Row over Greek police raids in bohemian Athens district

Athens (AFP) –


Greece's new conservative government has stirred controversy by mounting police operations in the bohemian Athens district of Exarchia, considered by officials a "lawless" haven for drug smugglers.

Residents, however, note that the recent crackdown, officially targeting abandoned building squats and narcotics dealers, could be linked to a gentrification trend in an area that is full of hidden architectural gems.

In August, at the height of the tourist season when many of the capital's residents leave town, police evacuated four squats and removed 143 migrants, prompting an outcry by locals.

The Greek human rights league later labelled the move a "rather pointless show of force" and "contrary to...the respect of human dignity" after a police unionist called the anti-establishment squatters "trash".

Conservative Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who campaigned on a ticket of jobs creation and public safety, earlier this month called the central Athens district a "den of lawlessness."

"We want to turn Exarchia into what it once was: a neighbourhood with its own particular character instead of a den of lawlessness, vandalism and drug trade," the PM said.

The new Athens Mayor Kostas Bakoyannis -- who is the PM's nephew -- was similarly elected on a law and order ticket and has promised an "imminent" initiative "to improve daily life".

"Organised crime is having a party in the area," Bakoyannis said before his election in June.

Bakoyannis argues that order must be restored before sidelined landmarks such as the National Archaeological Museum and the Athens Polytechnic -- in the middle of drug-trading areas -- can become tourist draws.

But to longterm locals such as Dimitra Konidari, the district's identity as "a place of solidarity and diversity" is under threat.

She fears that authorities will seek to stifle "socio-political groups in the area, anarchist or otherwise" that have been instrumental in creating solidarity initiatives for migrants and poor Greeks during the crisis.

"We're in favour of the police being present to combat crime and delinquency but against all kinds of repression," says Thodoris Kokkinakis, member of a local citizens' committee.

Under the previous government, a deputy police minister had labelled Exarchia the 'Montmartre' of Athens in reference to the historic Parisian district, an artist's haven in the early 20th century.

Nikos Vatopoulos, an urban architecture writer for Kathimerini daily, points out that the district offers neoclassical buildings as well as samples of early 20th century avant-garde middle class homes.

Dimitris Dimopoulos, who opened a bookstore here in the late 1970s, recalls that Exarchia was then "full of writers and artists."

Democracy had only just been reestablished after a brutal seven-year dictatorship, brought down in 1974 months after a student uprising at the nearby Athens Polytechnic.

Even though university faculties were moved to the suburbs of the capital in the 1980's, the area continued to attract youths espousing left-wing, far-left and anarchist views.

- Violence and drugs -

Anastassia Tsoukala, a professor of criminology at Paris-Sud University, says Exarchia was dealt a serious blow by unprecedented violence that followed a teenage boy's fatal shooting by a police officer in 2008, and by the economic crisis that hit Greece two years later.

"Troublemakers moved in and the drug trade flared during the crisis" with police turning a blind eye, says Tsoukala, who was seriously injured by a flare during youth clashes with police in 2017.

She insists that while the area might be in decline, it remains a home to political movements and the exchange of ideas.

"The overhaul in Exarchia is linked to construction interests," argues Kokkinakis, who notes that property prices have nearly doubled in recent years owing to Airbnb rentals.