Updated: 2.45pm ET
The Greek government is facing powerful public resistance to new austerity measures that foreign lenders are demanding in return for bailout loans. But only a few thousand protesters marched to Parliament on Wednesday during the first general strike since June. Scuffles broke out between fringe anarchists and riot police. Officers dispersed the crowd with tear gas.
Marina Massad, a 19-year-old photography student, said this chronic violence likely scared most Greeks into staying home. "No one likes the chemicals," said Massad, her face smeared with white liquid maalox, which helps keeps tear gas from stinging. "They are scared. But someone has to come out here and make some noise. So here I am."
The country's main labor unions, ADEDY and GSEE, which represent 2.5 million workers, held the strike to protest cuts in the public sector and a new property tax which will be collected through electricity bills. The strike grounded most international flights, halted trains and closed tax offices and some state schools. Hospitals are running on emergency staff. At the same time, inspectors from the European Union and International Monetary Fund continue their evaluation of Greece's finances to determine whether the country should receive $11 billion, the latest installment of a $150 billion bailout loan package, by next month. The Greek government said Tuesday it has enough cash to pay its bills only through November.
Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos said Tuesday that Greeks must back the new measures if the country has any hope of meeting its deficit target for 2011, which was revised to 8.5% of gross domestic product from 7.6%. Along with tax hikes, budget cuts and the long-overdue reforming of the country's bloated public sector, the Greek government must also privatize some state assets and crack down on longtime tax evasion.
But winning public support for more austerity seems virtually impossible right now. Polls show that nearly all Greeks oppose more cuts and most believe the measures have done little to get Greece out of debt. More than a year of tax hikes and wage and pension cuts have decimated the middle class. Unemployment is at more than 16%. Personal bankruptcies, homelessness, suicides and crime are all on the rise. And yet the Greek government missed its deficit targets this year. Euro-zone finance ministers have decided to delay the latest loan payment, which Greece needs to stay solvent, because they don't think the country is trying hard enough to reform itself. More austerity, they say.
Yanis Varoufakis, a professor of economic theory at the University of Athens, is one of many economists who say austerity is actually killing an already weak Greek economy. "Anyone with any logic can see that this is not the way to jump-start the economy of a country that's in recession," Varoufakis says. Instead, austerity has put the economy in "a permafrost from which the Greek society has lost its capacity to react creatively to the crisis and to work itself out of the hole in which it has found itself."
Greeks have also lost faith in nearly all of their politicians. As the government party, center-left PASOK has suffered the most. "Right now, considering how big and unprecedented this financial crisis is, it's understood that the government committed the equivalent of political suicide a long time ago with the austerity drive," says Takis Pappas, a political science professor.
PASOK, which stands for the Panhellenic Socialist Movement, is led by George Papandreou, a quiet but stubborn sociologist and the American-born scion of Greece's most prominent political family. His grandfather and father were both premiers. His father, Andreas, who founded the party, was a Harvard-educated economist who built up the public sector to offer "jobs for life" to an emerging middle class in Greece. The civil service never became a bastion of Greece's best minds. Instead, it grew into an unwieldy monster overstuffed with party loyalists, many of whom were unqualified for their jobs.
Yet many Greeks, even well-educated ones, long desired a position in the civil service "because it was easy," Pappas says. "Now that option is gone. So for the government to restructure the civil service and make it truly productive, it has to make sure that it lays off not the bright, efficient workers but the ones who are not doing their jobs. It has to give people incentives to strive instead of rely on cronyism. The state needs to show that it has changed."
Anita Papachristopoulou, a 44-year-old environmental scientist who works for the Athens Water Supply and Sewer Company, says there's a grain of truth to the caricature of the lazy Greek civil servant worker. But she says there are thousands of Greek public-sector employees, like herself, who got their jobs through perseverance, not connections. "No one introduced me to anyone," says Papachristopoulou. "I just sent in my application cold, and I was lucky to get the job."
Panagiotis Akarepis, a 44-year-old air traffic controller, got his civil service post one of the most demanding jobs in the world after he passed several stringent tests. Air traffic controllers walked off the job as part of the larger strike by ADEDY, the public sector union, but also because of they say are illegal cuts on allowances and pay.
"They are penalizing everyone indiscriminately for this bad image of public servants, which in turn makes people who actually do work, not want to work," he says. "How is anything ever going to get done this way? It's totally unfair to put everyone in the same bucket."