Massive crowd gathers for anti-austerity Athens rally
ATHENS YESTERDAY was the scene of one of the biggest anti-austerity demonstrations in the Greek capital since the signing of the country’s first bailout deal in 2010.
Overwhelmingly peaceful, the protests escalated towards the end at the central Syntagma Square when a small group of hooded elements hurled petrol bombs at police, who responded with tear gas and stun grenades.
Following a call for a 24-hour general strike by the country’s main private- and public-sector unions, thousands participated in the rallies – the first under the premiership of conservative Antonis Samaras and his three-party coalition government.
The Samaras government is finalising a new package of spending cuts and tax hikes worth about €12 billion that the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – the troika – require before it will provide Greece with any more financial aid.
Unions called the strike in order to “repulse the brutally unfair and ineffective neoliberal measures contained in the memorandums signed between the government and troika”.
Police estimates put the crowd at 50,000, but the feeling on the ground was that it was much higher, possibly in the region of 120,000.
At one stage the demonstration stretched for more than 2km from the National Archaeological Museum to Syntagma Square, which is overlooked by the parliament building.
Reflecting the generational divide in the labour market, the majority of trade union demonstrators appeared middle aged or over, while the youth – more than 50 per cent of whom are unemployed – marched with left wing or anarchist splinter groups.
A general strike in name only, many shops and businesses remained open, but in the city centre many premises were shuttered in anticipation of the violence that usually accompanies such protests.
Some of those attending the protests described their participation as a last stand against government austerity.
“The state has collapsed. We knew it was coming. But if we’re going to fall, we might as well hold our heads up high,” commented Makis, who was attending a separate rally organised by the Communist Party-backed trade union.
A 24-year-old hotel employee, he said his monthly wage had fallen 15 per cent to €1,000 in recent months.
Nearby, Anna Rapti said 2½ years of crisis had destroyed the dance school business that she ran with her husband.
“Students can no longer afford to pay and we now live on offers arranged over the internet where we give classes for €10 an hour,” said the 38-year-old, adding that her extended family were worse off.
“My parents’ savings are supporting three families – those of my brothers and sisters who were all laid off more than a year ago and no longer receive unemployment benefit.”
Public transport workers stayed on the job for most of the day in order to bring demonstrators to and from the protests.
Meanwhile, ferries remained moored for 24 hours while airport traffic was halted during a three-hour work stoppage by air-traffic controllers.