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Greek general strike protests austerity measures

The protest occurs as experts from the European Union and International Monetary Fund assess proposed new austerity steps, including a third wave of tax increases and a sell-off of state assets.

May 11, 2011|By Anthee Carassava, Los Angeles Times
  • A protester lies in an Athens street during clashes with police that erupted as demonstrators marching against the Greek government's austerity measures in the face of a debt crisis observed a general strike.
A protester lies in an Athens street during clashes with police that erupted… (Milos Bicanski, Getty Images )

Reporting from Athens — Ancient Greeks coined the word "austerity." Modern Greeks are resenting it.

Waving red flags and toting colorful placards, thousands of workers walked off the job Wednesday, pouring onto the streets of Athens and other Greek cities to challenge a new rash of proposed reforms and cost-cutting measures designed to save the cash-strapped country $33 billion through 2015.

In Athens, about 30,000 protesters marched outside the nation's parliament building, jeering lawmakers and calling them "thieves" and "robbers." Some youths clashed with riot police, pelting them with stones, water bottles and oranges.

Police responded by firing several rounds of tear gas and pepper spray. At least a dozen demonstrators injured during about 15 minutes of mayhem were rushed to hospitals, as tourists and bystanders scattered in panic. The acrid smell of the tear gas lingered over the capital for hours after what authorities called a "timid" demonstration overall.

The 24-hour general strike, the country's second this year, was organized by Greece's two biggest labor unions as senior experts from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund began assessing a new austerity package, including a third wave of tax increases and a sweeping sell-off of state assets.

"These are barbarous policies that are driving workers and society into poverty for the benefit of bankers and creditors," said a statement from the ADEDY public-sector umbrella union. "They must not pass."

Despite widespread discontent, the demonstration drew smaller, more sober crowds compared with the violent demonstrations in the capital last year. Participants Wednesday included jobless factory workers, women pushing baby carriages and students. Minor scuffles erupted, underscoring the high level of volatility in Greece, Portugal and Ireland, Eurozone countries making large cuts in services through austerity programs.

A year after clinching a $146-billion bailout from the EU and the IMF, Greece has slipped far behind slated fiscal targets, fanning market speculation that the debt-racked country will default, or require some sort of debt restructuring or even a new deal with its international creditors.

The German weekly Der Spiegel last week published an online report saying that Greece's debt woes were so grave that Athens was contemplating ditching the euro currency.

The report — published as key Eurozone officials met in Luxembourg to brainstorm over contingency plans for Greece's debt crisis — was knocked down by Athens as a joke. The government has since conceded the inevitable: that it wants more money and more time to climb out of its debt crisis because the prospects of gaining access to international markets next year look bleak.

As Greece's grim-faced finance minister, George Papaconstantinou, put it on his return from the Luxembourg talks, "The markets continue to disbelieve our country."

Like Ireland and Portugal, Greece is insolvent. And while the Socialist government succeeded in cutting the country's deficit by about a third last year, the shortfall still hovers at 10.5% of gross domestic product, the second highest in the 27-member EU. Tax collection, according to the Finance Ministry, has also slumped 9.2%, and a much-vaunted privatization plan has yet to begin for a slew of state companies, including the Public Power Corp., the country's former energy monopoly.

What's more, many pundits and politicians say, crisis fatigue has set in and the government has lost its chutzpah.

"We must not lose any more time," Health Minister Andreas Loverdos warned this week, siding with European officials and economists long critical of the government's flagging pace of reforms. "We have to fight harder; there is no room for mixed policy messages."

A flurry of polls published in recent weeks signaled fading support for the Socialists. One survey commissioned by the private Mega TV network showed 71% of respondents opposing the government's handling of the crisis, with 60.3% supporting renegotiation of the country's bailout deal. About one in four said the government should scrap the rescue program and abandon the euro.

"Austerity, austerity, austerity," lamented Maria Martaki as she marched through the streets of Athens on Wednesday. "That's all we've endured with the euro. Enough!"

Carassava is a special correspondent.

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