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Greece's debt crisis threatens unity among European partners

ATHENS, Greece — It's known as the cradle of Western civilization, but these days cash-starved Greece is viewed as more of a miscreant.

This nation where ancient infuses the modern, where buses and motorcycles whiz past stone remnants from classical times, has become a symbol of fundamental cracks in European unity.

At the opposite pole lies Europe's economic engine, Germany, whose people vehemently oppose bailing out the Greeks.

The turmoil over Greek debt has hammered the markets, hinting at another round in the global financial crisis just as it seemed to be fading. It also raises fears that troubled Portugal and Spain are next, highlighting a North-South divide in Europe that challenges the viability of the European Union and its common currency.

Even if Greece avoids the worst, the cultural rift will stay. Germany and France are European Union linchpins; Greece is generally viewed as problematic, relying on its partners' largesse and loose with statistics.

"They apparently treated their capital like waste," said Ilona Reichelt, a German retiree. "It's not like they've suffered an earthquake or a natural disaster. It's a man-made disaster."

Greeks take pride in their ancestors, pioneers of law and politics that shaped Western society, while relishing a life of carefree spending and early retirement.

In trying to explain how Greeks think, some point to Zorba the Greek, the fictional, free-spirited figure of dance. He's not the type to get his finances in order.

"I wouldn't say that all Greeks are Zorba, but part of every Greek is this love of life and this love of enjoyment," said Nikos Dimou, a 75-year-old Greek author who studied in Germany. "The Greeks have a rather negative view about the Germans because they work too much."

Now Greece wants $59.8 billion from the 16 euro nations as well as the International Monetary Fund. Germany, Europe's largest economy and a model of efficiency, would contribute about a fifth of the cash.

In Germany, a lawmaker fired up debate by calling for Greece to sell its islands to bolster the budget. On Friday, the Bild newspaper showed a picture of Greek prime minister George Papandreou, saying: "Here comes the Greek panhandling for our billions."

Some analysts warn that Greece might have to drop out of the eurozone, and said Europe would face a broader meltdown if Spain, a much bigger economy, veers toward debt default.

Germany and the European Central Bank have also taken darts for months of deliberation, and no action, on the Greek crisis.

Though Greeks have enjoyed the benefits of easy credit in past years, they will face hard times if the government bears down with IMF-led austerity measures that would cut wages and pensions, and could cramp growth for years. There have been street protests, but not as large as demonstrations during similarly tough policies in the 1990s.

"I hear from a lot of Greeks that Germany is so above us, and the system there works, and the schools are better, everything is better," said Zoe Kazani, a 22-year-old art gallery director in Athens.

"But at the end of the day, everybody wants to be in Greece because it's a fun way to get away from your problems."

Greece's debt crisis threatens unity among European partners 04/28/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 28, 2010 9:13pm]
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