With Prime Minister Antonis Samaras in Brussels pleading with European Union leaders for the release of more rescue monies, some 70,000 Greeks roared through the downtown of Athens to protest more pay cuts, tax hikes and slashed pensions demanded by international lenders.
Much of Greece was at a standstill amid a general strike, as many people want to send a clear message to EU leaders saying ‘no’ to further austerity. The strike was another bid to convince politicians to let up on years of crippling austerity. The 24-hour walkout, organized by the country’s two biggest labor unions, is the 20th work stoppage since a devastating debt crisis erupted in the country late 2009.
A 65-year-old man suffered a fatal heart during the demonstration, authorities said. He was not far from violent clashes between groups of hooded anarchists and riot police, with the protesters throwing Molotov Cocktails, rocks and bottles and police responded with stun grenades and tear gas. There were skirmishes on side streets around the main area of Syntagma Square, where other protesters confronted police with verbal assaults and after some shoving occurred, police pushed the demonstrators back.
Greeks are furious that Samaras’ uneasy coalition government, led by his New Democracy Conservatives, is ready to make another $17.45 billion in spending cuts and tax hikes as a condition of getting a delayed $38.8 billion installment from the Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB) that is part of a first series of $152 billion in rescue loans. A second bailout of $172 billion is also on hold.
The 2013-14 budget plan is being held up by objections by the coalition partners, the PASOK Socialists and tiny Democratic Left, to some of the harshest austerity measures, including the planned firing of 15,000 public workers, cuts in severance pay and new taxes that many businesses on the verge of collapsing said will push them into bankruptcy.
The protests were the third in a month, following a Sept. 26 and another on Oct. 9 when German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country is the biggest contributor to the bailout and who is insisting on austerity, came to Athens to meet Samaras and his partners. In this one, riot police and protesters battled for about an hour. Four demonstrators were injured after being hit by police, volunteer paramedics said. A similar demonstration by about 17,000 people in the northern city of Thessaloniki ended peacefully.
The strike grounded flights, shut down public services, closed schools, hospitals and shops and hampered public transport in the capital. Taxi drivers joined in for nine hours, while a three-hour work stoppage by air traffic controllers led to flight cancellations. Islands were left cut off as ferries stayed in ports.
Athens has seen hundreds of anti-austerity protests over the past three years, since Greece revealed it had lied about its economic statistics. Former Prime Minister and then PASOK leader George Papandreou had to ask for a bailout, but it came with attached austerity measures that have worsened the country’s five-year depression, put nearly two million people out of work, closed 68,000 businesses and is shrinking the economy by 7 percent
“We are sinking in a swamp of recession and it’s getting worse,” Dimitris Asimakopoulos, head of the GSEVEE small business and industry association, told Associated Press. He said that, “180,000 businesses are on the brink and 70,000 of them are expected to close in the next few months.” Higher taxes expected to be levied in the new austerity program will destroy many of the struggling businesses that have managed to weather three years of the crisis so far, he said. “In 2011, only 20 percent of businesses were profitable. So these new tax measures present small businesses with a choice: Dodge taxes or close your shop,” he said.
Samaras said despite objections from his partners on some issues, most of the main areas of the new budget plan have been agreed upon and he expects to soon ram it through the Parliament for rubber-stamp approval and implementation. That could lead to more protests, strikes and riots of the kind which brought down Papandreou, who resigned last year. Samaras said he had no choice but to renege on his pre-campaign vow to resist more austerity because Greece will be broke without continued welfare aid from its international lenders.