Athens erupts over austerity cuts

Protesters in Athens. Photo: 19 October 2011 Athens is now seeing great rivers of protesters, and the mood is hardening

Athens was expecting violence. The expectation of it hung in the air. It is all people have spoken of in recent days.

Even tourist hotels some distance from the parliament were boarding up. As a 48-hour general strike took hold shopkeepers were hammering in place steel shutters.

The fear that emerged in hushed conversations was that there could be serious casualties. Such is the rage, the frustration that has built over months.

Some shops tried to open for a few hours but certainly in the centre of the city most had closed by 11:00.

I joined some students heading for the parliament. They are outraged that schools have a shortage of books.

One young man said to me that he was not prepared to see decades of social progress sacrificed to satisfy the European Union and the IMF. Some waved banners with Che Guevara's picture.

Then the column stopped, and from the left marched builders, arms linked, carrying poles with red flags on top. They walked with purpose. They have seen the construction industry collapse.

Then metal workers and teachers. It seemed at times as if the whole city was on the move. In front of the parliament a new police chief had ordered the riot police pull back, and for a while the mood was calm.

Huge crowds
Greek police are attacked by petrol bombs. Photo: 19 October 2011 Marches and skirmishes soon became running battles across the capital

But the numbers kept coming; great rivers of protesters.

Certainly I have never seen here in Athens such crowds in the streets. The electricity workers were still trying to reach Parliament Square - four hours after the protests started.

One lawyer told me that she was not prepared to accept it any more. She had friends whose salaries have been cut by 35%.

And with the marchers came young men and women in black hoods and masks. They began tearing at a wire fence that the police had slung across the road at the side of the parliament.

When eventually the police lost patience and fired the first tear gas grenade, the sound echoed across Syntagma Square and the crowd cheered.

There is a sense here that this is the key battle if spending cuts and wage increases are to be defeated.

Then skirmishes became running battles. Some of the anarchists had petrol bombs that snaked through the air falling around the riot police.

They replied with volleys of tear gas and stun grenades. But the numbers involved in the fighting was greater than before.

In the front of the parliament the police had withdrawn to the steps. The crowd pushed forward to the spot where the honour guard usually high steps. One of their guard posts was set alight.

'Greek tragedy'

At stake here is not just whether the Greek parliament can get its legislation through.

Later on Wednesday and on Thursday it will be voting on key austerity measures agreed with the EU and the IMF.

Europe's leaders had insisted that in exchange for bailing Greece out, it had to slash its deficit. The Greek foreign minister told me on Tuesday that no European country had ever tried such cuts in such a short space of time.

But seeing the vast numbers on the street, the government ministries occupied, the violence, it has to be asked whether Greece can impose these new austerity measures.

And if it can't, will the EU and IMF go ahead with the next tranche of bailout money. The so-called troika (the EU, IMF, the ECB) is delivering its report this week. Without the next 8bn euros ($11bn; £7bn) Greece will be unable to pay its bills within weeks.

But the mood has hardened here. There is less fear of default.

The finance minister said on Wednesday that "what the country is going through is really tragic".

We are not there yet but the question may have to be faced: what happens if a eurozone country essentially refuses to take the medicine?

Gavin Hewitt Article written by Gavin Hewitt Gavin Hewitt Europe editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    6. smartIgnoramus
    "I feel sorry for the Greek people, who have been poorly governed"

    I wouldn't feel that sorry for them. Fiddling taxes has been a national sport in Greece for decades (see Taxi drivers striking when forced to issue receipts for a great example). If the greek govt had been getting the taxes it should, it wouldn't have borrowed so much.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Even if you had competent and honest leaders it's too late to save it. The self-destruct of the EU and its acolytes is just round the corner. You can smell the tear gas and the smoke already!

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Is Greece being transformed from a country into a country sized debtor's prison for its people? This did not happen overnight. The unfortunate events unfolding in Greece speak to the fragility of human endeavors when infested with mismanagement and/or greed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    It is all about dignity of the people of Greece (read: of Europe). This government is finished. Now it is the beginning of our days.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    The spectacular streetfighting is the least being mostly the work of by now well known agents with orders to enter and delegitimise (good old tactic - always works). And yes powermeerkat, the Che-images and the... spanish is also there to delegitimise. Greek left-wing is 100% the bankers favourite!

    Real issue is : how do we take down a government of proven ill-intention and downright treason?

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    It seems turmoil is being topped by more turmoil. Not just for Greece but for the whole eurozone. Perhaps it might be an idea to go back to individual currencies and let each country sort out its own fiscal problems. Keep the Euro as a trading currency unit held centrally where each country can buy units to import goods if their own currency is not acceptable to the seller.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Austerity is not the answer; bail-outs were never the answer. A financial atomic bomb has been dropped by largest banks in US. This bomb was/is derivitives. I get the impression, this financial war-weapon was losed for the purpose we're seeing now - choas, financial austerity.
    The answer: default, clean the shed, & pursue legal action against source for: CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    This is another step on the road to Greece defaulting, and exiting the Euro.

    I feel sorry for the Greek people, who have been poorly governed, and (less) sorry for the current leaders, faced with an impossible task of meeting EU/IMF demands and implementing austerity measures (approving them in parliament is easy! ).
    We need clear, decisive leadership form the EU, which we will not get!
    EU Chaos

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Gavin - I have had several Greeks say to me that the country's debt must be cut significantly and that they want to stay inside the Euro zone but without austerity measures and that Europe will have to accept that they will need to support Greece financially!! Just wondering if you have heard similar unrealistic comments?

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Correct powermeerkat but what do you expect people to do either? Swallow down everything? Would you personally sit and watch being robbed (and worse)? True, that any reaction comes too late, they should have reacted much earlier - but that is human nature, people react only when the danger is in front of them - do not expect 10 million people to have collective understanding of what is going on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    GH:"Some waved banners with Che Guevara's picture."

    With Guevara reported to the Bolivian police by the very campesinos he was allegedly to "liberate".

    [they themselves somehow didn't think so]

    Just like that other thug cum revolutionary: Fidel Castro.

    [Most Cubans don't think so, either.]

    Is this 2011 or 1917?

    "Oh, will they ever learn, oh, will they ever learn?"

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    "Athens errupts"?

    There hasn't been a single day in many months without some segment of the Greek society striking, burning banks, blocking harbors, etc.

    Forget dishonest cab drivers (yes, I met quite a few) and inept air traffic controllers.

    But what can you expect if treasury department employees and tax collectors go on strike?

    More taxes to pay for that unmitigated disaster.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    The proposals to solve the Euro zone crisis focus only upon the fiscal side of things and ignore the economic problems. salaries, costs, prices, property values, etc are too high in the peripheral countries and need to come down to levels commensurate with each countries GDP and foreign earning ability. Only then will they have a hope of ending this mess. This is impossible inside the Euro zone.


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