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Thousands join May Day protests in Europe

ATHENS/MOSCOW (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of people joined May Day rallies across Europe Saturday, many protesting against government austerity policies in the wake of the global financial crisis.

In Greece, where the debt-stricken government has pledged budget cuts to secure a European Union and IMF rescue, protesters burned garbage cans and set a TV van on fire.

Shops were closed and the streets of the capital were unusually empty but for various protest marches heading toward parliament, meters away from the Finance Ministry where EU and IMF officials have been meeting for days to agree a new set of austerity measures.

“No to the IMF’s junta!” protesters chanted, referring to the military dictatorship which ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974.

The aid package is aimed at pulling Greece out of a severe debt crisis, which has hit the euro and shaken markets worldwide, and avoid contagion to other euro zone countries.

“Hands off our rights! IMF and EU Commission out!,” the protesters shouted as they marched to parliament. At one rally, police fired tear gas against a group of protesters trying to reach parliament.

The prospect of any further public unrest is of concern to Greek-watchers particularly after a poll released in Athens on Friday showed that more than half of Greeks could take to the streets if the new measures were agreed.

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In Germany, a key contributor to the Greek rescue package, violence erupted in Berlin when about 600 militants threw bottles, stones and burning materials at riot police in the Kreuzberg district, police said. Several fires were set and police cars demolished.

German TV said many people were injured on both sides, including one police officer who was seriously hurt.

In France, an estimated 300,000 people had taken to the streets in various cities by midday as part of the traditional May Day demonstrations held by trade unions in many countries.

At the forefront of the protesters’ concerns were President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plans to reform the country’s costly pension system as well as general fears over job security due to the financial crisis.

Marchers in Paris shouted “You had to experience the crisis in 2009, are you now going to have to pay for it in 2010?”

In Italy, unions rallied in the southern town of Rosarno, where clashes between African immigrants and locals this year marked the worst racial violence in Italy since World War Two.

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Addressing thousands of people waving flags and banners, union leaders demanded the government do more to create jobs and protect immigrants at risk of exploitation.


In Russia, a May Day rally gathered thousands of Communist supporters who marched through the streets of Moscow holding red banners and portraits of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

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In a separate demonstration, riot police looked on as hundreds of opposition activists protested against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, comparing his rule to that of Stalin’s in a rare rally approved by the authorities.

“Putin is Stalin! Putin is Brezhnev! Russia without Putin,” chanted the opposition crowd, including former chess master Garry Kasparov, one of the Kremlin’s harshest critics.

The opposition accuses Putin of silencing dissent and stifling freedoms when he was president between 2000 and 2008.

It also blames Putin for blind economic policies -- similar to the years of stagnation under Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev - as he continues to dominate Russian politics after handpicking successor Dmitry Medvedev and becoming prime minister under him.

In Sofia, more than 5,000 Bulgarians protested against high unemployment and what they called an inadequate response to the economic crisis of the center-right government.

Supporters of the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) waved red and national flags and chanted “Resignation.”

“Every day this government causes damages to Bulgaria and it must go,” said BSP’s leader and former premier Sergei Stanishev.

Bulgaria’s government, led by former Sofia mayor Boiko Borisov, came to power only last July after winning general elections. But the country has been hard hit by the global economic crisis as foreign investors fled and firms cut back.

Not all of the May Day rallies were marked by anger.

In Turkey, more than 100,000 workers thronged an Istanbul square, singing and chanting slogans such as “long live May Day” in a first May Day celebration held there since the late 1970s, when unknown gunmen massacred dozens of people.

Additional reporting by Elisabeth Pineau and Sudip Kar-Gupta in France, Daren Butler in Turkey, Angel Krasimirov in Bulgaria, Deepa Babington in Italy and Erik Kirschbaum in Germany; writing by Lin Noueihed and Maria Golovnina