Police, protesters clash as unrest grips Athens over IMF cutbacks
Greek police fired tear gas on youths Saturday as marchers swarmed through central Athens to protest unprecedented austerity cuts needed for EU and IMF loans worth as much as 120 billion euros.
Thousands of protestors used traditional May Day marches to vent popular anger against deep budget cuts the government has promised in the face of a debt crisis that pushed the country to the brink of default.
Anti-riot forces used tear gas to contain several isolated clashes on the margins of the marches, which police said drew 15,000 people.
Tear gas was also fired in the northern city of Thessaloniki where about 5,000 people demonstrated, also according to police.
The protests piled fresh pressure on the government as it raced to wrap up negotiations with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund to slash spending and raise taxes in return for the desperately needed loans.
After months of hesitation, eurozone governments want to prevent Greece’s debt crisis from spreading to other countries and regional heavyweights Germany and France vowed to quickly unblock loans.
Greek union leaders want the May Day protests to be a shot over the government’s bow ahead of a May 5 nationwide general strike against a new round of budget cuts hitting the public sector particularly hard.
“It’s the biggest attack on workers for centuries. They want to return us to the nineteenth century,” said protestor Ericos Finalis, a printer.
“This is not going to be a battle but a war that will last for months or even years.”
Clashes erupted when several dozen youths, some armed with sticks, charged a line of anti-riot forces protecting the finance ministry, prompting police to respond with tear gas.
But at the same time a second group also set fire to a van belonging to the public television with a molotov cocktail.
Police also fired tear gas when a group of anarchists got close to the entrance of a luxury hotel on Athens’ central Syntagma square.
In the northern city of Thessaloniki, police also fired tear gas at youths attacking banks and businesses during a May Day protest using iron bars to smash up to cash machines and several store windows.
“In the next months there will be many demonstrations, nobody knows what really is going to happen. But people know that there is no other way than to come down into the streets and protest,” said protestor Marina Yotis.
The IMF and the EU have asked for Greece to slice off by next year 10 percentage points from a public deficit that reached 13.6 percent of output in 2009, according to a top union official on Thursday.
In Paris, French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde said the rescue package for Greece was expected to total 100 and 120 billion euros (133 and 160 billion dollars).
President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed during a telephone conversation Saturday “to act quickly to implement the support plan,” the French presidency said in a statement.
Elysee officials have repeatedly said that Greece must not be allowed to become the “Lehman Brothers of Europe”, referring to the 2008 collapse of the US investment bank that sparked the world’s worst financial crisis in decades.
Polls showed Greeks to be divided between anger and resignation towards the shock therapy the EU and IMF are demanding in exchange for loans.
Nearly 80 percent of those questioned were against cuts in private sector wages but 50.6 percent considered that a lifeline from the EU and IMF was necessary, according to a survey of 1,256 people.
The same poll, conducted for the To Vima pro-government newspaper, found that 62 percent of Greeks are against recent union organised protests.
However, another survey found that 51.3 percent of Greeks were ready to march against the cuts, based on a poll of 1,000 people by the Alco institute for newspaper Proto Thema.
With the government not due to outline the measures until Sunday, union officials who have spoken to Prime Minister George Papandreou have said the IMF and EU are demanding wage cuts, lower pension benefits and higher taxes.
After the accord between the Greek government, the EU and the IMF is unveiled on Sunday, eurozone finance ministers are to discuss the bailout later in the day in Brussels before each country takes formal steps to release the loans.
The French National Assembly is to vote on extending loans of up to 6.3 billion euros — of which 3.9 billion would be unlocked this year — to help Greece meet its debt refinancing obligations.
The two German federal houses of parliament could decide by Friday whether to allow Berlin to loan some 8.4 billion euros to Greece, according to leaders of Merkel’s party.
“If this crisis in public finances is not settled, all of Europe will succumb to a second very serious financial crisis,” wrote French Socialist deputies Michel Sapin and Jean-Christophe Cambadelis in a joint statement