A passenger passes a covered ticket machine with a plastic bag during a protest by PAME, a Communist Party-backed labor union, at the Syntagma Metro station in Athens.
GREEKS REFUSE AUSTERITY MEASURES
‘I won’t pay’ movement spreads across Greece
by Elena Becatoros / 2.22.2011
In light of austerity measures, citizens ignore tolls, transit ticket costs, even bills for healthcare
ATHENS, Greece— They blockade highway toll booths to give drivers free passage. They cover subway ticket machines with plastic bags so commuters can’t pay. Even doctors are joining in, preventing patients from paying fees at state hospitals. Some call it civil disobedience. Others a freeloading spirit. Either way, Greece’s “I Won’t Pay” movement has sparked heated debate in a nation reeling from a debt crisis that’s forced the government to take drastic austerity measures — including higher taxes, wage and pension cuts, and price spikes in public services. What started as a small pressure group of residents outside Athens angered by higher highway tolls has grown into a movement affecting ever more sectors of society — one that many say is being hijacked by left-wing parties keen to ride popular discontent. A rash of political scandals in recent years, including a dubious land swap deal with a rich monastery and alleged bribes in state contracts — has fueled the rebellious mood. At dawn last Friday, about 100 bleary-eyed activists from a Communist Party-backed labor union covered ticket machines with plastic bags at Athens metro stations, preventing passengers from paying their fares, to protest public transport ticket price hikes. Other activists have taped up ticket machines on buses and trams. And thousands of people simply don’t bother validating their public transport tickets when they take the subway or the bus. “The people have paid already through their taxes, so they should be able to travel for free,” said Konstantinos Thimianos, 36, an activist standing at the metro picket line in central Syntagma Square. In one of their frequent occupations of the toll booths on the northern outskirts of Athens recently, protesters wore brightly colored vests with “total disobedience” emblazoned across their backs, and chanted: “We won’t pay for their crisis!”
The tactic has cropped up in the health sector, with some state hospital doctors staging a blockade in front of pay counters to prevent patients from paying their €5 flat fee for consultations. Critics deride the protests as yet another example of a freeloading mentality that helped lead the country into its financial mess. “The course from initial lawlessness to final wanton irresponsibility is like a spreading cancer,” Dionysis Gousetis said in a recent column in the respected daily broadsheet Kathimerini. “Now, with the crisis as an alibi … the freeloaders don’t hide. They appear publicly and proudly and act like heroes of civil disobedience. Something like Rosa Parks or Mahatma Gandhi,” Gousetis wrote. “They’re not satisfied with not paying themselves. They are forcing others to follow them.” Many accuse left-wing parties and labor unions of usurping a grassroots movement with legitimate grievances for their own political ends. “You think that lawlessness is something revolutionary, which helps the Greek people,” Prime Minister George Papandreou said recently, lashing out in Parliament at Coalition of the Left party head Alexis Tsipras. “It is the lawlessness which we have in our country that the Greek people are paying for today.”
But there is something about the “I Won’t Pay” movement that speaks to something deeper within Greek society: a propensity to bend the rules, to rebel against authority, particularly that of the state. It is so ingrained that many Greeks barely notice the myriad small, daily transgressions — the motorcycle driving on the sidewalk, the car running the red light, the blatant disregard of yet another government attempt to ban smoking in restaurants and bars. Less innocuous is persistent and widespread tax avoidance despite increasingly desperate government measures. “There is a general culture of lawlessness, starting from the most basic thing, tax evasion or tax avoidance, which is something that Greeks have been exercising since their state was created,” said social commentator Nikos Dimou. But many see the “I Won’t Pay” movement as something much simpler: the people’s refusal to pay for the mistakes of a series of governments accused of squandering the nation’s future through corruption and cronyism. “I don’t think it’s part of the Greek character. Greeks, when they see that the law is being applied in general, they will implement it too,” said Nikos Louvros, the 55-year-old chain-smoking owner of an Athens bar that openly flouts the smoking ban. “But when it isn’t being applied to some, such as when there are ministers who have been stealing, … Well, if the laws aren’t implemented at the top, others won’t implement them.”
Greek police clash with anti-austerity protesters
by Renee Maltezou / Feb 23 2011
Greek police clashed with protesters on Wednesday as around 100,000 workers, pensioners and students marched to parliament to protest austerity policies aimed at helping Greece cope with a huge debt crisis. Riot police fired scores of rounds of teargas and flash bombs at protesters hurling petrol bombs, choking the main Syndagma Square with smoke and sending crowds of striking protesters running for cover. The 24-hour strike by public and private sector employees grounded flights, closed schools and paralyzed public transport in the first nationwide walkout against cost cuts this year. In the biggest march since December 2008 riots brought the country to a standstill for weeks according to police sources and eyewitness, 100,000 Greeks marched through the streets of Athens chanting “We are not paying” and “No sacrifice for plutocracy.” Police officially put the figure at 32,000. Riot police fired teargas in several places to disperse demonstrators hurling stones and plastic bottles. Shops boarded up their windows and central Athens hotels locked their doors. Fifteen policemen and 10 civilians were injured, including one journalist slightly hurt by a petrol bomb, police officials said, while 26 protesters were detained. Protesters broke up marble paving stones for rocks to throw at police, set garbage cans on fire and damaged bus stops. Others unfolded a black banner reading “We are dying” in front of parliament. “Enough is enough! All these tax hikes are killing our businesses and we have to fire people,” said bar owner Costas Loras, 42.
Despite many strikes, the Socialist government cut pay and pensions and raised taxes last year in return for a 110 billion euro ($150 billion) bailout by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund that saved Greece from bankruptcy. Greece’s international lenders approved a new 15 billion euro tranche of the aid this month, but set a tougher target for privatization proceeds and called for more structural reforms. “This medicine is worse than the disease. It makes the rich richer and the poor poorer,” said Yannis Panagopoulos, president of Greece’s largest union GSEE. “We will continue fighting, we won’t stop.” Markets are watching for any derailment of Greece’s fiscal efforts. Analysts say strikes are unlikely to shake the government, which has a comfortable majority in parliament. “People once again expressed their opposition to the austerity measures. But no matter how big these protests are they can’t change the government’s policies,” said Costas Panagopoulos, head of ALCO pollsters. Private sector union GSEE and its public sector sister ADEDY, which together represent about 2.5 million workers or half the Greek workforce, have vowed to resist austerity measures, saying they are killing the economy.
Police in Greece clashed with protesters yesterday as 100,000 workers, pensioners and students marched to parliament to protest against the austerity measures aimed at coping with the country’s huge debt crisis. Riot officers fired tear gas and flash bombs as demonstrators returned fire with petrol bombs, choking the main Syndagma Square with smoke and sending crowds of striking people running for cover. Five police officers and 10 civilians were injured. At least 25 protesters were detained. One police officer was hit by a petrol bomb which set his uniform and motorcycle on fire. He was forced to remove his crash hemet and colleagues had to help extinguish the flames. The rally had been calm before the clashes. Protesters chanting “Don’t obey the rich — Fight back!” marched to parliament as the city centre was heavily policed. A brass band, tractors and cyclists joined in. The 24-hour strike by public and private sector employees grounded flights, closed schools and paralysed public transport in the first nationwide walkout against cuts this year.
Tens of thousands of people marched through the streets of Athens chanting: “We won’t pay” and “No sacrifice for plutocracy” in the biggest march since riots in December 2008 brought the country to a standstill for weeks. State hospital doctors, ambulance drivers, pharmacists, lawyers and tax collectors joined school teachers, journalists and thousands of small businesses as more middle-class groups took part in the protest than have in the past. Athens’ main shopping |district was mostly empty, as many small business owners shuttered their stores. Police fired tear gas to disperse demonstrators hurling stones and plastic bottles. Shops boarded up their windows and hotels in the |centre of Athens locked their doors. At least two people were injured and another three arrested. One group of rioting youths smashed paving stones in front of the central Bank of Greece, but there were no immediate reports of any serious damage. Despite the many strikes, the socialist government cut pay and pensions and raised taxes last year in return for a €110bn bailout by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund that saved the country from bankruptcy. Stathis Anestis, deputy leader of Greece’s largest union, the GSEE, said workers should not be asked to make more sacrifices during a third straight year of recession. “The measures forced on us by the agreement with our lenders are harsh and unfair… we are facing long-term austerity with high unemployment and destabilising our social structure,” Anestis said. “What is increasing is the level of anger and desperation… if these harsh policies continue, so will we.”