Thousands of protesters clashed with riot police as violence broke out in Athens today during a general strike against a string of harsh austerity measures and the proposed restructuring of loss-making state-run enterprises.
Several people were injured during the violent clashes, including Costis Hatzidakis, a main opposition New Democracy MP and a former transport minister who was attacked by a group of protesters shortly after he came out of Parliament.
According to an eyewitness, Hatzidakis was cornered by a small group of self-styled anarchists on a central pedestrianised street behind Syntagma Square across from the Parliament building. The angry mob shouted abuse at him and some of them hit him with sticks, while others reportedly punched him and threw objects at him.
One witness told me Hatzidakis had blood running down his face but managed to escape further injury when he found shelter in a nearby building. At least two other people were injured, according to initial police reports, while at least a dozen protesters were detained.
The area around Syntagma Square was thick with the acrid smell of smoke and tear gas as dozens of rubbish bins were set alight by protesters and round upon round of tear gas and stun grenades were used by riot police to try to fend off fire bomb and stone-throwing protesters.
Rubbish bins in and around the square smouldered, while many of the surrounding streets were littered with stones, broken glass and chunks of masonry that several hundred protesters had earlier smashed from paving stones or the marble façades of nearby buildings and used to throw at riot police around Parliament and the surrounding area.
At one point a group of about 200 protesters, many wearing hoods or crash helmets, threw more than a dozen petrol bombs at riot police, as well as at cars and a Jeep parked outside three luxury hotels on Syntagma Square. A black luxury Jeep and a van were completely destroyed after having their windows smashed and set on fire.
Banks and several shops had windows smashed and graffiti scrawled, while paint was splashed on the entrance of the Bank of Greece, the country’s central bank, and boarded-up shops on the central Stadiou and Panepistimiou streets.
Graffiti included “Fight against the apathy, rise up now”, “Government and the troika (the colloquial reference by Greeks to the EU, IMF and ECB) out now” and “Strike until victory”. Banners held by demonstrators included “There’s a solution: Let monopolies and multinationals pay for the crisis”, “The plutocracy should pay for the crisis” and “We won’t live like slaves”.Earlier tens of thousands of people took part in what had been a largely peaceful but noisy march through central Athens during Greece’s seventh nationwide general strike this year. Police estimated that 20,000 people took part, while organisers claimed the number was nearer 40,000.The 24-hour general strike by the General Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE), the country’s largest private sector umbrella union, and by ADEDY, the civil servants’ union, led to transport chaos across the country, with flights halted by striking air traffic controllers, while ferries remained at port and rail services were again suspended.
Public transport operated for only a number of hours in Athens to allow strikers to take part in the demonstration, leading to traffic chaos for commuters on a cold, drizzly day. Banks and government buildings were also closed by the strike action, while public hospitals operated on a skeleton staff.
Schools and universities were closed as teachers and lecturers joined in the strike action, while taxi drivers, pharmacists, dentists and the courts were also hit by work stoppages. Greek journalists also took part in the 24-hour strike, leading to a news blackout by the country’s radio and TV stations.
Greece, which is in the midst of its deepest recession for nearly 40 years, has been hit by a string of strikes and protests, many of which have turned violent, since the country was effectively forced to turn to the European Union and the International Monetary Fund in May for a €110 billion bailout loan to avoid a sovereign default.
The loan was granted to Athens in exchange for a series of tough austerity measures and structural reforms as Greece tries to reduce huge debts and deficits and tries to get its fiscal house in order.
Legislation was passed in Parliament the early hours today to allow the restructuring of state-run enterprises and a new framework law relating to collective labour agreements that will effectively see further pay cuts for public sector workers and a cap on maximum annual salaries at state-run enterprises at €48,000 (£41,000).
The Bill was passed with 156 votes in favour and 130 against in the 300-seat Parliament after a heated debate in which one MP from the ruling Pasok socialist party voted against and found himself expelled from the party, bringing to four the number of dissenting MPs from Pasok who have been expelled and are now sitting as independents.
Parliament will on December 22 vote on the country’s 2011 budget, which aims to reduce the budget deficit to 7.4 per cent of gross domestic product next year from a projected 9.4 per cent this year and 15.5 per cent in 2009, in an attempt to finally get below the 3 per cent ceiling for eurozone members by 2014.
Public debt, however, is expected to top 150 per cent of GDP in the coming years, prompting fears that a debt restructuring or rescheduling may be unavoidable unless the EU and IMF grant Greece an extension to the existing bailout loan.
Unemployment, officially at 12.6 per cent of the workforce in September, is forecast to top 14 per cent next year, while youth unemployment (those aged 15-24) is above 30 per cent, prompting fears of further social unrest in the future.