The Greek Parliament (Vouli) has approved yet another package of austerity measures on top of the one they voted on in July, with 154 MPs voting yes and 144 voting no. On the one hand, the Vouli had no choice but to pass the measures, which include yet more cuts to salaries and pensions and more taxes, if Greece is to continue to receive bailout funds from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union. European leaders are meeting on Sunday to approve the next 11 billion euro installment of aid, part of a 150 billion euro bailout approved last year.
On the other hand, Greeks, weary with vast corruption pervading every aspect of life, are making it clear that they are near the breaking point, if not already there. Veteran MP Vasso Papandreou (who is not related to Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou) warned that “Enough is enough, society is despairing, the country is collapsing” and said that it was the last time he would vote on such measures.
Greece’s debt is 360 billion euros, totaling 150 percent of the country’s GDP and 5 times that of Argentina which defaulted on $95 billion of debt in 2001. Many have been saying that this is simply more than the country will ever be able to pay off. Both the suicide and the crime rate have risen in Greece while the average household income has fallen by 50 percent; unemployment is at 16 percent and higher for those in their 20′s. Greece’s economy is set to contract in 2012 for a fourth year in a row and analysts predict Greece’s debt burden could rise to 190 percent of its GDP by next year. Fears are mounting that European leaders’ efforts to save the euro is pulling Europe apart, rather than uniting its 500 million citizens.
Massive Protests in Athens and Throughout Greece
Outside the building where the Vouli was meeting, an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people protested; some had attempted to prevent MPs from entering the building to vote. Lines of police in riot gear — with helmets, shields and gas marks — faced them, as they had the day before, during the first day of a general strike. On Thursday, a 53–year-old construction worker, a member of a trade union, died after having a heart attack, according to a Greek deputy minister. More than 40 people were injured on Wednesday. The crowds of protesters have been by and large peaceful, but some 200 to 300 individuals have clashed and fought with police, using chunks of concrete and marble and setting fire to garbage piles and to a booth on Syntagma Square, where two soldiers usually keep ceremonial watch over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The soldiers wear traditional Greek uniforms (like this) and, in the ceremonial changing of the guard, march in elaborate, slow steps, before standing at attention before the tomb. It is quite something to see their ritualized movements. I have seen them do so a number of times for the past three years, when I visited Greece with groups of students from my college. We are not able to visit this year (a simple lack of funds is at least part of the reason). Were we going, I would have quite a few more worried parents with concerns to allay. Other cities that we would visit — Patras on the west, Thessaloniki in the north — have seen protests, though those in Athens are certainly the largest.
Aside from Syntagma Square, most of the places the tour guide would take us too would not be near the protests. But we, and other visitors to Greece, would still be affected by the strikes and, too, the austerity measures. The government’s austerity measures mean that there are fewer people working at the archaeological sites and museums. When I last visited Greece with my students last spring, we were met with closed gates and darkened ticket booths at certain sites.
We were visiting in March and I suspect that more sites and museums would be open during the summer (when it would have cost us even more to visit). The closures were unsettling, as it was to see “SALE” and “half off” signs in the windows of shops that, two years prior, had been brightly lit, and to see shop windows darkened. Were we to visit next spring, I suspect that, sadly, many more will be dark and empty, and many more gates to archaeological sites locked as workers are given reduced hours or lose their jobs.
What will be the scene then in Syntagma Square, soldiers performing their ceremonial steps or crowds of protesters, the “Indignants,” the Aganaktismenoi?
Related Care2 Coverage
Photo taken in Athens, where garbage collectors have been on strike for over two weeks, in October 2011 by jerandsar