Thursday, July 2, 2015

Greek crisis: Meet George Kaminis, the 'General of the Yes Campaign'

Colin Freeman

By Colin Freeman, Athens 01 July 2015

After three years coping with the sharp end of the austerity crisis, the mayor of Athens wants an end to confrontation with Europe

Mayor of Athens Giorgos Kaminis pictured with 'Yes' demonstrators as they show their support for the country to remain in the Eurozone

Mayor of Athens Giorgos Kaminis pictured with 'Yes' demonstrators as they show their support for the country to remain in the Eurozone Photo: Demotix

As one of the most senior Greek politicians to back the "Yes" vote in this weekend's EU bail-out referendum, George Kaminis now rejoices in two different titles.

One is his regular moniker of mayor of Athens, the city of three million that he has somehow kept going during the last three years of economic meltdown.

The other, as excited Greek newspaper headlines put it on Wednesday, is the "General of the Yes". And certainly, while his army may be made up of binmen and bureaucrats, he speaks with plenty of experience at the very front line of Greece's austerity crisis.

Since donning the mayoral chains in 2010, Mr Kaminis, 60, has been confronted with an array of problems that would no doubt turn Boris Johnson's blonde hair grey.

As well as crippling cuts to his budget, he has had to deal with social unrest of every sort, from militant trade unions and violent anarchists through to a resurgent neo-Nazi movement sparked by soaring levels of joblessness and illegal immigration.

His city has had barely any investment in the last seven years, and with graffiti on every street corner and potholes in most roads, it is now badly in need of a facelift.

Yet despite being well-acquainted with the pain that years of EU and IMF-imposed penury has brought, Mr Kaminis has no wish for further confrontation with Greece's creditors.

• Greece defaults on the IMF

While the ruling Syriza party has urged a "No" vote in this Sunday's referendum on whether to back the terms of the EU bail-out deal, Mr Kaminis was a VIP guest at the "Yes" rally on Tuesday night, along with his counterpart from Greece's second city of Thessaloniki, Yiannis Boutaris.

"We want our leaders in both Greece and Europe to go back to the table of negotiations and conclude an agreement in favour of the dignity of the Greek people and of our economic development," he said.

Giorgos Kaminis, addresses a crowd of "yes' supports

“We do not want to see our membership of the Eurozone, and of the European Union, put at risk.”

• Festival-like atmosphere at huge anti-bailout protest

The presence of Mr Kaminis is a major fillip to the "Yes" campaign, which attracted tens of thousands of people to its opening rally on Tuesday but is far from sure of victory.

A law professor by training, his political background is Left-leaning, but other than a fondness for not wearing a tie, he has little in common with Alexis Tsipras, the hard-Left Greek prime minister. Earlier this year, he spoke of the urgent need to move away from an old style, dirigiste economy in Greece, saying that it "scares away investment, creates bureaucracy and invites corruption".

Indeed, his job has made him well aware of Greece's vulnerability to extreme politics of any kind. Two years ago, he was attacked by activists from the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, after objecting to them handing out "Greeks only" food parcels outside parliament. He warned recently that if Syriza's radical Left government fails – as now looks likely – despairing Greeks might swing to the far-Right instead.

• How do you change a currency – fast?

Meanwhile, despite doubts over whether the referendum can even be organised in time for Sunday, campaigning for the event is intensifying. Greek TV shows debate the matter round the clock, while in the streets are festooned with Syriza campaign posters urging "No for democracy and dignity".

Greek President Mr Prokopis Pavlopoulos, the Mayor of Athens Mr George Kaminis and of the Mayor of Thessaloniki Mr Giannis Boutaris

While one poll last week showed that up to 57 per cent of Greeks were in favour of a bail-out deal, others published since have claimed the exact opposite. Opinion is divided over whether the tough hand played by the EU during its stand-off with Mr Tsipras has pushed Greeks behind him, or increased support for a change of government altogether.

Either way, though, Mr Kaminis is not alone in sensing that the stakes at play are very high indeed. On Wednesday, lawyers at the Athens Bar complained of being harassed by a group of activists from Syriza and a far-Left communist faction. The lawyers had just drawn up a paper examining the constitutional issues around the referendum, which the activists criticised for allegedly favouring a "Yes" vote.

"About 40 activists came into the room, shouting and threatening members of the board and accusing them of being traitors," said lawyer George Papadopoulos. "It was clearly an undemocratic way of conducting themselves."

Greek crisis: Meet George Kaminis, the 'General of the Yes Campaign' - Telegraph