Greek Austerity Protests Turn Violent as Strike Begins

Greek riot police fired tear gas to disperse stone-throwing demonstrations Tuesday, as thousands rallied to protest proposed austerity measures on the first day of a two-day strike. Twenty-one police officers and one demonstrator were hurt, and at least five people have been arrested, police said. About 3,000 officers are deployed on the streets of Athens.

The protesters are rallying outside the Greek Parliament building in the center of the country’s capital, where lawmakers are set to vote Wednesday on a tough five-year package of tax increases and spending cuts.

European Council President Herman van Rompuy urged them to pass the measures, for the sake of Greece and the wider economy. “There are decisive moments and the coming hours will be decisive, crucial for the Greek people, but also for the Eurozone and the stability of the world economy,” he told the European Parliament in Brussels on Tuesday. (CNN)

As the demonstration carried on into the evening, thousands of protesters – some newly arrived – continued to face police in riot gear manning barricades outside the Greek Parliament, but the mood had quietened. Earlier Tuesday, live television footage showed clouds of tear gas as police and protesters clashed, and black smoke from small fires billowing through the streets. Police appeared to be trying to force protesters out of Constitution Square, CNN reporters said, but some were returning and others gathered in side streets ready to move back in.

CBC News reporter Susan Ormiston reported that dozens of people have been going at the police back and forth. “They’ve been throwing firebombs at the police. The police have responded with tear gas,” she said. “The Greeks are not convinced that further cuts to their standard of living is going to fix the problem,” Ormiston added later. (CBC)

Drumming and music reverberated around the square, as well as shouted slogans. One group of protesters chanted “Bread, education, freedom,” an old rallying cry from 1973, when thousands of students clashed violently with police during protests against the military government. (CNN)

Youths torched a satellite truck parked near parliament. The fire caused a freezer at a neighbouring kiosk to explode, and hooded youths ducked behind the burning truck to help themselves to ice-cream cones.

“The troublemakers are attacking the police fiercely and trying to disrupt a peaceful protest,” police spokesman Athanasios Kokalakis said. (CBC)
The 48-hour general strike kicked off in the early morning hours, hobbling most of Greece’s transportation systems but freeing workers to participate in demonstrations. Members of the communist PAME labour union took to the streets first, waving socialist signs in front of the Greek Parliament. The main rally, a cooperative effort between two much larger, mainstream unions, launched later.

Cloth banners reading “No sacrifices for plutocracy” flapped in chorus with chants of “Workers, you can live without a boss,” and “We want workers’ rights, not profits for the boss!” (CNN)

Government offices, schools and courts had closed, the unions said. Hospitals were operating on skeleton staffs, according to Greek state television broadcaster ERT. Transportation disruptions were planned on land, on sea and in the air. Air traffic controllers will periodically stop work and fight traffic, according to their union. Stoppages are also expected to disrupt sea travel in the maritime nation, which encompasses many islands.

Train and municipal transportation has also shut down, but Athens metro workers are abstaining from the strike, according to the country’s transportation union. Train operators will provide continuous service to demonstrators headed for central Athens. But bus drivers are on strike, keeping city busses off Athens’ streets. In Athens, the metro is the only form of public transport which will work “so as to allow Athenians to join the planned protests in the capital,” metro drivers said. (BBC)

Greece needs the bailout funds to avert a default on debt repayments that are due as soon as mid-July. Such a default would send shock waves through the European banking sector and potentially dent global economic confidence.

European Union Commissioner Ollie Rehn, the bloc’s lead negotiator on the bailout, warned Tuesday that Greece faced “a critical juncture,” as he pressed Parliament to pass the austerity measures. “Both the future of the country and financial stability in Europe are at stake,” Rehn said in Brussels. “I trust that Greek political leaders are fully aware of the responsibility that lies on their shoulders to avoid default.” He warned that there was “no Plan B” to avert default, and insisted that economic reforms – although challenging – were a better alternative for the Greek people. “To those who speculate about other options, let me say this clearly: there is no Plan B to avoid default,” Rehn said, dismissing widespread reports that Brussels was working on a fallback plan to keep Greece afloat. (Reuters) “The European Union continues to be ready to support Greece. But Europe can only help Greece if Greece helps itself,” he added. (CNN)

The blunt alternative was underscored by Bank of England Governor Mervyn King, who told British parliamentarians that policymakers were working on ways to limit the damage from a potential default on Greece’s 340 billion euro debt pile. “What we’re doing is to say there is sufficient concern in the market about the possibility of default for us to think about contingency plans and the consequences of this event,” King said. (Reuters) He urged greater transparency about sovereign exposures to prevent a sudden, broad-based loss of confidence in European banks in the event of  a Greek default, which could trigger a new credit crunch.

Protesters lament that the cuts are being carried out on the backs of those who can afford it least. “With the policy followed since the bailout, we have sen people’s living standards going down. It is the workers and the pensioners who are paying the debt,” said electrical engineer Ioanna Lagonika. Lagonika, who marched in PAME’s demonstration, said, “The PM (prime minister) has said that this is a new start for Greece, but to us it feels like this is our end.” (CNN)

“The situation that the workers are undergoing is tragic and we are near poverty levels,” said Spyros Linardopoulos, a protester with the PAME union at the blockade. “The government has declared war and to this war we will answer back with war.” (BBC)

Accountant Pericles Panagakis, who also participated in the communists’ march, would rather see Greece go through bankruptcy. The austerity programs mean “even tougher measures for the people and just for the people,” he said. Panagakis would also like to see Greece’s wealthiest make up for the government shortfalls. “The solution is to take the money from people who have money, not from the workers,” he said. (CNN)

Polls suggest that between 70% and 80% of Greek people oppose the austerity plan. “We’re opposed to what they’re trying to do to us,” said bank worker Kali Patouna. “We know very well that these measures will be our tombstone. They will have extreme consequences for workers and for everyone on all social levels.” (BBC)

The parliamentary vote, which comes a day later than originally planned, will be followed by a meeting of European Union finance ministers on July 3 to approve the final part of funding from last year’s bailout.

The head of Deutsche Bank warned politicians Monday against taking steps that might lead to the crisis to spread beyond Greece. “If it is Greece alone, that’s already big. But if other countries are drawn in through contagion, it could be bigger than Lehman,” Josef Ackermann said, referring to the financial meltdown that followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers investment firm in the U.S. in 2008. (CNN)

International lenders have insisted Greece cut spending, lay off public workers, raise taxes and raise 50 billion euros ($71 billion) through selling off state-owned enterprises in exchange for a further bailout of the cash-strapped nation.

The latest demands follow austerity measures imposed last year that included pension cuts; a sales tax boost; excise taxes on fuel, cigarettes, alcohol and luxury goods; and a rise in the average retirement age to 65 from 61.

The economic crisis has inspired rioting in the streets of Athens in recent weeks, where protesters have thrown firebombs and clashed with armoured police. The Parliament plans to vote on the austerity package sometime after 1 p.m. Wednesday. All three unions that marched Tuesday have also planned rallies for Wednesday evening.

The recently-appointed Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos acknowledged that the cuts were “unfair,” but said they were absolutely necessary. He called on MPs to back the measures, saying both the government and the opposition were “running out of time.” “We are handling our country’s history right now and nobody can play with that,” he said. (BBC)

But the main opposition leader, Anotnis Samaras of the New Democracy party, said the thinking behind the austerity package was flawed and that tax rates should be lowered rather than raised in order to stimulate the economy. “This policy is wrong, it has exhausted the Greek people and Greek society,” Samaras told parliament. “If we perpetuate this mistaken policy we will only make things worse, both for Greece and for Europe.” (Reuters)

The outcome of the debate is uncertain. Mr. Papandreou faces opposition from within the governing Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok), with two MPs saying they may oppose the bill. “I call on you to vote for survival, growth, justice, and a future for the citizens of this country,” Papandreou told legislators. (CBC)

The party has a slim majority, with 155 seats out of 300 in parliament.

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