Protesters, police clash in Greece
Strikers decry the government’s austerity plan
ATHENS — Clashes between riot police and rock-throwing, masked demonstrators broke out during a rally yesterday in central Athens by tens of thousands of striking workers protesting austerity measures the Greek government has said it has no choice but to implement.
The debt-ridden country is under intense pressure from markets and the European Union to reduce its deficit from 12.7 percent of economic output in 2009 to 8.7 percent this year. Last week, Greece introduced a $6.5 billion austerity package that cut civil servants’ wages, froze pensions, and raised consumer taxes.
The new cutbacks, added to a previous $15.2 billion austerity plan, sparked a wave of strikes and protests from labor unions whose reaction to the initial measures had been muted. Yesterday’s 24-hour general strike, the second in about a week, grounded airline flights, halted public transport, suspended news broadcasts, and left public hospitals only with emergency staff.
Demonstrators took to the streets of Athens and Thessaloniki, banging drums and chanting, “No sacrifice for plutocracy’’ and “Real jobs, higher pay.’’ They were joined by uniformed police, coast guard members, and firefighters.
“The fight must be constant until these unpopular measures passed by the government are overturned,’’ demonstrator Olga Raptou said.
An unofficial police estimate put the Athens crowd at about 20,000; organizers said the number was much higher.
Clashes broke out soon after the march began, with riot police firing tear gas and stun grenades to disperse masked demonstrators who smashed pavement, marble steps, and building facades for projectiles to throw at police. Businessmen in suits scurried for cover.
About 200 black-clad protesters in crash helmets and ski masks fought sporadic street battles with police through central Athens, smashing the windows of shops, banks, and hotels; setting trash bins on fire; and punching and kicking motorcycle officers. After the march ended, the violence spread to a nearby square, where tear gas sent customers running from open-air cafes.
Police said 13 police officers were injured and 16 people were detained.
Public anger has grown, but it has been mitigated by a general understanding that something must be done to pull the country out of a crisis that has made its cost of borrowing skyrocket. A poll published last weekend, just after Parliament approved the measures, indicated that Greeks were split — with 47 percent opposing the austerity package and 46 percent supporting it.
“It is to be expected that there will be reaction to these measures,’’ Deputy Prime Minister Theodore Pangalos said Wednesday. “We took very difficult decisions that were very unpleasant, and they personally upset me a great deal. But we cannot do anything differently.’’
Prime Minister George Papandreou’s Socialists, who came to power in a landslide election victory in October, enjoy a comfortable majority with 160 of Parliament’s 300 seats and easily pushed the measures through Parliament on March 5.
“We have made a choice which could lead the country to a radical clean up of the past,’’ Pangalos said. “We will find the way forward, and we will not turn back. And no one can obstruct this given that a large section of Greek society supports us.’’