Greek debt inspection stalled by protests

An occupation of the Transport Ministry by protesting civil servants forced Greece's international debt inspectors to reschedule their meeting with the minister.
Civil servants who work in the Greek Transport Ministry blockade the entrance of the ministry in Athens. (Petros Giannakouris/Associated Press)

Striking civil servants occupied the Transport Ministry building in Athens early Friday, forcing international debt inspectors to reschedule a meeting where they were to discuss reforms, including new licensing laws for taxis.

Transport Minister Yannis Ragoussis's morning meeting was delayed to the evening after the debt inspectors, collectively known as the troika, arrived to find the building under occupation and protesting employees in the courtyard.

A similar meeting Thursday with Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos was moved to a different government building in central Athens due to an occupation of that ministry.

"This is our answer to those who seek to further degrade our lives ... Our aim is to overturn this barbaric policy," said Ilias Vrettakos, deputy leader of the civil servants union, ADEDY.

The union fiercely opposes a new round of pay cuts, due to take effect on Nov. 1, and the government's plans to suspend at least 30,000 of their members on reduced pay.

Cabinet meets Sunday

 A senior government official said key details of suspension plan were to be worked out at an emergency Cabinet meeting Sunday. He asked not to be named, pending official announcements.

At the Finance Ministry, protesting employees continued their occupation for a second day, guarding the entrance where the words "They shall not pass" had been spray-painted across drawn-down metal shutters, and Venizelos again met the debt inspectors in another building.

The inspectors from the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and European Commission returned to Athens this week after suspending their review earlier this month over missed targets and delayed implementation of reforms. Their approval is critical for Greece to receive the next €8 billion installment of its €110 billion ($150 billion US) bailout loan package agreed on last year.

Without the next batch of loans, Greece has said it only has enough funds to last it through mid-October, after which it will be unable to pay salaries and pensions.

Mired in a deep recession and faced with growing anger on the streets, the government has been unable to meet all the targets set out in its bailout agreement. Other European countries, faced with the possibility of a messy Greek default that would drag down their common currency and cause significant problems for their banks, approved a second, euro109 billion bailout for Greece on July 21. But the details of the deal remain to be finalized, and some have suggested the plan needs to be reworked.

In a rush to ensure the return of the troika and approval of the sixth batch of bailout loans, the government this month announced a series of new measures, the civil service suspensions and a new property tax to be levied through electricity bills.

[IMAGEGALLERY galleryid=719 size=small]

At banks, tax offices and postal outlets, Athenians waited stoically in huge lines to pay the first installment of a separate emergency tax bill and register for a national census of pensioners, set up to eliminate fraudulent claims.

"It's been crazy today. But at least we've got extra staff to handle it," said Viki Dionelli, a worker at a central Athens post office. She joked to one customer: "See you again next year."

Greeks have been outraged by the new cuts after more than a year of austerity which has seen salaries and pensions trimmed and several waves of tax increases on income, property and consumer goods. Unions have held daily demonstrations in central Athens, with many gathering to burn notices demanding an emergency tax.

College students, former military officers, and workers at a health ministry home assistance program staged separate protest rallies Thursday.

Civil servants have declared a 24-hour strike for Oct. 5, which air traffic controllers have said they will join, effectively grounding all flights to and from the country. A nationwide strike has been declared for Oct. 19.