Sunday, April 29, 2012

Greece tries to crack down on fraud as mayor of Zakynthos faces revolt

 Nick Squires

By Nick Squires, Zakynthos

8:11PM BST 28 Apr 2012

Greece needs to crack down on benefit fraud, but on Zakynthos, the island of the blind, the crackdown has backfired for one politician

Greece tries to crack down on fraud mayor of Zakynthos faces revolt

Fraudulent benefit claims, including bogus cases of leprosy, cost Greece €111 million last year, according to government statistics Photo: AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis

Even by the extravagant standards of Greek corruption, the scam uncovered by Stelios Bozikis is so brazen that it is hard to credit.

Nearly 600 people on the Ionian island of Zakynthos - of which Mr Bozikis was recently elected mayor - managed to have themselves falsely declared blind, entitling them to fat monthly cheques from the state.

They included taxi drivers, shopkeepers and restaurant owners, farmers tending the island's patchwork of vineyards and olive groves, and a few amateur hunters, whose purported disability did not stop them from spending their weekends shooting rabbits and birds in the rugged mountains of the interior.

Other "blind" locals have been seen cheerfully playing cards and backgammon in the tavernas and bars of the island. "Out of 650 registered blind people on the island, we estimate that at least 600 are fraudulent claims," the mayor told The Sunday Telegraph in his office overlooking the boats crowding the port of Zakynthos Town, the main settlement.

That represents nearly two per cent of the island's population of 35,000 - nearly 10 times the average rate of blindness in the rest of Europe, according to the World Health Organisation.

The surprisingly high prevalence was the result of authorities on the island permitting fraudulent claims for more than a decade.

"I realised when I became mayor that a lot of illegal things were taking place here," said Mr Bozikis, a lawyer who was elected last year. "I promised myself that I would tackle them, irrespective of the political cost."

The fake blind were raking in monthly payments of at least €350, sometimes more depending on their age and family status. Those who supposedly needed carers received larger sums.

The mayor, a member of the Socialist Pasok party, has suspended all benefit payments until it can be independently established exactly who needs a white cane.

The crackdown has encountered huge opposition, culminating in a recent council meeting which was stormed by around 50 angry benefit claimants, who chucked eggs and pots of yoghurt at the mayor in a uniquely Greek expression of anger.

"I consider it a badge of honour," said the mayor, sitting at his desk beneath an Orthodox image of St Dionysios, the patron saint of the island, which lies south of Corfu. "It meant that we are doing the right thing."

Known to the Venetians during the heyday of their trading empire as "the Flower of the Levant", Zakynthos has now been mockingly dubbed "the Island of the Blind" by the Greek media.

Mr Bozikis's crusade against graft is a microcosm of the immense problems of corruption, tax evasion and benefit fraud that Greece confronts as it tries to avoid being kicked out of the euro zone.

It is a scourge that whoever wins the country's general election - one of the most crucial in its post-war history - next Sunday will come under huge pressure to tackle, from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, Greece's creditors. Yet the signs are that anti-austerity parties which oppose the clampdown on public spending are gaining in the polls.

At least 10 parties are expected to win seats under the country's electoral system and the likelihood is that, to keep Greece on track and deliver the further cuts needed over the next two years, the two traditional rival parties, New Democracy and Pasok, will be forced into coalition.

Fraudulent benefit claims, including bogus cases of leprosy, cost Greece €111 million last year, according to government statistics.

Nearly one in six disability allowances were found to be fraudulent after an investigation by the health ministry, and last week the labour ministry announced that benefits had been stopped to 200,000 people who either lied to get their cheques or were long since dead.

There have been cases of multiple maternity benefit payments to women who have never had children.

The phenomenon of hundreds of fake blind people on Zakynthos could be the result of a typically Greek system of kickbacks and corrupt political patronage. The mayor claimed it was the head ophthalmologist at the local hospital, Nikolaos Vartzelis, who falsely diagnosed people as blind in exchange for money.

Their claims were allegedly signed off by Dionysios Gasparos, then the governor of the island, in exchange for votes.

Both men have denied the allegations but are being investigated by the health ministry.

Dr Vartzelis, who stepped down from his post last month, said he had been "lenient, but within the limits of the law" towards people who "didn't have bread to eat" and desperately needed extra income.

He accused the mayor of playing "political games" by levelling the accusations against him, in an attempt to undermine Mr Gasparos, who is running as a candidate for the conservative New Democracy party next weekend.

Dr Vartzelis conceded that he had signed some blind disability applications but said others had been approved by an unnamed second opthalmologist on the island.

Mr Gasparos blamed the doctor for the scandal. "I have nothing to do with this. It's not me who registers you as blind, it's the ophthalmologist," he said.

A 35-year-old taxi driver who pretended to be blind to draw a monthly disability allowance "bragged" about his ability to cheat the welfare system, according to a taxi-driver colleague. "He was bragging about it around the island," said Yianni, 33, a who declined to give his surname.

"But now that they've all been found out, he hasn't been since - he's hiding at home. It's very awkward for his parents. It wasn't right but if someone offers you that money, you'd be silly not to take it."

No one has been more angered than the island's 40 or so genuinely blind people. "What makes me really, really mad is that I am blind and these people are laughing in my face by taking disability allowances," said John Venardos, 50, who began to go blind a decade ago as a result of a genetic trait that runs in his family.

Mr Venardos, who does his best to run a family-owned hotel on the beach despite the loss of his sight, said the scam was symptomatic of the venality and corruption which have eaten away at Greece like a cancer. "People think 'Why should my next door get false benefit payments and not me?' Corruption starts at the top - government ministers are doing it, mayors do it, they all screw the system."

Born in Canada but now settled on Zakynthos, he said the scam had brought shame and embarrassment to the island. "They are calling us 'the island of the blind'. When I go to Athens I'm afraid to say I'm from Zakynthos and walk down the street with a white stick because people will say I'm faking it."

His 75-year-old father, Nikolaos Venardos, is also suffering from the genetic disorder - he started to lose his sight a few years ago and is now 85 per cent blind. "I feel embarrassed to be Greek. Seven hundred blind people on a tiny island like this? Come on, it's ridiculous. I deserve my benefit payments, but those people are driving cars and leading normal lives," he said.

The scandal on Zakynthos - which the mayor estimates has cost the island €2 million a year for the last decade - represents just a fraction of the abuses which are rampant across Greece.

Tax evasion is endemic, the awarding of public contracts is often corrupt, and the practise of offering "fakelaki" - which translates literally as "little envelope" but in reality means a bribe - is widespread.

Together they have conspired to drag down the Greek economy, now in its fifth consecutive year of deep recession.

Greece was ranked 80th out of 183 countries in Transparency International's 2011 corruption perceptions index, below countries like Cuba, Tunisia, China and Saudi Arabia. In the European Union, only Bulgaria ranked lower.

"The long-standing acceptance of corruption, and fatalism about the chances of preventing or resisting it, drives petty wrongdoing," the anti-corruption watchdog said in its most recent report on Greece. "When people believe that their leaders and officials exploit their authority with impunity, they are more likely to act along similar lines in their own lives."

Sixty per cent of Greeks expect public officials to abuse their position for financial gain, said Transparency International.

"There needs to be a wholesale clean up of the system in Greece, rather than chipping away at bits and pieces here and there," said Chara Xyrogiannopoulou, 55, in her waterfront bar in Zakynthos Town.

"I'm not sure how successful the mayor will be," said Nikos Stamiris, 52, serving tsatsiki and roast lamb at his taverna in a square lined with lemon trees and palms. "Others tried to do the same but in the end just gave up."

"The problem is not that people are crooks, it's that the whole system is sick," said Spiros Skiadopoulos, 63, a businessman from Zakynthos who runs a photography college in Athens.

"Everybody is corrupt in Greece - the lawyers, the doctors, the judicial system, police, customs - everybody. Why are our European partners now so surprised by this? They knew all along, right from when they allowed Greece into the EU.

"We need to change our whole mentality. The Germans and everyone else need to come here and be aggressive in making us change. If they think we are the devil of Europe, they must throw us out."

It is a stark choice that the mayor, too, believes Greece faces as it teeters on the edge of economic oblivion and social chaos.

"Greece can change but only if the politicians in Athens start to change and to set a good example," said Mr Bozikis.

"There are two Greeces at the moment - one that wants to stick with the old system of backhanders and corruption, and one that wants to move forward. To do the latter, we need to change everything."

Greece tries to crack down on fraud as mayor of Zakynthos faces revolt - Telegraph

Friday, April 27, 2012

Greece did not cause the euro crisis

 Costas Simitis

Costas Simitis and Yannis Stournaras, Thursday 26 April 2012 22.00 BST

Yes, my country was the spark, but it merely exposed the inherent flaws within the eurozone

Demonstrator just outside Greek parliament

'There is widespread feeling that the conditions imposed on Greece were intended to teach other countries a lesson.' Photograph: Socrates Baltagiannis/Demotix

During the recent debate in the parliaments of many eurozone member states regarding the approval of the new €130bn loan to Greece, some members questioned whether the country had been ready to participate in the euro at the time of its entry.

In the mid-1990s, Greece made a formidable effort to meet the convergence criteria. It employed all available means: budgetary policy, monetary policy, income policy and extensive privatisation of banks and public enterprises. By any measure of fiscal performance (cash or national accounts), the government deficit fell by 10 percentage points, from 12.5% of GDP in 1993 to 2.5% in 1999, the year whose economic statistics were used by the European Council at Santa Maria da Feira in June 2000 to endorse Greece's eurozone participation.

Greece's performance was also positive with regard to the other nominal convergence criteria (inflation rate, long-term interest rates, public debt and exchange rate). It is worth recalling that the decision endorsing Greece's eurozone admission was made after exhaustive scrutiny of the Greek economy and respective reports by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the Economic and Financial Committee.

It is also worth noting that, in spite of the tight budgetary and monetary policies, which were essential in order to reduce government deficit and inflation rates, GDP growth rates started to improve. From negative growth in 1993, it rose to 4% by the end of the 1990s and remained at that level until 2007. Private investment increased and foreign capital flowed into Greece due to the reduction of inflation, and due to the fall of interest rates to single-digit figures after 20 years of double digits.

Those who claim that Greece should not have joined the euro area name three reasons. The first and most well-known is that Greece supposedly falsified its economic statistics in order to gain EMU entry. In 2004, four years after Greece's eurozone application had been endorsed on the basis of those statistics, the newly elected New Democracy government decided to change the method of recording defence equipment expenditure, so as to lighten the budgetary burden during its term of office.

This change meant recording expenditure upon payment of the deposit, instead of recording it upon delivery, as had been done by the government until then. However, this change had the effect of increasing government deficits prior to 2004 and thus damaged Greece's reputation. The allegation that Greece had entered the eurozone by falsifying data made headlines in numerous newspapers around the world. Unfortunately, the assertion was also adopted by many politicians in the eurozone and is repeated to this day.

But the allegation indicates ignorance, not to say hypocrisy. Because even including defence expenditure upon order and not delivery, under the new recording method the revised state deficit figures in the critical year (1999) became 3.1% of GDP against 2.5% of GDP previously. The precise figure was actually 3.07%, according to Eurostat (AMECO). This deficit is still lower than the equivalent revised deficits of other member states that were assessed on the basis of 1997 statistics, and which formed the first wave of member states that created the euro area in 1999. The AMECO website shows that many other member states entered the euro area with state deficits that were higher than 3.1% of GDP. But there is little public reference to this fact, even though many of these now manifest similar problems to Greece.

The responsibility for this certainly lies with the New Democracy government of Greece at that time. However, it also lies with AMECO and the European Commission, which simply adopted the (revised) budgetary data issued by the Greek government of the day. They did not ask the Greek central bank, or the previous government, for their views. What happened later, in 2006, was in complete contrast: AMECO decided that the correct method of recording defence equipment expenditure was upon on delivery of equipment – the very same method that Greece had used prior to 2004. Despite this decision, however, AMECO did not retrospectively correct the figures: Greece's government deficit remained at 3.07% of GDP in 1999 when it should have been adjusted in line with the new decision. The insignificant divergence of 0.07% of GDP from the treaty limit, which was adopted uncritically by the administration of the eurozone, thus became the reason to disparage a very formidable effort of economic adjustment.

On this subject, we also note that an attempt has been made recently to defame Greece in connection with a conventional currency swap between the Greek economy ministry and Goldman Sachs at the end of 2001 – one out of hundreds transacted at that time by all member states in straightforward acts of public debt management. Once again, it was said that Greece had cooked its books so as to enter the euro area: again this became a headline and was adopted by many politicians. Yet the fact that the swap took place two entire years after 1999, the year on whose economic data Greece's entry to the eurozone was decided, and one year after the European Council of Santa Maria da Feira endorsed Greece's entry, appears to have been forgotten.

The second reason cited was Greece's alleged extravagance and excessive deficits. But the principal causes of the crisis in Greece and other states on the eurozone's periphery were their large and increasing current account deficits, their loss of competitiveness and, more crucially, the different levels of development of the north and the south – rather than the administrative incompetence of their leaders. The south buys high-quality, hi-tech industrial products from the north. The north buys far fewer goods from the south.

The tardy operation of public administration and institutions also gave rise to the claim that Greece, and possibly other member states on the periphery, should not have joined the eurozone. But the zone is not a club of advanced countries whose common interests are opposed to those of the countries that lag behind. It is a stage of development in the union whose purpose is to facilitate economic co-operation among its members, to create relationships that strengthen the common endeavour to grow, to achieve gradual convergence of their economies and to better exploit the opportunities presented by shared objectives and the abolition of borders. Since it is a joint plan for progress, its design should include both the powerful with their strengths, and the less powerful with their weaknesses. It must take into account the inequalities and the fact that the developed countries not only bear burdens but also obtain significant benefits, thanks to their financial services and exports.

The stabilisation measures in Greece since May 2010 have significantly improved fiscal performance and competitiveness, but they have also contributed to the deep and lasting economic recession, the rise in unemployment to 20%, and the impoverishment and destitution of part of the population. Greece is not solely responsible for this outcome. Since the economic policy mix imposed by the first loan agreement was not the most appropriate, the performance expected was unrealistic even for countries with far stronger economies than Greece. There is a widespread feeling that the conditions imposed were a punishment intended to teach other countries a lesson. The recession, initially predicted by the IMF to be -7.5% between 2009 and 2012, is now estimated to have reached -18%, resulting in a failure to meet other targets and generating intense social unrest.

Greece sparked the eurozone crisis but was not its cause. The cause lies in the fact that the eurozone is a fully fledged monetary union but an incomplete economic and fiscal union of member states with different structures: the more mature economies of the European north and the less mature ones of the European south.

The present crisis is only in part a public debt crisis, and that mainly concerns Greece and Portugal. Other than that, it is a crisis of the private sector and the banking system in several member states as well as a crisis of control and supervision by the financial and monetary authorities of the eurozone.

The European Union has not created an overall framework of economic governance – a method of dealing with the inequalities between its developed core and its less developed periphery. It has not worked systematically to truly promote economic growth. If this is not done, there will be more crises. The fiscal compact which, according to eurozone leaders, will stabilise their economies, cannot achieve that without additional measures for growth and convergence and, ultimately, without sufficient progress towards economic integration and political union.

Greece did not cause the euro crisis | The Guardian

Friday, April 20, 2012

German 'hypocrisy' over Greek military spending has critics up in arms


Helena Smith in Athens, Thursday 19 April 2012 17.01 BST

Athens' fondness for weaponry, and willingness of Germany and France to feed it, under fire as Greece struggles with debt crisis

Akis Tsochadzopoulos

Former defence minister Akis Tsochadzopoulos has been charged with accepting an €8m bribe from German company Ferrostaal. Photograph: Petros Giannakouris/AP

A few months before submarines became the talk of Athens, Yiannis Panagopoulos, who heads the Greek trade union confederation (GSEE), found himself sitting opposite Angela Merkel at a private meeting the German chancellor had called of European trade unionists in Berlin.

When it came to his turn to address the leader, he instinctively popped the question that many in Greece have wanted to ask. "After running through all the reasons why austerity wasn't working in my country I brought up the issue of defence expenditure. Was it right, I asked, that our government makes so many weapons purchases from Germany when it obviously couldn't afford such deals and was slashing wages and pensions?"

Merkel's reaction was instant. "She immediately said: 'But we never asked you to spend so much of your GDP on defence,'" Panagopoulos recalled. "And then she mentioned the issue of outstanding payments on submarines she said Germany had been owed for over a decade."

Greek profligacy may be blamed for triggering the debt crisis that now threatens to tear the eurozone apart, but if there is one area where Berlin is less excoriating of state largesse it is in Athens's extravagant taste for arms.

Behind the frequent exhortations that Greece rein in spending after living "beyond its means" – admonishments made most loudly by Merkel and her finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble – there is another reality that paints Germany in a less than flattering light, according to MPs, military experts, economists and scholars.

"If there is one country that has benefited from the huge amounts Greece spends on defence it is Germany," said Dimitris Papadimoulis, an MP with the Coalition of the Radical Left party.

Greek arms imports

"Just under 15% of Germany's total arms exports are made to Greece, its biggest market in Europe," Papadimoulis said the MP, reeling off figures from a scruffy armchair in his party's parliamentary office. "Greece has paid over €2bn (£1.6bn) for submarines that proved to be faulty and which it doesn't even need.

"It owes another €1bn as part of the deal. That's three times the amount Athens was asked to make in additional pension cuts to secure its latest EU aid package."

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), France is not far behind. Some 10% of its total arms sales go to Greece, which is a member of Nato. From 2002 to 2006, Greece was the world's fourth biggest importer of conventional weapons. It is now the 10th.

"As a proportion of GDP, Greece spends twice as much as any other EU member on defence," said Papadimoulis, who is also a former MEP.

"Well after the economic crisis had begun, Germany and France were trying to seal lucrative weapons deals even as they were pushing us to make deep cuts in areas like health."

Under the latest EU-IMF-sponsored rescue programme – which is propping up the near-bankrupt Greek economy with an extra €130bn in emergency loans until 2015 – Athens has agreed to cut defence expenditure by €400m. Even so, its military budget accounts for nearly 4% of national economic output, compared with the eurozone average of around 2%. The country has cited perceived security risks from Turkey and, in addition to state-of-the-art submarines, has bought hundreds of Leopard tanks, howitzers, Mirage fighter planes and F-16 jets from Germany, France and the US since the late 1990s.

Speculation is rife that international aid was dependent on Greece following through on agreements to buy military hardware from Germany and France.

Greek defence spending

"Since the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus, Greece has spent an estimated €216bn on armaments, although I am 100% certain that in absolute terms its defence expenditure is much greater than official documents would show due to the so-called secret funds the state has access to," said Katerina Tsoukala, a Brussels-based security expert.

"The problem is that unlike Britain, for example, Greece has never had a transparent and democratic defence procurement strategy. Instead, everything is veiled in secrecy and people like me have to go to Sipri to find out information that in other countries would be readily available."

The murkiness has ensured that over the years the Greek arms trade has become increasingly associated with high-level bribery and corruption – the very practices abhorred by Berlin, Athens' main provider of rescue funds.

This week the former defence minister Akis Tsochadzopoulos was jailed pending trial on charges of accepting an €8m bribe from Ferrostaal, the German company that helped oversee the scandal-marred sale of four Class 214 submarines to the Greek navy 12 years ago. To date, Athens has taken delivery of only one of the subs after the vessels were found to have technical glitches.

Tsochadzopoulos, the most senior official yet to be arraigned in connection with corruption, stands accused of funnelling the cash, initially deposited in a Swiss bank account, via offshore companies to buy two properties in Athens, including a luxury home on the capital's most expensive boulevard. His wife and daughter also appeared in court on Thursday accused of money laundering. They, along with the veteran socialist, denied the charges.

In the course of a two-year investigation by prosecutors in Munich, senior Ferrostaal employees, including its chief executive, resigned after acknowledging that money had been exchanged to secure the sale of submarines to Greece and Portugal.

Last year, after publicly apologising for its role in the furore, Ferrostaal agreed to pay a €140m fine.

In a similar case the German engineering group Siemens recently reached an out of court settlement with Greece following claims it had bribed cabinet ministers and other officials to secure contracts before the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Tassos Mandelis, a former socialist transport minister, admitted he had accepted a €100,000 payment from Siemens in 1998.

The settlement has paved the way for the company to bid for public procurement tenders in Greece, but it has also highlighted the unsavoury business practices of leading German firms. "There's a level of hypocrisy here that is hard to miss," said Papadimoulis. "Corruption in Greece is frequently singled out as a cause for waste but at the same time companies like Ferrostaal and Siemens are pioneers in the practice. A big part of our defence spending is bound up with bribes, black money that funds the [mainstream] political class in a nation where governments have got away with it by long playing on peoples' fears."

At the time of the settlement, Siemens said it was "committed to ensure, going forward, full and overall compliance to sound corporate principles".

Given Greece's financial predicament – illustrated last week by IMF managing director Christine Lagarde's refusal to rule out a default – growing numbers have begun to question the probity of the nation's defence expenditure.

Deputy prime minister Theodore Pangalos publicly rued the fact that Athens was spending so much money on arms, exclaiming during a visit by the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that Greece was being "forced to buy weapons we do not need".

No other area has contributed as heavily to the country's debt mountain. If Athens had cut defence spending to levels similar to other EU states over the past decade, economists claim it would have saved around €150bn – more than its last bailout. Instead, Greece dedicates up to €7bn a year to military expenditure – down from a high of €10bn in 2009.

"Germany became Germany partly because for 62 years it did not have to think about military expenditure," said Angelos Philippides, a prominent economist. "For a long time Greece spent 7% of its GDP on defence when other European countries spent an average 2.2%. If you were to add up that compound 5% from 1946 to today, there would be no debt at all," he said. "It's vital that if the European Union wants to speak about fair deals it should at least guarantee Greek borders [with Turkey] so the country can bring down military spending to 2.2%."

The imbalance has spawned speculation that peripheral countries in Europe with vulnerable frontiers likesuch as Greece are being exploited in terms of defence spending by wealthier states at Europe's core.

Thanos Dokos, a leading Greek defence expert, says rational debate on such military extravagance has been made impossible by the supposed Turkish threat and a fear among politicians of being labelled unpatriotic.

"One could argue that with 1,300 tanks, more than twice the number in the UK, Greece has many more than it needs. But no one forced it to spend so much. It happened because of the threat perception from Turkey and the need to balance Turkey militarily," he said.

He said there was an element of hypocrisy in the criticism being levelled at Greece in France and Germany.

"Knowing the economic situation of the country, and all the talk about Greece's overspending for the last 20 years, one feels like saying 'hold off, gentlemen, with the criticism'," he said. "It's hypocritical to ignore the fact that a not insignificant amount was spent on buying weapons systems from EU members Germany and France."

German 'hypocrisy' over Greek military spending has critics up in arms | World news | The Guardian

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Austerity suicide: Greek pensioner shoots himself in Athens

By Paul Anast, Athens and Nick Squires 7:30PM BST 04 Apr 2012

A cash-strapped Greek pensioner who said he feared having to “scrounge for food” shot himself dead in Athens’ main square in the latest in a series of suicides and attempted suicides triggered by European austerity measures.

Austerity suicide: Greek pensioner shoots himself in Athens

The pensioner, who was not named, shot himself with a handgun a few hundred yards from the Greek parliament Photo: REUTERS

The death of the 77-year-old retired pharmacist in the Greek capital's Constitution Square caused an outpouring of anger and grief and came after similar incidents in Italy.

The pensioner, named locally as Dimitris Christoulas, shot himself with a handgun a few hundred yards from the Greek parliament, which has been the focus of numerous violent protests against tough austerity measures in recent months.

Witnesses said he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger after yelling: “I have debts, I can’t stand this anymore.”

A passer-by told Greek television the man said: “I don’t want to leave my debts to my children.”

A suicide note found in his coat pocket blamed politicians and the country’s acute financial crisis for driving him to take his life, police said.


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The government had “annihilated any hope for my survival and I could not get any justice. I cannot find any other form of struggle except a dignified end before I have to start scrounging for food from rubbish bins,” the note said.

Within hours of his death, an impromptu shrine with candles, flowers and handwritten notes sprung up in the tree-lined square in the heart of the city.

One note nailed to a tree said “Enough is enough”, another asked “Who will be the next victim?” while a third said “It was a murder, not a suicide.”

The elderly man killed himself as hundreds of commuters streamed out of a nearby metro exit during Athens’ morning rush hour.

Costas Lourantos, the president of the pharmacists’ union in the Attica region, said he met the man several years ago and remembered him as quiet and dignified.

“When dignified people like him are brought to this state, somebody must answer for it,” said Mr Lourantos. “There is a moral instigator to this crime – which is the government that has brought people to such despair.”

He said the pensioner had “sent out a message to the world” about the plight of Greece.

Greece’s fifth consecutive year of recession has been worsened by drastic cuts to public services, pensions and salaries and higher taxes, which were introduced in response to the demands of the International Monetary Fund and the European Union in exchange for financial bail-outs.

One in five Greeks are unemployed, depression is on the rise and there is a growing feeling of despair across the country.

The government said last year that suicides had increased 40 per cent over the previous two years.

The high-profile suicide came a day after 78-year-old Italian woman threw herself from the balcony of her third-floor apartment in protest against a cut in her monthly pension from 800 euros to 600 euros.

The pensioner, from the town of Gela in Sicily, was reportedly worried about how to make ends meet.

“The government is making us all poorer, apart from the wealthy, who they don’t touch, in contrast with us workers and small businessmen who are struggling with heavy debts,” said her son, Bruno Marsana.

Her death came a week after a 58-year-old businessman tried to commit suicide by setting himself alight while sitting in his car outside a tax office in Bologna in northern Italy.

He was apparently protesting against the rejection of his appeal against a claim for unpaid tax.

The fire left him in a critical state and he was rushed to hospital for treatment of extensive burns all over his body.

A day later a 27-year-old Moroccan immigrant set himself on fire in protest at not being paid for four months.

The construction worker doused himself in petrol outside the town hall of Verona, also in northern Italy. He too was treated in hospital for horrific burns.

His self-immolation was a “symptom of the utter exasperation felt by the weakest employees,” said Vincenzo Scudiere from the CGIL trade union, Italy’s largest.

The technocrat government of Mario Monti, the prime minister, is attempting to force through an ambitious package of spending cuts and reforms to balance the budget by 2013 and stem fears that Italy could go the way of Greece.

Austerity suicide: Greek pensioner shoots himself in Athens - Telegraph

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Secret German plans for Greece to go bankrupt

 By staff writers From: February 20, 2012 4:01PM

APTOPIX Greece Financial Crisis

Wall Street banks and the German finance ministry are secretly planning for Greece to go bankrupt. Picture: File Source: AP

GERMANY'S finance minister has bowed to pressure to keep Greece afloat despite secretly drawing up plans for the country's bankruptcy.

Wolfgang Schäuble today said Greece was "on the right path" as he publicly supported plans to shovel more money at Greek debts.

EU ministers are today expected to finalise a deal that would write off €100 billion of debt and provide a loan of €130 billion to Greece. Greece has already received a €110 billion rescue approved in May 2010.

Funds would only be approved if the Greek Parliament can push through severe austerity measures, slashing pensions, making it easier to fire staff and cutting the minimum wage by 22 per cent.

Those cuts have led to an increase in the Greek suicide rate, violent protests and rising homelessness.

The rumbling calls for Greece to face bankruptcy come amid fears that even this latest bailout will not be enough to stop the nation sinking further into debt.

Hence the secret plans for bankruptcy.

Officials say Greece’s public debt will still be 129 per cent of GDP in 2020.

Concern about continual bailouts has also reached Wall Street, with rumours circulating that banks are preparing for a “credit event” soon after March 20 - that’s financial jargon used by credit agencies to mean a default or, in even simpler terms, someone unable to pay their bills.

March 20 is the deadline for Greece to pay  €14.5bn to creditors.

Inside Germany there are deep divisions over whether to continue to support Greece.

Bavaria’s Finance Minister Markus Soder said the stability of euro as a world reserve currency was more important than Greece’s welfare.

"It would be better if Greece stepped out of the euro," he said.

Last week, Greek-language business news site, claimed that “the actual position of Germany is that Greece should go bankrupt.”

Calls for Greece to default and leave the Euro have been fiercely attacked by both France and Britain.

French Premier François Fillon said it was "utterly irresponsible" to put the idea of a Greek default into play.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said it would be a technical nightmare if Greece was forced out of EMU.

"They don’t have the old currency sitting in the vaults ready to distribute. It’s not straightforward to leave the euro. It was built without exits," he said.

But could the Greeks kick themselves out of the Euro?

It’s entirely possible. In April, Greece goes to the polls and there’s a chance the hard Left Syriza party could form government.

"If we achieve a Left-dominated government, we will politely tell the Troika to leave the country, and we may need to discuss an orderly return to the Drachma," said Theodoros Dritsas, a leading MP from the Syriza party.

Secret German plans for Greece to go bankrupt | Australia and International Stock Markets | Perth Now

'We are Greeks, leaders are freaks'

From: AFP  February 20, 2012 3:16AM



Monumental challenge: Employees of the Byzantine and Christianity Museum hold a cardboard replica of an ancient temple reading 'Monument for sale' during a protest in Athens. Picture: AFP Source: AFP

HUNDREDS of banner-waving protesters staged a rally in Athens yesterday as eurozone ministers prepare to approve a new 130 billion euro ($159 billion) bailout.

Several hundred police were also out for the latest demonstration, held a week after parliament passed new austerity measures that sparked protests which saw gangs of rioters torch dozens of buildings in the Greek capital.

"Poverty and Hunger Have No Nationality," read one banner carried by demonstrators on Syntagma square outside parliament. "We Are Greeks, Merkel and Sarkozy Are Freaks" said another, referring to the German and French leaders.

Police put the number of protesters at about 1500.

The latest measures include a 22-per cent cut in the minimum wage, while pensions of more than 1300 euros a month will be slashed by 12 per cent, further adding to the economic hardship of ordinary Greeks.

"Everyone should take to the streets," one protester, taxicab owner Gregoris Militis, 52, said.

"The measures are the worst thing that could have happened. It is outrageous," said pensioner Christos Artemis.

"All the people are suffering. Shortly we will be asking ourselves where the bread is?"

Greece's private and public sector unions joined forces to call yesterday's protest. They reject what they brand "unacceptable demands" set by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, saying they violate workers' rights and collective agreements.

But EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said Greece should stop looking for scapegoats abroad for its problems and work harder to get itself out of its economic mess.

"I wish the Greeks would concentrate on rebuilding their state rather than blaming scapegoats outside Greece for their plight," Ms Reding, who is also vice-president of the European Commission, told the Austrian daily Kurier.

The latest Greek cuts are aimed at reviving the nation's moribund economy - which is battling a 350 billion euro debt mountain - by making businesses more attractive to investors and reducing the size of the parallel economy.

The measures, which total 3.2 billion euros, were drawn up in return for the new bailout, which eurozone finance ministers are due to finalise in Brussels Monday to try to save Greece from bankruptcy and a possible exit from the euro.

On Saturday, the cabinet approved cuts that made up a 350 million euro shortfall in the package. A senior official said in Brussels last week however that a 5.5 billion euro hole remained.

The second bailout deal would write off 100 billion euros of debt and provide a loan of 130 billion euros to Greece, which already received a 110 billion euro rescue approved in May 2010.

Time is of the essence for the coalition government led by Prime Minister Lucas Papademos because without the bailout Greece will be unable to meet a bond repayment of 14.5 billion euros on March 20.

EU partners see Greece as the victim of chronic financial mismanagement by dynastic political forces - what Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti last week called a "perfect catalogue" of errors.

The new bailout has been likened to the aid equivalent of a hospital drip, with a small army of EU officials heading to Athens to make sure Greece delivers on its austerity pledges.

"I am confident they (the finance ministers) will agree on the package," Ms Reding said, echoing comments by Germany's Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble.

"But under some conditions. The money should not flow into a bottomless pit."

Berlin has been at the forefront of efforts to help Greece out of its debt crisis but has also earned bitter attacks in Greek media as a revived Nazi regime ordering Athens around.

An opinion poll published yesterday in the Ethnos newspaper said almost 76 per cent of Greeks were in favour of their country's European outlook and did not want to leave the euro, which replaced the drachma in 2002.

The survey also found that almost 82 per cent of Greeks believed their governments were to blame for their economic woes.

Nine per cent blamed financial markets and speculators and over six per cent said it was the fault of the EU and the IMF.

'We are Greeks, leaders are freaks' |

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

As Riots Rage, Greece’s Presidential Guard Doesn’t Budge

By SUZANNE DALEY Published: April 2, 2012

Members of the Presidential Guard in Athens are checked for their appearance before taking their posts at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Angelos Tzortzinis for The New York Times

ATHENS — It is not easy being a member of Greece’s Presidential Guard, the soldiers who, resplendent in old-world uniforms, must stand stock-still at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier here. Frozen feet, sweaty brows and the curiosity of the very young, who poke and kick the guards to see if they are really alive, are just some of the hazards.

But lately things have become far more complicated.

The tomb happens to be directly in front of Parliament in Syntagma Square, the focal point for many of the riots that have erupted since Greece began imposing austerity measures.

In the past year, protesters have battled with riot police officers over and over, often within yards of the guards, who can move only once every 30 minutes — and then only to take a few rigid, slow ceremonial steps. Even the guards at Buckingham Palace get to move more, breaking every 10 minutes.

Sometimes, the soldiers here manage to continue their routines during the clashes, lifting their red clogs with pompoms high into the air on the half-hour and offering an odd scene of normalcy just behind the line of masked and padded riot police officers dressed in black and wielding batons.

On some days, however, the stone-throwing has proved too much, and the soldiers — one on each side of the tomb, which honors fallen soldiers from long-ago wars — have been marched away. Lt. Col. Petros Miliopoulos, the officer in charge of the battalion, has a pile of newspaper clippings he is saving, many with front-page photographs of the guards surrounded by the mayhem.

In October, protesters even set fire to one of the guard boxes beside the tomb.

But some of the guards, like Pvt. George Matellas, 24, who has spent 135 hours standing still so far (the men keep a careful count), say the rioters seem to go out of their way not to bother them, perhaps valuing the long tradition of Greek military service that they stand for.

“When we are marching back to the barracks, they make room for us,” Private Matellas said. “The majority of the crowd support us, which is a good feeling.”

Tear gas is one of the big problems. The riot police officers wear gas masks. But the presidential guards are dressed in uniforms with skirted tunics that can be traced to the 1800s. A small nod to present-day pharmaceuticals has been made. But it is often not enough to protect them.

“We give them eye drops,” Colonel Miliopoulos said. “They help somewhat.”

In Greece, all young men must perform 9 to 12 months of military service, and the members of the Presidential Guard are chosen from among the ranks. Outward appearances are important. The soldiers must be a little over 6 feet tall and fit.

But Colonel Miliopoulos said a recruit must have a strong sense of patriotism as well. It is what sustains the soldiers in sometimes brutal weather. In the summer, the heat can rise to more than 100 degrees — but they still wear two layers of stockings. In the winter, the temperature can dip into the 20s. But the gloves do not come out until it drops to 23.

Even under the best of conditions it is hard to stand still for one hour, Colonel Miliopoulos said. “Try it, in private,” he suggested. “Not moving for 10 minutes is hard.”

Still, drawing duty in the Presidential Guard is considered an honor — and has a few advantages. For one thing, the battalion is housed in the middle of Athens. For many young soldiers, that is a lot nicer than being banished to Greece’s faraway border with Turkey, for instance.

Private Matellas said his method for getting through his tours at the tomb was to fix his attention on a point and concentrate. But, he said, the protesters are actually a welcome diversion sometimes. “If there is something going on,” he said, “it makes the time go faster.”

The guards have several uniforms to choose from, depending on the weather and the occasion. The tan summer tunic dates from the 1821 uprising against the Ottoman Empire. The navy one dates from an uprising in the early 1900s in Greek Macedonia, when it was still under Turkish occupation.

The soldiers dress in teams of two, carefully adjusting each other’s garments — the two cotton skirts, the embroidered jackets, the leather garters, the blue-and-white fringe atop the skirts, the tassels at the calves for the dress uniform.

Getting it right is important. Private Matellas said his worst moment so far was when he was performing one of his high kicks and the pompom on his hobnailed clogs went flying.

On the guards’ base, skilled workers produce the uniforms, trying to make each item exactly as it was made decades ago. “Changes here are very, very rare,” Colonel Miliopoulos said. “It must be a technical issue we cannot overcome.”

The stockings, for instance, used to be knitted on a certain kind of machine that is not available anymore, he said. But you would need a magnifying glass to tell the difference.

Each dress uniform costs about $11,200. The soldiers do not get to keep them.

The guards train for five weeks, practicing standing still with the full weight of the uniforms and visiting historical sites to reinforce a sense of their culture. Some of the practice sessions last three hours, though at the tomb, the guards work in one-hour shifts.

“After three hours,” said 24-year-old Pvt. Papiotis Evangelos (120 hours standing still), “one hour is nothing.”

The soldiers are posted at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, in front of the presidential palace, and on Sundays and official holidays they raise and lower the flag over the Acropolis.

But most of the time, the soldiers say, they are simply props for tourist photos.

“We go on the Internet and find ourselves in pictures all the time,” said 26-year-old Pvt. Theofannis Faitas (135 hours standing still). “There are thousands of photos of us.”

Dimitris Bounias contributed reporting.

As Riots Rage, Greece’s Presidential Guard Doesn’t Budge -