For Greece's austerity-hit elderly, bailout "will never end"

ATHENS (Reuters) - With two euros in his pocket, Yorgos Vagelakos, an 81-year-old retired factory worker, scouts the farmer’s market in his working-class Athens neighborhood for anything he can afford.

Like most pensioners, he was hit hard by Greece’s economic crisis. Over eight years, the country’s international bailouts took aim at its pension system and more than a dozen rounds of cuts pushed nearly half its elderly below the poverty line.

Now, the country is looking to the end of its third and final rescue package next week, but for Vagelakos, there is little to cheer about.

“For the oranges I’m going to buy I’ll pay you next week,” he tells a vendor at the market. Half his money has already gone to a few bunches of grapes.

“Two euros next week. Will you be here?” he asks, picking up his bag of fruit. The response is affirmative, and he jokes:

“Well then I won’t come so I won’t have to pay you!”

Reuters first interviewed Vagelakos in 2012, when Greece signed up to a second bailout that saved it from bankruptcy and a euro zone exit. Back then, he was going to the market with 20 euros in his pocket. His monthly income, including his pension and benefits, had been cut to about 900 euros from 1,250 euros.

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Today it is down to 685 euros and debts are growing, he said.

With unemployment reaching almost 28 percent at its peak, a quarter of children living in poverty and benefits slashed, many families grew dependent on grandparents for handouts during the downturn. Vagelakos can no longer support the families of his two sons and can barely cover his and his wife’s needs.

“I wake up in the morning to a nightmare,” he said. “How will I manage my finances and my responsibilities? This is what I wake up to every morning.”

Sitting at the kitchen table of his modest home, he goes through a notebook listing debts to the pharmacy and others: “36.8 (euros), 47.5 plus 13... If we add to this the rest of the debt that we have to pay, what is left for us to live on?”

Pensioners have staged numerous protests against the austerity measures imposed by the bailouts, but although the Greek economy is finally starting to grow again, albeit modestly, they may face yet more pain. Changes to pension regulations mean more cuts are expected in 2019.

“The memorandum (bailout) will never end,” Vagelakos said. Referring to a plan by Greece’s European partners to closely monitor its finances after the bailout ends on Aug. 20, he said:

“Even if they end in August, we have the permanent surveillance, which is not a memorandum but a continuous memorial service for us.”

Writing by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Gareth Jones