Protesters and police clashed violently in front of the Greek parliament building Wednesday, as tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Athens on the first day of a two-day general strike over austerity measures. At least six protesters and 15 police officers were injured amid the disturbances, police said, and at least 15 people were arrested.
Strikers in Greece aim to shut down wide sectors of the country, a day before lawmakers vote on a new round of tough cost-cutting measures. “Don’t bow your head, it’s time for resistance and struggle,” marchers chanted in the capital as numbers swelled for the union-backed demonstration. (CNN)
The violence broke out around lunchtime in one corner of the square, beside Parliament House, as a group of protesters dressed mostly in black threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at police. Officers fired tear gas and stun grenades, or “flash bangs,” in return, sending noisy detonations echoing round the square. Smoke filled the area by mid-afternoon as fire burned in front of the finance ministry, forcing many peaceful demonstrators to move away.
The strike, called by both public and private sector unions, closed government departments, businesses, offices and shops. Air traffic controllers staged a 12-hour walkout, with some 150 domestic and international flights cancelled.
Police estimated that more than 70,000 people were protesting in Athens, and said they planned to put between 2,500 and 3,000 officers on the streets. Organizers estimated the turnout at 120,000 people. More than 100 security officers guarded parliament, enforcing a 50-yard empty space between the demonstrators and the building. Initially, most of the protesters gathered peacefully in front of Parliament House waving union flags, red flags and banners.
“I’m here for my children and everyone else’s children. Those punks in there have destroyed everyone’s lives,” said former railway worker Diamandis Goufas, 62, pointing at parliament. (CNN)
One striker, university lecturer Yannis Zebetakis, told the BBC Greece was like “a taxation Armageddon”. “The economy is dying. Along with the economy, we are dying. The austerity measures are not working and our best people are being forced to go abroad,” he said. (BBC)
Greeks are angry at yet another round of planned austerity measures as Greece tries to bring down its stratospheric debt. Lawmakers are trying to cut government costs to reassure international backers it is doing enough to earn the bailout funds that they promised to pour into the country, with more austerity measures expected to pass Thursday. The new bill would lead to around 30,000 job losses and further cuts to wages and pensions for workers in the public sector.
That has left at least some Greeks furious at the countries demanding that Greece bring down its spending. “We are not lazy; it’s the Germans, they want to take our blood,” said Eleftherios Zarkados. (CNN)
At least one student said Wednesday that Thursday would not mark the end of the battle between politicians and the public. “We will continue to resist even if the measures pass,” said Sophia Titou, 21, a law student who works at an oil refinery. (CNN)
Many on the streets said they are angry that the well-off people they believe are benefiting from corruption and tax evasion are not being pursued, while public sector workers pay the price for Greece’s woes.
“We just can’t take it any more. There is desperation, anger, and bitterness,” said Nikos Anastasopoulos, head of a worker’s union for an Athens municipality. (CBC) Other municipal workers said they had no option but to take to the streets. “We can’t make ends meet for our families,” said protester Eleni Voulieri. “We’ve lost our salaries, we’ve lost everything and we’re in danger of losing our jobs.” (CBC)
“We’ve reached a certain limit,” said Vasia Retsou, 30, a public school kindergarten teacher, who said she had come to protest for the first time, as she marched in a group of students. (New York Times)
Anastasia Dotsi, 70, a retired bank worker, said anger had driven her out to protest. “We have been crushed as a people,” she said. She said her son and daughter, who both work in the private sector, had not been paid in months and were struggling to pay their mortgages and support their families. “There’s no precedent for this,” Ms. Dotsi added. “I have never been a leftist, I voted for Pasok” – the Socialist Party of Prime Minister George Papandreou – “I consider myself a middle-class person. But they’ve pushed us to become extremists.” (New York Times)
As she stood at the base of the Syntagma Square, Maria Sarrafidou, 53, a psychiatrist, said that three psychiatric care centers where she had worked had closed down in recent months. At the same time, she added, she sees more patients in her private practice, but they pay her less. “Mostly panic disorders,” she said. “In the last two years I’ve seen children and adults. They have no hope for the future. They wait and wait, this is the most difficult part,” she added. “They don’t know what’s going to happen.” (New York Times)
Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos, whose offices were taken over by protesting civil servants earlier this month, appealed for support for the austerity measures. He said it was an “agonizing but necessary struggle to avoid the final and harshest point of the crisis.” (BBC) “We have to explain to all these indignant people who see their lives changing that what the country is experiencing is not the worst stage of the crisis,” Mr. Venizelos told lawmakers. “It is an anguished and necessary effort to avoid the ultimate, deepest and harshest level of the crisis. The difference between a difficult situation and a catastrophe is immense.” (CBC)
Prime Minister George Papandreou’s Pasok party has a four-seat majority, but some of his backbenchers have threatened to vote against the measures. In a bid to galvanize support on Tuesday, Mr. Papandreou appealed to Socialist lawmakers to put the common good above personal concerns. “We must endure this battle so that the country can win, we must be calm and rise to the challenge,” he said, noting that passing the new measures were crucial to clinching critical rescue funding from foreign creditors. “The vote will boost our negotiating position, it will give us strength for the E.U. summit,” he said. The key goal for Greece, Mr. Papandreou said, was “to stay in the euro zone.” (New York Times)
Greece has rising unemployment and a stalled economy and is saddled with a government debt that is 162% of its gross domestic product. Last year the European Union set up a central bailout fund and agreed to provide Greece with 110 billion euros ($152 billion). But the loan failed to stabilize the country’s economy, and the EU later agreed another 109-billion euro package.
EU leaders are scrambling to minimize the effect of Greece’s debt on their common currency, the euro. Over the weekend, finance minsters from the world’s largest economies pledged their commitment to take “all necessary actions” to stabilize markets. (CNN) They aim to keep banks well capitalized so they can weather the effects of any defaults by Greece or other indebted countries like Portugal, Spain, Ireland or Italy.
But there appears to be a split between France and Germany – Europe’s two largest economies – on how to do it. Germany has stressed that individual European states should inject capital into domestic banks that lack sufficient buffers. But analysts say France is opposed to this idea because it could jeopardize the nation’s top-tier credit rating.
EU leaders and global finance chiefs are in talks over the eurozone crisis. French President Nicolas Sarkozy flew to Germany late on Wednesday to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel and senior officials from the European Central Bank and IMF. “If the euro fails, Europe fails. But we will not allow that,” Mrs. Merkel said. (BBC)
European leaders are expected to hear concrete details about how the plan might work at a European Council meeting Sunday. EU heads of state are widely expected to finalize the plan in early November at a meeting of the Group of 20 world economic powers.