Greek Lawmakers Vote Austerity as Athens Burns

Fire destroys the historic Attikon theater block in Athens as protests raged over austerity measures

ATHENS – While anarchists warred on the streets with riot police and 40 fires lit up banks, cinemas, and businesses, the Greek Parliament approved more austerity measures designed to keep bringing in international aid to keep the debt-choked country from bankruptcy after interim Prime Minister Lucas Papademos warned the alternative was chaos and shortages of food, medicine and fuel. More than 100,000 protesters gathered around the Parliament and the city’s center and it took 6,000 police to keep hooded, Molotov Cocktail-and-rock-tossing anarchists from besieging the building, while most demonstrators resorted to shouting slogans and showing their anger at more pay cuts to go along with tax hikes, slashed pensions and the coming layoffs of 150,000 workers over the next three years.

Thick clouds of smoke and tear gas hung over the city, rising above the Acropolis and the sounds of dozens of stun grenade tear gas canisters, whistles, bells and shouting created a din. In the end, Papademos able to prevail only through the unlikely partnership of holdover ministers from the former ruling PASOK Socialists and their bitter rival New Democracy conservatives who had always voted against the same austerity measures they now approved when former Prime Minister George Papandreou ruled before resigning on Nov. 11, 2011.

The third member of the coalition, the far Right-Wing LAOS party, broke away after its leader, George Karatzaferis, said he objected to the measures he had supported, but two of his members who served in the Cabinet voted against his orders. The measures passed comfortably by a vote of 199-74, despite the defection of 22 PASOK Members of Parliament, 21 from New Democracy, and the two LAOS deputies, all of whom were summarily dismissed by their parties. Five voted present and 22 of the 300 didn’t show up to vote. As the debate went on all afternoon and evening before a 1 a.m. vote on Feb. 13, Greeks saw a curious juxtaposition on their television sets of MP’s arguing their positions on one part of their screen, with the fires and street battles on another.

The vote paves the way for Greece, which is surviving on a $152 billion bailout from the Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB) because it is broke, to get a second for $169 billion and now be able to finalize a deal with creditors to write down 70 percent of its debt. The Troika had warned that unless the Parliament approved the measures, that include a 22-32 percent reduction in the minimum wage and end of collective bargaining, the lifelines would stop, which means Greece would have been unable to pay a March 20 loan installment of $18.2 billion nor pay its workers and pensioners. Papademos, a former ECB Vice-President and Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos, from PASOK, said it also would have meant the almost immediate collapse of the economy and left the country destitute.

Papademos appealed to lawmakers to do their “patriotic duty” and make the “most significant strategic choice a Greek government has faced in decades.” He admitted that the program was “tough and calls for sacrifices from a broad range of citizens who have already made sacrifices,” but the alternative — “a disastrous default” — would be worse, he said. “Our country has been experiencing the biggest crisis since the restoration of democracy,” Papademos said referring to the fall of the military dictatorship in 1974. “It started as a crisis of fiscal deficit and public debt and has now become a broader economic, social and national crisis.” He said Greece also would have been forced out of the Eurozone of 17 countries using the euro as a currency. EU Finance Ministers will meet on Feb. 15 in Brussels to determine whether they will now approve the deal.

None of that mattered outside the Parliament as gangs smashed storefronts, broke bank windows, destroyed ATM’s and set fires across the city, destroying the historic Attikon movie palace and the nearby Asty underground cinema, a site that had been used as a torture chamber by the Gestapo during World War II. It was in a building housing the first Starbuck’s in Greece, which was also destroyed. The Attikon was adjacent to a former bank that was firebombed during another riot in 2010 at the start of austerity, which killed three bank workers. No one was arrested.

Angry Greeks yelled “Traitors!” as they stood outside the Parliament and police said dozens of stores had been set on fire or looked and that more than 50 arrests were made and that about 100 police were injured as they had to duck firebombs and chunks of marbles torn off street banisters and the facades of luxury hotels in Syntagma Square, where the Parliament is located.

Speaking in Parliament, New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras, who had been dead set against austerity when Papandreou was in power but changed his mind when his party got to be involved in power-sharking, said that failure to pass the austerity measures would have been “a step into the void.” With his party leading polls with 31 percent of the vote, far short of enough to rule without another coalition, he called for elections in three weeks that he said would stabilize the country although he offered no other plan besides more of the austerity he formerly opposed. The Troika is also demanding that he and Papandreou’s successor as PASOK leader give written pledges to keep imposing the conditions of the program. Greece still has to find $430 million in cuts in its budget for this year or else pensions will be further cut. Samaras said during bitter negotiations over the measures that he would not go along with more pension cuts.

Greeks also vented their anger at Germany, the biggest contributor to Greece’s bailouts, but whichy has been insisting on the toughest measures. Protesters also directed their anger at Germany, which has consistently argued for a tough austerity package.   “This time the government is following the Germans’ orders,” Stella Papafgaou, 82, told the New York Times. “I would prefer to die with dignity than with my head bent down.” The austerity measures have created five years of recession for Greece, although Samaras said it was a depression because there is now 20.9 percent unemployment and more than 111,000 businesses have closed.


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