Wednesday, June 29, 2011
Greece's Parliament on Wednesday approved harsh new austerity measures aimed at forestalling a devastating default, but street protests vented popular anger over the plan for deep public-sector cuts and tax increases.
The measures put in place $40 billion in cuts and tax increases over five years. They are a precondition for receiving an emergency $17 billion dollar bailout payment from the European Union and International Monetary Fund.
Outside Parliament, tear gas wafted over a square where clashes broke out between riot police and anti-austerity protestors.
"The austerity measures have already hit very hard and [the Greek protesters are] very, very upset about another further blow," NPR's Sylvia Poggioli said.
The EU has scrambled to prop up Greece in recent weeks to prevent Athens making its bond payments. A default on its sovereign debt threatens to trigger a Europe-wide financial crisis.
"There's an enormous fear that a Greek default would have a contagious effect in Ireland and Portugal, which are also heavily indebted," Poggioli said.
French and German banks hold hundreds of billions of dollars in sovereign debt from Greece, Ireland and Portugal. The economies of Spain, Italy and Belgium are also considered vulnerable.
Greece has said it has funds only until mid-July, after which it will be unable to pay salaries and pensions, or service its debts, without the next bailout installment.
The country is also in talks for additional help in the form of a second bailout, which the prime minister has said will be roughly the size of last year's $157 billion package.
"Voting these measures is required to maintain our credibility in the (bailout) process," newly appointed Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos said during the debate Tuesday night. "Voting for these measures, regardless of any reservations, is an important, brave act of political responsibility."
Prime Minister George Papandreou had struggled to convince his Socialist party's deputies to back the bill. He replaced his previous finance minister with Venizelos earlier this month to assuage the concerns of some lawmakers.
The Socialists hold a five-seat majority in the 300-member legislature.
Scuffles broke out early in the morning as demonstrators attempted to block a major avenue leading to the center of the city, and to Parliament. Riot police responded with pepper spray, and 10 people were treated in a nearby hospital for minor injuries, hospital officials said.
Demonstrators hoisted effigies of men they hold responsible for Greece's misfortune - Papandreou, Venizelos and Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pangalos.
"Dogs, you look after your masters," they chanted at police. The furious marchers also emptied bags of garbage from municipal containers and lobbed them at the security forces, who stood their ground impassively.
On Tuesday, protesters pelted police with chunks of marble and paving stones, wounding dozens. Authorities responded with repeated volleys of tear gas and stun grenades.