Two women and a man were killed in a bank in central Athens today after rioters set their building alight on Stadiou, a major avenue leading to parliament. Protesters marched past the building chanting slogans against the government, as smoke billowed out of second storey windows and firemen struggled to lower two women trapped on a balcony, their eyes wide with panic against smoke-blackened faces. “The fire is out, everything’s ok here. Move along,” shouted a communist party functionary employed to shepherd the protest to parliament. The marchers pushed through the one lane left open beside nine fire engines that lined the bank.
A block away, near Athens University, violent protesters ripped the marble facing off buildings, smashed it and hurled the pieces at police, who responded with teargas and stun grenades. The air was made even more acrid by burning plastic rubbish dumpsters and wooden benches.
Peaceful marchers approaching parliament were turned back by bursts of teargas, and dived into public fountains to relieve the sting. Hotels and retail businesses rolled down steel shutters to protect themselves from damage. Those who didn’t suffered. Ianos, a large bookstore, had its plate glass windows smashed with crowbars.
The protests embellished a one-day strike by the country's biggest unions against a new wave of austerity measures announced by the government on Sunday. Those measures vastly reduce seasonal bonuses from the salaries of civil servants and pensioners, and raise consumer taxes. They are the third wave of spending cuts announced this year and were a condition of a 110 billion euro bailout of the Greek public sector by the Eurogroup and the International Monetary Fund.
The government has pledged to trim spending by 30 billion euros over three years, and reduce a 2009 deficit of 13.6 percent of GDP to 3 percent by 2014 - two years later than it originally planned. Just over 10 billion euros’ worth of those cuts are planned for this year. In theory, Greece must be creditworthy enough to borrow from financial markets again sometime in 2012, when the bailout money will run out.
But the government is treading a tightrope between social unrest and bankruptcy. It cannot spend the bailout money without economising, or it will not have time to reform and revive an uncompetitive economy. Spending cuts, on the other hand, help drive the Greek recession. Contraction was 2 percent last year and is forecast to double this year.
The pain of austerity is being unfairly passed on to workers, say the unions. They marched to parliament today with slogans like "Get out IMF" and "No to the dictatorship of the markets" - the last a reference to Greece's inability to affordably refinance debt in financial markets because of the precipitous fall in its creditworthiness.
"Every citizen has the right to protest, but no one has the right to violence - particularly the violence that leads to the murder of our fellow men," said Prime Minister Yiorgos Papandreou in an address to parliament late on Wednesday. He pledged to track down the perpetrators.
While he did not blame unions and the communist party for the deaths, he did blame them for creating an inflammable environment. "You know well that the statements made in the last few days did not help - that the country is under a dictatorship or that the constitution is somehow in doubt. You know how much these words legitimise violence."
The communist party said the killings were deliberate acts of provocation aimed at framing it and marginalising it politically.
The three victims were identified as Paraskevi Zoulia, 34, Angeliki Papathanasopoulou, 32, and Epameinondas Tsakalis, 38.
The strike largely brought Athens to a standstill. Its international airport has ceased all flights and ships are tied at harbour. Central and local government are closed, as are hospitals, schools and universities. Even privileged private sector professions such as lawyers and journalists went on strike, though the journalists’ union lifted its broadcast ban following the three deaths. Public transport worked a 6-hour day, largely to ferry protesters to and from the centre.
The strike began on Tuesday before broadening today. Civil servants were off the job. Contract teachers besieged the education ministry in protest at the expected reduction in hiring this September. A separate group was protesting outside the Athens University downtown campus with banners and loud music. Representatives of PAME, the Commuist Party of Greece union arm, unfurled two giant banners from the walls of the Acropolis reading “Peoples of Europe Rise up”.
“What people are angry about is that employees with low salaries are being made to pay for the mishandling of the country’s finances over so many years,” says Mirka Dimitriadis, a retired journalist. “Not one politician has been put in the dock to answer for what happened.”
The General Confederation of Labour, the country’s largest private sector union group, calls the 5 percent interest rate charged to Greece by the Eurogroup “usury”, despite the fact that Greece would today borrow at more than twice that rate from money markets.
See this article in the Irish Times.
See the live report on the PBS News Hour.
World reactions to the riots
The Guardian's Larry Elliott:
while demand is going to be sucked out of the Greek economy through a three-year pay and pension freeze, together with a big jump in VAT, there is unlikely to be a pick-up in exports to compensate. Instead, the slump will deepen. Greece, without the benefit of stronger growth, will be unable to meet its ambitious targets for reducing the deficit, which in turn will lead to demands for even deeper budgetary cuts, which will weaken demand still further. That is not a recovery plan. It is an economic death spiral.
The FT's Kerin Hope:
Greek prime minister George Papandreou has vowed to push through draconian economic measures demanded as part of a €110bn rescue package for his debt-burdened country despite the death of three people during demonstration.
“The Greece issues are raising concerns about the health of the financial system globally and slowing down the flow of money in markets,” said Ayako Sera, a strategist at Tokyo-based Sumitomo Trust & Banking Co., which manages $300 billion.