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The devastating forest fire in Greece was no ‘natural disaster’

Cuts to the fire service, firefighting planes grounded, water storage tanks in poor repair – it is decades of austerity that made the wildfire near Athens so deadly, says KEVIN OVENDEN

“WORDS are nice … but I want him to tell me and the people who perished, our friends … whose fault it is, if not his.”

That is how one 79-year-old victim of the devastating fire that ripped through the Rafina area north-east of Athens last Monday responded to Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s belated acceptance of “political responsibility” on Friday. 

“How does he redeem this responsibility?” the pensioner continued. “What does political responsibility mean?”

These and other questions were already ricocheting across Greece last week as grief and anger came together in the wake of the worst death toll from wildfire — 87 people and rising — ever in Europe.

It was not until Thursday that a government minister visited the devastated Mati-Rafina resort, where most of the victims died. 
Defence minister and junior coalition partner Anel leader Panos Kammenos was roundly heckled. 

“You let the people burn, Mr Kammenos!” shouted one woman. (The word “kamenos” in Greek means “burnt.”)

One reason for the anger is that the government spent most of last week trying to suppress searching questions under a shroud of three days of national mourning while at the same time weaving its own false political narrative.

That began on the evening of the fire itself. Tsipras told television journalists that the fire was an “unconventional” or “asymmetric” incident.

That was the seemingly clunky term used by Tory prime minister Costas Karamanlis after previous deadly fires in 2007 in the southern Peloponnese. The implication, as in “asymmetric warfare,” was that the nation was under attack by a hidden enemy.  

A then rising star of the Syriza party answered well Karamanlis’s cynical conspiracy-mongering 11 years ago: “It would be good if those in government, instead of planning communication strategies to defend it, by discovering ‘asymmetric threats’ and invisible enemies, occupied themselves with dealing with the disaster.”

That spokesperson was Alexis Tsipras.

Now his minister of civil protection Nikos Toskas has spent much of the last week insinuating that the fire had been caused deliberately — that it was “not innocent” and there were “indications of arson.”

Other government officials spread the same rumour. On Friday, the fire investigation department definitively ruled out arson and said the fire had started accidentally.

An earlier fire on the same day, near Kineta to the west of Athens, had already stretched the fire service, denuded by nearly a decade of austerity. Eyewitnesses say they saw sparks flying from a faulty electricity pylon.

The national grid has been privatised. The electricity workers union warned that the sell-off would lead to a cut in maintenance and greater risk of fires. It is but one of many warnings.

It is not that this tragedy was unforeseen. In fact, it was foretold.
Last summer, a whistleblower pilot of the Canadair firefighting planes revealed that half the ageing fleet was grounded due to either age — some are 40 years old — or lack of parts. 

He contrasted that with the 2.5 per cent of GDP spent on arms and defence, the second highest budget in Nato. “They care about F-16s, not Canadairs,” he said. 

Some 30 per cent of fire appliances are off the road — half due to age, the rest for lack of parts.

The reason is obvious. The fire service budget has been cut in the years of austerity imposed by the troika of the EU, IMF and European Central bank from €500 million to €397 million.

Thousands of full-time firefighting jobs have been lost. Any hiring has been on temporary contracts. Yet at the same time 700 firefighters have been seconded, on the state budget, to serve the 14 now privatised airports handed to the German company Fraport.

The budget for fire prevention in a country where many forest fires happen every year is just €11 million. The water industry has been privatised, again in defiance of warnings that it would leave the pumping stations and storage tanks in rural areas under-maintained.

The litany could go on. And its effects are obvious to all. Co-chair of the Die Linke fraction of MPs in Germany, Katja Kipping put it directly in holding to account the German government and its former finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble for their responsibility in enforcing murderous austerity on Greece.

“The Greek fire service has been cut to pieces by Schaeuble’s austerity diktats — with deadly consequences,” she said. 

Turkish trade unionists gathering to show solidarity outside the Greek consulate in Izmir were also clear that this was no “natural disaster.”

So is it this and the implementation of austerity that Tspiras says he is taking “political responsibility” for?

No. He mentioned the capitulation to Troika-imposed austerity three years ago but only in order to shift the focus to something else. 

“Perhaps in the national confrontation back then, we neglected other things,” he said and went on to refer to a history of unregulated or illegal building developments in Greece.

By last weekend, this had become something of a theme in much international coverage. While containing some truth, it is laced with evasion.

There is a history of unregulated building, but it is not, as many commentators are claiming, the product of some “Greek disease” of rule-breaking — a kind of popular bandit mentality.

That was the claim used to justify the structural adjustment programme imposed on Greece under the austerity memorandums.

And it was repeated over the fire with brutal callousness by one liberal-modernising commentator, who wrote: “Greece, despite being a European Union member state and a developed economy, exhibits many of the institutional deficiencies and cultural traits found in less developed nations. A large, centrally controlled state can be a source of secure employment (as in Greece), yet is often grossly inefficient.”

The solution, then? More neoliberal capitalist development and privatisation to become a “properly modern” state, and change the popular “culture.”

But as I explained in my book on the Syriza government and modern Greece, the malfunctioning of the modern Greek state — what I termed a “state of plunder” — is not down to a lack of capitalist development. It is the product of the actually existing capitalist (mal)development of the cold war and neoliberal epochs. 

It was an alliance between a kleptocratic oligarchy and a right-wing militarised state that drove through development at the expense of the common people, who until the 1980s were meant to rely on the philanthropy of billionaires like playboy Aristotle Onassis. 

The great majority of unregulated building was by the construction and property oligarchs, enclosing land for the rich personally or for tourist development — the country’s biggest industry. 

Hence buildings like the walled villa in Mati-Rafina that blocked off the escape route to the sea that 26 people lost their lives trying to find.

Tsipras says it is now time to take action. But he makes no distinction between the profiteering developments and the working-class family who have clubbed together to put an extension on a grandparents’ village property so three generations might at least afford a holiday.

The people as a whole are apparently guilty. But the state could have taken action before in Rafina to open forest lanes and redress the lack of infrastructure.

A forestry expert pointed out to the BBC that the state’s development has itself also failed. The new road built at the time of the Greek Olympic bid could have been designed to act as a firebreak. But highly flammable pine trees were planted either side of it, not those that were proven in Spain to be resistant. 

And when the local police chief signalled regional headquarters to sound an evacuation, he discovered that there was no regional evacuation plan for an area that is packed with local tourists in summer. 

Contrary to Tsipras’s attempt to decouple the history of profiteering development from the years of austerity, the root of this government’s failure to confront the oligarchs at home lies precisely in its capitulation to the austerity memorandums. 

They were imposed by the troika, but on behalf of the Greek billionaire class whose domestic political instruments had proved incapable of pushing through the cuts they demanded. 

The capitulation to the troika did not make space to address the deformations of the Greek state and economy. It meant capitulation over those as well. 

The government remains committed to eye-watering 3.5 per cent primary budget surpluses that can only mean more austerity even though Greece is to exit the formal memorandum programme on August 21. 

It had planned a celebration of that occasion with international guests from the European Commission and other luminaries. 

Such a self-congratulatory celebration would be incendiary now. The world can see the consequences of the joint enterprise by the troika and successive governments to satisfy the bankers at the people’s expense. 

And it will do no good to blame the little people once again. This is a systemic failure of capitalism.

That means it is the responsibility of the 1 per cent of capitalists and those who have shred all social protection to serve them.



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