ATHENS – Greek yogurt may be a fresh and flourishing fad in the United States, but in its birthplace, the drippy dairy dish offers more than
just a soothing digestive: It is a weapon of protest.
From politicians to police and pop idols, legions of Greeks have long fallen prey to the yogurt throwing tradition. And while the trend fizzled decades after it first emerged in the 1950s – offenders were arrested; their heads were shaved and they were before paraded in public – the popular prank is now gaining new appeal and growing momentum as the country grips with protests in the wake of unrelenting austerity.
Cash-strapped Greece has relied heavily on international bailouts since May 2010. In exchange it has implemented brutal budget cuts, slashing pensions and salaries while repeatedly hiking taxes – all moves that have deepened an acute recession, leaving one in five Greeks jobless and a nation reeling, unable to handle its despair.
Over the weekend, mobs of militant protesters stormed the studio of a tiny television station in northern Greece, pelting the presenter with yogurt and eggs for hosting a far-right politician promoting fascism and neo-Nazism in the country. For several minutes, the perplexed Panagiotis Bourchas kept calm. But then — drenched in yokes and milky whey — he dashed off the set.
Visually arresting, the grainy footage went viral on YouTube, featuring prominently, also, on international newscasts. But in Greece, it was no laughing matter: It marked the latest show of anger seeping out of this crisis-wary country as it heads for elections — the most defining in the state’s contemporary history.
The fear? Two years into a devastating debt crisis that has brought Greeks to their knees, that anger has mutated into more militant forms of protest, reviving extremist attacks on symbols of wealth and the state after a period of relative lull.
For example, hours after the eggs-and-yogurt attack, extremists bombed a government building in central Athens. And just days prior, a 77-year-old pensioner took a shotgun to his head in public suicide against austerity as militants firebombed the office of a Costas Simitis, a former prime minister credited with ushering the country into the single European currency fold in 2001.
Whether or not the incidents are linked – they probably are not – is under investigation. But that they are on a rise has politicians and police on edge.
“People are mad. And perhaps justifiably so after so many years of austerity,” Yiorgos Karatzaferis, the leader of a small far-right party, said in an interview this week. “With elections nearing, though, the problem is that when voters vote in anger, when they go to the ballot box thinking, ‘I’ll show you, you idiots,’ the result may prove dangerous: The next day may prove even worse than the previous.”
Lucas Papademos, the technocrat prime minister whom Greece’s rival socialist and conservative parties appointed last November to negotiate a complex debt relief deal and bailout, is set to end of his mandate Wednesday, calling for elections on May 6, two of his senior aides said.
With social resentment swelling, public opinion polls show voters turning to smaller, fringe parties as a way of protest. They also look set to vent their anger with more street protests in the coming weeks – including May Day rallies that have police already on alert to fend off potential attacks.
It won’t be an easy drill. “The time has come for us to pay the price,” Deputy Development Minister Socrate Xinidis recently conceded. “I am ready to be thrown a yogurt.”
Anthee Carassava is an Athens-based journalist.