Greece hit by 48-hour nationwide strike on eve of key austerity vote

Greek workers launched a 48-hour nationwide strike to protest proposed new austerity measures that would slash pay, raise taxes and increase the retirement age
ATHENS -- Shopkeepers rolled down shutters, transport screeched to a halt and state agencies were closed Tuesday as millions of Greeks walked off their jobs to protest the toughest measures yet unveiled by the government in its bid to slash the nation's deficit and jump-start the stalled economy.

The 48-hour nationwide strike, affecting the public and private sector, comes on the eve of a crucial parliamentary vote on $17 billion in added austerity measures that Athens needs to approve to unlock $39 billion in bailout funds from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

Without that cash infusion, Greece would have enough money to pay pensions, salaries and other expenses only until Nov. 16, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has warned. After that, this Mediterranean nation, the epicenter of the euro debt crisis, would be bankrupt.

But three years of piled-on austerity and five years of recession have unleashed a wave of public unrest.

Union workers have pledged to flood Athens with protesters in two days of demonstrations and strike action, keeping schools closed, hospitals operating with only emergency staff, and road, rail and air services suspended.

Thousands of police have been deployed in Athens, and huge steel barriers have been erected around Parliament to shield the sprawling ochre-colored building from potential attacks ahead of Wednesday's scheduled vote.

The new measures include further pay cuts, tax hikes and an increase in the average retirement age by two years, from 65 to 67. The plan would also sack thousands of public employees and slash severance payments in a society where unemployment has already hit 25%.

Samaras' government says the measures are necessary in order to bring down Greece's deficit and squeeze out a primary budget surplus -- that is, before interest payments -- by 2014. But the prime minister is having trouble keeping his wobbly coalition together.

On Monday, the Democratic Left, the smallest party in the coalition, said it would stay in the power-sharing government but would refuse to vote for labor reforms that would cut wages by 10% and eliminate a series of severance payments. The about-face could leave Samaras with barely enough votes to eke out a majority in Greece's 300-seat Parliament.

"He'll get his victory," said George Kirtsos, a leading political commentator in Athens. "But implementation will be a problem. The government will have been seriously impaired."


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Photo: Protesters march to the Greek Parliament on Tuesday during a 48-hour nationwide strike to protest proposed austerity measures. Credit: Dimitri Messinis / Associated Press

Greek journalist acquitted in breach-of-privacy case

Kostas Vaxevanis

ATHENS -- An Athens court on Thursday acquitted a Greek journalist accused of breaching privacy and data protection laws for publishing a list of more than 2,000 Greeks with Swiss bank accounts.

The trial, an exhausting and at times comic 11-hour spectacle, raised questions of Greece’s press freedom and failing attempts to tackle tax evasion. It also touched off debate over what pundits, politicians and defense attorneys deemed “an unapologetic” use of force and influence by the state to cover up corrupt political practices.

If convicted, Kostas Vaxevanis, a prominent investigative journalist and publisher of Hot Doc magazine, would have faced a minimum 12-month imprisonment, plus a fine of $39,000.  

“The court finds you innocent,” the presiding judge told Vaxevanis, offering no legal reasoning for her decision.

Since his weekend arrest, the 46-year-old journalist has insisted that the list he published was identical to a roster of names and data the Greek government was given two years ago by then-French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde to pursue tax cheats.

There was no suggestion that the 2,059 Greek holders of HSBC bank accounts in Geneva were tax cheats. Still, in the course of Thursday’s heated hearing, defense attorneys and a key political witness argued that the list had been shelved, with politicians failing to probe potential tax evasion.

“This list was a tool that could have helped the state reap hundreds of millions of euros from potential tax evasion,” said Zoe Konstantopoulou, a leftist lawmaker and member of a cross-party parliamentary commission probing possible political negligence in the case. “It could have spared the country from seeking an international bailout and signing up to the punishing terms of austerity.”

“Instead,” she said in a small, squalid courtroom packed with observers, “it was never fully exploited and the list itself has gone missing with one finance minister saying his staff misplaced it somewhere, the other laying blame on other officials.”

The government has repeatedly refused to comment on the case, and throughout Thursday’s trial the judge consistently removed or ignored any mention of politics.

Since the commission began investigating the case months ago, officials who have testified have shed little light on allegations of political malfeasance in vetting potential tax dodgers, suspected of cheating the government out of an estimated $38 billion a year.

Fearing further leaks and exposes, authorities have moved to muzzle the news media.  On Wednesday, for example, a second investigative journalist and television presenter was arrested for promising to reveal hacked documents of the country’s treasury. Earlier in the week, two television presenters at the country’s state-run broadcaster, NET, were suspended for commenting on allegations of police brutality.

With tens of thousands of Greeks following protest tweets and a string of name-and-shame campaigns going viral on the Internet, the state’s arm-twisting of the news media cast a pall over the government’s bid to secure extra aid, and time, from its lenders to fix the faltering Greek economy and endemic weaknesses, such as widespread corruption and tax evasion.

What’s more, the cases have stoked public fury, with scores of crisis-crippled Greeks scrambling to the side of the prosecuted journalists, now portrayed as heroes crusading against a corrupt political establishment.

“I’m pained to be here in the cradle of democracy defending the right to press freedom,” said Jim Boumelha, president of the International Federation of Journalists. “These are questions and issues I face in Gambia, not in a Western society.”

Vaxevanis said the trial was not about him, but "all about a corrupt oligarchy of businessmen, politicians and controlled media that have long acted against the interest of the nation and its people.”

“Now,” he said, “this will allow journalists to do their job.”


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Photo: Kostas Vaxevanis addresses reporters outside the courtroom in Athens on Thursday. Credit: Orestis Panagiotou / European Pressphoto Agency

Eurozone unemployment figures hit a new high



This post has been corrected. See bottom for details.

LONDON — Europe’s economic gloom deepened Wednesday on the back of news that unemployment in the 17-nation Eurozone hit another record high in September as the region’s debt crisis continued to sap the confidence of business owners, investors and consumers alike.

About 18.5 million people were out of work in the Eurozone in September, adding up to a jobless rate of 11.6%. That figure exceeds August’s record of 11.5% and follows the worrisome trend of the past half-year, during which unemployment has either remained static or worsened with each successive month.

The grim picture painted by Eurostat, the European Union’s statistical agency, comes as the continent’s debt crisis sits on the cusp of entering its fourth year with no full resolution in sight. Lawmakers in Greece, where the crisis began, are still grappling with another punishing round of austerity cuts demanded by international lenders, while Spain is keeping markets on tenterhooks over whether it will become the latest country to seek a bailout from its European partners.

According to Eurostat, there were 2.2 million more people out of work in September than a year ago in the 17 nations that share the euro currency. Since then, a number of those economies have tumbled back into recession, government debt ratios have risen, commercial lending has dwindled and investors have taken flight.

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Greek journalist in court for revealing names of potential tax cheats

Kostas Vaxevanis
This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.

ATHENS -- A Greek journalist who was arrested after publishing the names of more than 2,000 fellow citizens believed to have stashed about $2 billion in Swiss bank accounts appeared in court Monday to answer charges of breach of privacy.

Kostas Vaxevanis, a prominent investigative journalist and editor of Hot Doc magazine, was arrested Sunday but released hours later pending trial. In an Athens courtroom Monday, his attorney requested a continuance to prepare for a hearing scheduled for Thursday.

"This is a case of utmost public interest, and we want it to be heard," Harris Economopoulos, Vaxevanis' attorney, said in a telephone interview. "We want the truth to come out. Greeks have endured enormous sacrifices, and they are facing yet a new wave of austerity [measures]. They have the right to know whether there is a case of political coverup."

Vaxevanis insists that the published list, which includes the names of high-profile Greek businessmen and politicians -- even the brother of former Prime Minister George Papandreou -- is the same list that former French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde relayed to her Greek counterpart two years ago to help Athens crack down on rampant tax evasion in Greece. His list, however, included more names than Lagarde reportedly handed over.

Since then, successive governments have been accused of trying to cover up the scandal, with two finance ministers and a number of judicial and tax officials shifting responsibility and blame.

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London's historic Admiralty Arch will become a hotel

Admiralty Arch in London
LONDON -- Admiralty Arch, a century-old stone archway and building that serves as the ceremonial gateway to Buckingham Palace, is to get a new lease on life as a luxury hotel, a government minister confirmed Thursday.

Built by King Edward VII to honor the long reign of his mother Queen Victoria, the arch has been leased to Spanish property entrepreneur Rafael Serrano, chief executive of the London-based investment company Prime Investors Capital. Serrano paid about $96 million for the 99-year lease.

From the top of the central archway on one side guests will enjoy a view toward Buckingham Palace down the Mall, the tree-lined avenue that is the traditional route of royal processions, including April’s royal wedding cortege of Prince William and his bride Catherine Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge. The other side looks down on Trafalgar Square, home to Nelson’s Column and a meeting point for public celebrations, rallies and protests.

It is the latest of the government property fire sales around Europe over the last two years that come amid austerity drives to tame massive deficits. In France and Italy, government-owned palaces and villas have gone to wealthy private investors. In Greece, state-owned buildings, marinas and ports reportedly are up for sale.

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Some EU nations rejecting Syrians seeking asylum


While the European Union denounces the escalating violence in Syria, not all of its member nations have welcomed fleeing Syrians with open arms, the United Nations refugee agency said Tuesday.

Some countries on the eastern edges of the European Union are rejecting more than half of Syrians who seek asylum, the U.N. agency said. Greece, for instance, has fallen short in protecting Syrian refugees, agency spokesman Adrian Edwards told reporters in Geneva. The country rejected every one of the 115 Syrian asylum applications that it weighed between January and June, according to European Commission statistics.

Human-rights groups have long complained that Greece throws up steep barriers to those seeking  asylum; the country contends that it bears an unfairly heavy immigration burden because of its location on the Mediterranean Sea.

Greece "fails to meet the protection needs of many refugees," Edwards told reporters.

Other countries are offering Syrians only “a tolerated stay,” the U.N. agency said.

Though Edwards did not name which specific countries were doing so, European Commission statistics show Hungary and Bulgaria granted asylum to roughly half of Syrians applicants between January and June, rejecting some completely and giving others a lesser level of protection than asylum could afford.

The European Union just won the Nobel Peace Prize for advancing peace, democracy and human rights. It tightened sanctions on Syria earlier this week, lamenting the intensification of violence. The refugee crisis “is an opportunity for the EU to put its commitment to solidarity into practice,” Edwards said Tuesday. 

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German leader Merkel greeted by protesters in Greece

ATHENS -- Visiting the epicenter of Europe's debt crisis for the first time since the troubles began three years ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday tried to assure recession-racked Greeks that she understood their suffering but encouraged them not to abandon the road of austerity and painful spending cuts.

“I know that the path to recovery has been difficult,” Merkel said after two hours of talks with Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. “Still, the strides that have been made are worth being completed.”

Her words failed to placate many of the 30,000 people who swarmed Athens to protest a visit by the woman they blame for pushing Greece down the road to economic ruin through her relentless emphasis on austerity in exchange for emergency aid.

Just minutes before Merkel arrived in downtown Athens, protesters dressed as Nazi officers rolled into Syntagma Square, outside the Greek Parliament building, in a military jeep festooned with swastika-stamped flags.

Then, as the German leader gave only qualified support for Greece's continued membership in the Eurozone, the club of 17 nations that use the euro currency, militant protesters fired a flurry of firecracker-like projectiles at the police outside Parliament.

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German leader Angela Merkel enters the lion's den: Greece

With Europe's debt crisis deepening, German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in Greece o signal her support for a country where many blame her personally for driving their economy into the ground
ATHENS -- With Europe's debt crisis deepening, German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in Greece on Tuesday to signal her support for a country where many blame her personally for driving their economy into the ground.

As the tough-talking German leader disembarked from a private jet, boarding a motorcade bound for central Athens, she swiftly shuttled into a lion's den of rage and resentment over the policies of austerity that she has insisted on as the price of emergency loans to keep cash-strapped Greece afloat.

Authorities deployed about 7,000 plainclothes police officers, snipers and commandos to lock down the Greek capital and fend off potential attacks from protesters angry over Merkel's visit, her first to this country since the European debt crisis began here three years ago. The visit is to last just seven hours.

As Merkel was being driven into downtown Athens, protesters dressed in Nazi uniforms rolled into Syntagma Square, outside the Greek Parliament building, in a military jeep festooned with swastika-stamped flags.

Since the visit was announced last week, opposition political parties, trade unions and anarchists have rallied Greeks to walk out of their jobs and join a string of protests that kicked off Monday and are set culminate later Tuesday when Merkel meets with Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.

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Greek anti-austerity protesters clash with police in Athens

ATHENS — Hurling sticks, stones and gasoline bombs, scores of militant youths clashed with police in central Athens on Wednesday, marring an anti-austerity protest and strike that saw hundreds of thousands of workers walk off the job and about 20,000 demonstrators throng the streets of the Greek capital.

The clashes between police and black-clad, self-styled anarchists capped a peaceful protest and 24-hour nationwide strike against looming budget cuts. The violence came a day after a large protest in Spain, which is also facing difficult decisions — and social unrest — over spending cuts brought on by the euro debt crisis.

The turmoil helped send European stocks swooning, with the euro dropping in value against the dollar.

Called by the country’s two biggest labor unions, Greece’s strike action on Wednesday marked the third nationwide protest to cripple the crisis-racked country since the start of the year. It was the first major grass-roots challenge to the strength and unity of the fledgling Greek government, a shaky coalition stitched together from disparate political forces after two divisive elections in May and June.

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Eurozone pulls back from the brink of catastrophe -- again

NYSE floor Thursday
Europe's economic roller-coaster slowed to a safe stop Thursday, after the latest white-knuckled plunge toward disaster, when European Central Bank President Mario Draghi vowed to control soaring interest rates that threaten to bankrupt heavily indebted Eurozone countries.

The promise of "unlimited" intervention by the central bank to buy up bonds at rates that countries like Spain and Italy can afford brought immediate relief in the form of a global market rally. And unlike previous moves to suppress interest rates that were cast as temporary measures, the long-term commitment made by Draghi is expected to keep Eurozone borrowing costs sustainable for the foreseeable future, or at least until the next crisis comes along.

GlobalFocusAnd potential crises lurk around every corner.

There's a breathlessly anticipated ruling expected next week by Germany's Constitutional Court on whether the Eurozone bailout fund is legal. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble professed confidence Thursday that the court would find a way to see the European Stability Mechanism and its $630-billion rescue funds as permissible, despite constitutional restrictions on government-to-government investment.

On the same day the German court rules, Dutch voters go to the polls. The Netherlands' governing coalition collapsed in April, the latest to fall to disagreements over austerity measures and how to impose them. Deep public spending cuts demanded by the monetary club's strict debt ceilings have inflicted high unemployment -- more than 11% throughout the 17-nation Eurozone -- and gouging cuts in public services, pensions and welfare. Popular anger over austerity pain has thrown out leaders in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, France and elsewhere during the three years of the euro crisis.

Revolving-door leadership can only contribute to the instability of a continent always on the edge of social explosion, warn those who have been following the economic dramas.

"Patience is going to be tested in the coming months. We'll see whether people go back out into the streets," said Keith Savard, senior managing economist at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica. "Personally, I'm surprised they're not there now in countries like Greece."

The shaky governing coalition in Greece, the Eurozone's most debt-laden economy and scene of protests over draconian budget cuts, announced last week that it had agreed on another $14.5 billion in spending reductions for the next two years. Unemployment is nearly 25% -- matching that of Spain -- and Germany, the debt-reduction taskmaster of the Eurozone, has made clear that Athens won't get another cent from its neighbors as it struggles to get its deficits below the 3% Eurozone target.

Mark Weisbrot, co-director the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, welcomed Draghi's announcement as an overdue demonstration that the central bank will act to spare Eurozone lending from the ravages of speculation that one or more member states might exit the currency club, leaving investors holding billions in bad loans.

But he views the commitment to keeping bond yields under control as correcting only one of two misguided policies of the Eurozone. The other, an ideological mission of conservative-led countries to gut the social welfare systems of southern neighbors, continues to imperil jobs, growth and stability throughout the Eurozone, Weisbrot said.

Until Thursday, the central bank had intervened to shore up the euro with belated and inadequate measures, undermining confidence in the currency that allowed speculators to drive up borrowing costs to unsustainable levels.

"They've been playing a game of chicken for the past two years, and Draghi got tired of these near-death experiences," Weisbrot said of the relatively new central bank chief's departure from the half measures of his predecessor, Jean-Claude Trichet.

"But what is really going on is completely political," Weisbrot added. Germany, Austria, Finland and other Eurozone countries with more prosperous economies "really do want to dismantle the welfare state in these southern countries and they are using the financial crisis to do that."

He likens Europe's fiscal conservatives to the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives who have been pushing for debt reduction through cuts in programs for the jobless and the needy.

"They're not as extreme as the House Republicans, but in Europe there is so much more to take away. Europe has all kinds of things we don't have -- national healthcare systems that were quite good, for instance. Spain just cut more than $7 billion from healthcare," Weisbrot noted.

While the central bank pledge to hold down borrowing costs buoyed markets worldwide Thursday, Draghi made clear that countries won't be eligible for bond rate intervention unless they first seek help from the bailout fund, where further paring of government spending is likely to be a condition.

International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde confirmed that more affordable loans will come only with more belt-tightening. She hailed Draghi's bond-buying initiative and promised IMF help "to secure finance at a reasonable cost while they undertake sustained macroeconomic adjustment."

Translation: loans in exchange for government cutbacks.


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Photo: Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Thursday after announcement of a European Central Bank bond-buying program and stronger-than-expected data on the U.S. job market. The Dow Jones industrial average rose 245 points to close at the highest level since December 2007. But analysts remain wary of the Eurozone's long-term stability. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images


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