German Chancellor to Athens: 'We Are Partners and We Are Friends'

In her first visit to Greece since 2007, Angela Merkel offered verbal support for Athens, saying "there is progress every day." The German chancellor also announced two Berlin-funded development projects focusing on health care and regional administration. She was greeted by some 50,000 demonstrators in Athens protesting her tough demands for economic reforms.

Photo Gallery: Protesters Greet Merkel in Athens Photos
REUTERS

They didn't necesarily represent the majority, but the message they brought with them was a bitter one. Some of the estimated 50,000 protesters on the streets of Athens greeted the German chancellor on Tuesday with swastikas, signs with epithets like "Out with the Fourth Reich" and placards depicting her face and a painted-on Hitler mustache.

This, however, did not stop Angela Merkel from delivering some encouraging words to Greece on Tuesday. The chancellor said Germany stood ready to continue helping Greece through its economic crisis, while recognizing that the country has covered "much of the ground" necessary for recovery.

"There is progress every day," she said in Athens. "But I believe that this path, as difficult as it may be, will pay off for Greece."

Merkel also said she believed that Greece will be able to remain within the euro zone. "Much has been achieved and there is still much to do," Merkel said. "We are partners and we are friends."

Still, with widespread resentment among Greeks over painful austerity measures they believe Merkel was instrumental in pushing through, the German chancellor's visit has been a tough sell.

In one effort to please her critics, Merkel used the trip to announce the start of two concrete European Union projects to be supported by Germany. One project would support regional administration while the other would seek to improve health care. Together the projects carry a total value of €30 million ($38 million).

Merkel's First Visit in Five Years

The chancellor's five-hour stop in Athens was her first visit to Greece in five years. Thousands of people defied a ban on demonstrations in the Greek capital, protesting Germany's tough demands for austerity measures as a condition for international aid. Police said the protests were mostly peaceful, though they arrested about 50 people throughout the day. More than 7,000 police provided security during the chancellor's visit, but at one point, several dozen split off from peaceful demonstrators and threw stones at police, who reacted by deploying tear gas, pepper spray and stun grenades.

But Merkel's visit proceeded without incident. The chancellor told reporters she did not come to Greece as a "teacher or report card-giver," but rather to inform herself.

"We know in Germany how long it takes to implement reform," she said. "It will be a long journey, but I think that we'll be seeing a light at the end of the tunnel."

"This is an effort that should be seen through, because otherwise it would make the circumstances even more dramatic later on," she added.

Rehn Says Aid Tranche Likely in November

Addressing a payment from the euro bailout fund that is expected once the troika, which comprises representatives of the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, completes its next progress report on Greek reforms, Merkel said the €31.5 billion tranche would not solve all of Greece's problems. She also said she didn't know if the report would result in the release of the funds, emphasizing that thoroughness must take precedence over speed.

Olli Rehn, the European commissioner for economic and monetary affairs, said Tuesday that Greece's international creditors were determined not to let the country go bankrupt. In Luxembourg, where EU finance ministers met on Tuesday, Rehn said the next aid payment would be made to the country "at the latest by November." Previously, Greece's international creditors had held back in making public statements about the aid tranche.

Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said his country had "bled" for the reforms it has put into place, and that he was committed to fulfilling its promises to its international creditors to implement reforms. He also said he was not asking for more money or concessions.

"The Greek people are intent on staying in the euro zone," he said. "All of those who made bets that Greece would fail ... will lose."

acb -- with wire reports

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