ATHENS (Reuters) - Greeks protesting at austerity measures demanded by foreign lenders blocked a major national parade on Friday to commemorate Greek resistance in World War Two, shouting “traitors” at President Karolos Papoulias and other officials.
The protest in Thessaloniki was echoed at smaller parades across Greece, including in Athens where marchers held black ribbons. It showed the extent of anger at the higher taxes and wage cuts sought by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund in return for funds to avert a debt default.
The annual military parade in the northern city is one of the most symbolic events in Greece’s political calendar and commemorates the rejection of Italy’s ultimatum to surrender in 1940. It was the first time it had been canceled.
“The Greek people are now fighting a major battle. They also fought one many years ago today ... We must unite to overcome this crisis,” Papoulias said, adding that he had fought the Germans as a 15-year-old boy. “So who is a traitor? They should be ashamed!”
“I came to honor this historic city. There are some who want to prevent this celebration. I am very sorry,” said Papoulias, 82, appealing to Greeks to stand together in the face of the country’s economic plight.
The austerity measures demanded under an EU/IMF rescue of Greece have helped push its economy into its worst recession in four decades, driving unemployment to record levels above 16 percent. Many Greeks accuse Prime Minister George Papandreou of sacrificing their wellbeing to foreign lenders.
Incidents marred parades and celebrations in towns and cities throughout Greece, held to commemorate the day when Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas rejected a demand from Italian dictator Benito Mussolini to allow deployment of his troops in Greece. The national holiday known as Ohi Day, or “No Day”, in Greek.
Despite a deal clinched on Thursday at an EU summit to cancel half the value of Greece’s 200 billion euro debt in the hands of private bondholders, many Greeks are deeply resentful of what they see as foreign meddling in their affairs, reviving memories of the wartime Nazi occupation.
EU paymaster Germany, which has been vocal in demanding economic and fiscal reforms in return for its financial support, has become a target for demonstrators’ derision.
“1940-2011: No to the Fourth Reich” read one poster in a demonstration in Cretan city of Heraklion, where protesters took to the streets during a parade.
Horst Reichenbach, head of EU taskforce in Greece, said he understood the sensitivity of national sovereignty but said his group was created at Papandreou’s request to help implement reforms decided by the Greek government, not to decide policy.
“We want to help Greece in its effort to overcome this painful economic crisis,” he told Ta Nea newspaper.
Credit agency Fitch Ratings said doubts over Greece’s willingness to implement structural reforms and its weak growth prospects restricted the ability of this week’s deal to transform the country’s prospects.
In Athens, students paraded before officials with raised fists holding black ribbons as a sign of dissent at the austerity measures. The municipal band marched with ribbons tied to its instruments and stopped playing when it reached the podium where Education Minister Anna Diamantopoulou stood.
Some small groups of protesters scuffled with police and also shouted “thieves” and “traitors” at officials, but there was no repeat of the rioting during last week’s 48-hour general strike to protest at austerity measures.
The leader of Greece’s conservative main opposition party, New Democracy, blamed the government’s policies for sparking social unrest but he condemned the marring of a day of national celebration.
“Those who are glad to have ruined our national holiday must know they have injured our national pride. They have insulted the memory of our heroes,” Antonis Samaras said in a statement. “They should not confuse our national symbols and our history with a catastrophic government.”
Additional reporting by George Karahalis; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Alison Williams