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Fortress Athens: 6,000 Cops to Guard Merkel

German Chancellor Angela Merkel – who many Greeks view as the architect of the austerity measures that have ruined their lives – will likely face angry crowds when she visits Athens on Oct. 9 to meet with Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and check on his slow progress in making another $17.45 billion in spending cuts and tax hikes that she wants in return for backing more international aid for the beleaguered country.
Merkel said she wants Greece to stay in the Eurozone and her visit is seen as supporting that and as a courtesy after Samaras went to Berlin to meet her last month. While Merkel has said she wants Greece to keep receiving loans, she said it must also continue to make more reforms and impose further austerity, which has infuriated many Greeks.
With Samaras already upset over a massive protest on Sept. 26 and last week’s storming of the Defense Ministry by shipyard workers who haven’t been paid in six months, he has vowed to crack down on violence in protests and is taking no chance with Merkel’s visit, mobilizing 6,000 police officers as labor unions have called for a work stoppage and protests.
Greeks will not be allowed into the downtown or the area around Syntagma Square, in front of the Parliament, the usual gathering place and will be barred from their own city so Merkel can be insulated against seeing protests, authorities said.
The Independent Greeks party that is represented in Parliament has also called for symbolic surrounding of the German Embassy and Samaras is keen to prevent the kind of fury that brought down the previous government of then PASOK Socialist leader George Papandreou, and avoid any embarrassing incidents with Merkel in town.
This is her first visit to Greece since the country’s economic crisis broke out three years ago, forcing Papandreou to go hat-in-hand to the Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB) in return for a first series of $152 billion in rescue loans. Greece is still awaiting the last installment, of $38.8 billion, that has been delayed until Samaras’ uneasy coalition government passes the spending cuts and tax hikes.
A second bailout, for $172 billion, is also in limbo and Greek society is rebelling and rage is building after two lists of Greeks with huge bank accounts, in Greece and in Switzerland, led the government to investigate if there were tax evaders trying to hide their income, including nearly 60 politicians.
The sense of injustice is making it difficult for Samaras to keep a handle on the growing social unrest and the government is anxious to make sure it doesn’t get out of control when Merkel comes to Athens. She has been characterized as a bullying Nazi and her critics are ready.
“She does not come to support Greece, which her policies have brought to the brink. She comes to save the corrupt, disgraced and servile political system,” Alexis Tsipras, leader of the major opposition Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) told Reuters. He has declined to meet her and said: “We will give her the welcome she deserves.”
SYRIZA blames the New Democracy leader Samaras and his coalition partners, PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos and Democratic Left chief Fotis Kouvelis, for bowing to the demands of the Troika and Merkel’s hard line.
The unprecedented security for her six-hour visit will turn the center of Athens into a no-go zone for protest marches planned by labor unions and opposition parties, which could mean either an eerie silence as the capital’s heart is closed or a showdown with protesters determined to send Merkel a message about their suffering.
“We don’t want her here,” said Yannis Georgiou, 72, who has seen his pension cut by one third. “We will take to the streets against austerity and against the government. Maybe Merkel will hear something and see what we’re going through.”
Merkel’s visit is a sign of Germany’s support for the coalition government as Samaras tried to get Venizelos and Kouvelis to give up objections to some of the coming measures that will hit hardest at workers, pensioners and the poor while tax evaders who owe the country $70 billion continue to largely escape, fueling more discontent among those who’ve borne the burden.
The trip is a sign of German solidarity, a message to the Greek leadership and people that Berlin does not want to cut them loose, and a signal to the members of Merkel’s coalition who want Greece out that it’s not going to happen soon.
“In our view Samaras is really trying to get things done,” one German official told Reuters, requesting anonymity. “Nobody should see this trip as a sign that all is perfect. But we recognize things are moving in the right direction.”
The Greek government was ecstatic about the news, promising to treat Merkel with the honors befitting the leader of a great nation. Greek officials credited Samaras’ charm offensive in Berlin in August for Germany’s change of heart.
“Samaras showed a real will to change things. He stressed what Greece had to do, not what others had to do for Greece,” a Greek government official told Reuters on condition of anonymity. Merkel is scheduled to meet Samaras, President Karolos Papoulias and representatives of Greek industry.
Some Greek media are calling for calm, although the newspaper To Proto Thema ran a “HEIL” headline but most others called on Merkel to take a hard look at the suffering of Greek people during her visit. “Tell Merkel the truth,” wrote Nikos Hatzinikolaou in Real News. “With unemployment at 25 percent and recession at 7 percent, for a fifth year, can lenders expect the country to survive and pay back its debts?”
Besides his partners, Samaras still has to get clearance from Troika inspectors who are balking at his projection of savings in several areas, including health care, defense spending and cuts in public sector expenses.
In order to avoid going back to Parliament to request a third rescue for Athens – a step Merkel allies acknowledge could be political suicide for her, Reuters noted – Germany will probably have to agree to other concessions to plug a hole in Greece’s finances. These could include giving Samaras an extra two years to make painful cuts and agreeing to a reduction in the interest rates Athens pays on its EU loans.
Some German politicians are calling on her to keep to her hard line. “She has to lay it on the line and make clear to the Greek government what the options are,” Michael Fuchs, a senior lawmaker in Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) told Reuters. “Whether the conditions for additional help are met depends not on Germany, but on the Greek government alone.”

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