Civil disobedience in Greece grows over austerity

ATHENS, Greece - October 28, 2011 The government's efforts to reduce the country's debt burden and qualify for international bailout loans have come up against mounting resistance from a population suddenly squeezed hard between cuts to their salaries, pensions and benefits on one hand, and rising costs on the other.

Now, even elected local officials are joining the fray in a seemingly random but increasingly prevalent wave of civil disobedience.

Working on the theory of strength in numbers, authorities in the sizable Nea Ionia district of Athens are urging residents not to pay a much reviled new property tax being charged through electricity bills, in the hope of derailing the law.

"Our constituents can't pay, they don't have the ability to," said Nea Ionia mayor Iraklis Gotsis, whose municipality has a population of about 70,000 people. "We consider the new tax to be illegal. But in essence, the truth is our people just can't pay."

So, the local council held town hall meetings, pondered going door-to-door with fliers, and this week posted instructions on its website on how to pay an electricity bill without handing over the new levy. A poster on the town hall's front door bears the slogan: "We don't owe. We don't have any (money). We won't pay. Enough!" And Nea Ionia is not alone.

Groups of lawyers, trade unions and campaigners have also tried to derail government efforts to collect new taxes, or to suspend tens of thousands of civil servants on partial pay. State buildings have been occupied, municipalities have stalled in delivering emergency notices ordering strikers back to work, state enterprises have refused to hand over lists of employees eligible for suspension.

The backlash comes alongside strikes so frequent that everyone from garbage collectors to bakers, dentists to taxi drivers and air traffic controllers, have walked off the job at some point.

Since May 2010, Greece has been surviving on rescue loans from a euro110 billion ($150 billion) bailout package from the other 16 countries using the euro and the International Monetary Fund since it can't afford to borrow money directly from markets.

Desperate to stick to the targets set out under its international bailout agreements, the government has repeatedly urged for an end to the resistance.

"I would like to ask all those who occupy ministry buildings, choke the streets with garbage, close off ports, close off the Acropolis, if this helps us stand on our feet again. Of course it does not," Prime Minister George Papandreou thundered recently in parliament.

Returning from Brussels Thursday after marathon negotiations with European leaders on a new deal to contain the union's debt crisis and deal with Greece's crushing debt, Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos pledged there would be no new measures this year or next - but only if those announced so far are implemented.

Many Greeks, however, say that after repeated spending cuts and tax hikes that have cut deep into household incomes and sent unemployment soaring to above 16 percent, they have taken all they can.

Possibly nothing has galvanized Greek public opinion against austerity measures more than the new property levy. Announced in September, it aims to raise about euro2 billion ($2.83 billion) by the end of the year. Including it on electricity bills was meant to make it easier for the state to collect - especially with the added threat of power cuts for those failing to pay.

At least that's the idea.

Furious at a plan they say turns them into backup tax collectors, state power company workers vowed to prevent people having their electricity cut off - or to reconnect vulnerable groups such as the elderly, unemployed or infirm if the company does flick off the switch.

"The fact that electricity, a social commodity, is being used as a means to collect taxes is unacceptable," said Dimitris Chagistrogilis, a technician on high-voltage power lines. "They're bringing us into conflict with our fellow citizens."

Legal help could be on hand soon too. The Athens Bar Association appealed to the Council of State this week to have the law repealed, even describing it as a form of "psychological violence" because of the threat of power cuts.

"We consider this law totally unfair," explained Christos Anamourloglou, a lawyer and member of Nea Ionia municipal council. "If it were a one-off tax, we could say 'ok, let's pay this and see if we can get out of this situation, for the good of the country.' But here we're talking of saving the country when we can't save ourselves."

In one recent - ultimately failed - bid to prevent bills with the new levy from being printed, power company workers occupied the company's billing facility in central Athens.

Occupations, in fact, have long been a favored form of protest. Nearly every ministry - including those of finance and defense - have seen their entrances picketed or barricaded, angry employees unfurling giant banners from the rooftops and waving black flags from the balconies.

"In essence, we are at war," said Vangelis Souzos, picketing the finance ministry for which he has worked for more than 30 years. "We have a lawless government and it's a given that we are forced to take actions such as this."

Greece's debt inspectors have not been immune to the protests either, arriving at one ministry building earlier this month only to be greeted by locked gates and a courtyard taken over by striking employees waving black flags.

"Under other circumstances this is illegal, for sure," Souzos said. "And many people ask: 'what right do you have to shut public property?' But ... as you can understand, they've pushed us to the point of despair."

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