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Greeks Worry That a Future of Austerity is No Future at All

'It's like the end of the world'

Common Dreams staff

Greek pensioners march in central Athens on Tuesday to protest against new austerity cuts. A day after Greece approved austerity measures, a setback jolted investors Tuesday as the euro zone finance minister meeting scheduled Wednesday was called off. (AFP Photo/Louisa Gouliamaki)

On Sunday, February 12, 2012, the people of Greece, in massive demonstrations, expressed their anger against the terms of the new loan agreement being forced upon Greece by the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Eurozone finance ministers canceled a meeting scheduled for Wednesday because Athens has not yet met all demands, including a commitment to the austerity cuts even after April elections. The ministers will hold a teleconference on Wednesday and meet in Brussels on Monday.

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Today's New York Times reports:

As debt-plagued Greece struggles to meet Europe’s strict terms for receiving its next round of bailout money, the lesson of Portugal might bear watching.

Without growth, reducing debt levels becomes nearly impossible. It is akin to trying to pay down a large credit card balance after taking a pay cut. You can slash expenses, but with lower earnings it is hard to set aside money to pay off debt.Unlike Greece, Portugal is a debtor nation that has done everything that the European Union and the International Monetary Fund have asked it to, in exchange for the 78 billion euro (about $103 billion) bailout Lisbon received last May.

And yet, by the broadest measure of a country’s ability to repay its debts, Portugal is going deeper into the hole. [...]

Without growth, reducing debt levels becomes nearly impossible. It is akin to trying to pay down a large credit card balance after taking a pay cut. You can slash expenses, but with lower earnings it is hard to set aside money to pay off debt. [...]

On Saturday, more than 100,000 people assembled peacefully in Lisbon’s sprawling Palace Square to rally against the austerity measures and the nation’s 13 percent unemployment, while chanting “I.M.F. doesn’t call the shots here!” The head of Portugal’s largest labor union vowed to hold additional protest rallies around the country.

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The McClatchy newspapers report:

ATHENS — Greeks began cleaning up their battered and scorched capital Monday [...]

Giorgos Constantinidis, a 62-year-old retired salesman, said the psychological damage is much worse, however.

"It shows just how fragile and volatile the situation is here right now," he said. "We don't know if we can survive austerity measures. We don't know if we can survive the drachma. People feel trapped, but they don't know where to look for guidance. We don't trust our leaders, we don't trust the Europeans, and sometimes we don't even trust each other."

On Sunday, Greece's Parliament approved tough new austerity measures, including cuts in the minimum wage and pensions and new tax hikes. The measures were required by international bankers before they would agree to a bailout package totaling $172 billion that Greece needs to pay off bonds that come due March 20.

"It shows just how fragile and volatile the situation is here right now. We don't know if we can survive austerity measures."But two years of earlier austerity have worsened a recession that is now in its fourth year. The general unemployment rate is at more than 20 percent, and about 48 percent of young Greeks do not have jobs. A recent poll showed that half of homeowners said they couldn't pay their mortgages. [...]

"What politicians don't realize is that the entire political landscape has changed in Greece since the debt crisis," says Nikos Konstandaras, managing editor of the Greek daily Kathimerini. "They can't bluff their way out of situations anymore. They have to take responsibility for their actions, and they have to produce real reforms — and produce them quickly." [...]

On Sunday, most lawmakers voted for the bailout as about 100,000 protesters ringed Parliament, chanting "Traitors." Now the agreement goes to the European Union, which is expected to give the final sign-off.

Constantinidis, the retiree, was at the protest with his wife, Avra. They had taken a bus from their home in Halkida, a town outside of Athens. They both wore light-blue surgical masks and had smeared their faces with Maalox, the antacid, to protect themselves from the effects of tear gas.

But they didn't last long in the chaos on Sunday. They ducked into a cafe and nursed two cups of coffee as the violence escalated.

Outside, gangs of young men in masks used sledgehammers to break the marble facades of hotels in Syntagma, the square across the street from Parliament. The gangs threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at riot police, who responded with rounds of tear gas. Soon a cloud of gas and thick smoke from burning buildings hung over the city center.

"It's like the end of the world," said Avra Constantinidis, shaking her head sadly.

Elections are expected to be held in April. No party is expected to get enough votes for a majority in Parliament, so it's uncertain just who will implement Greece's new bailout program. Like most Greeks, George Constantinidis says he has no idea who to vote for.

"I wish I could hope for a better future," he says. "But Greece is just living day to day."


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