Greece awaits IMF verdict in shadow of continuing protests
Demonstrators vent anger at austerity measures as EU officials hold emergency talks over new aid package
in Athens guardian.co.uk,
Monday 30 May 2011 20.01
Protestors bang pots and pans in front of the Greek Parliament in Constitution Square, Athens to protest against austerity measures. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
The banner flapped in the wind for almost a week surviving the rigours of sun and sudden downpour. But as thousands of Greeks last night flooded into Constitution Square, Athens’ main meeting point, protest ground and central piazza, the fading slogan summed up the mood of the nation at the centre of Europe’s debt crisis.
“We want our life, we want our happiness, we want our dignity,” it declared. “So out with the thieves and out with the IMF.” A year after it was forced to accept the biggest bailout in western history a new and fearless spirit is stalking Greece, clogging its city centres, bringing traffic to a standstill and putting authorities on alert.
In Athens, the spirit takes hold just before the sun has set. It is then that Greeks, young and old, married and single, employed and unemployed flood the square in a wave of protest against the austerity and recession that has brought their country to the brink of despondency and despair.
“Openly we say that we have been inspired by the demonstrators in Spain,” said Simos Adamopoulos, an organiser who has spent three nights sleeping in a tent in the square.
“Our motto is ‘the battle that is never waged is never won.’ We will stay here, and in squares up and down the country for as long as it takes.”
While even protestors admit their endgame remains unclear, their motivation beyond the realms of party or political creed has surprised even the most cynical. As in Spain the demonstrators – estimated in Athens alone to have exceeded 50,000 on Sunday – have been lured into action by Facebook. Motivated by a peaceful desire to vent their spleen, they have turned up at rallies with pots and pans rather than the more lethal Molotov cocktail preferred by violence-prone youngsters.
“But,” says Adamopoulos, “we’re also really disgusted with the system, with the political establishment, with all those crooks and thieves. As we’ve got poorer they’ve got richer and that you could say is also spurring us.”
Last night, on the sixth day of protest, the smouldering rage looked poised to intensify as Greece’s international creditors applied pressure to it’s squabbling political leaders to come to consensus over the need for yet more belt-tightening measures.
“If consensus is possible in Portugal and Ireland, how come it is not in Greece,” asked Olli Rehn, the European Commissioner for Economic Affairs. “This is not a matter of political games but national destiny.”
Political agreement over additional spending cuts – and what will amount to one of the biggest ever privatisation programmes – is now seen as key to the EU and IMF throwing Athens a second financial lifeline.
On Monday, the main opposition conservative leader Antonis Samaras reiterated he would refuse to throw his weight behind the “memorandum” – outlining the terms of the bailout – until taxes were drastically reduced to kick start the recession-hit economy and spur growth.
Barely 12 months after securing €110bn worth of emergency loans to prop-up its cash-strapped economy, Athens recently accepted that it will be unable to return to capital markets to service its borrowing needs – a condition of the original rescue package – any time soon. Greeks face an estimated €60bn in maturing debt in 2012 and 2013.
This week EU and IMF officials, inspecting the country’s public finances, are expected to deliver an excoriating verdict on its inability to meet budget deficit targets and bring the money-sapping public sector under control. Amid persistent speculation that Greece is headed for sovereign default, senior EU officials held unannounced emergency talks with the Greek government over the weekend.
Concerns over the looming credit crunch were heightened last week when the IMF warned that it would withhold the next instalment of aid – due in June and at €12bn (£10bn) crucial for payment of pensions and civil servants wages – unless the EU guaranteed Athens’ funding needs for the year ahead.
A new aid package, expected to be worth €65bn, was believed to be the focus of behind-the-scenes talks on Tuesday, with EU sources saying it could involve a mixture of collateralised loans from the EU and IMF, additional revenue measures and unprecedented outside supervision of Greece’s privatisation process. A step that is bound to further stoke up tensions among the nation at the eye of the storm of Europe’s worsening debt crisis.