Greece scrambles to show inspectors progress on stalled reforms

ATHENS Wed Jul 25, 2012 9:43am EDT

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ATHENS (Reuters) - Trying to convince increasingly skeptical international lenders that it is serious about slashing its debts, Greece named a new privatization chief on Wednesday and said it would sell a loss making bank that has been draining state coffers.

The latest visit to Athens by inspectors from the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund has already begun on a sour note, with officials warning Greece is hugely off track in meeting pledges under its 240 billion euros bailout.

"The situation just goes from bad to worse, and with it the debt ratio," one EU official told Reuters. "Nothing has been done in Greece for the past three or four months."

Reliant on aid to avoid bankruptcy and an exit from the euro zone, Greece has been under mounting pressure to show its lenders that it has finally mustered the political will to push through reforms under a new conservative-led government.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras's government said on Wednesday it had decided to sell state-controlled agricultural lender ATEbank. The European Union and IMF have long demanded the bank be restructured.

Rival Piraeus Bank has said in the past it is eyeing ATEbank, and other Greek lenders such as National Bank and Eurobank are also expected to declare their interest.

Samaras's government named banker Yannis Emiris to lead its stalled privatization drive, replacing Costas Mitropoulos who quit abruptly last week after accusing the administration of blocking his effort to sell off state assets.

Reviving the privatization drive is a key part of Greece's effort to win back the trust of lenders, who have been forced to bail out the country twice - only to see it fail to meet debt targets and then accuse lenders of sabotaging its economy.

CRUCIAL JUNCTURE

The lenders' current visit, which began on Tuesday and is expected to be wrapped up in early August, has already shown signs that it is going far from smoothly.

The visiting officials appeared unhappy with progress at lengthy meetings on Tuesday and expressed frustration over lack of data they needed, a Greek official said.

"They were not pleased," the official said.

Both sides described to Reuters a grim mood at meetings earlier this month when top EU and IMF officials came for a brief visit after Samaras's government took office. Niceties were shunned, with the lenders' anger and exasperation coming through clearly, Greek officials said.

Exacerbating matters, Samaras's government had hoped to nail down 11.7 billion euros in promised savings for 2013 and 2014 ahead of this week's visit, but has so far been able to account for only about 8 billion euros.

"Our country is at a crucial juncture," Labour Minister Yannis Vroutsis said after meeting Samaras to find the promised savings. "We will take tough decisions, in a just way".

The government is at pains to show it is making progress - the environment ministry on Wednesday outlined plans to save 5 million euros a year from cutting rent and operating costs - but is also wary of a hostile public.

The cuts are expected to draw fresh howls of protest from Greeks still reeling from earlier waves of austerity that have pushed unemployment up to record highs and plunged the economy into what Samaras has called Greece's "Great Depression".

"The same people who are saying morning, noon and night that they will stick to the euro will lead us back to the drachma because of their austerity policy," radical leftist opposition chief Alexis Tsipras said.

With their patience wearing thin, the lenders have been steadily tightening the screws on Athens in recent days, leaving Greece with little choice but to speed up reform or face default.

The European Central Bank said last week it would stop accepting Greek bonds and other collateral used by Greek banks to tap its funding until the troika review was complete, leaving lenders to rely on the Greek central bank.

Further increasing the pressure, the European Commission said on Wednesday the review would be complete only after a subsequent visit by officials in September - leaving Greece dangerously close to bankruptcy while it awaits the assessment.

Greece is due to run out of cash in weeks and its European partners have so far only promised to cover the country's needs through August.

Days after being elected in June, Samaras's government of conservatives backed by the Socialists and a small leftist party put out an eight-point plan to renegotiate its latest bailout.

Since then, however, the reality of Greece's depleted state coffers and the growing risk of it being cut loose from the euro zone has set in, prompting the government to turn its focus to winning back credibility with lenders. (Additional reporting by Renee Maltezou; Writing by Deepa Babington; editing by Janet McBride)

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