Demonstrators clash with riot police in front of the Greek parliament during… (Alexandros Vlachos / EPA )
Reporting from Athens — Wielding wooden batons, iron bars and firecrackers, scores of militant youths on Tuesday clashed with police in central Athens, targeting the Finance Ministry and other symbols of Greece's austerity efforts as Parliament debated hugely unpopular budget cuts.
The clashes morphed out of a 48-hour nationwide strike that saw hundreds of thousands of Greeks walking off their jobs and spilling into the streets to protest a proposed austerity regimen deemed necessary for securing further financial support from international organizations.
The violence ripped through Syntagma Square, the iconic plaza of a fed-up and financially distressed capital, as concern mounted over Prime Minister George Papandreou's ability to sway — or strong-arm — dissenters in his fractious party to vote for the measures Wednesday and Thursday.
Failure to pass the $112-billion austerity plan would prompt the European Union and the International Monetary Fund to freeze bailout funds, leaving this sun-kissed Mediterranean country without cash to pay its bills in July. That would push Greece to default on its debt within days, triggering massive financial panic in international markets, analysts warn.
"The stakes are very, very high," said Miranda Xafa, a leading Greek economist and former member of the IMF's executive board. "This is one of the most pivotal moments for both Greece and the global financial system as a whole.
"There really is no alternative, however painful the measures are."
With the new austerity program, the government hopes to secure a second batch of rescue funds — as much as $120 billion — in just over a year. SStill, swelling social resistance to what many Greeks call savage cuts in services and unfair tax hikes has pushed the country into political turmoil.
As thousands of peaceful protesters marched through the capital Tuesday, gangs of black-hooded youths — some wearing ski masks, others equipped with gas masks — burst into the crowds, clashing with riot police and turning Syntagma Square into a war zone.
Mounds of rocks, glass and marble projectiles littered the streets as self-styled anarchists went on a rampage, smashing scores of storefronts, setting dumpsters ablaze and scrawling "revolution" on the walls of state buildings and five-star hotels.
Riot police retaliated, firing rounds of tear gas that carpeted parts of the capital with thick plumes of gray smoke for more than three hours, setting scores of coughing, sneezing and teary-eyed demonstrators and tourists to flight.
At least three dozen anarchists were detained and five policemen injured in the clashes.
Parliament is due to vote Wednesday on the first of two austerity bills.
Papandreou's Socialist party commands a five-seat majority in the 300-member Parliament, but at least four of its lawmakers have broken ranks, suggesting they would vote against the austerity plan, designed to yank $40 billion out of the middle class through a spate of stealth taxes on items as diverse as cigarettes and carbonated drinks.
"The pressure I'm facing is immense," one of the four, Alexandros Athanasiadis, said. "I will be kicked out of the party and my political career will come to an abrupt end."
But, he said Tuesday, "my conscience cannot bear voting against the privatization of moneymaking companies. How else will we be able to pay off our debt if we relinquish control of them?"
In addition to the budget cuts, the austerity plan includes an ambitious privatization drive designed to rake in just over $100 billion in revenue through 2015.
European officials, also fearful of a financial meltdown, pressured Greek lawmakers to vote for the budget cuts. "I trust that Greek political leaders are fully aware of the responsibility that lies on their shoulders to avoid default," European Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn said in a statement.
On Monday, Papandreou told lawmakers that voting in favor of the new measures was a "patriotic duty."
But former Finance Minister Stefanos Manos offered a different view.
"Mr. Papandreou is behaving like a drug addict, seeking more doses of international financial aid to fix the economy," he said over the weekend. "That's not a solution. It'll just sink Greece deeper into recession and push it over the abyss with a default."
Carassava is a special correspondent.