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Greek report
by Euro Reporter
2014-01-14 12:12:23
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Gold mine stirs hope and anger in shattered Greece

A Canadian quest to mine for gold in the lush forests of northern Greece is testing the government's resolve to prove Europe's most ravaged economy is open again for business. The Skouries mine on Halkidiki peninsula - a landscape of pristine beaches and rolling hills dotted with olive groves - is among the biggest investments in Greece since it sank into a debt crisis four years ago. But it has set Greece's desperate need for finance to rebuild the economy against the interests of its vital tourism industry, and aroused anger on the peninsula - site of the famed Mount Athos monasteries - over the environmental cost. Vancouver-based Eldorado Gold Corp took over the project in 2012, promising to invest $1 billion over the next five years as part of a plan to mine eventually source up to 30 percent of its global gold production in Greece. Yet preliminary work on the mine, which is supposed to open in 2016, has set off months of politicking and protests. The row has overshadowed what was supposed to be the flagship project of the government's foreign investment drive. It also highlights Greeks' ambivalence about attempts by Prime Minister Antonis Samaras to kindle industrial growth in an economy that has traditionally relied on tourism and services.

Last year, intruders barged into the mine with hunting rifles, set equipment on fire and doused security guards with fuel, threatening to burn them alive. Local protesters, who say they reject violence and have the backing of some opposition politicians in parliament, fear the mine, will destroy Halkidiki's tourist riches. Samaras, however, has warned that foreign investments would be protected at "any cost". "Rightly or wrongly, God endowed the region with ores, and we must first decide whether we (Greeks) want to exploit it or not," said Petros Stratoudakis, CEO of the company developing the mine, Hellas Gold. Eldorado owns 95 percent of Hellas Gold, which also has other mining projects in Halkidiki, with the rest held by Ellaktor, Greece's biggest construction company. In Halkidiki's seaside village of Ouranoupoli where aquamarine waters hug a strip of hotels, fish tavernas and little shops selling wine, olive oil and religious icons, the air hangs thick with anger against the mine. "No to gold mining" is scribbled on the walls by the port, emblazoned on t-shirts worn by waitresses at a beach taverna and scrawled on the wooden pier where children jump into the crystal clear waters.

athens_400The villagers - who make a living catering to mainly Balkan and Russian tourists who flock to Halkidiki's sandy beaches - are afraid the mine will destroy their livelihood by scaring away visitors and turn the area into an industrial zone. "Who will come then here to swim and eat our fish?," asked Chryssa Likaki, a 52-year-old real estate agent as she sat one evening with other residents at a waterfront cafe, a short walk from where tourists take boat rides to see Mount Athos. She and other residents argue such a "pharaonic project" will drain the region's water basin and pollute the water supply, send out 3,000 tonnes of dust per hour into the air and destroy the local forest. They also say cyanide used in the production process poses a health risk to the local community. Company officials counter that there will be no dust cloud, Skouries needs only 0.09 percent of Halkidiki's forest, the projects have all the necessary environmental permits, the region will not be drained dry and that cyanide will be used in a nearby mining plant but not in the quantities villagers fear. But in a country where suspicion of authority runs deep, the villagers say they see no reason to believe the company's promises or that officials will hold them to it. "Come on, we live in Greece," laughs Likaki. "We don't trust the state."

In Ierissos, a village where banners proclaim "You can't buy water with all the gold in the world" and "Extracting gold with blood", tensions have run so high that an abandoned police station was set on fire and burned down in April last year. Michalis Theodorakopoulos, the general manager of the company's Kassandra Mines that includes the Skouries project, accuses anti-mining groups of sowing fear among villagers, a situation exacerbated by local politics and jealousy that pits one village against the other. "They have invested in fear, they have invested in lies, in panic," he said. "The situation in the area is a microcosm reflecting the reality in Greece with petty political interests prevailing." The mine has become a cause celebre among leftists and anti-austerity activists in Greece, prompting marches and debates in Athens, an eight-hour drive to the south. Fans of the PAOK soccer team in the nearby city of Thessaloniki held up anti-mining banners during games when word spread that Hellas Gold wanted to become a sponsor.

The main opposition party, Syriza, is among those that oppose the project. The leftist party, which is against Greece's international bailout and austerity policies, says the project will destroy more jobs than it creates and the deal allowing Eldorado to take over the mine was a "scandal" that fails to benefit the Greek state. "It's like the Wild West up there. The company's name shows what kind of conditions underpin this investment," Dimitris Papadimoulis, a senior Syriza lawmaker, told Reuters. "Police, local authorities and state power are used to protect private interests to the detriment of public interest." Samaras in turn has promised to end "this impunity of some people who pretend they want (economic) growth but only block every growth project". "I travel across Europe and I hear other prime ministers discussing efforts to attract future investments in their region but we are doing everything to push investments away," he said. "It's embarrassing." Some of that embarrassment extends to the rural heartland in Stratoni that houses Eldorado's local office. There, 38-year-old mine worker Manolis Manthos says he is content to have a job year-round that pays 1,150 Euros a month net and does not understand the drama around the project. "One thing is certain - the situation is out of control," he said.


Battered Greek Socialist party head to polls under new name

Greece's once-dominant Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement, or Pasok, will participate in May's European Parliament elections as part of a new center-left alliance and not independently, after popular support for the party collapsed during the country's painful economic bailout.

Pasok officials said Monday that its candidates would seek election in the May 22-25 polls under a newly formed Progressive Democrats' Party, created by center-left politicians and academics.

Pasok dominated Greek politics for decades, but its popularity has been hammered as voters blamed the party for the country's severe financial crisis and grew angry at austerity measures imposed under the country's bailout. Support for the party fell below 5 percent in a December tracking poll, tumbling from nearly 44 percent in a landslide general election victory in 2009.


Golden Dawn Trio Arrested In Crackdown

Three more members of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party have been detained in Greece, marking a dramatic escalation in a government crackdown on the far-right group. The trio are awaiting trial on charges linked to a number of criminal activities, including violent beatings of immigrants and the killing of an anti-racist rapper. In total, six Golden Dawn members have been detained since 34-year-old Pavlos Fyssas was stabbed to death by a party sympathiser last September. The latest officials to be held - Stathis Boukouras, Yorgos Germenis and Panagiotis Iliopoulos - were whisked off to maximum security prisons. Party leader Nikos Michaloliakos and two other senior members are already in custody, accused of similar charges of operating a criminal organisation under the guise of a political party. All have denied any criminal wrongdoing, including involvement in the death of Mr Fyssas, whose killing sent shock waves across the country and caused Golden Dawn's popularity to nose dive.

As the detention of Boukouras became known, scores of party supporters gathered outside the magistrate's office, scorning the authorities for their decision, lashing out at journalists, hurling water bottles and shouting slogans against the establishment. "We will not buckle," Iliopoulos said. "Golden Dawn will be victorious. Greece will be victorious." Alexis Kouyias, an attorney representing Boukouras, suggested the magistrate was acting at the orders of the government and warned the country was "heading down the path of a democratic breakdown". Once a fringe, negligible political force, Golden Dawn, viewed by many as one of the more dangerous groups of reactionaries in Europe, emerged from obscurity to claim 7% of the vote and 18 seats in parliament in national elections two years ago. Feeding on the financial crisis gripping Greece, as well as popular resentment for traditional mainstream parties and the country's political elite, the group saw its support double at the height of brutal austerity measures before one of its members admitted stabbing Mr Fyssas.

Since then, an unprecedented government crackdown has seen dozens of party offices raided, with leading members detained and millions of Euros in state funding suspended following urgent legislation which was enforced last month. Government officials declined to say how far the crackdown on Golden Dawn was destined to go. However, with local and European parliamentary elections due to take place later this year, senior government officials have suggested the party could be banned from running, according to political experts and local media. Despite the ongoing crackdown and its dramatic drop in popularity, Golden Dawn continues to enjoy the diehard support of 7-9% of Greek voters, ranking as the third biggest political force in the country. Last week, Ilias Kassidiaris, the party's spokesman and candidate for the Athens mayoral race, said Golden Dawn was preparing to challenge the government's crackdown in the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that the hearings which led to the detention of its leader and other senior officials were both illegal and unconstitutional.


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