Greeks Pass Critical Budget Cuts Despite Protests
ATHENS, Greece -- Greek lawmakers Wednesday approved a package of austerity measures demanded by international lenders, despite protests outside Parliament as they were voting, in a move that should clear the way for an emergency loan to Athens.
Greek riot police fired round after round of tear gas to keep small crowds of protesters away from Parliament in the run-up to the vote and as lawmakers one by one said "Yes" or "No."
Angry demonstrators hurled stones at police, chanted, waved Greek flags and set small fires to protest the austerity measures, which include new taxes and job cuts.
Police on motorcycles patrolled in pairs as tensions rose, but both sides showed some restraint, with the majority eyeing each other warily rather than wading into the melee.
Riot police also clashed with stone-throwing demonstrators Tuesday, firing tear gas to disperse protesters during riots that left 21 police officers and one demonstrator injured.
The two-day general strike is continuing on Wednesday, with members of three major unions planning to march on Parliament after the vote.
Unions oppose the austerity package, but its backers say it is essential to the stability of the Greek economy, the euro, and the global financial system.
Greece has debt payments coming due in mid-July and has asked for an international bailout to be able to pay them.
Lenders including the International Monetary Fund and the European Union have demanded that Greece implement the five-year austerity package in order to get $17 billion in emergency funds.
The newly appointed head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, appealed to the Greek opposition to overcome their political differences and join a national consensus on the reforms.
The 48-hour general strike kicked off early Tuesday, hobbling most of Greece's transportation systems but freeing workers to participate in demonstrations.
Transportation disruptions took place on land, on sea and in the air.
Air traffic controllers periodically stopped work and flight traffic, according to their union. Stoppages also disrupted sea travel in the maritime nation, which encompasses many islands.
European and international lenders agreed last year to give Greece a $156 billion bailout package as its deficit soared. A last installment of $17 billion remains to be paid.
The Greek government hopes for a second bailout package to stay afloat, but that, too, depended on its passing the austerity measures before Parliament Wednesday.
Greece needs the bailout funds to avert a default on debt repayments that are due as soon as mid-July.
A default would send shock waves through the European banking sector and potentially dent global economic confidence.
Greece faces "a critical juncture," said Olli Rehn, a European Union commissioner and the bloc's lead negotiator on the bailout. He urged Parliament to pass the austerity measures.
"Both the future of the country and financial stability in Europe are at stake," Rehn said in Brussels. "I trust that the Greek political leaders are fully aware of the responsibility that lies on their shoulders to avoid default."
He warned that there was "no Plan B" to avert default, and said economic reforms -- although challenging -- were a better alternative for the Greek people.
Protesters lament that the cuts are being carried out on the backs of those who can afford it least.