Greeks worry that a future of austerity is no future at all

Riots engulfed central Athens in mass protests on Sunday
Riots engulfed central Athens in mass protests on Sunday ASSOCIATED PRESS

ATHENS — Greeks began cleaning up their battered and scorched capital Monday after violent anti-austerity riots broke out this weekend.

But whether they can clean up what's left of a badly damaged psyche remains to be seen.

The physical damage was clear: At least 120 people injured and 45 torched buildings, including a beloved historic cinema housed in a neoclassical building.

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.

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.

So it's no surprise that Greeks aren't backing the new measures, even though without the bailout, Greece faced a disorderly default that interim Prime Minister Lucas Papademos warned would likely drive Greece from the eurozone.

Despite the warning, Papademos, a former central banker and Harvard professor, spent days negotiating with other members of his coalition government to make sure they would agree to the measures. Opposition parties such as New Democracy, which leads in polls, wanted to avoid tying themselves to austerity in order to placate voters enraged about the state of the Greek economy.

"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."

Papademos, who was appointed in November to secure the bailout and bond swap, told parliamentary deputies before the vote that they had "national responsibility" to save Greece from a messy default. He painted a grim picture of what would happen to the country in such a scenario: The state wouldn't be able to pay salaries or pensions or have enough money to operate hospitals and schools. Businesses would close en masse. Imports such as gasoline and most supermarket products would become so expensive that most Greeks wouldn't be able to afford them. The instability would lead the country "into a spiral of recession, instability, unemployment and misery," he told the nation in a recent televised address.

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."

(Kakissis is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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