Fear and Anger as Greece Stares Into the Abyss

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Filippo Monteforte / AFP / Getty

A demonstrator is grabbed by riot police during clashes near the Greek parliament on June 28, 2011.

As the antiausterity demonstration in Athens on Tuesday, June 28, devolved into familiar violent, tear-gas-soaked clashes between fringe anarchists and police outside Parliament, Giorgos Rallis shut off his television and stewed quietly about the immense dilemma facing his country.

On Wednesday, Greek lawmakers are due to vote on an unpopular austerity bill that includes more tax hikes and a controversial plan to privatize state-owned enterprises, including the Public Power Corporation (PPC), where Rallis has worked as a technician for 19 years. European leaders and the International Monetary Fund have already lent Greece €110 billion ($150 billion) and say that unless the government passes the austerity bill, they won't hand over the latest installment of bailout loans, totaling €12 billion ($17 billion). That would leave the country, which runs out of cash in July, to default on its massive sovereign debt. But many Greeks say the year of austerity they have already suffered in exchange for the previous bailout loans has impoverished Greeks and done nothing to help the country pay back its debt.

"The world has cornered us, and our own politicians have cornered us," says Rallis, 46, who escaped to the island of Evia, some 40 miles (65 km) away from Athens, to avoid the two-day general strike that shut down much of the country's public transportation, public services and businesses. "The populists in Europe ridicule us as a bunch of lazy people and tell us to sell the Acropolis. I am tired of this country being the easy target. Let Greece go bankrupt. Let all of Europe go bankrupt. I want them to stop bleeding me for money I just don't have."

Rallis is just one member of the quiet but angry majority that has Greek lawmakers nervous, even as world headlines are dominated by the dramatic images of young self-styled anarchists and far-left militants, many donning gas masks and crash helmets, fighting with police and one another. During Tuesday's protests, police fired several rounds of tear gas to disperse rioters and the rest of the crowd. At least 46 people — 37 police officers and nine protesters — were injured on Tuesday, according to Greek authorities. By late evening, the tear gas was still thick in the air around Syntagma, the square across the street from parliament. Fires set by rioters burned in many garbage bins, and bits of marble hacked off from storefronts littered the streets. The protesters who had camped out at Syntagma for weeks strummed guitars and sang songs as angry kids spray-painted revolutionary slogans on the facades of fancy hotels and riot police patrolled the square. More drama was unfolding inside Parliament, as Prime Minister George Papandreou and his new Finance Minister, Evangelos Venizelos, tried to keep Socialist lawmakers from defecting before the crucial vote. At least four deputies from the Socialist PASOK Party have said publicly that they may vote against the new austerity bill. If one more lawmaker votes against it, the bill fails.

Though opposition parties have been largely united against the new austerity measures, Elsa Papadimitrou, a deputy from the main opposition, the center-right New Democracy Party, said she was mulling a vote for the austerity package "to put the good of the nation above party interests," according to the Greek daily Kathimerini.

Meanwhile, the political maelstrom continues to worry leaders in Brussels. Some have discussed alternative options for Greece in case the austerity bill fails in Parliament. But the E.U.'s economic chief, Olli Rehn, shut down that talk. "There is no Plan B to avoid default," he said Tuesday. "The European Union continues to be ready to support Greece. But Europe can only help Greece if Greece helps itself."

Rehn added that Greek political leaders should be "fully aware of the responsibility that lies on their shoulders." But those same politicians also are facing historic levels of distrust from the Greek public, who view the country's political system as hopelessly corrupt and broken.

Papandreou's government — which has borne the brunt of the antiausterity backlash — is fragile, even after a Cabinet reshuffle last week that was meant to rally Socialist deputies who had lost faith in his Ministers. The reshuffle brought on board new Finance Minister Venizelos, a steely constitutional-law scholar who has a strong following in PASOK, but analysts say the move may only buy the party a little more time.

Pollsters and analysts predict that if the vote fails on Wednesday, the government will collapse quickly. But even if the new austerity bill passes, snap elections look increasingly likely. And even if there are new elections, it's unclear just who would lead the country, since polls show that Greeks also have little faith in the New Democracy Party and its leader, Antonis Samaras.

According to Christoforos Vernardakis, the president of leading polling agency VPRC and a political-science professor at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, the economic crisis is bringing to light a long-simmering political crisis in Greece. Since the mid-1990s, when political scandals became commonplace, "more and more people have suspected their politicians are involved in a network of unlawful and corrupt practices," Vernardakis says. "Now people are demanding from their representatives ethics, more efficiency in dealing with problems and a vision for the future. I doubt that these politicians of today can fulfill these demands."

But the prospect of bankruptcy, laden with political chaos, unnerves many Greeks, including Kostas Ifantis, a political-science professor at the University of Athens. He and others fear that the political polarization in Greece today could foment social unrest that in turn could upend the country and even the euro zone. "I hope cooler heads prevail and people sit down and work out what's best for all of us," Ifantis says. "This is not the time for posturing. When you stare at the abyss, you find your consciousness. That's my only hope."

But Giorgos Rallis says he lost hope a long time ago. His wages have been cut; his tax bill has gone up. He worries that he won't be able to pay his rent and support his wife and two young sons if he has to pay for more austerity measures. And he also worries that he will lose his job if the power company PPC is partially privatized.

"I am personalizing this, but why shouldn't I?" he says. "I feel austerity every single day. I see people losing their jobs and homes, eating at soup kitchens, losing their pride. Let the country go broke. I've already gone broke."

With reporting by Leo Cendrowicz / Brussels and Nikolas Leontopoulos / Athens