- Image 1 of 3
- Image 2 of 3
- Image 3 of 3
ATHENS, Greece – Leonidas Papadopoulos is a doctor, his brother Ilias an economist, and once a week they take a break from ordinary life to fight the government.
They go to court every Wednesday, the day homeowners in default on mortgages lose their properties at auctions — the final step of foreclosure in a country where the government and its citizens are overwhelmed by debt.
Auctions are supervised by a notary public, who faces a weekly hour of crowd harassment. At a lower court in Athens one Wednesday, the Papadopoulos brothers and about 30 protesters gather menacingly around the notary's desk, shouting insults and chanting "Vultures out!" When the atmosphere gets heated, protesters clamber onto the empty judges' benches.
In the court halls outside the chamber, demonstrators unfurl large banners and set up loudspeakers to blast music normally associated with protest movements from the 1970s.
Police look on without intervening, and another auction is cancelled. The crowd celebrates with chants of "No Homes in Bankers' Hands!" — and goes home.
"We create a list of all the auctions that are due to take place and decide which cases require our intervention. When the notary enters the chamber, we eject them with our presence, and by shouting," the 35-year-old Leonidas Papadopoulos says. Each postponement typically delays an auction by about two months.
The bearded brothers have created a nationwide protest network of several hundred volunteers to disrupt the auctions across Greece and to help illegally reconnect homes of unemployed people who have had their electricity cut off. In its fourth year, the campaign is intensifying as the country faces pressure from its international bailout creditors to deal with a mountain of bad bank loans.
Greece owes a staggering 325 billion euros ($354 billion), most of it to bailout lenders, while annual economic output — hammered by austerity, political upheaval and years of recession — has withered to below 180 billion euros ($196 billion). The country's key assets are locked up for 99 years under the control of a fund created by the creditors.
The picture for the country's 10 million citizens is equally grim: Some 4 million are in arrears on tax payments, while 2 million households and businesses are behind on their electricity bills. Nearly half of loans given by banks for businesses and property purchases are now officially listed as soured.
To try and head off more serious trouble for banks, the government is loosening property protection rules and plans to move foreclosed home auctions to an online procedure after the summer.
Ilias Papadopoulos, 33, sees the problem differently, arguing that people's property are being seized at fire-sale prices after tax collection has been exhausted, in a desperate effort to maintain bailout debt commitments.
"There is an effort by a coalition of interests: banks, financial funds, pro-bailout governments, and the international creditors. They want to grab people's property by using the public debt as a lever," he said.
"That includes homes, small businesses, farm land, and industry. It's wealth that was acquired with such great effort by the Greek people. It cannot be surrendered without a fight."
Ilias says he's never been arrested or detained by police due to his activism, and predicts the fight against foreclosures will intensify after Greece and it's bailout creditors reached a new austerity deal this week.
"This will only make things worse for poor people. So we'll have to step things up."
The Papadopoulos brothers claim to have prevented hundreds of property seizures so far.
After their protest in court, they drove to the home of unemployed Athens resident Yiannis Kaplanis, where a volunteer electrician reconnected his home to the grid.
In his cramped, dim apartment, Kaplanis waited as they tampered with the basement electricity meter for a few minutes before the lights came back on.
"I've lived here for four years and for the first two I had some work. After that I was laid off," Kaplanis said.
"I haven't worked at all for the past 18 months. I owe 1,012 euros ($1,100) on the unpaid electricity bills ... and my fridge is totally empty. I don't even have enough food. They cut off my electricity four days ago and I asked for the (brothers') help. Thank God for them."
Thanassis Stavrakis and Srdjan Nedeljkovic contributed to this report.
Follow Gatopoulos at http://www.twitter.com/dgatopoulos