The main military parade in Thessaloniki, held each year to celebrate the anniversary of Greece’s defiance of Axis powers on October 28, 1940 and its subsequent victorious war against invading Fascist Italy, was cancelled for the first time in 71 years due to intense anti-government protests on Friday.
President of the Republic Karolos Papoulias was forced to withdraw from the parade stand amid cries of ‘traitors’, accompanied shortly afterward by National Defense Minister Panos Beglitis, while similar incidents marked parades held in Athens and other major Greek cities.
“I am deeply saddened. They should be ashamed. I came here to honour Thessaloniki and some people did not want the parade to take place. I fought for my country at 15. They cannot call me a traitor,” Papoulias said in an angry statement to reporters shortly before his departure.
The Thessaloniki parade was due to begin at 11:00 a.m. but was prevented from starting by protestors shouting slogans against politicians, who appeared on both sides of Megalou Alexandrou Avenue and occupied the centre of the road near the officials’ stand, making it impossible for the parade to pass.
To the east were protestors from the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), including MP Tasos Kourakis, teachers, ‘indignant citizens’ groups and other unions shouting anti-government slogans. On the west side were supporters of the Iraklis football club and a group of citizens that started to hurl verbal abuse at the president as soon as he appeared, coming out into the road. They were soon joined by protestors on the other side and the parade was thus prevented from starting, in spite of a strong police presence.
Police took measures to prevent the protestors from approaching the officials present and, after 20 minutes of feverish consultations and despite Beglitis’ insistence that police clear the road so that the parade might take place, a decision was finally taken to cancel the parade and for officials to depart.
The school students’ parade passing in front of Parliament in Athens was also marked by protests, including by students taking part in the parade. The students of two schools turned their faces away from Education Minister Anna Diamantopoulou and other officials on the stand, refusing to pay their symbolic respects, while students from one school raised fists holding black ribbons as they passed in front the officials.
They were joined by the Athens municipality’s Philharmonic Orchestra, which had tied black ribbons of protest to all their instruments in spite of a threat from Athens Mayor George Kaminis that anyone choosing this form of protest would face disciplinary action and possible dismissal.
On the sidelines of the parade, meanwhile, hundreds of protestors shouted slogans such as “Bread, Education, Freedom: the junta did not end in ’73” and banners displaying the infamous Nazi slogan displayed at the entrance of concentration camps “Arbeit macht Frei”.
Protests by groups of citizens led to the cancellation, interruption or delay of parades in several other cities of Greece, such as in Rhodes where members of the public broke through a police cordon and moved against the officials on the stand, where Agricultural Development Minister Costas Skandalidis, PASOK MP Dimitris Kremastinos and New Democracy MP Mika Iatridi were among those present, forcing them to beat a retreat.
In the port city of Patras, the third-largest city in Greece, Deputy Defense Minister Costas Spiliopoulos was booed and also forced to withdraw from the stand before the parade could begin by citizens that occupied the road. Earlier, Spiliopoulos had been booed during a ceremony in honour of the fallen, while conversely crowds cheered representatives of resistance groups, veterans of war, the armed forces, police and fire brigade.
The parade eventually took place after the officials had left, with only students parading.
Protests also led to the cancellation of the parade on the Ionian island of Corfu and that in Trikala, when protestors again broke through a police cordon and PASOK MP Christos Magoufis was attacked by a young man that was arrested but then had to be released due to the angry reaction of the crowd. Officials departed and the parade instead became a large rally.
In the city of Iraklio on Crete, fierce protests again forced the majority of officials to depart and the parade finally took place with only Crete’s Archbishop Irineos attending. Tension and interruptions occurred in Kalamata, where protestors pelted those on the parade stand with eggs and tomatoes and even at one point physically attacked them, while several students wore black armbands and nearly all turned their heads away from the parade stand.
Anti-government slogans and abuse similarly marked the student and military parade in the city of Tripoli, in the central Peloponnese, attended by Justice Minister Miltiades Papaioannou, PASOK MP Odysseas Konstantionopoulos, ND MP Andreas Lykourentzos and Peloponnese Region chief Petros Tatoulis, as well as that in Nafplion attended by Deputy Environment Minister Yiannis Maniatis, while that in Veria had to be cancelled.
In many areas, apart from protests, students taking part showed their displeasure with the government by pointedly turning their faces away from the officials on the stand, looking instead toward the crowd or groups of veterans.
The protests and incidents at parades throughout the country were categorically condemned by the government later in the day, with government spokesman Ilias Mossialos calling them an ‘insult’ to the holiday and an attempt to undermine democratic institutions. He also stressed that the great majority of the parades took place as normal.
Prime Minister George Papandreou contacted President Papoulias on the telephone and expressed his sorrow at the events in Thessaloniki, stressing that these insulted the national struggles of the Greek people and undermined democratic institutions.
The president, on his part, noted in statements from Thessaloniki shortly before his departure that the “latest decision of the European Union has useful elements that we must exploit. We must rally together to overcome the crisis so as to build Greece that is free of slavery and the dictates of third parties; clean our home and turn our home over to our children clean and whole”.
He stressed that those protesting “should be ashamed of themselves” and dismissed them as a “small unacceptable minority”.
“The Greek people understand where this is going and for this reason accepts all these pressures and all these measures that are at the expense of the weakest and most vulnerable. They believe that a better day will dawn. This is what we all believe and this is why we are here,” he added.
In a later written statement, he again attacked those responsible for the incidents and said that they had abused the right to protest and exceeded the clear boundary between “a state of law and a social organisation without rules, without democratic foundation”.
“Are those who treat public areas as their property democrats? And how is a majority counted? Through participation in demonstrations of protest or through elections that, based on the Constitution, are held every four years?” he asked.
Replying to criticism of the police’s role and its failure to prevent the protestors, the government defended the stance of the police force and noted that any stronger intervention could have led to more violence and incidents at a time when small children and citizens were present.