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Violence At Both Ends Of Political Spectrum Threatens Greece

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Escalating political violence from both the left and right is raising fears of political instability in debt-burdened Greece. The conservative-led government is cracking down on leftist groups, vowing to restore law and order.

But the opposition says authorities are trying to divert people's attention from growing poverty and despair.

Take the latest explosion in Athens — a firebomb at a crowded suburban mall last month that slightly injured two security guards.

Officials described it as a revival of the full-scale leftist terrorism that plagued the country in past decades. A government spokesman said the attack is "a blow to democracy and attempts to restore economic growth."

The mall attack was the latest in a spate of low-level explosions against Greek government offices, banks and other symbols of the establishment. Similar attacks on the homes of five journalists were claimed by a new anarchist group that accuses the targets of promoting the government's political and economic agenda and manipulating public opinion.

Authorities suggest links exist between the major opposition party Syriza — which strongly opposes the austerity measures — and the recent attacks. Syriza, meanwhile, accuses the government of trying to polarize Greek society.

In December, police raided a building occupied for two decades by anti-authoritarian squatters and arrested several activists.

One young anarchist — who won't reveal his name, in keeping with anti-establishment ideology — says he believes the government crackdown is aimed at pushing young people to more lawlessness. More violence, he says, will lead to more social tension.

Even some mainstream critics of the government say it's purposefully scapegoating the left.

"These kinds of tactics may put fire in the dry fields," says Nikos Xydakis, a columnist for the Kathimerini daily, "because all the people are very anxious, are ready to fight, to fight for very little reason."

Three years of unrelenting austerity have been devastating. Unemployment is nearly 27 percent and rising, one in three Greeks lives on or below the poverty line, and more wage and pension cuts are yet to come.

Gun shop owner John Poulakis is among those Greeks who blame rising joblessness and crime on illegal immigrants. As a result, he says, everybody wants to have a gun.

"Now you cannot walk in the night — people, they're scared," he says.

But immigrants are also scared.

Thousands of demonstrators paraded in central Athens recently against a growing wave of attacks against immigrants. They carried the coffin of Shehzad Luqman, a 27-year-old Pakistani who was stabbed to death while biking to work. The two men arrested as suspects are said to be sympathizers of the neo-Nazi and anti-immigrant party Golden Dawn.

"Everyone is right now frightened [by] the situation," says one Greek-born, 30-year-old Pakistani who is too scared to give his name. "It has been about a year since the Golden Dawn has entered Parliament. Since then, their attacks have been increasing."

Sociologist Konstantinos Tsoukalas is worried about the emergence of two violent movements at opposite ends of the political spectrum.

"We have the Golden Dawn — never before in Greece in living memory have we had such pronounced racist confrontations. And we also have the newly emerged terrorist movement — I don't really know what is behind it," he says. "But both of them are clearly anti-democratic and clearly do not lead to any kind of general, social and political solution of the problem."

Tsoukalas fears that with widespread poverty engulfing the country's vast middle class and the political establishment's loss of credibility, escalating violence can only endanger Greece's fragile political stability.

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