POLICE DRENCHED the centre of the Greek capital, Athens, with teargas to disperse mass demonstrations against US president Bill Clinton on Friday of last week. Over 30,000 people battled to get near government buildings and the US embassy. They chanted anti-NATO slogans and denounced Clinton as the 'Butcher of the Balkans' for ordering the bombing of Yugoslavia earlier this year.
Clinton had been forced to scrap plans for a more elaborate visit earlier in the week. He stopped over in Athens following a conference of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in the Turkish capital, Istanbul. Shortly after his arrival he said, 'I have come here as a friend of Greece - and I look forward to experiencing that wonderful quality of Greek hospitality known to all the world.' As he spoke, police launched the first volleys of teargas and protesters responded by setting fire to dozens of banks and shops.
The Greek government is led by Greece's Tony Blair, Costas Simitis. He ordered the biggest police crackdown since 1991, when his Tory predecessor broke up protests by students and teachers during the Gulf War. Simitis sipped champagne with Clinton as riot police ran amok for two hours. Clinton praised the Greek government for building 'the powerhouse economy of the Balkans'. He even apologised for the US's role in bringing the colonels' military dictatorship to power in Greece in 1967. None of that was enough to placate ordinary people in Athens.
The US government drafted over 3,000 FBI and security service personnel into Athens to guard Clinton's trip. But he was able to attend only one event outside official buildings. He visited the ancient site of the Acropolis. Even mainstream papers speculated that he had chosen to visit there because ordinary people had too much respect for the site to risk damaging it through protests.
Clinton was unable to defuse the opposition through appealing to the symbols of Greek nationalism, because the protests against him were internationalist in tone. There is not only deep hatred in Greece for US military power. There is also great sympathy for the victims of the recent earthquakes in neighbouring Turkey, which is Greece's main military rival in the region. A demonstration two days before Clinton's visit to mark the anniversary of the 1973 uprising against the US backed military dictatorship showed the mood of international solidarity.
About 30,000 people marched, including a delegation of Japanese rail workers. They carried a banner in Greek and Japanese. It read, 'Solidarity For Peace'. They had decided to send a delegation after they saw pictures of Greek rail workers stopping NATO tanks from crossing into Macedonia in April for use in the war in Kosovo. They told Greek protesters that the Japanese state was rearming and contributing to deepening military tensions in East Asia. They called for international solidarity by working people against the threat of war. The protests against Clinton show just how powerful that international solidarity can be.