Striking workers, but no riots this time, in protests over Greece debt bailout

Workers took to the streets of Athens today to protest the government budget cuts demanded in exchange for the $140 billion Greece debt bailout. While some feared a repeat of violent May 5 demonstrations, the protest was peaceful.

Thanassis Stavrakis/AP
Protesters take part in a rally during a 24-hour strike in Athens, Thursday. More than 20,000 protesters marched to parliament, as unions challenged harsh austerity measures in Greece by staging their fourth general strike this year.

Tens of thousands of striking workers marched in central Athens Thursday to protest austerity measures adopted by the government to pay for the Greece debt bailout, a day after German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that European Union's common currency is experiencing an “existential" crisis.

“If this danger is not avoided, then there will be inescapable consequences for Europe,” Ms. Merkel said, addressing the German parliament Wednesday. “If the euro collapses, so does Europe.”

It was the first nationwide strike since the government passed a $40 billion austerity package through parliament that will reduce civil servants’ salaries by up to 20 percent, increase value-added tax by 2 percent, and crack down on income tax dodgers. Protesters gathered in front of the tan-colored parliament, shouting “thieves! thieves!” and pelting riot police with plastic water bottles and iced coffees.

“If our national heroes knew that the country they fought for would end up looking like this, they wouldn’t have bothered to fight,” Giorgos Georgiou, 34, said as he pushed up against a triple line of riot police equipped with body armour and gas-masks. “We want our money back and for the thieves inside the debating chamber to pay up.”

Riot police on watch

Large numbers of riot police were deployed in central Athens and detained dozens in what an anonymous police official quoted in the Greek media described as “precautionary detentions.”

The government was concerned about a repeat of the uncontrolled May 5 protests, which led to the deaths of three bank workers when hundreds of protesters set fire to a bank building and also tried to storm the parliament. Prime Minister George Papandreou, attending an Arab investors’ meeting in Beirut, expressed sympathy with the strikers but made clear that unrest would not be tolerated.

But much of the raw anger expressed in the May 5 demonstration had dissipated, a sign that Prime Minister Papendreou may have time to pursue budget cuts, which was the price demanded by the International Monetary Fund and wealthier EU nation's for a $140 billion bailout of the Greek government.

"Fewer people came out today because most of them are scared and mired in debt,” says Christos Retoulas, a civil servant who marched in today’s demonstration. “This system has tied them down hands-and-feet.”

Leftists quiet

PAME, a coalition of leftist workers’ unions that is related to the Greek Communist Party, cancelled its plans to also march past parliament and instead carried out a symbolic one-day occupation of the Ministry of Labour. The change in plan followed charges that its members rioted during the last major protest, when several buildings were torched, including a multi-storey tax records office in central Athens.

“Nothing has ended just because we didn’t march in front of the parliament,” says George Peros, a member of PAME’s central committee. “When we go to the parliament they begin to provoke us, and even if we don’t they still try to aggravate us.”

Many protesters charge that the prime minister, whose mother is an American, is acting in defence of European Union and International Monetary Fund interests instead of looking out for Greece. Had Greece not received the EU-IMF bailout and defaulted, a number of international banks that lent Greece the money would have been left holding the bag.

“Since Papandreou is just a vice-consul of international interests, why should he be representing the Greek people?” says Dimitris Makrozoidis, an electrician, taking up a common theme among the protesters.

In the wake of today's march, colorful swirls of graffiti sprung up on the walls of banks. THE THIEVES ARE HERE, was sprayed on the walls of the Bank of Greece. A simple THIEVES was daubed in yellow paint on the Agricultural Bank of Greece’s green door.

“Our movement must kick out those who robbed the country for decades,” says Dimitris Mitropoulos, a teacher marching under the Communist banner. “Society will not be appeased by the arrests on tax-evasion charges of two or three minor celebrities or politicians.”


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