By Jörg Diehl and Ferry Batzoglou
At the moment when the largest austerity package in Greek history was being passed, it was relatively quiet on Athens' Syntagma Square. Demonstrators sat on the ground, their shoulders slumped and heads down, smoking, chatting and drinking water from plastic bottles. They looked resigned, even while their leaders were still calling for an uprising.
Then all hell broke loose.
The Greek riot police hurled tear-gas grenades into the crowd from left and right. Rubbing their eyes, people started moving -- running, stumbling, unsure which way to go, only wanting to get out and reach safety. Many started shouting. Others, gasping for air, looked for their friends. A young woman yelled: "Help me!" Meanwhile, the rain of stones, bottles and tear gas grenades continued amid the chaos.
'Liars, Thieves, Traitors!'
Just 200 meters away, the members of the Greek parliament turned to the next item on their agenda. They had just approved the austerity package of Prime Minister George Papandreou's government by 155 votes to 138. Now billions of euros in international aid can be transferred to the debt-stricken country, provided the politicians also pass a second law relating to the implementation of the cuts on Thursday.
Right up until the last moment, it seemed unclear whether the government would secure a majority. Several members of parliament, who the Greeks had nicknamed "chickens" because of their rooster-like posturing, had threatened to vote against the package. In the end, however, only a single politician from Papandreou's Socialists and one member of the conservative opposition failed to stick to their respective party lines. The Socialist parliamentarian was subsequently ejected from the party's parliamentary group, while the conservative politician chose to leave voluntarily.
Papandreou said that Europe had expressed its confidence in Greece "but not the Greece of yesterday, but the new Greece," while Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos called passing the law a "patriotic duty." But the demonstrators in front of the parliament building, who claim they are the real representatives of the people, shouted: "Down with the government! Liars, thieves, traitors!"
Greece, which has a public debt of 355 billion, will have to economize on a massive scale. The 28.4 billion austerity package foresees 15 billion in additional revenues combined with savings of over 13 billion through cuts in social benefits as well as in the public sector by 2015. Privatization of state assets will provide an additional 50 billion.
This is also a condition for the new round of financial aid, without which Greece would be bankrupt within three weeks. The country is waiting for the next 12 billion tranche from the 110 billion aid package that the EU and International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved in May 2010. In addition, a new rescue package of up to 120 billion is expected to be agreed upon by EU finance ministers next weekend.
'Ray of Hope'
Foreign governments reacted promptly and with satisfaction to the decision. "This is really good news," said Chancellor Angela Merkel, while German Economy Minister Philipp Rösler described it as a "ray of hope, not only for Greece but for the whole of Europe." European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso called it a "vote of national responsibility." The euro rose to its highest level against the dollar in almost three weeks as markets reacted to the news.
Many ordinary Greeks see the situation differently. There is a mood of anger among the population. The politicians are accused of being "thieves" and having "killed Greece."
Papandreou's government is under massive domestic political pressure. If the opposition does not change its stance, Papandreou can expect further resistance against his program of austerity and reform. The powerful unions are also opposed to the sale of large state enterprises and have called four general strikes since the beginning of the year.
Elsewhere in the euro zone, the mood is also tense. So far, the IMF has contributed one-third of the aid for Greece. But if the fund decides that the Greek austerity measures are not guaranteed for the long term, the organization could consider withdrawing from the rescue operation. French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, who was chosen as the new head of the IMF on Tuesday, is, however, regarded as a supporter of aid for Greece.
'This Is Just the Beginning'
The demonstrators in the streets around the parliament in central Athens were not thinking about such subtleties on Wednesday afternoon. Rioters broke windows, set fire to trash cans and smashed marble staircases and building facades. Riot police threw stones back at protesters. Many middle-class Greeks who had wanted to protest peacefully had stayed at home out of fear of violence.
The luxury King George Palace Hotel, which is directly opposite the parliament building, even had to be evacuated on Wednesday. "All our customers have been brought to safety," said a spokesman, explaining that the hotel guests could "no longer bear" the acrid air.
The rioters also threw Molotov cocktails at a post office. The fire department was able to rescue seven people from a burning building just in time and extinguish the fire, Greek television reported.
On Wednesday afternoon, tear-gas fumes drifted through the city center. More than 200 demonstrators were reported to have been injured, most of them with eye and respiratory problems. The police union said at least 40 policemen had been injured, one of them seriously. A total of 30 people were arrested. Clashes continued between protesters and riot police on Wednesday night and into the early hours of Thursday morning.
On Wednesday, one protester, his face covered up, warned that the conflict would continue. "This is just the beginning," he said.
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