ATHENS (Reuters) - Greeks should stop lobbying for more debt relief, Germany’s finance minister said on a visit to Athens on Thursday that forced a lockdown of the city center and a ban on protests against the deeply unpopular champion of austerity.
Wolfgang Schaeuble’s motorcade drove through empty streets cordoned off by thousands of riot policemen and devoid of any protesters. It was his first trip to Greece since its debt problems kindled the euro zone crisis four years ago.
Unlike during German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit last October when thousands defied a similar ban on protests, there were virtually no demonstrators to greet Schaeuble apart from a group of about eight women who shouted “Nazi, Nazi” and “Raus!” (out!) outside the finance ministry.
“He (Schaeuble) is a jerk,” said Marina Papachristou, 60, an unemployed grandmother of two. “He has come here to check on his colony. Get out!”
Athens played up the symbolic visit as a show of support for Greece by one of its biggest creditors, although critics disparaged it as a public relations effort by Berlin before Merkel faces re-election in September.
Schaeuble arrived hours after Greece’s parliament passed a scheme to fire thousands of public sector workers, and he duly praised Athens for its reform efforts.
But he also bluntly told Greeks to stop asking for a second debt writedown following a restructuring last year that imposed massive losses on private holders of Greek bonds. He said more help could be discussed next year if Athens met targets.
“I would like to ask all of you not to continue at this time this discussion on a new haircut,” he said at an event with Greek businessmen. “It is not in your interest.”
Official lenders like the euro zone and the International Monetary Fund now hold more than 90 percent of Greece’s debt.
That means the burden of any further debt relief - which Athens hopes will ensue once it hits its financial targets this year - will fall on euro zone states tired of Greece’s seemingly endless funding needs and poor record on reforms.
Germany in recent weeks has repeatedly ruled out a writedown of Greek debt, although critics believe the government is simply trying to hold off discussion on it until its election.
Athens has avoided bankruptcy so far thanks only to over 240 billion euros in aid from the “troika” of IMF, European Central Bank and European Commission. The EU justice commissioner called this week for the troika to be dissolved, though other senior euro zone officials have since defended it.
In a gesture of goodwill towards Greece, Schaeuble signed a deal offering 100 million euros for a fund to help pull the country out of a recession that is now in its sixth year.
“The main aim of our visit was to recognize the great progress Greece has made in overcoming its problems, which are not easy to deal with,” he said.
“There is still a lot to be done. A lot of effort is being made and the tough reforms are hitting a lot of people in Greece hard - you have to have a lot of respect for that.”
That has failed to impress Greeks, who blame Germany’s insistence on fiscal rigor for record unemployment of 27 percent and plummeting living standards that have driven up suicides and stoked near-daily protests and strikes.
“Hail, Schaeuble!” the leftist Avgi newspaper screamed on its front page on Thursday. “The moribund salute you,” it wrote above a stern-looking photograph of the minister.
Haunted by the memory of rowdy protests that engulfed Athens when Merkel visited, authorities closed off most of the city center including Syntagma Square before parliament, the focus of often violent protests against spending cuts.
Some 3,500 police were deployed in the streets of Athens, while another 3,000 were on standby.
Demonstrations and groups of more than three people holding banners and shouting slogans were also banned from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. local time. Central metro stations were shut.
The radical leftist Syriza opposition party denounced the ban as a “coup-like” move and led a small evening rally of a few hundred people after the departure of Schaeuble, who it called the “architect of austerity policies in our country”.
“Who is Mr Schaeuble for you to prohibit Greek citizens from protesting against austerity?” asked Panagiotis Lafazanis, a lawmaker from Syriza, keen to tear up the bailout plan. “You are governing the country like a protectorate, a banana republic.”
With riot police at each corner but no protesters in sight, bewildered tourists wandered around an eerily empty Syntagma Square wondering what the fuss was about.
“It was a bit too much at this point, to block off so much,” said Greek-Canadian tourist Mara Kontopoulos. “I thought at first the Queen of England or (U.S. President Barack) Obama was coming, then I heard it was just him and I was like ‘Oh, okay.'”
Additional reporting by Karolina Tagaris and Angeliki Koutantou; Writing by Deepa Babington; Editing by Mark Heinrich