By Andy Dabilis
After a night of protests, fury and flames that failed to prevent lawmakers from approving more austerity measures demanded by international creditors in return for lifeline loans to keep the country from defaulting, Greeks awoke on Monday (February 13th) to find parts of downtown Athens in ruins, the economy still teetering near bankruptcy, and more than a million people out of work.
As anarchists waged street-by-street battles with riot police, who fired tear gas stun grenades while ducking petrol bombs and chunks of marble, the parliament on Sunday easily passed a package that included 22-32% cuts in the minimum wage and opened the door to private sector wage reductions and the firing of as many as 150,000 public workers over the next three years.
Interim Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, whose shaky coalition was breaking apart during the night, warned of chaos and shortages of fuel, food and medicine and a collapse of the Greek banking system unless the conditions demanded by the EU-IMF-ECB Troika were met to get a second bailout of 130 billion euros and a write-down of 70% of its debt.
The Troika has said austerity measures are needed to reduce a public sector bloated by generations of political parties packing public payrolls with needless hires for votes.
A first ongoing rescue package of 109 billion euros has done little to slow the slide towards a default that could jeopardize the Eurozone of countries using the euro. Without the money, Greece wouldn’t have been able to pay its workers or pensioners, nor meet a 14.2 billion euros loan payment on March 20th.
Eurozone finance ministers are scheduled to meet Wednesday in Brussels to decide whether they will release more funds. But to meet Troika demands, the government must find a way to cut spending by another 325m euros to protect pensions, and Greeks fear that a recession created by austerity will lead to more pay cuts and tax hikes.
Kostas Ifantis, an associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Athens, told SETimes, “I don’t think we’re out of the woods. The vote was a big first step because it had to be done and it was the first real bipartisan act of support with the Troika, but it will be even more difficult to implement.”
Like many Greeks, he said was stunned by the level of violence. Authorities said more than 40 fires were set that destroyed banks, businesses, and an iconic movie theater.
Ahead of the vote, Dimitris Sotiropoulos, an economics professor at the University of Athens, said he believed it would pass because the alternative was worse. “The cost of Greece exiting the Eurozone is higher than paying to keep it on its feet,” he told SETimes.
A price has already been paid by working class Greeks, including civil servants who have seen their pay cut by 30%, pensions slashed, struggle to meet an avalanche of tax hikes and have lost trust in the government.
Papademos, a former ECB vice-president, was appointed in November and is overseeing a wobbly coalition of holdover ministers from the former ruling PASOK Socialists and their bitter rival New Democracy conservatives, who expelled 43 of their members for voting against the package, as the far Right-Wing LAOS party defected from the government.
Manolis Chrysakis, director of the National Centre for Social Research, said the government must include social justice clauses to protect the growing numbers of Greek jobless — as the unemployment rate has hit 20.9% — and to tax the wealthy.
“The Greek people can’t keep accepting decreases in their standard of living,” he told SETimes. Still, he added, the vote brought hope the country can still be saved. “It would have been very dangerous for us to have an uncontrolled default like Argentina,” he said.
Standing with fellow students downtown just ahead of the clashes, Vasso Moudatsaki, 23, said she feels for Greece’s workers.
“My country is not now for me. I have no future here,” she said.
Standing with his wife and thousands of other protesters trying to find refuge from clouds of tear gas, Stavros Koulouris, 38, looked forlorn. He said his pay has been cut from 1,100 euros to 700, and his wife was dismissed from her job as a hairdresser because women have taken to doing their own hair at home.
“We want Europe out and we want out of the euro,” he said. “We have no hope, no jobs, no future,” he told SETimes, echoing a growing chorus of Greeks who said austerity measures have destroyed their lives.
Georgia Kalogeropoulou, 32, an industrial designer who said her pay had already been cut 25% before the Troika asked for private sector wage reductions, said she didn’t believe the warnings about the country’s collapse and food shortages if more austerity weren’t imposed.
“If the product is in the market and I don’t have money to buy it, what is the difference?” she told SETimes, while standing before a Starbucks coffee shop near the University of Athens a few hours before it was burned.
Antonis Klapsis, head of research for the Kostas Karamanlis Institute for Democracy in Athens, said the fears were warranted. If parliament had rejected the package, he said Greeks would have awakened the morning after worse off.
“You would have seen hundreds of people lined up at every bank,” to withdraw their funds, he said. “One way or the other,” he told SETimes, “the economy would have collapsed.”