Greece paralyzed by nationwide protests

Tens of thousands of Greeks took to the streets Wednesday as much of the country went on a 24-hour strike against government austerity measures.

A small group of youths threw Molotov cocktails at police, who responded with tear gas. However, the 20,000 people who filed through downtown Athens—a relatively large crowd for a Greek strike—mostly limited themselves to chanting anti-government slogans.

Public- and private-sector unions called the strike to protest a range of measures aimed at reducing Greece’s budget deficit. The government has announced a freeze on civil-service wages, cuts in public-sector entitlements and the closing of tax loopholes for certain professions, including some civil servants. It has also announced a fuel-tax increase.

“There is an all-out war against public servants, those who earn the least,” said Spyros Papaspyros president of ADEDY, an umbrella union for public-sector workers. “We will fight to keep the little we have. The government and the EU must understand the crisis must be paid by the rich.”

The government moves are aimed at reducing Greece’s budget deficit, which at about 13% of gross domestic product last year was well over the EU’s 3% limit. This has raised the interest rate Greece has to pay to borrow money. Brussels has ordered Greece to bring the deficit to within the EU limit by 2012.

Despite the protests, which follow strikes in recent weeks, Greece appears determined to press ahead with its measures. An opinion poll published Sunday by Greek newspaper Ethnos showed that 76% of Greeks opposed strikes for the time being, and 58% thought the government’s austerity measures were in the right direction.

Following a visit Tuesday by EU and International Monetary Fund officials, the Greek government is due to announce further austerity measures, possibly as early as next week. On March 16, EU finance ministers will meet to review Greece’s progress.

ADEDY, the union, said about 80% of its members were on strike Wednesday. Government offices, schools and universities were closed, as was Athens International Airport. Train, bus and ferry services were canceled nationwide, though a minimum level of service was maintained in Athens.

The journalists’ union also took part, so there were no reports of the strike on Greek television, and no newspapers were scheduled to be published Thursday.

Many demonstrators said they hadn’t yet suffered the effects of the cutbacks—but were fearful of what the future held.

“Up until now I haven’t seen my income drop,” said Christos Marinis, a 45-year-old accountant. “But all this talk of catastrophes has hurt my company’s business, and there will be a drop in workers’ and pensioners’ incomes.”

Though many Greeks recognize that their country needs to take drastic measures to fix its problems, resentment against outsiders is growing.

“The capitalist crisis is both the cause of global turmoil and the excuse for our rights to be taken away,” said Panos Bikos, a 31-year-old electrical engineer.

A group of primary-school teachers carried a banner reading, “No to economic subjugation by the government, the EU and capital markets.”

The demonstrations began peacefully. But as the march reached Syntagma Square, location of the Greek parliament, about 20 youths broke away and threw missiles, plastic bottles and pieces of marble at police. Some bus stops were damaged.The police tear gas broke up the scuffles and sent customers fleeing from the outdoor terraces of some cafés around the square.

Greece’s unemployment rate was around 9% at the end of last year, but is expected to exceed 10% this year. Giorgos Asimakopoulos, 47, lost his job a year ago when the road-works company that employed him closed down. Since then he has been serving souvlaki, chunks of meat grilled on a skewer, from a mobile stand.

Even that income has dropped during the downturn, he said. Last year he made around €150 euros ($203) at a big soccer game, but on Tuesday night had taken in just €50 at the European Champions League game between Olympiakos of Athens and Girondins de Bordeaux, a French team. On Wednesday many of his customers were strikers.

“There’s been a big drop in business,” he said. “The strikes should continue.”

Source: WSJ

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