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Europe

Greece paralysed by anti-austerity general strike

Video by Elena CASAS

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2010-05-05

Greek protests against new austerity measures swelled Wednesday as 20,000 public and private sector workers took to the streets in Athens in a general strike seen as a test of the government's resolve to enforce tough budget cuts.

AFP - The people of Greece vented their fury Wednesday at their government's draconian spending cuts, bringing the country to a halt with a general strike and marching on parliament in their thousands.

Q&A: The Greek crisis explained

Athens underground stations were shuttered and its international airport deserted as around 20,000 union members rallied against the cuts and tax hikes with 14,000 more gathered in Greece's second city, Thessaloniki, police said.

The strike was the first major test of the socialist government's resolve to push through unprecedented measures since agreeing an 110 billion euro (143 billion dollars) EU and IMF debt bailout at the weekend.

Protest fever swept the country with public transport paralysed, ferries holding at docks and air traffic grounded as unions went on the warpath against the latest wave of cuts.

After rallying in two separate demonstrations in central Athens, members of the main unions began converging on parliament, where the government was preparing for the measures to be voted on Thursday.

Hundreds of thousands of civil servants kicked off the protests on Tuesday and a group of about 200 communists also stormed Athens Acropolis, unfurling banners reading "Peoples of Europe, Rise Up."

"The Greek people have been called to make sacrifices while the rich pay nothing," said the head of the million-member strong GSEE private sector union, Giannis Panagopoulos.

A government official downplayed the walkout saying that "for years there's been strikes and protests in this country without much consequence. We're used to it."

Despite the mounting tensions, political scientist Ilias Nikolakopoulos at polling institute Opinion predicted that "people are going to put up" with the belt-tightening.

"Of course surprises are always possible but I don't believe in an explosion of social discontent," he said.

Pushed to the brink of default, the government agreed at the weekend to slash spending and jack up taxes in return for 110 billion euros (143 billion dollars) in loans over three years from eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund.

Among the major measures, the government is to cut 13th and 14th month bonus pay for civil servants and retirees; require three years more for pension contributions; and raise the retirement age for women to 65, the same level as men currently.

"Given the scale of the public opposition to the austerity measures it is still unclear whether Greece will ultimately be willing to take years of fiscal punishment and recession to get its fiscal house in order," economist Ben May at Capital Economics said.

"Accordingly, it is still unwise to rule out the government eventually defaulting or restructuring its debts," he added.

After months of hesitation, eurozone countries and the IMF agreed to lend Greece billions at below market rates after concerns soared last week that the Greek debt crisis could trigger a knock-on effect elsewhere.

Fighting accusations of holding up a bailout for Greece, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Wednesday that the Greek debt crisis marked a turning point for the European Union, urging an overhaul of its embattled fiscal rules.

"The future of Europe and the future of Germany within Europe is at stake," Merkel said in a German parliament in a debate on Berlin's unpopular decision to lend 22.4 billion euros in taxpayers' money to Greece.

Date created : 2010-05-05

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