Greece crippled as its people say no to poverty

Patrick Cockburn witnesses a nation – from youth and unions to middle classes – unite in strikes against cuts

Greece has been paralysed by a 48-hour general strike that began yesterday and cast doubt on the unpopular government's ability to implement reforms demanded by the European Union in return for further bailout money.

Black-masked youths hurled chunks of marble and petrol bombs at riot police in front of the parliament building in the centre of Athens. Police responded with stun grenades and tear gas as clashes spread to neighbouring streets after mass rallies, where protesters demanded an end to tax rises and salary cuts that they say are reducing them to poverty. Acrid plumes of black smoke rose from blazing bins of uncollected rubbish and mixed with the white clouds of tear gas. Chunks of rock and broken glass littered the streets around the parliament.

"We are going back to the standard of living our grandfathers had," Eliza Giannakaromi, who was marching with municipal employees, said. "It is happening at every level of society, so the only choice for young people is to emigrate."

Stelios Georgiou, a garbage collector who was holding a banner near by, said: "We want to kick out this government. I used to earn €1,200 (£1,050) a month and now I get €700. They should go after the tax evaders and not us."

About 100,000 people marched in Athens. Some of the participants tried to force anybody wearing a hood to take it off, accusing those who refused of being anarchists or undercover police agents. By evening, the street battles had spread down Ermou, a popular shopping street.

Despite the strike, the Greek parliament is expected to pass new legislation today further reducing the income of most Greeks. But it is dubious if a deeply distrusted government can implement reforms that people see as being dictated by foreign governments and banks.

This loss of sovereignty is deeply felt. A pensioner, who gave his name as Nikos and was waving a large blue-and-white Greek flag, said: "My son goes into the army on Monday and I don't know whether to be pleased or sad."

The general strike and the parliamentary vote on reforms demanded by international creditors comes before a European Union leaders' summit on Sunday, when Greece should receive €8bn – without it, the country will run out of money by November. In parliament the Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos told MPs that Greece had no choice but to accept fresh hardships. "We have to explain to all these indignant people who see their lives changing that what the country is experiencing is not the worst stage of the crisis," he said.

"It is an anguished and necessary effort to avoid the ultimate, deepest and harshest level of the crisis. The difference between a difficult situation and a catastrophe is immense."

But for many Greeks, the catastrophe has already happened and protests increasingly involve the well-educated middle class. The strike yesterday involved air-traffic controllers, tax officials, pharmacists and doctors – as well as taxi drivers, dock workers and garbage collectors. Schools were closed and hospitals were only open for emergency cases. Every street in Athens has a heap of rotting rubbish on it despite a court order to the public service union to end its strike.

There are increasing doubts among small business people and professionals that severe austerity will achieve anything except push Greece further into a recession. There is also a deep distrust of the political class. Nicolas Kominis, a photographer, said he did not think the government had much choice but to agree to the demands of the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank.

"The problem is that nobody trusts the government or the opposition because people blame them for starting the crisis in the first place," he said.

The sense that those who caused the crisis are getting away with it is damaging the government. One banner carried at the march yesterday said: "When injustice prevails, then resistance is a duty." Vasilis Zorbas, a doctor who is Mayor of the Agia Paraskevi district of Athens, said: "The Greeks are unhappy because of the impunity of those who made money at their expense." He said he had two unemployed children, whose only option may be to emigrate.

A former minister from the ruling Pasok party, who requested anonymity, said: "It is this feeling of a lack of justice that is making people very angry. Everybody knows the names of ministers who helped themselves [to money] and took bribes but nobody touches them." It is repeatedly alleged that ministers and MPs have not cut their own salaries significantly, though the system of bonuses and allowances is so complex that this is difficult to confirm.

Leaders of the march said that stereotype of Greece's public sector as being bloated compared to the rest of the European Union is inaccurate. Balasopoulos Themis, the head of the Pan-Hellenic Federation of Employees of Local Government Organisations, said this is propaganda and the often-quoted figure of 768,000 public employees out of a workforce of four million includes the army, the police and even the clergy.

He said that overall the income of his union members has fallen by 40 per cent because of tax increases and salary cuts.

Real reform in Greece is unlikely to come from a government distrusted as self-serving and corrupt; the ex-minister said it did not have the political strength to impose change while facing powerful special interests.

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