Greek bailout creditors get an earful in Athens

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Associated Press

Posted on November 5, 2013 at 7:32 AM

Updated Tuesday, Nov 5 at 8:36 AM

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Representatives of Greece's bailout creditors received an earful on the first day of new talks to potentially add to the financially battered country's austerity burden.

Armed with a bullhorn, a few dozen civil servants chanted anti-austerity slogans Tuesday outside the room where the officials were meeting Finance Ministry Yannis Stournaras.

Though they were prevented from entering the room, the protesters later blocked the lifts and main entrance, forcing police to spirit representatives of the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund out by an emergency exit. Meanwhile, scores of ministry cleaners who face dismissal protested outside the finance ministry in central Athens.

Greece has survived on international rescue loans since 2010 after a combination of dismal financial stewardship, loss of investor confidence and the global recession brought it to the brink of bankruptcy. Successive governments have passed deeply resented spending cuts and tax hikes to secure loans totaling 240 billion euros ($324 billion).

The protest comes a day before the country's two largest labor unions are planning a general strike that will stop train and ferry services, halt flights for three hours, and disrupt hospitals and public transport.

The ongoing talks with EU and IMF officials are focused on the size of Greece's 2014 budget gap. While Stournaras has said the shortfall will be around 500 million euros ($675 million) and can be raised with relative ease, he conceded that the creditors expect the gap to be five times as big — a much more challenging prospect.

At stake in the new talks is the country's next installment of rescue loans of 1 billion euros ($1.35 billion).

The EU Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs, Olli Rehn, conceded Tuesday that past austerity talks with Greece have not been "precisely easy."

"But I don't see that they are more difficult than normally," he said in Brussels. "I'm sure that we will be able to find a satisfactory solution" on plugging the fiscal gap.

Greece's conservative-led government insists it will not agree to new across the board spending cuts. The 17-month-old coalition already faces a possible revolt by its own lawmakers over a proposed new property tax, and argues that it cannot inflict further pain on a population that has already suffered an average 40 percent loss in disposable income since 2009 and seen unemployment spike to a staggering 28 percent.

The country has suffered five years of recession accentuated by austerity measures meant to reduce deep budget deficits. The government insists that the suffering is paying off, and predicts a primary surplus — a surplus before debt interest payments — this year and a return to growth in 2014.

Deputy Finance Minister Christos Staikouras said the perennially underperforming tax collection arm of the government has exceeded targets so far this year, and a primary surplus can be achieved.

"With the truly painful contribution from households and businesses, the country is close to attaining its fiscal targets," he said Tuesday.

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