World News

75-Year-Old Mayor Is Attacked in Greece, and Nationalists Rejoice

Posted May 21, 2018 12:49 p.m. EDT
Updated May 21, 2018 12:54 p.m. EDT

THESSALONIKI, Greece — The 75-year-old mayor of Greece’s second-largest city was brutally assaulted by a far-right mob at a public gathering over the weekend, an attack that brought gleeful expressions of support from nationalist groups and heightened concerns about a rise in hate crime in the country.

The mayor, Yiannis Boutaris, who is known for his liberalism and outspoken views against far-right violence and racism, was attacked Saturday afternoon in the northern city of Thessaloniki by about a dozen people during a ceremony commemorating the World War I genocide of Pontic Greeks by Turkish forces.

In video footage of the attack on the mayor, the white-haired Boutaris is heckled by a crowd of men, some masked and dressed in black. He was thrown to the ground, punched and kicked before being escorted to a car that was vandalized by protesters, and he was briefly hospitalized with head, back and leg injuries.

Nationalist groups, notably the far-right Golden Dawn, have capitalized on growing frustration in Greece. The economy has been hobbled by years of austerity imposed on the debt-racked country by international creditors, and a huge migrant influx has further strained tensions.

Greece has often been the first port of call in Europe for migrants fleeing war and economic misery in Afghanistan, Syria, countries in Africa and elsewhere.

Prosectors ordered an investigation Monday to determine the “moral instigators” of the attack on Boutaris, and four men who were arrested in connection with it — a 36-year-old, two 20-year-olds and a 17-year-old who have not been publicly identified — were charged with causing bodily harm, vandalism and disturbing the peace.

It was unclear whether the men were acting on their own or aligned with a far-right group, but members of nationalist, anti-immigrant organizations were conspicuous in praising an attack that was otherwise condemned by others on the political spectrum.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras condemned the “barbaric” attack on Boutaris in a speech to his Cabinet on Monday in which he also hit out at “a dark and extreme section of the main opposition” that, he said, “lays out the carpet for the far right.”

While also condemning the attack, the conservative opposition New Democracy, which is leading Tsipras’ leftist party, Syriza, in opinion polls, responded by accusing the prime minister of the “political and moral legitimization of violence” through “polarizing and toxic rhetoric.”

Members of far-right groups, however, could barely contain their excitement. “Bravo to each and every one who carried out his duty in Thessaloniki today. Respect,” wrote Ourania Michaloliakou, daughter of Nikos Michaloliakos, leader of Golden Dawn, on Twitter. In another, she wrote, “My God, why can’t I be in Thessaloniki today,” adding, “Well done, dudes.”

Christos Paschalidis, an official with a nationalist group, Anasa, in the northern city of Kavala, struck a similar note with a post on Facebook, saying that Boutaris “got what he deserves. Well done to the boys.”

“Now it’s the turn of the traitor” lawmakers, he added, using a term often used by populists to condemn politicians who backed Greece’s acceptance of international bailouts that imposed years of austerity on the country.

The assault was the focus of a front-page story by a Turkish newspaper, Hurriyet, with the headline, “An attack on friendship.” That was an apparent reference to Boutaris’ championing of closer ties between Greece and its traditional rival, Turkey, and efforts to increase tourism between the two countries.

Boutaris has hailed Thessaloniki as the birthplace of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the progressive founder of modern Turkey, and he has been instrumental in pushing plans for the creation of a Holocaust museum in the city, which lost some 50,000 Jews to the Nazis.

In March, statistics from Greek police showed that hate crimes more than doubled last year, with 184 attacks recorded, compared with 84 in 2016. Some observers have said that most assaults go unreported and that the actual figures are much higher.

Boutaris was scheduled to speak at an emergency session at Thessaloniki’s City Hall on Monday afternoon, and a solidarity rally has been organized for Wednesday.