Bulldozers and barricades

There was a banner hanging from a pedestrian bridge over the Athens-Thessaloniki national road until a few days ago that read: ?Every neighborhood should be like Keratea.? Presumably, those who hung the sign (which bore the anarchist symbol) meant that every part of Athens should display the kind of resistance to authority that Keratea residents have become synonymous with over the last couple of months rather than that every neighborhood should become a dumping ground for the city?s rubbish, which is what has sparked the uprising on the outskirts of Athens.

For many Greeks, the ongoing conflict in this small corner of southeastern Attica encapsulates everything that is wrong with the country. On one side there are those who see the fervent, and sometimes violent, resistance of people in Keratea to the construction of a waste management center as being symptomatic of Greeks? unruly nature: an irrational and immature reaction to the functioning of a democratic state that?s in the same vein as the refusal of many motorists to pay road tolls. On the other side are those ? the anarchists who hung the banner included ? that believe Keratea is a shining example of how an irresponsible and corrupt state should be resisted.

Both opinions are valid but neither is particularly correct. At its essence, the dispute in Keratea ? where a section of the main highway leading to the port of Lavrio has been closed for several weeks and resembles 1980s Beirut, strewn with burned debris and overturned vehicles ? is about trust, not about a phobia of abiding by laws or taking a principled stance against dirty deals between a shady state and dodgy contractors. The people of Keratea simply do not trust their government when it says it will build a modern and clean landfill that will not affect their way of life or the value of their properties.

Successive governments over the last two decades have failed to inspire any confidence in their handling of the waste management issue. It was decided in 1998 that Keratea and Grammatiko, northeast of Athens, would be the sites for Attica?s new landfills. Yet it took several years, millions of euros in European Union fines and the threat of losing additional millions of EU funding for the new projects before the government got the wheels in motion. For decades, Athens has relied on just one landfill ? in Ano Liosia ? but it?s only now it has reached saturation point that any concerted effort is being made to create alternatives. Suddenly, and with no awareness of the irony, the government and sections of the media are slamming concerned Keratea residents for holding up the process, claiming that it is an absolutely vital project for Attica. It would be interesting to find out how many times a member of government, say a public works or environment minister, has visited Keratea since 1998 to speak to local people about the significance of the project and exactly what will be built on land that lies just a couple of kilometers from their community. I would hazard a guess that it?s none. Certainly there has been no effort by any government to make the project a more attractive proposition for locals by promising to hire people from the area or to counterbalance the fact that festering rubbish will be amassed next to their homes by pledging to improve local infrastructure.

If you want people?s trust, you have to explain to them why you make certain decisions, but successive governments have scorned the people of Keratea. It?s hardly a surprise that these people should now return this rejection by the dumpster load. Until a decade ago, Keratea was just one of the sleepy villages dotted around the Mesogeia area southeast of Athens. But the construction of Athens International Airport, the Attiki Odos (the highway linking Athens and the airport) and the metro have changed all that. In a short period of time, this area has seen furious construction activity, much of it illegal, and has essentially been transformed into a suburb of Athens. Given this climate, local people want reassurances about what else is going to be built in their backyard. The government, however, has been particularly guarded about exactly what kind of trash facility will operate in Keratea. Environmentalists expressed concerns last week that an incineration facility would be constructed there. The government remained tight-lipped, only fueling anger, concern and suspicion that the whole scheme will just be a big pay day for the contractor and will leave a permanent and ugly scar on Keratea?s landscape.

A similar breakdown in the transparent communication that should exist between a government and its people has prompted many motorists and residents of Attica, the Peloponnese and central Greece to take matters into their own hands over the increasing number of tollbooths and the rising cost of tolls on the national roads. The most notable moment of this campaign came on January 10 when soap opera actor-turned-Mayor of Stylida Apostolos Gletsos clambered onto a bulldozer and defiantly knocked down the roadside barriers at the Pelasgia tollbooth, allowing motorists to pass for free. His action was a protest against the government?s decision to increase toll charges to 2.60 euros and to remove special passes that allowed some 1,000 Stylida residents to pass the tollbooth for 50 cents. Locals argue that because there are no other roads they can use to go about their daily business, they are forced to pay tolls to use the national road. They point to EU legislation which states that when tollbooths are built, toll-free roads must also be made available to motorists.

Again, the issue is one of trust: The government has failed to live up to its obligations but expects Stylida residents to swallow toll rises without complaint. Trust has also been eroded due to a lack of clarity over the five contracts the previous government handed out to consortia to manage sections of the highway network. Campaigners claim that the successive toll charge rises over the last couple of years and the creation of more toll stations contravenes these agreements. The government, as ever, has remained tight-lipped, which has only stoked protests against the tolls. It?s significant that government sources have said that current talks with the consortia over renewing the expiring contracts are focusing on a reduction in toll charges by up to 25 percent. Gletsos, greeted by hundreds of supporters when he appeared in court for destroying the barriers, has already transformed himself from cringeworthy soap star to fearless road warrior but the slashing of toll charges would be a moral victory for the campaigners and a blow against those who argue that such shows of disobedience have no place in a civilized state.

However, knocking a few cents off the cost of tolls will do little to mend the broken bond of trust between the government and its voters. As long as those in power are dismissive of the people they govern and as long as they act without transparency, they will meet resistance. Sometimes frustration or bloody-mindedness means that this resistance can stray beyond the normally accepted boundaries. However, rather than suggesting that Greece is in a state of anarchy, as those who dangled the banner over the national road would like to believe, it?s a sign that we are living very much in a democracy, albeit one that malfunctions more often than it functions.