| ATHENS, April 11
ATHENS, April 11 German Chancellor Angela Merkel
arrived in Athens on Friday, a symbolic visit to mark the
economic rehabilitation of a nation that over the past four
years has threatened the stability of Europe and its single
Merkel's visit, which comes the day after Greece returned to
international bond markets, will be brief. She plans to be in
Athens for six and a half hours, meeting Prime Minister Antonis
Samaras and Greek business people, before a news conference and
"I believe that Greece has more opportunities than
difficulties ahead of it," she said in a meeting with startup
businesses, reiterating that the two countries would soon set up
a new fund to finance small companies.
In anticipation of Merkel's arrival, more than 7,000
officers were deployed on the streets of Athens, which have seen
a number of violent demonstrations in recent years, and public
protests were banned in the areas in which she will move.
Her visit caps a watershed week for Greece. Strong investor
interest in Athens' first bond sale in four years is seen as a
vindication of the wrenching spending cuts and other austerity
measures that Greece has undergone in exchange for the 237
billion euro international bailout. Many say the investor
appetite underscores growing optimism in the other so-called
periphery countries that suffered the most during Europe's debt
Yet the human cost of the bailout-imposed measures are
painfully visible on the streets of Greece, where thousands of
companies have closed shop. Unemployment in January stood at
26.7 percent, near a 27.7 percent record, with about 1.5 million
people out of work, but the lowest level in 11 months.
Many here criticised the German Chancellor and the
government of engineering the high-profile visit to coincide
with Thursday's bond issue and boost Samaras's chances before a
key European election in May. Opposition parties and labour
unions said they would hold rallies outside the banned zone to
protest Merkel's visit.
"Merkel visits Athens to praise the government's destructive
work and make sure that austerity continues," the main
opposition leftist Syriza party, which opposes the country's
international bailout, said in a statement.
An EU source told Reuters that Thursday's 3-billion euro
bond sale, initially planned for the second half of the year,
had been deliberately brought forward to the eve of Merkel's
visit to support Samaras, whose conservative New Democracy party
is slightly behind Syriza in the polls.
Anti-German sentiment has grown during Greece's
austerity-fuelled economic crisis and many of those struggling
with record unemployment and falling living standards blame
Germany's insistence on fiscal rigour for their economic woes.
Berlin is the biggest single contributing nation to Greece's
bailouts, which have kept the country afloat since 2010 and
saved it from bankruptcy. Germany has extended to Athens at
least 15 billion euros of bilateral rescue loans as part of the
The two countries have a complex history that has
complicated the debate. Greece is Europe's only bailed-out
country that was occupied by German troops in World War Two, and
frustration with austerity policies has revived a dormant claim
to press Berlin for billions of euros of war reparations.
Unidentified assailants opened fire on the German
ambassador's residence in Athens with a Kalashnikov assault
rifle in December.
Pictures lampooning Merkel are commonplace in Athens, while
groups opposing Greece's bailout frequently protest outside the
German Embassy. Public sector workers pelted a German diplomat
with water bottles and coffee in a protest over austerity
measures last year.
Greek prosecutors have also recently filed charges against
former local representatives of German companies, accusing them
of having paid bribes to win technology and defence contracts,
indirectly boosting the country's debt.
On the other hand, Germany offered work to hundreds of
thousands of Greeks after the war, helping them rebuild their
country and escape economic hardship and political oppression at
home. Athens has received billions of euros of European aid
since it joined the European Union in 1981, much of it paid by
In Germany, anger at Greece's taxpayer-funded bailout has
boosted the eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD), a small
party that failed to get into the Bundestag in last year's
election, but is expected to make more of an impact in the
Greece's successful return to bond markets on Thursday was
"no progress", AfD said in a statement. The party's leader Bernd
Lucke said "international investors will have no problem passing
their future risks onto taxpayers in the euro zone".
Fitch ratings agency, which maintained its 'B-' rating for
Greece, also injected a note of caution: "(The bond sale's)
success does not guarantee that Greece will have made a
sustainable return to market funding by the time the current
programme ends later this year."
"Political risk to reform and consolidation remains high,
with reform fatigue reflected in the government's small
parliamentary majority and the opposition's anti-reform stance,"
(Additional reporting by Harry Papachristou, Stephen Brown and
Paul Taylor; Editing by Alessandra Galloni and Will Waterman)