ATHENS Feb 13 Greek political leaders say
the nation must accept yet more punishing austerity or face a
social explosion, but after a night of violence and destruction
in Athens, some people fear this explosion may already be about
Trade union leader Ilias Iliopoulos condemned the mayhem in
which buildings burned across Athens as parliament debated new
budget cuts but said the government had to listen to the people.
"People sent a message yesterday: Enough is enough! They
can't take it any more," Iliopoulos, general secretary of public
sector union ADEDY, told Reuters.
"The social explosion will come one way or another, there is
nothing they can do about it any more."
Prime Minister Lucas Papademos has repeatedly told his
people that however much the budget cuts ordered by Greece's
international lenders hurt, the alternative was far worse.
He says Greece must avoid going bankrupt at all costs next
month when it has to meet 14.5 billion euros in debt repayments,
and the only way to achieve this is to accept the tough terms of
the bailout offered by the European Union and IMF.
"A disorderly default would set the country on a disastrous
adventure," Papademos told parliament. "It would create
conditions of uncontrolled economic chaos and social explosion."
"The country would be drawn into a vortex of recession,
instability, unemployment and protracted misery and this would
sooner or later lead the country out of the euro," he added.
However, much of this is already happening. Greece has
entered its fifth year of recession, unemployment is over 20
percent and life for many Greeks is undoubtedly miserable
following big pay and pension cuts - with more to come.
Likewise, it is hard to argue Greece remains stable. As
parliament responded to the prime minister's appeals by
endorsing the austerity bill early on Monday, protesters fought
pitched battles with riot police outside.
By morning, shocked Athens residents gathered outside the
burnt shells of buildings, speaking quietly and photographing
the rubble-strewn wrecks with their mobile phones.
"It is very likely that such protests will be repeated
because people are very angry," Vassilis Korkidis, head of the
Greek Commerce Confederation, told Reuters.
City authorities said 93 buildings were wrecked or seriously
damaged. Some were much-loved, such as the Attikon cinema that
was housed in a neo-classical building dating from 1870.
Workers cleared barricades while cleaning crews collected an
estimated 40 tonnes of shattered marble and stone from the
streets and pavements.
The riots were the worst since 2008 when the police shot
dead a 15-year-old schoolboy, provoking weeks of violence.
Mary Bossis, professor of International Security at the
University of Piraeus, said the trouble, which also provoked
less serious incidents in towns and cities across Greece, was
merely a taste of things to come.
"It's not over yet," she told Reuters. "On the contrary,
this was just the beginning. We will see more."
At the moment relatively small numbers of people get
involved in violent protests, many of them young but sometimes
led by older, radical intellectuals.
They organise using electronic media including websites
which are easy for anyone to monitor. "These people are talking
openly, they are not hiding at all, but the state is not
listening," said Bossis. "If they listened they would know that
this was only the beginning and that they want to continue."
While Athens has a long-standing radical community, the
riots of the past 24 hours were marked by groups from the
provinces converging on the capital to take on the police.
Injuries were numerous but largely not serious, unlike in
May 2010 when three bank workers died in their burning office.
"What scares me is that this kind of organised operation may
lead to murders. It doesn't surprise me, it just scares me,"
With youth unemployment around 50 percent, young Greeks face
a particularly bleak future as political leaders say the country
will endure a decade of hardship.
What remains unclear is whether mainstream Greeks will join
the radicals in resisting the austerity violently.
Leftists believe a general uprising is under way. "The Greek
people, regardless of ideology, have risen," said 89-year-old
Manolis Glezos, a hero of Greek resistance to the Nazi
occupation of World War Two, during the disturbances.
Many seem exhausted by more than two years of political,
social and economic chaos. They lead stressful lives, constantly
worrying about losing their job - if they have one - and how
they can cope with tax increases on top of pay and pension cuts.
Greeks are often bewildered, unable to understand what good
the torment they are going through will achieve.
"I wouldn't mind paying for the next two years if I knew
austerity would take us somewhere," said Leto Papadopoulou, 32,
a civil servant whose monthly pay has been almost halved to 900
euros. "But this crisis seems endless. In 10 years from now, I
will be a lost cause for the labour market," she told Reuters as
she watched a recent protest.
Those who argue that the deal with the EU and IMF has saved
the country from a social explosion, rather than hastened it,
say that chaos among the general population could have come in
the form of panic rather than violence.
"Just imagine the state of chaos that Greece would have been
in today," former minister Adonis Georgiadis, who defied his
far-right party to vote for the package, told Mega TV.
"Just imagine if the loan agreement had not passed, we would
have thousands of people outside banks trying to get their
money, thousands of people rushing to the supermarkets."
If Greece were to suffer a major breakdown of law and order,
the government would need an absolutely loyal police force. Riot
police has fought countless battles with protesters in the past
few years, but its biggest union said the force also had its
limits of tolerance.
"We refuse to stand against our parents, our brothers, our
children," the Greek Police Federation said.