ATHENS – In Zeelevounai-driven Greece – you can't be happy unless someone else is unhappy – a record summer of heat and wildfires has spawned a gaggle of concocted conspiracy talks that blamed the blazes on arson-for-development, burning land for wind turbines, and Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis' legacy family wanting to profit from the misery.
Greece is, after all, a country where coffee house talk and street corner chatter revolves around politics and blame and which government steals the most while in rotating power shifts.
In a feature for Foreign Policy, British journalist David Patrikarakos outlined just how bizarre it gets between wild accusations tossed around without proof, but mixed with just enough history and intrigue to make it appealing to the susceptible.
All this happened during a resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic blamed on those defying the fringes of what's left of health measures and anti-vaxxers refusing to be inoculated, perpetuating it and saying vaccines are an international conspiracy to alter their DNA or control their minds.
That theory – like those being tossed around in the wildfires like kindling for weirdo radio talk shows – holds that the powers that be, usually referred to as “they,” are a cabal of capitalists, bankers and politicians who want your money.
Mixed in with that political theater is the usual blame game and finger pointing over the fires with the major opposition SYRIZA brazenly blaming the New Democracy government for mismanaging the response to the fires – in which two people died – after 102 died in 2018 fires when the Leftists were ruling.
The report noted that unlike the shambolic response in 2018 when SYRIZA was in full-scale panic and cover-up mode and had no clue what to do, that New Democracy used a finally-implemented cell phone text message service telling people not just to flee fires, but where to go.
In 2018, people died in burning fields and in their cars on streets, on in the sea at the nearly-destroyed village of Mati because they were directed into the flames, and the SYRIZA government didn't send boats to save them.
Renos, a 74-year-old civil engineer who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the government warning system had been a lifesaver – literally. “It’s not just that they tell you to leave. That would not be enough,” he said. “They tell you exactly where to go. They direct you to safety. I think this is the reason that despite there being almost 500 fires across Greece, … so far no one has burned to death.”
In this year's fires, New Democracy responded rapidly – but not without errors, admitted Mitsotakis, who said he would get to the bottom of lapses – the worst faults on the island of Evia, Greece's second-largest, where the battle to save it was largely left to volunteers and too few water-dumping aircraft sent.
Mitsotakis went on TV to make a public apology. “I fully understand the pain of our fellow citizens who saw their homes or property burned,” he said. “Any failures will be identified. And responsibility will be assigned wherever necessary.”
It's all in the game in Greece.
“Refugees, corruption, EU austerity, long-term state failures, conspiracy, and division: The fires lay out, in kaleidoscopic detail, the troubles of modern Greece. But amid all of this is the story of a state struggling to save lives in an emergency – and doing so successfully,” wrote Patrikarakos.
PSST … DID YOU HEAR …
The piece lays out bare the internecine political and class warfare that's been going on in Greece for generations, the WWII Civil war aftermath still a vivid memory for the combatants and their ancestors.
And then there's the litany of scandals, from the 2008 dealing between the Vatopedi Monastery on Mt. Athos that did a land-for-buildings swap with a New Democracy government, both sides profiting, the Greek people losing.
And some of the failings for a lack of fire disaster plans and responses have been put on the Troika of the European Central Bank-International Monetary Fund-European Stability Mechanism that put up three bailouts of 326 billion euros ($382.55 billion) from 2010-18 that came with harsh austerity measures that included cutting back big time on disaster services, including the fire department.
Greece has a history of fires, often deadly, and often said in shadowy whispers to be the work of developers who want land cleared so they build on it, and then do, before Mitsotakis became the first premier to say burned land would be reforested.
That would seem to put a crimp into a social media dark corner theme that his family was somehow responsible for the fires so that wind turbines could be put on the burned land, primarily Evia, and with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) rejecting the idea.
Putting out the conspiracy theory fires is harder than the real thing. Irene Stamopoulou, a 20-year-old waitress, told Patrikarakos that, “The fires started because some people wanted to build something,” echoing the vague ideas that rich conspirators operating from some unknown spot are controlling everything.
“About a month ago, there were some guys who wanted to develop land around here, but they were turned down. Now everything has burned, so I guess they can now,'” she said.
That mirrors the chat on social media that says private investors are using networks of arsonists to depress property prices in the area or to just torch forests they can redevelop for next to nothing, said the report.
There have been a dozen reports of arson but the fires are mostly blamed on the record heat wave that turned forest into tinderboxes and on failure to clear forest and unlawful dumping in the woods.
A report in the often extremist Greek City Times that an Afghan woman tried to set a fire in a central Athens park set off the followers of the disbanded neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party to tweet that leftist lawyers defending the woman had links to the Turkish government. Migrants, leftists, and Turkey, what the article called “A full house in Greek far-right bingo.”
Adding fuel to the raging talk is that the Prime Minister's sister Alexandra Mitsotakis is head of the Convergences Greece Forum, which lobbies for the establishment of wind turbines across Greece and that his government let the fires burn to do that – before he said he wouldn't allow it.
But this kind of talk in Greece is harder to douse than the flames which tore through the country once again, conspiracy theories that can't be extinguished.