Greece crippled as its people say no to poverty
Patrick Cockburn witnesses a nation - from youth and
unions to middle classes - unite in strikes against cuts
Thursday, 20 October 2011
Greece has been paralysed by a 48-hour general strike that
began yesterday and cast doubt on the unpopular
government's ability to implement reforms demanded by the
European Union in return for further bailout money.
Black-masked youths hurled chunks of marble and petrol
bombs at riot police in front of the parliament building
in the centre of Athens. Police responded with stun
grenades and tear gas as clashes spread to neighbouring
streets after mass rallies, where protesters demanded an
end to tax rises and salary cuts that they say are
reducing them to poverty. Acrid plumes of black smoke rose
from blazing bins of uncollected rubbish and mixed with
the white clouds of tear gas. Chunks of rock and broken
glass littered the streets around the parliament.
"We are going back to the standard of living our
grandfathers had," Eliza Giannakaromi, who was marching
with municipal employees, said. "It is happening at every
level of society, so the only choice for young people is
Stelios Georgiou, a garbage collector who was holding a
banner near by, said: "We want to kick out this
government. I used to earn [euro]1,200 (#1,050) a month and now
I get [euro]700. They should go after the tax evaders and not
About 100,000 people marched in Athens. Some of the
participants tried to force anybody wearing a hood to take
it off, accusing those who refused of being anarchists or
undercover police agents. By evening, the street battles
had spread down Ermou, a popular shopping street.
Despite the strike, the Greek parliament is expected to
pass new legislation today further reducing the income of
most Greeks. But it is dubious if a deeply distrusted
government can implement reforms that people see as being
dictated by foreign governments and banks.
This loss of sovereignty is deeply felt. A pensioner, who
gave his name as Nikos and was waving a large
blue-and-white Greek flag, said: "My son goes into the
army on Monday and I don't know whether to be pleased or
The general strike and the parliamentary vote on reforms
demanded by international creditors comes before a
European Union leaders' summit on Sunday, when Greece
should receive [euro]8bn - without it, the country will run out
of money by November. In parliament the Finance Minister
Evangelos Venizelos told MPs that Greece had no choice but
to accept fresh hardships. "We have to explain to all
these indignant people who see their lives changing that
what the country is experiencing is not the worst stage of
the crisis," he said.
"It is an anguished and necessary effort to avoid the
ultimate, deepest and harshest level of the crisis. The
difference between a difficult situation and a catastrophe
But for many Greeks, the catastrophe has already happened
and protests increasingly involve the well-educated middle
class. The strike yesterday involved air-traffic
controllers, tax officials, pharmacists and doctors - as
well as taxi drivers, dock workers and garbage collectors.
Schools were closed and hospitals were only open for
emergency cases. Every street in Athens has a heap of
rotting rubbish on it despite a court order to the public
service union to end its strike.
There are increasing doubts among small business people
and professionals that severe austerity will achieve
anything except push Greece further into a recession.
There is also a deep distrust of the political class.
Nicolas Kominis, a photographer, said he did not think the
government had much choice but to agree to the demands of
the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission
and the European Central Bank.
"The problem is that nobody trusts the government or the
opposition because people blame them for starting the
crisis in the first place," he said.
The sense that those who caused the crisis are getting
away with it is damaging the government. One banner
carried at the march yesterday said: "When injustice
prevails, then resistance is a duty." Vasilis Zorbas, a
doctor who is Mayor of the Agia Paraskevi district of
Athens, said: "The Greeks are unhappy because of the
impunity of those who made money at their expense." He
said he had two unemployed children, whose only option may
be to emigrate.
A former minister from the ruling Pasok party, who
requested anonymity, said: "It is this feeling of a lack
of justice that is making people very angry. Everybody
knows the names of ministers who helped themselves [to
money] and took bribes but nobody touches them." It is
repeatedly alleged that ministers and MPs have not cut
their own salaries significantly, though the system of
bonuses and allowances is so complex that this is
difficult to confirm.
Leaders of the march said that stereotype of Greece's
public sector as being bloated compared to the rest of the
European Union is inaccurate. Balasopoulos Themis, the
head of the Pan-Hellenic Federation of Employees of Local
Government Organisations, said this is propaganda and the
often-quoted figure of 768,000 public employees out of a
workforce of four million includes the army, the police
and even the clergy.
He said that overall the income of his union members has
fallen by 40 per cent because of tax increases and salary
Real reform in Greece is unlikely to come from a
government distrusted as self-serving and corrupt; the
ex-minister said it did not have the political strength to
impose change while facing powerful special interests.
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