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6 May, 2010 16:30

Greece paralyzed by protests, passes austerity bill

On Thursday afternoon the Greek parliament passed a package of strong anti-crisis measures in exchange for vast financial aid from EU countries.

 The plan envisages sharp cuts in pensions and wages in the budget-funded sectors of the economy and the Greek government expects to save up to 30 billion euros after it is implemented. In return for adoption of the anti-crisis plan, Greece will receive a loan of 110 billion euros from the IMF and several EU countries.

Also on Thursday, Greek bank workers were holding a 24-hour strike in memory of their three colleagues who were killed during the riots the previous day.

On Wednesday, three bank employees perished in a bank after it was torched by demonstrators protesting the government’s tough economic measures to avoid bankruptcy. Violence broke out in the Greek capital Athens and the northern city of Thessaloniki as tens of thousands of Greeks protested against the severe new spending cuts aimed at securing the loan package allocated by the EU, which the country’s Prime Minister George Papandreou announced last week.

In the capital, a group of about 60 protestors clashed with riot police who were guarding the Parliament building. Demonstrators tried to break through a cordon throwing rocks at police, who contained the crowd and responded with volleys of tear gas. In Thessaloniki, youths smashed windows of stores and fast food restaurants.

Air traffic with Greece has been grounded, trains and ferries suspended their services and public transport is out of order as more than 20,000 Greeks marched through central Athens in another strike.

“This is the start of a struggle against this policy. It’s only the beginning,” said one of the demonstrators.

The strike forced the schools and custom offices to close and left hospitals working with emergency medical staff. Top Greek tourist destinations were also closed.

“We are going to be in a vicious circle of austerity packages and recession, and this will tear up the social fabric of our country,”  believes Panoyotis Satiris, a trade union activist, concerning the passed package.

Earlier in an interview to RT, he said that “Greeks feel angry because they are being forced to pay for a financial crisis they do not feel responsible for.”

He added that people think the responsibility is linked with a government and with the whole financial and economic architecture of the European Monetary Union.

Concerning the austerity measures, he thinks that “such an austerity package can not pass through Greek society – Greek society will not accept such a distraction of its social fabric.”

“We became the Euro’s weakest link, so when the crisis came, we broke first,” stated Yanis Varoufakis, professor of economy from University of Athens. “But the situation is if it was not us, it was going to be someone else.”

Such casualties as three dead are a shock for Greece, as it is the first case of death during protests for 20 years, AP reports.

41 police and 15 civilians were injured in the riots, Greek police were quoted as saying by AP on Thursday. 70 people were detained.

Calling a strike for Thursday, the bank workers’ union condemned the violence, but blamed the government over the deaths, saying that police, politicians and bank officials are “morally responsible” for the tragedy.

"I have difficulty in finding the words to express my distress and outrage," President Karolos Papoulias was quoted by AP as saying late Wednesday. "Our country came to the brink of the abyss. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that we don't step over the edge."

Lives could have been saved, claimed a senior fire department official, according to AP, but protesters did not allow the firefighters access to the burning bank.

"Several crucial minutes were lost," the official is quoted as saying. "If we had intervened earlier, the loss of life could have been prevented."

What we demand is a change of politics. There are other ways to reduce public deficit,” said Despina Koutsoumba from the Confederation of Greek Civil Servants' Trade Unions. “Public deficit is not our salaries and pensions. [It] can be reduced if we increase public revenue, [through] taxes and [reducing private health and education expenditures].

The head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn has warned that the crisis in Greece could spread to other financially-troubled Eurozone countries, such as Portugal and Spain.

Everyone has to remain “extremely vigilant” to the risk, the IMF head said, speaking to French newspaper Le Parisien. He said he understood Greeks in their anger, but they have to understand that without these measures “the situation would be infinitely more serious.”

Trend forecaster Gerald Celente says the Greek situation is going global.

“Economy starts to fail,” Celente told RT. “We are going to see it in Spain, we are going to see it in Portugal. We already see it in Latvia, in Ukraine, in Hungary, in Ireland, it’s going global, there is no stopping it, and the people are going to revolt. This is a classic example of what happens throughout history as the too rich get too much, and the rest of the people are taxed to pay for their over-indulgences.”