Greek protesters storm the Acropolis
World markets plunge over fears that Greece’s economic crisis will spread to other countries despite austerity measures.
Tuesday 4 May 2010
In a dramatic escalation of the anger unleashed by the economic crisis engulfing Greece, communist protesters stormed the Acropolis today as the euro and world markets plunged on concerns about the debt-choked country’s huge bailout from the EU and the IMF.
Irate trade unionists took over Athens’ ancient landmark as fury over an unprecedented package of austerity measures, agreed in return for a multibillion euro aid package from eurozone nations and the IMF, intensified.
By the break of dawn the citadel’s ramparts had been draped with banners proclaiming: “Peoples of Europe rise up.”
Fears that the Greek crisis will spread to other countries sent markets reeling around the world today. The FTSE 100 in London closed down 142 points and, in New York, American markets fell by more than 2% as investors worried that a failure to push through austerity measures in Greece will lead to a spiralling loss of confidence in other indebted countries.
In Athens, protesting public sector workers said their action had been prompted by “blind anger” over the near-bankrupt government’s decision to accept the painful policies.
The measures, which are aimed at bringing Greece’s public deficit within permissible EU levels by 2014, through a tough cost-cutting regime worth €30bn (£25bn), have hit civil servants the hardest.
Furious Greeks have likened the three-year austerity programme and the attendant international monitoring of their public finances, to a foreign occupation.
Athens is to receive an estimated €120bn over the next three years, the biggest bailout ever witnessed. But under the deal the Greek government must also freeze wages, slash pensions and do away with a plethora of bonuses and allowances – draconian reforms not seen since the second world war.
“We want to send a message to the people of Europe,” said Panagiotis Papageorgopoulos, a communist party official marching with the protesters. “We can take control of our fate with organised protests so that our lives are not run by the EU and IMF.”
The stunt, which left bewildered tourists stranded outside the gates of the site, kicked off a day of sometimes violent protests by tens of thousands of Greek public sector employees. Amid growing anger over wage and pensions cuts and a rise in consumer taxes, civil servants extended a one-day strike by 24 hours and staged impromptu protests.
In a prelude to tomorrow’s paralysing general strike, schools, hospitals and domestic flights were disrupted as public servants stepped up action against the measures. Private sector workers, including air traffic controllers at Athens airport, will participate in the walk-out piling the pressure on the government.
Passing in front of Athens’ imposing Greek parliament, demonstrators shouted: “Let the rich pay for the crisis.” At the time MPs were debating a draft bill outlining the unpopular economic reforms that will have to be imposed.
With tensions running high, riot police fired off rounds of tear gas as they scuffled with men, women and students who also joined the protests.
The demonstration came in the wake of unemployed education officials storming the state-run television building late on Monday and disrupting the evening news show. Protests will continue,” said Spyros Papaspyrou, who is head of the ADEDY union that represents close to half a million civil servants. “Cutting wages and pensions is the easy option. There are other things the government can do before taking money from a pensioner who earns €500 a month.”
Bolstered by their comfortable majority in the 300-seat house, the ruling socialists are expected to pass the emergency legislation with ease barely four days after George Papandreou, the prime minister, announced the measures.
But workers have warned that their campaign against the stringent package of fiscal policies and structural reforms will be ongoing and relentless.
Mounting anger, mirrored in growing outbursts of violence, has been fuelled by rapidly rising unemployment levels and an economy due to contract by 4% this year.
Deepening recession – the country’s first in 16 years – has already forced the closure of 65,000 small and medium sized businesses. Unions put real unemployment at over 18% with Greek youth being among the most badly affected.
Three previous packages of austerity measures also aimed at pacifying markets and avoiding a sovereign default in the six months since the socialists assumed power have already hurt the pockets of the average Greek.
“Once these latest measures begin to bite there will be a huge reaction” said businessman Vasillis Stergios. “What we are seeing now are just ‘conscience’ demonstrations, but when people really find it hard to make ends meet and they become ‘necessity’ demonstrations there will be a social explosion.”
Until now Papandreou has had the unions on his side. But with fury over the intervention of the IMF adding to the explosive mix, analysts are unsure whether he will be able to win public support for the reforms. The euro tumbled to its lowest level in 13 months on the concerns.
Increasingly, Greeks are calling for the corrupt politicians and serious tax evaders whom they blame for their economic mess to be publicly punished. “I am certain the Greek people will respond positively but they need to be convinced that justice will be done,” President Karolos Papoulias told Papandreou as the two men met to discuss the crisis. “They need to know that corruption and tax evasion will be wiped out.”