Relief vies with shame on streets of Athens

Reuters, Tuesday 21 Feb 2012

As Greece swallows bitter austerity pill, country's two main unions – GSEE and ADEDY – call for protests on Wednesday

Pedestrian passes outside a pawnshop in Athens, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012. (Photo: AP)

Greeks resigned themselves on Tuesday to a 130-billion-euro EU/IMF bailout that won their country a last-minute reprieve from bankruptcy at the price of a decade of austerity and humiliating foreign scrutiny of national finances.

Agreements among euro zone ministers during all-night talks in Brussels secured a second rescue package since 2010 in return for a new round of spending cuts that have already cost thousands of jobs and eroded public services.

Relief mingled with a sense of shame on the streets of Athens as Greeks who in two months could be choosing a new government digested what the deal means for a country now being treated as the sick patient of the 17-nation currency union.

"We are like drug addicts who have just been given their next dose, this is what they've reduced our country to," Ioulia Ioannou, 70, a retired nurse, said of the country's politicians.

"I don't know who I will vote for. I'd vote for a new party if someone had the courage to create one," said the life-long voter for the ruling Socialist PASOK party, whose popularity has been hammered by the crisis.

"For the first time, I'm embarrassed to say I'm Greek."

Fellow pensioner Vasia Angelou, born to Nazi occupation of Greece during World War Two and who saw harsh junta rule during the 1960s and 1970s, said the deal at least averted the risk for now of Greece leaving the euro and even the European Union.

"I'm relieved," the retired advertising firm employee said.

"We have lived through worse times in Greece and many people don't realise life would be much harder if we were kicked out of Europe. I have some hope at least my children's lives will be better," she said of two grown-up children studying in Britain.

But the Demokratia tabloid that has run computer-generated pictures of Chancellor Angela Merkel in a Nazi uniform splashed the front-page headline: "130 billion in chains."

"Salvation under conditions," ran the headline of the centre-left Ta Nea newspaper in a front-page editorial.

Austerity measures have already triggered mass street protests in Athens and street clashes between security forces and masked youths who this month torched dozens of buildings.

"A New Hell"

In a possible foretaste of tensions to come, dozens of fuel station owners and truck drivers blocked roads on Tuesday outside a finance ministry building with banners attacking international lenders to Greece as "thieves and smugglers."

The country's two main unions, GSEE and ADEDY, called for protests on Wednesday and leftist parties enjoying a rise in popularity said the price of avoiding default was too high.

"The other side of the coin is the disorderly default for the people," Aleka Papariga, head of the communist KKE party, told a news conference. "A new hell awaits them."

Lucas Papademos, Greece's technocrat caretaker prime minister, had told lawmakers to back the deeply unpopular international financial rescue or condemn the country to "uncontrolled economic chaos and social explosion."

Unemployment has leapt to 20 per cent and street crime is up as the Greek economy has shrunk by over 16 per cent since a 2008 peak, weighed down by spending cuts, the global downturn and the cost of servicing debt now at 160 per cent of national output.

The Brussels deal was only secured after private holders of Greek bonds agreed to take deep losses on their investments and after northern states led by EU paymaster Germany demanded, and won, unprecedented rights to inspect Greece's finances.

The EU's executive European Commission arm said it would finalise arrangements this week to send in new officials from other European countries to monitor how Athens acts on agreed reforms, including in sensitive areas such as tax evasion.

"I am embarrassed as a Greek citizen to have a permanent surveillance committee," said fruit vendor Raptis Michalis.

"It is as if we don't have in Greece educated and able people to govern the country," he said, forecasting that Greece would still default on its debt a few months down the line.

A government spokesman said foreign officials would merely offer technical assistance and played down an agreement with lenders to set up an escrow account to ringfence bailout funds for debt repayment. But others were of a different view.

"The escrow account suggests the country is not reliable," said George Koumoutsakos, a European Parliament deputy for the New Democracy (ND) conservatives in the ruling coalition.

"But I would say that this is not the worst thing. The surveillance mechanism is much more degrading."

In the lead-up to the vote Greece's president accused German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble of insulting his nation, reflecting growing public resentment of almost daily lectures from Berlin on the dire state of the Greek economy.

"I cannot accept Mr Schaeuble insulting my country," said Karolos Papoulias, an 82-year-old veteran of Greece's resistance struggle against the Nazi occupation who also played a part in the resistance to the junta.

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