Shock Therapy in Greece A Mega-Strike Aims to Challenge Austerity
The Greek parliament is expected to pass painful austerity measures on Thursday in order to prevent insolvency. But as the cuts begin to affect an ever-larger number of people, the general strike called for two days this week promises to be massive.
Nikos Petridis has experienced plenty of difficult times in his life: a world war, the Greek civil war and the military junta. These days, the pensioner is consumed by fear yet again. On an unseasonably chilly mid-October morning, he sits with an acquaintance in a café in Athens' Kallithea suburb. They while away almost every morning here reading the newspaper, chatting and playing cards.
Petridis pours out his heart. "How on earth are things supposed to go forward?" he asks. "For two years we've heard nothing but bad news. I don't know if my pension is going to be paid in November. What am I going to live on?"
The existential angst that has gripped Petridis is widespread in Greece. For three years now the country has been gripped by recession, the worst since the end of World War II. Eighty-five percent of Greeks polled in a recent survey believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, with no sign of a turnaround anywhere in sight.
Since the government of Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou passed the country's first austerity measures in March 2010, Greece's 11 million residents have been confronted with one package of belt-tightening measures after the other. "When we wake up in the morning, we hear that the government has passed new measures," people in Athens lament.
On Thursday, parliament is expected to decide on even more radical savings measures and on far-reaching legislation drafted by the Greek finance minister. The Greeks are calling it the "Poly-Nomosxedio," or "omnibus draft bill." The 57-page bill contains 41 articles and includes the most drastic cuts yet. Millions of people will be affected.
- Public servant salaries will be further cut after already having been reduced by 20 percent -- with some being halved.
- In the private sector, instead of industry wide wage bargaining agreements at the "sectoral" level, pay scales are to be determined in the future by individual companies and industries. Salaries and wages are expected to be reduced by an average of 20 percent.
- Pensions and annuities for senior citizens are expected to be further trimmed.
- The threshold for paying taxes is to be lowered to a maximum of 5,000 from 8.000 and most exclusions and tax credits are to be eliminated.
It also includes a number of new levies that will hit broad swathes of the population, including Greeks who have long been conscientious about paying their taxes in a country notorious for its failure to collect them.
'A Country Takes to the Streets'
Little wonder, then, that a Greek population already inclined toward public protest are taking to the streets in a general strike on Wednesday and Thursday in order to increase pressure on the government. But there are no concessions left that Athens can offer to its people. The European Union, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank troika has made payment of the next tranche of aid money for Greece dependent on parliament passing the latest austerity measures. The sixth loan tranche, worth 8 billion, is already overdue, and if money isn't transferred to Athens by mid-November, Greece will be insolvent.
Parliament, in short, has little choice but to approve the legislation on Thursday. Nevertheless, the country's unions have remained firm in their opposition. They have called a general strike for Wednesday and Thursday, threatening to throw the country into a state of chaos. Already, after days of strikes by garbage collectors, mountains of more than 10,000 tons of trash have piled up in the largest Greek cities, Athens and Thessaloniki.
Even normal businesses are expected to remain closed on Wednesday. Their protest motto: "We're closing for a day so that we don't have to close forever."
"A Country Takes to the Streets," reads the headline in Eleftherotypia, a newspaper known for its critical view of the government. Even Ta Nea, a paper considered to be more aligned with the government, wrote: "This is the mother of all strikes." The Communists, the third-strongest party in parliament, are also calling for protesters to encircle the parliament building. Observers are anticipating clashes between security forces and demonstrators in front of the building on Sytagma Square.
Protests Also Expected in Finance Ministry
Greek anarchist protesters have already become a model for Black Bloc demonstrators in Italy. "We used Greece as our example," an anarchist said after the recent riots in Rome. "Our colleagues in Athens have shown us that it is organization that wins in street battles. A year ago, we merely wanted to destroy everything. Now we know that we can actually do it."
But Greece faces more than the potential for violent protests this week. A strike is also expected in the country's Finance Ministry, the authority responsible for fixing the country's problems. Workers there want to walk off the job until Oct. 27 because the ministry's higher-wage employees will be especially hard hit by the new round of salary cuts. Instead of a monthly net salary of 2,500, they are expected to take home just half that under the new austerity measures.
It is just one sign that the state apparatus could be disintegrating. And there is also deep dissatisfaction within the parliamentary group of the governing Pasok party. Member of parliament Thomas Robopoulos, for example, resigned in protest against the austerity measures. And a former economics and labor minister, Louka Katseli, announced she would vote against the planned legislation to reduce private-sector wages.
Dyed-in-the-wool reformers within Papandreou's cabinet are likewise beginning to make things difficult for the government. Three important ministers have intensified an already simmering situation by warning in an open letter that social sensitivity means "stepping on the gas and not hitting the brakes."
A German Scapegoat
Given the extent of the problems, the search for a scapegoat has long since begun in earnest. Some in the Greek media have settled on the Germans. Indeed, one man in particular has made for an easy target: European Union crisis manager Horst Reichenbach, who has been tasked by the EU with aiding Greece in developing its economic reforms. The widely circulated Sunday newspaper Real News ran a headline reading: "The Reichenbach Government." The story reported on an alleged plan called "Igemon" which foresaw a significant debt haircut for Greece. Afterwards, Athens would be forced to hand over the "keys to the country with far-reaching competencies" to EU Task Force chief Reichenbach.
But even such radical stories have ceased to shock the Greek people. Pensioner Petridis has altogether different concerns right now. It's freezing cold in his small apartment and if customs officials strike for the entire week, then no heating oil will be delivered to Greek companies or households.