athens Polytechnic on November 17. The decision to apply this method came after it had become clear that our reserves of waste containers were over after this turbulent year.
Other issues we had to solve to prepare the city for the holiday celebrations were the large number of broken marble slabs. The area of Syntagma Square is the most broken. Once again, the biggest damage was suffered by the facades of the hotels on the square and the inside of the park - benches and the central fountain. Anyway, the fountain was not completely repaired after the previous riots in early autumn, but it will be.
All this destruction is repeated regularly, but it seems like wasted effort. What did it cost the municipality to repair the damage from the recent student protests held on Tuesday this week?
You are right. This type of protest results in serious damage and permanent costs in the municipality budget. Currently, the committee that is evaluating the consequences of the recent protests is not ready with the analysis and I cannot give you an exact figure. Generally, it takes between 3-4 days to draw an accurate picture of the damage and how much their repair will cost. Surely, the damage resulting from the last protest is much less than those we found in June or October this year. The damage after the protests in June were dramatic and the total value of the damage exceeded € 800,000.
What is the amount the municipality has spent this year to clean and repair the damage caused by strikes, protests, and especially by the riots?
For now, the estimated amount exceeds one million three hundred thousand euros, for repairs alone.
How does the municipality cover these extra costs, especially in times of crisis? Is there external funding from volunteering citizens or does the entire burden fall on the budget of the municipality?
There is some support from society, but there is no individual, who can bear the burden of covering or repairing the damage caused during the protests. It is not correct to request from citizens and contractors to repair such damage. Furthermore, in times of crisis, no one is able to take out one million Euros and say, "Take this money so as not to burden the budget." We require the funds to repair the damage from the protests from the Ministry of the Interior, because Athens bears the greatest burden of all these events. No other municipality in the country is forced to deal with such huge problems, as is the case of the capital city. Not in Patras, nor in Iraklio, Karditsa and Trikala do municipal authorities have to take care of immediate repair of damage of similar magnitude. There is damage of that scale only in Athens.
Do not get me wrong. Rallies, protests and strikes are organized in other Greek cities but not as frequently as in the capital and they don't have such devastating effects as in the centre of Athens. To get an idea of the size of the phenomenon, I can tell you that in the first six months of 2011 in downtown Athens there were a total of 409 strikes, protests and marches, which is an average of 2.5 protests per day, every day. As you can see, even without excesses and clashes between police and protesters, a similar schedule of protests requires the constant presence of the sanitation employees. First, the standard cleaning is performed in the early hours of the day. After the first march, cleaning is required again. Athens is a tourist destination and we should maintain the appearance of the city as much as we can. You see that with this intensity of protests, the brigades and cleaning operations of the municipality are in constant action.
Tell us more about the period when the movement of discontented had occupied Syntagma Square for more than two months in the summer. It must have been difficult for the sanitation employees to do their job safely.
Our main problem was that the discontented were in Syntagma permanently. It was hard to clean everywhere constantly. Our teams worked in constant shifts due to the increased need for maintaining hygiene. This burdened the budget too. The employees were on emergency duty. Our staff worked 24 hours a day.
The labour reserve measure comes and it is expected to sweep employees in local government organizations. At the same time, it is known that they have very strong and stubborn trade unions, which do not easily agree with the economic cuts imposed in this situation. What is your position?
The truth is that during the last big strike, trade unions had no demands onthe municipality. All protests were related to government policy, which we as representatives of the local government cannot influence effectively. The two main demands, which were the basis for the strike of employees in local government organizations and the sanitation departments were related to the changes in labour relations, the level of salaries and the labour reserve measure, which implicitly means dismissal. None of these topics is directly dependent on local authorities. The main burden fell on people who had to suffer the consequences of trade union protests of specific occupational groups. Athens was hostage to the trade unions of sanitation employees. Neither the mayor, nor the deputy mayor, or anyother representative of the municipality could come out and say that he could solve the problems or at least some of them.
What exactly was your role in the management of the strike crisis when Athens was buried in waste?
As a municipal government, we took the initiative to assist in establishing a dialogue between the government and the trade unions on specific topics. This became a major priority of the mayor during the protests of sanitation employees. Even when the strike escalated to the extreme and the union of civil servants (ADEDY) and the union of private sector employees were about to organize a 48-hour nationwide strike we agreed that the reserve staff clean the way where the protest march would walk. Results can be achieved through dialogue. The municipality helped in avoiding the final measure of civil mobilization of staff and equipment when the government announced it. Our ultimate goal is always to be able to contribute to the development of a dialogue between government and trade unions, but we do not want to fall into a situation in which citizens will again become hostage to the demands of different social groups.
For employees to strike against a particular employer, in this case the municipality or the city council, which are able to resolve the demands is one thing, but a general strike against the general policies determined by the current economic conditions and the decision for which is beyond the scope of employers, is something quite different.