In Athens, Merkel Sees Progress, But Protesters Don’t



While protests raged a few blocks from where she was having quiet talks with Prime Minister Antonis Samaras that she said showed progress in his attempt to impose more austerity measures to help right the economy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave her support to his effort and said Greece has covered “much of the ground” toward recovery.

That was at odds with what most economic analysts believe, but Merkel’s five-hour stop was designed to buoy Samaras’ struggling attempts to finalize a $17.45 billion spending cut and tax hike program filled with more of the pay cuts, tax hikes and slashed pensions that have ground many Greeks into the ground for 2 ½ years.

As riot police engaged in skirmishes with anarchists mixed in a crowd of some 50,000 demonstrators who defied a government ban on protesting and marched into the downtown at Syntagma Square across from the Parliament, Samaras and Merkel smiled for the cameras, shook hands and patted each other on the back with mutual praise.

Merkel’s visit is seen as a return favor for Samaras’ trip to Berlin last month and for reversing his stance against austerity measures and reneging on his campaign pledge to resist them. The country’s two largest labor unions, GSEE and ADEDY, organized protests and a three-hour work stoppage as some 7,000 police ringed the downtown area to keep protests at bay.

While she is not backing off from her insistence on more austerity before the Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB) releases a delayed $38.8 billion installment that is the last in a first rescue package of $152 billion, and a pending second bailout of $173 billion, Merkel nonetheless said Samaras has made progress. The Premier, who initially opposed austerity measures and vowed to fight them if he was elected before the June 17 polls, has changed his course to support them, earning Merkel’s backing.

“Much of the ground has been covered … There is daily progress,” Merkel said after talks with Samaras, leader of the New Democracy Conservatives who is still trying to convince one of his coalition partners, the PASOK Socialists of Evangelos Venizelos, to accede to his budget plans although the other, the Democratic Left led by Fotis Kouvelis has already relented.

Merkel said, “This is an effort that should be seen through because otherwise it would make the circumstances even more dramatic later on,” supporting Samaras’ warning that Greeks either have to abide by more austerity or face the collapse of the economy and the country. He said this would be the last time Greeks would have to sacrifice but many, especially pensioners readying for a fourth round of cuts, don’t believe him.

It was not reported whether Samaras, who said he would like a two-year delay in implementing more reforms and austerity to meet fiscal targets to reduce the deficit from 9.3 to 3 percent and bring down the staggering $380 billion debt, asked her for more time. Merkel did not offer unconditional support for Greece to stay in the Eurozone of the 17 countries using the euro as a currency either. Still, Samaras said her visit had ended “the country’s international isolation.”

Alexis Tsipras, leader of the major opposition Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) said Merkel’s trip, designed as a symbolic expression of support was really designed to bolster “a government that is on the brink of collapse.” He spoke at a rally in front of the Parliament.

“Merkel is here to support the ‘Merkelites’ of Greece: Samaras, Venizelos and Kouvelis,” Tsipras said. He added that, “The Europe of peoples will triumph over the Europe of memorandums and barbarism,” and added that, “The democratic tradition of Europe will not allow a European people, the Greek people, to become a guinea pig of the crisis and to turn Greece into a vast social graveyard.”

Tsipras was joined by Bernd Rixinger, co-leader of the German far-left party Die Linke, who expressed his opposition to the European Union-International Monetary Fund austerity program for Greece.

“We want to see conditions in which people can live by their work and not to see a negative climate being created between German pensioners and workers toward Greeks. We are here to express our international support,” Rixinger said.

The head of the Greek Communist Party (KKE), Aleka Papariga attended a rally organized by the affiliated PAME union in Omonia Square before protesters marched onto Parliament, while Panos Kammenos, the head of the Independent Greeks party, delivered a letter to the German Embassy criticizing austerity measures, taping the note on the embassy’s door when he was denied entry.

The night before her visit, about 8,000 demonstrators chanted anti-austerity slogans and hoisted banners telling Merkel they didn’t want her in Greece. Organized by labor unions fed up with wage and benefit cuts during three years of austerity, the demonstration was called before Merkel announced she was coming to Greece in a gesture of support for the government’s fiscal reform efforts.

But protesters did not miss the opportunity to vent their anger at Merkel, whose insistence on a tough reform program many Greeks blame for their country’s plight. The main banner in front of Parliament was a large German flag emblazoned with the words “Angela, you are not welcome!”
(Sources: Kathimerini, AP, AFP)