World
8:49 am
Wed June 29, 2011

Greek Parliament Approves Austerity Package

European leaders and international financial markets breathed a sigh of relief Wednesday when the Greek Parliament voted in favor of a highly unpopular package of austerity measures.

Passage of the measures had been a condition set by the European Union and IMF for release of the next installment of the $155 billion bailout agreed to last year.

But outside Parliament, the streets of Athens were turned into a war zone as protesters and anti-riot police engaged in running battles.

Protesters started gathering there at midmorning. Addressing the lawmakers inside, they chanted, "You've sold our islands, you've sold our ports, it's time you sold your mothers and get out of here."

For the second day in a row, the public sector was shut down in a general strike — the longest walkout since democracy returned to Greece in 1974 after the seven-year military dictatorship.

Greece is a country long polarized between left and right, but the austerity measures have had an unexpected effect. Longtime political rivals are actually speaking to each other, surprised that they share so much outrage — at the government, international lenders and foreign banks that, many Greeks say, have taken over control of their destiny.

Wednesday's demonstration began peacefully but soon turned violent, as police clashed with groups of provocateurs and unleashed canisters of powerful tear gas on the crowds.

Syntagma Square in Athens was suddenly enveloped in clouds of putrid white smoke. Men and women, many wearing surgeon's masks to try to protect themselves against the stinging gas, ran off, seeking shelter where they can.

In a speech to Parliament, Prime Minister George Papandreou defended his recipe of yet more wage and pension cuts, tax hikes and privatization of more than $70 billion in state assets.

"There is no Plan B for Greece — at least I can say there is no Plan B in favor of Greece," he said, "and if we collapse, then our creditors will just think about themselves, not about ourselves.

"There are two options — the tough path of change and the easy way of disaster. With your vote,you can give Greece a historical opportunity, a historical chance," he said.

Lawmakers of the ruling Socialist party applauded, but at the Lycabettus Cafe in Athens, the prime minister did not convince somber-looking photographer Sotiris Papaemmanouil.

I think we have to stop taking money from Europe," Papaemmanouil said. "We have to face the new situation. We are closing our stores, losing our jobs and there is no future, no future, no."

A woman rushed into the cafe, tears streaming down her face from the tear gas. Calliope Iris is also a victim of the economic crisis. She's a dress designer who had to shut down her studio only two years after she opened it.

She said the government thinks it's going to begin implementing the new austerity measures in a few weeks.

"But the people here, they are all are saying this is not going to happen," she said. "It's not going to be implemented. We are going to go through major civil disobedience."

At the end the day, the streets of Athens were in shambles. Garbage bags had been set on fire, and pavements were covered with rocks and shards of masonry. It seems to be a warning to the government of just how hard it will be to regain the trust of an increasingly exasperated population.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.