Greece clashes - Eyal Toueg - Feb. 10, 2012
Greek police stands guard at Athens' Syntagma Square, February 10, 2012. Photo by Eyal Toueg
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ATHENS - Clashes erupted between unemployed, angry, and disgruntled Greek youths and police in riot gear outside Parliament on Friday, after several months of relative quiet in Greece.

The violence broke as Parliament is due to vote on deeper spending cuts and tough new austerity measures demanded by European leaders.

All central roads that lead to Syntagma Square, where the Greek Parliament sits, were blocked to incoming traffic and evoked an atmosphere of a kind of "Yom Kippur" on the political and business center of the city.

Numerous groups of protesters marched around the square in demonstration of the new measures, which includes a 20% cut in minimum wage, pension cut, and the government's additional 3 billion euro cut and the 15,000 immediate job cuts in the public sector.

As a result, scores of youths took to the streets, which were covered with tear gas, small fires, destruction, and an atmosphere of a near "intifada."

A good portion of the youths were particularly violent and came to the parliament ready to clash with police, wearing gas masks and helmets. These youths used sledge hammers to smash up marble paving stones in Syntagma Square before hurling the rubble at the police. In response, the police fired tear gas grenades.

TheMarker's photographer Eyal Toueg, who did not wear an appropriate mask, was lightly hurt from the tear gas while photographing the events.

After speaking to the protesters, it became clear that they mainly wish to express their anger and frustration and that they do not have an organized doctrine that dictates how to rescue Greece from its deep economic trouble.

The youths protest against the budget cuts and the austerity measures that were forced upon Greece, but they do not demand that Greece refuse the European aid package or demand that Greece leave the Eurozone and stop cooperating with Germany, France, and the rest of the countries leading the bailout.

And the reason is understandable: In a country where public officials cannot be fired and the general unemployment rate reaches 21% and the unemployment rate among youths reaches 50%, a Greek youth who finished two years of military service and academic studies has almost no chance of finding a job. Whoever can find one, apparently looks for ways to emigrate to other countries. Others, as was seen on Friday, wear gas masks and take out their frustration on police forces.

Debt-stricken Greece does not have the money to cover a 14.5 billion euro bond repayment on March 20, and must reach a vital debt-relief deal with private bond investors before then.

Meanwhile on Friday, Prime Minister Lucas Papademos promised to "do everything necessary" to ensure parliament passes the new austerity measures that would slap Greeks with a minimum wage cut during a fifth year of recession.

"It is absolutely necessary to complete the effort that began almost two years to consolidate public finances, restore competitiveness and economic recovery," Papademos told an emergency Cabinet meeting.

Papademos said the bailout and the deal with private creditors would return Greece to growth next year, and deliver a 4.5 percent primary surplus in 2012 … better than an earlier official prediction of 1.1 percent of gross domestic product.

"A disorderly default would cast our country into a catastrophic adventure. It would create conditions of uncontrollable economic chaos and social explosion," he warned.

"Greeks' standard of living in the event of a disorderly default would collapse, and the country would be swept into a deep vortex of recession, instability, unemployment and penury. These developments would lead, sooner or later, to exit from the euro."

Earlier Friday, the small right-wing LAOS party in Papademos' coalition said it would not back the new measures and four of its officials in the cabinet resigned, including the country's transport minister. Two Socialists cabinet members have also quit.

LAOS leader George Karatzaferis said rescue creditors had humiliated Greece.

"Of course we do not want to be outside the EU, but we can get by without being under the German jackboot," he said. "I would rather starve."

Greece has promised to approve the new austerity measures as emergency legislation by late Sunday, despite deep public resentment. Papademos' coalition is backed by 252 lawmakers in the 300-seat parliament.

The cuts include a 22 percent drop in the minimum wage and plans to fire 15,000 civil servants in 2012, at a time when the unemployment rate is over 20 percent and the economy is in a fifth year of recession.

European leaders, however, are demanding deeper spending cuts.

Eurozone finance ministers on Thursday said more austerity needs to be agreed to and set a deadline for the middle of next week.

"No disbursement without implementation," Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxembourg premier who also chairs the Eurogroup meetings, said after the eurozone ministers declined to fully back the deal Greek leaders had agreed to.