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Crisis throws Greece into tailspin

Riot police clash with striking shipyard workers who broke into the ground of Greece’s Defense Ministry in Athens on Oct. 4. The workers said they had not been paid in months. Greece’s unemployment rate stands at 25 percent as thousands of businesses have closed.

Associated Press

Riot police clash with striking shipyard workers who broke into the ground of Greece’s Defense Ministry in Athens on Oct. 4. The workers said they had not been paid in months. Greece’s unemployment rate stands at 25 percent as thousands of businesses have closed.

ATHENS, Greece — A sign taped to a wall in an Athens hospital appealed for civility from patients. "The doctors on duty have been unpaid since May," it read, "Please respect their work."

Patients and their relatives glanced up briefly and moved on, hardened to such messages of gloom. In a country where about 1,000 people lose their jobs each day, legions more are still employed but haven't seen a paycheck in months. What used to be an anomaly has become commonplace, and those who have jobs that pay on time consider themselves the exception to the rule.

It has been three years since Greece's government informed its fellow members in the 17-country group that uses the euro that its deficit was far higher than originally reported. It was the fuse that sparked financial turmoil still weighing heavily on eurozone countries. Countless rounds of negotiations ensued as European countries and the International Monetary Fund struggled to determine how best to put a lid on the crisis and stop it spreading.

The result: Greece had to introduce stringent austerity measures in return for two international rescue loan packages worth a total of 240 billion euros ($312.84 billion), slashing salaries and pensions and hiking taxes.

The reforms have been painful, and the country faces a sixth year of recession.

Life in Athens is often punctuated by demonstrations big and small, sometimes on a daily basis. Rows of shuttered shops stand between the restaurants that have managed to stay open. Vigilantes roam inner city neighborhoods, vowing to "clean up" what they claim the demoralized police have failed to do. Right-wing extremists beat migrants, anarchists beat the right-wing thugs and desperate local residents quietly cheer one side or the other as society grows increasingly polarized.

"Our society is on a razor's edge," Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias said recently, after striking shipyard workers broke into the grounds of the Defense Ministry. "If we can't contain ourselves, if we can't maintain our social cohesion, if we can't continue to act within the rules ... I fear we will end up being a jungle."

Living standards fall

Vassilis Tsiknopoulos, runs a stall at Athens' central fish market. He used to make a tidy profit, he says, pausing to wrap red mullet in a paper cone for a customer. But families can't afford to spend much anymore, and many restaurants have closed.

The 38-year-old fishmonger now barely breaks even.

"I start work at 2:30 a.m. and work till the afternoon, until about 4 p.m. Shouldn't I have something to show for that? There's no point in working just to cover my costs. … Tell me, is this a life?"

The fish market's president, Spyros Korakis, said there has been a 70 percent drop in business over the past three years. He explained how the days of big spenders were gone, with people buying ever smaller quantities and choosing cheaper fish.

Thousands of private businesses have closed. Unemployment stands at a record 25 percent, with more than half of Greece's young people out of work. Higher heating fuel prices have meant many apartment tenants have opted not to buy it this year. Instead, they'll make do with blankets, gas heaters and firewood to get through the winter. Lines at soup kitchens have grown longer.

"I've been here since 1968. My father, my grandfather ran this business," Korakis said. "We've never seen things so bad."

Tsiknopoulos' patience is running out.

"I'm thinking of shutting down," he said, "I think about it every day. That, and leaving Greece."

Justice postponed

On a recent morning in a crowded civil court in the northern city of Thessaloniki, frustration simmered. Plaintiffs, defendants and lawyers all waited for the inevitable — yet another postponement, yet another court date.

Greece's justice system has been hit by a protracted strike that has left courts functioning for only an hour a day as judges and prosecutors protest salary cuts.

For Giorgos Vacharelis, it means his long quest for justice has grown longer. Vacharelis' younger brother was beaten to death in 2003. The attacker was convicted of causing a fatal injury and jailed. The family felt the reasons behind the 24-year-old's death had never been fully explained and filed a civil suit for damages.

It has been nearly 10 years later, but the court date they were given in late September got caught up the strike. Now they have a new date: Feb. 28, 2014.

"This means more costs for them, but above all more psychological damage because each time they go through the murder of their relative again," said Nikos Dialynas, the family's lawyer.

Vacharelis and his family are in despair.

"If a foreigner saw how the justice system works in Greece, he would say we're crazy," said the 35-year-old.

Vigilante violence

In September, gangs smashed immigrant street vendors' stalls at fairs and farmers' markets. Videos posted on the Internet showed the incident being carried out in the presence of lawmakers from the extreme right Golden Dawn party. Formerly a fringe group, Golden Dawn — which denies accusations it has carried out violent attacks against immigrants — made major inroads into mainstream politics. It won nearly 7 percent of the vote in June's election and 18 seats in the 300-member parliament. A recent poll showed its support climbing to 12 percent.

While there are no official statistics, migrants tell of random beatings at the hands of thugs who stop to ask them where they are from, then attack them.

Assaults have been increasing since autumn 2010, said Spyros Rizakos, who heads Aitima, a human rights group focusing on refugees. Victims often avoid reporting beatings for fear of running afoul of the authorities if they are in the country illegally, while perpetrators are rarely caught or punished even if the attacks are reported.

In response to pressure for more security and a crackdown on illegal migration, the government launched a police sweep in Athens in early August. By late October, police had rounded up nearly 46,000 foreigners, of whom more than 3,600 were arrested for being in the country illegally.

Health care struggles

At a demonstration by the disabled in central Athens, tempers were rising.

Health care spending has been slashed as the country struggles to reduce its debt. Public hospitals complain of shortages. Benefits have been slashed and hospital workers often go unpaid for months. Pharmacies regularly go on strike or refuse to fill subsidized social security prescriptions because they haven't paid them for those already filled.

"When the pharmacies are closed and I can't get my insulin, which is my life for me, what do I do? … How can we survive?" asked Voula Hasiotou, a member of an association of diabetics who turned out for the rally.

"We are fighting hard to manage something, a dignified life," said Anastasia Mouzakiti, a paraplegic who came to the demonstration from the northern city of Thessaloniki with her husband, who is also handicapped.

With extra needs such as wheelchairs and home help for everyday tasks such as washing and dressing, many of Greece's disabled are struggling to make ends meet, Mouzakiti said.

"We need a wheelchair until we die. This wheelchair, if it breaks down, how do we pay for it? "

Crisis throws Greece into tailspin 11/03/12 [Last modified: Saturday, November 3, 2012 5:31am]

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