Tens of thousands of Greeks took to the streets to protest the visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel today, venting their anger at the woman who has been the focus of the anti-austerity and anti-German sentiment in Greece.
Athens hadn’t seen such security measures since President Clinton had visited Greece’s capital in 1999. Some 50,000 demonstrators marched through the city carrying signs – one, paraphrasing German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht, read: “Angela, don’t cry. There’s nothing in the cupboard to take” – and protesting peacefully, though there were some isolated instances of rioting.
The city center was blocked by 7,000 police officers who began making "preventive" arrests in the early morning, rounding up a group of high school students in Syntagma Square, where Parliament sits, before the demonstrations had started. Even snipers were deployed.
And despite the brevity of Ms. Merkel's visit – she was set to spend only five hours in Athens – she was not able to avoid the protesters' ire entirely. As her motorcade was heading from the airport to the prime minister’s office, angry protesters managed to circumvent the riot police guarding the streets and throw bottles at her car.
Still, some protesters said that their anger wasn't personal. “The visit doesn’t mean anything different than the politics she applies,” said Efi Garidi, a teacher. “We’re not against Merkel in person but against the politics against the people.”
The Greek Parliament will soon be voting for the fourth austerity plan in a row that includes further cuts in pensions and wages. The plan has been under discussion with the country’s lenders for the past two months.
Speaking after meeting with Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, Merkel said that that the Greek government had covered "much of the ground" needed to bring about its recovery, and she dismissed talk of Greece leaving the EU.
"I hope and wish that Greece remains a member of the eurozone," Merkel said. "As partners, we are working hard to achieve that."
"Greece is determined to carry out its commitment and overcome the crisis," Mr. Samaras said. "At this moment, the country is bleeding but is determined to remain in the euro.... We are not asking for more money or favors but only a chance to stand on our own feet."
Since the international financial crisis broke in 2008, Greece has seen only economic contraction. On top of that, the austerity measures of the past three years have dramatically changed the quality of life of lower- and middle-class Greeks: The jobless rate has hit 25 percent, double that for those under 35.
“I’ve got to tell Merkel that I’m a cancer patient and from the beginning of the year, I’ve been paying for all my medicine and my examinations myself,” said protester and pensioner Theodosis Dionisis, after his benefits were cut. “My pension has dropped to 661 euros, so I don’t care about Merkel, Samaras, or [opposition party leader Evangelos] Venizelos.”