MAY DAY protests in Greece turned violent yesterday as youths in gas masks and hoods set fire to vehicles, smashed shop fronts and threw molotov cocktails and rocks at police in an explosion of fury over austerity measures they claim will hurt only the poor.
Tourists were cut off from their hotels as thousands of communists, civil servants and private-sector workers converged on a main square in Athens to vent their rage at the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Some young Greeks prefer to blame their elders
for the mountain of debt that has resulted in Greece, like a wayward child, being placed under the tutelage of the men from the IMF.
“I cannot help but blame my parents a little for what’s happened,” said Achilles Zacharoulis, a 36-year-old cardiologist. “They were here all that time,” he added, referring to the past three decades of mismanagement and fiscal insanity. “But what did they do to stop it?”
Vaggelis Gettos, 24, is just as alarmed at the burden being heaped on the young by austerity measures expected to be announced today, and has pledged to resist them in more protests this week against what he sees as a plot to impoverish Greece.
“We will live much worse than our parents,” he said. “Why should we be made to pay for their mistakes?”
The question of who was to blame and who should pay for the greatest crisis to afflict the single currency was a subject of heated debate, particularly after a leading credit rating agency put the cradle of civilisation in the same category as Azerbaijan by reducing its government bonds to “junk” status.
Economists regard the bloated civil service with its jobs for life and generous pensions
as a cancer consuming the country’s resources. The older generation, the experts grimly concur, turned the state into a giant cash machine to be plundered at will
Even greater social unrest is expected as resentment simmers among poorer families at being told to tighten their belts when wealthy Greeks can protect their fortunes by moving their money abroad
, some of it into property bargains in London.
Some are already referring to a “lost generation
” who will never find jobs or security, but the students, proud of their university’s reputation for being at the forefront of the uprising against the military dictatorship in 1973, are not the only ones planning resistance.
Mikis Theodorakis, the 84-year-old musician who composed the score for the film Zorba the Greek, calls for revolt against what he sees as an American plot to turn Greece into a “protectorate”. Bureaucrats will raise their fists at the barricades in a general strike and protests on Wednesday to protect their considerable perks from the IMF
They and other public sector workers are virtually unsackable, can retire as early as 45 and get bonuses for using a computer, speaking a foreign language and arriving at work on time.
Some of them get as many as four extra months’ salary a year, compared with the 14 months that are paid to other Greek workers
. One of the most generous bonuses is paid to unmarried daughters of dead employees in state-controlled banks
: they can inherit their parents’ pensions.
Today the country’s budget deficit is 13.6%
of GDP and the overall debt stands at â‚¬300 billion (£260 billion). Unemployment among 16- to 24-year-olds has risen to 30%
, according to government figures. Crime
, too, is increasing in Athens.
“I feel like a prisoner here,” says Ilias Iliopoulos, head of the powerful civil servants’ union
, gesturing to new bars on his windows after two recent burglaries of his office.
“People are stealing so they can live
, so they can eat,” he said. “And it will only get worse. These [IMF] measures will drag hundreds of thousands of Greek citizens into a life of poverty.”
As if in the path of an advancing army, Greeks are hiding their money
. In the end, Stefanos, the retired captain, opted like his friends for a safety deposit box. The super rich
, for their part, have shifted an estimated â‚¬11 billion to Cyprus
and other havens since the start of the year, according to Konstantinos Michalos, president of the Athens chamber of commerce.
There was hope, he believed, if the government lifted numerous restrictions on business. It costs more to transport a sack of potatoes from northern Greece to Athens than from Athens to Dusseldorf, because haulage, like many other sectors of the Greek economy, is an impenetrable cartel
When Michalos started a commodities trading business in London in the 1980s, the paperwork took him 48 hours
, he said. In Greece’s “Soviet-style” economy he had to go through 117 bureaucratic procedures
to get the right government permits. A wealthy friend of his had taken 10 years to win permission to put up a hotel
“It would have taken him another 10 years or a large payment under the table if he wasn’t a friend of very important politicians
,” said Michalos. Stournaras, an Oxford-educated economist, who believes that lifting these restrictions and trimming fat from the public sector will have an extraordinary effect on the Greek economy.