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Opposing Austerity: General Strike Shuts Down Greece

As the Greek government imposes tough austerity measures at the behest of the European Union, unions called a 24-hour strike to protest the cuts on Wednesday. Transportation came to a standstill, ministries and schools were shut and there were clashes between police and some demonstrators.

Greece saw a return to street violence on Wednesday as private and public sector labor unions staged a 24-hour strike. Police fired tear gas and clashed with demonstrators in Athens after a peaceful march by some 50,000 people. The march was organized to coincide with the industrial action and occured as teams of international experts are in the country to assess its ability to deal with its severe financial crisis.

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Photo Gallery: Greece Vents Rage on the Streets
The general strike shut down airports and closed schools and ministries on Wednesday as unions protested the government's EU-backed austerity measures. Many shops were shuttered, traffic was quieter than usual and Greeks faced a news blackout as the country's journalists also held a 24-hour strike.

The violence on Wednesday lasted for about 30 minutes as the march to the parliament in Athens was finishing up. The clash began after a group of around 50 young demonstrators were seen trying to approach some luxury hotels. As police fired tear gas on them, another 250 people broke free of the main body of demonstrators and threw stones at the police.

Police said at least two people were detained, while several storefronts were vandalized. The city was covered in posters and flyers calling for Greeks to strike, with the slogan "People and their needs above markets!" There were also protests in Thessaloniki and other major Greek cities.

The strike has been a crucial test of support for the unions, with opinion polls showing that around 60 percent of Greeks support the government's austerity measures. However, the unions say the plans will only burden the poor and push up unemployment. The largest private sector union GSEE said that participation in the strike had been "close to 100 percent in many areas."

'Massive Recession'

Greece is under mounting pressure from markets and EU policymakers to cut its public debt. Athens is hoping to persuade Brussels that the public-sector pay freeze, tax increases and raising of the retirement age will be enough to cut the budget shortfall by 4 percentage points to 8.7 percent of gross domestic product.

The GSEE union says these measures will cause unemployment, which hit a five-year high of 10.6 percent in November, to skyrocket. "Our country will enter a massive recession and unemployment will reach a Europe-wide record," GSEE spokesman Stathis Anestis told the Associated Press, adding that this would provoke "social unrest."

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10  Photos
Photo Gallery: Street Fighting in Greece

Revelations that the country's deficit was three times higher than originally forecast has plunged Greece into a debt crisis and undermined confidence in the European common currency, the euro. The crisis has in turn hiked the country's borrowing costs.

Adding to the country's woes, the ratings agency Fitch on Tuesday reduced its credit rating on Greece's top banks. It was the last thing Athens needed as experts from the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund arrived to assess whether it is on track to cut its double-digit deficit ahead of an EU-imposed March 16 deadline.

The European Commission also announced on Wednesday that it was taking Athens to court for its failure to recover money granted to hundreds of companies in the form of illegal tax exemptions. "The recovery of illegal aid is about restoring a level playing field in the single market," said EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia in a statement, according to Reuters.

'Dangerous Misconceptions'

There are increasing tensions between Greece and fellow euro zone members, who are reluctant to pledge financial help. Germany, the EU's biggest economy, has been particularly vociferous in its reluctance to come to Greece's aid.

There is growing consternation in Greece at the perceived disrespectful tone in the German media. On Tuesday, parliamentary speaker Filippos Petsalnikos summoned the German ambassador to complain about press reports, particularly about the cover of newsmagazine Focus, which showed an ancient Greek statue making an obscene gesture, under the headline "Swindlers in the Euro Family."

"It is dangerous to create misconceptions that Greeks are nothing but thieves, crooks and layabouts living off German taxpayers' money," he told the NET radio station on Tuesday. "This is simply not true."

On Wednesday the media war of images escalated, with the Greek newspaper Eleftheros Typos publishing an image of the Victory Column in Berlin with the figure of the goddess Victoria holding aloft a swastika.

smd -- with wire reports

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