Anti-austerity demonstrators jeer, heckle and throw coins at auditors from bailout troika amid fears of more public sector cuts
Only hours before, the Greek prime minister, Antonis Samaras, had resolutely declared that Greece was not at war with the international bodies keeping the debt-stricken country afloat. But on Tuesday, inspectors representing those organisations may have been forgiven for thinking otherwise.
In scenes not witnessed since the beginning of Greece’s economic crisis, auditors from the European Union and International Monetary Fund came face-to-face with the full force of anti-austerity anger as protesters in Athens jeered, heckled and stopped them from leaving the finance ministry.
Held back by riot police brought in to guard the department, furious demonstrators screamed “take your bailout and get out of here” as the officials left a first round of talks with the finance minister, Yannis Stournaras.
The IMF’s mission chief to Greece, Poul Thomsen, was forced to duck as a man threw a barrage of coins at him. As the Dane was pushed into a waiting car, the protester was dispatched to Greece’s central police headquarters.
Later in the day, the inspectors had to be whisked out of the building through an emergency exit when irate Greeks blocked the main entrance.
The protests come on the eve of a general strike and amid spiralling tensions between Athens and its triumvirate of foreign lenders, “the troika”, which have propped up the Greek economy to the tune of €240bn (£200bn) since May 2010.
Mired in a sixth straight year of recession, with unemployment nudging 30%, Greece has been hit by record levels of poverty – the price of making the biggest fiscal adjustment of any OECD state since the second world war.
Many of the demonstrators who took to the streets told reporters they had been directly affected by public sector dismissals demanded by the EU, IMF and European Central Bank. The prospect of yet more austerity measures being meted out to plug a looming fiscal gap has sent passions rising further.
Relentless spending cuts and tax rises have resulted in Greeks losing 40% of their disposable income since the crisis began, according to Samaras, who took to the airwaves ahead of the troika’s latest inspection tour.
“Both Greek society and the economy cannot afford any more measures,” the leader said in his first televised interview since assuming office 15 months ago. “Everyone has to understand that.”
Tuesday’s meetings follow weeks of angry exchanges between Greek officials and creditors over the extent of the funding gap. While Athens contends it is around €500m, and can be easily filled with the application of “targeted measures” and structural reforms, lenders say it is at least four times bigger and will require extra budget cuts to be resolved. The meetings kept well clear of the issue, insiders said.
There was much speculation before the visit that the troika might not come at all because of the standoff. On Monday, Samaras felt fit to intervene, reminding Greeks that the country was in negotiation with its lenders, not at war with them.
After Tuesday’s protests, however, officials were refusing to divulge what the inspectors’ next moves would be.
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