Business, Finance & Economics

Feeling Greece's pain

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Greek policemen and firemen protest outside the German embassy in central Athens, on September 22, 2011.

Credit:

Stringer

ATHENS, Greece — Theodore Flesouras, among the rising number of unemployed in debt-ridden Greece, is a regular at his local betting parlor where he visits friends but rarely gambles. Winning just seems impossible.

"There is no future for us," the 49-year-old father of two said while sipping a coffee near Lambrini Square. "There is no hope for the people here, no hope. You see, around here, nobody smiles. Every day we hear bad news. Every day."

Ordinary Greeks are feeling enormous pressure from the government's efforts to persuade wary lenders that it can cut spending and raise revenue. Without rescue loans from Europe and the International Monetary Fund, Greece faces financial collapse, which threatens not just the euro but the global economy.

In the past year, the government reduced pensions and salaries and, among other initiatives, began overhauling a dysfunctional tax collection system that had allowed widespread evasion.

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But when auditors up and left the country earlier this month — reportedly frustrated with the slow pace of reforms — it forced Prime Minister George Papandreou's Socialist government, which inherited a $410 billion debt in 2009, to accelerate austerity measures in a bid to clinch the latest installment of the $150 billion loan package negotiated in May 2010.

A new property tax was imposed in a bid to raise $2.8 billion. It will be collected through electricity bills. Power will be cut off if you don't pay. A parliamentary vote is scheduled next week. In recent days, the government announced it will put 70,000 workers on a "reserve" list to be laid off after one year on reduced salaries.

Uncertainty about the country's future — it is already battling a recession and an unemployment rate of 16.3 percent — is causing anxiety.

"One day we hear from the government about property taxes, the next day it's something else. I'm worried," said a fruit-and-nuts vendor at an open-air market in the Galatsi neighborhood. She would only give her first name, Katherine. "I don't feel safe."

Unions shut down trains, buses and taxis on Thursday — the latest in a series of protests that turned violent this past summer when riot police and demonstrators clashed in the streets. Mass transit strikes are planned for next Tuesday and Wednesday. Air traffic controllers were to strike Sunday. General strikes are planned in October and unions say they'll go to court to challenge the constitutionality of the government's latest moves.

Meanwhile, the workers union of the state-owned electric utility have vowed to block collection of the new property tax. Despite that, Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos said Thursday the property tax — originally announced as a temporary measure — would be extended "in coming years." He warned Greece would face an Argentina-like crisis, referring to its 2000 bankruptcy, if reforms are not implemented.

Papandreou says there's no turning back. "I am fully committed to this national effort of ours," the U.S.-educated prime minister said in a recent speech in Thessaloniki. "It is for the sake of our shared future and joint interests. And this is a road of no return."

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But Christos Argyris, a 32-year-old pediatrician at a public hospital, said the government is asking too much. He joined 1,000 fellow health workers in a peaceful march that ended at the doors of the Health Ministry on Wednesday.

"We are not rich," said Argyris, who estimated that he earns $32,000 annually and works "100 hours" per week. "Now, they are cutting more."

Salary cuts this year will cost him about $550 per month, he said.

"We have few doctors in the public hospitals. They are cutting 300 to 400 euros per month in our wages to give the money to the banks," he said. "So we say no, we say drop the debt. It's not our debt. It's a capitalist debt from the banks, from big capitalist corporations."

At the open-air market in the Galatsi neighborhood, a florist who preferred to give only his first name, Theo, said the financial crisis has taken a toll on his family. His wife lost her business-consulting job a year ago. They sold one of their two cars, moved to a smaller, older apartment, and pulled their two young children out of private preschool.

"I'm waiting for them to get older so they go to public school, which is free," said Theo, who was born in New York to Greek parents and returned to Athens when he was 3 years old.

His clients are buying fewer flowers and plants, some ask if they can pay next week and others stopped coming.

"People here are afraid that we're already bankrupt and they just don't tell us," he added. "But I don't think it's as dramatic as they show it to be. Fear is a very good way to control the masses."

He hopes to see more strikes.

"They have us by the neck. What are we going to do, just sit there and die? Not going to happen. Not here, this is Greece. We survive, we never die," he said. "You can't live in fear. I have two kids to raise. I have to find a way."

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