Greeks Protest Austerity Measures

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Greeks have taken to the streets to protest the latest round of austerity measures there. The Greek parliament approved a new tax Tuesday — to be collected through every household's electricity bill. That allows the government to bypass its slow and inefficient tax system and meet the bar for a vital new injection of bailout money.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: Greeks have also taken to the streets to protest the latest round of austerity measures there. The Greek Parliament approved a new tax today, to be collected through every household's electricity bill that allows the government to bypass its slow and inefficient tax system and meet the bar for a vital new injection of bailout money.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Athens.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Just hours before the crucial parliamentary vote, Greek Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos held a press conference. He stressed the government's commitment to meet international demands for more fiscal reforms, in exchange for more bailout funds, saying the measures are necessary to save the country.

EVANGELOS VENIZELOS: (Through Translator) If we lose this, our country will go back many decades. That will be a catastrophe, the equivalent of losing a war.

POGGIOLI: Venizelos said he and Prime Minister George Papandreou will send letters of written assurances, demanded by the inspectors, to guarantee the government will meet its obligations. A sign, commentators said, of just how little confidence the international community has in Greece.


POGGIOLI: Outside, Venizelos' own angry, striking finance ministry workers tried to drown out their boss with honking horns and sirens.


POGGIOLI: Several hundred tax collectors and accounting office employees chanted loudly: no new cuts, take your bailout and go away.


POGGIOLI: Thirty-two-year-old George Dakoronias came to protest the government's drastic wage cuts and new income taxes.

GEORGE DAKORONIAS: My wage before, the previous year, was 1,500 euros. And now it will go down to 800. You try to live here with 800 euros when you have to pay for everything, for everything.

POGGIOLI: Dakoronias's wife lost her job three weeks ago. The couple has a small child and they have to pay 700 euro a month on their 30-year mortgage. Now they've been hit by the new property tax, another 600 euros this year.

DAKORONIAS: I think that they are making all of us poorer and someone is getting richer and richer.

POGGIOLI: The property tax is supposed to be collected by the state-run power company, which will also be obliged to disconnect anyone who doesn't pay it.

Konstantinos Koutsodimas is the vice president of the powerful GENOP trade union which represents power company employees.

KONSTANTINOS KOUTSODIMAS: (Through Translator) The government has no right to use a public company - to use it as a tax collector company. What we do as a company is we sell electricity. We are not tax collectors.

POGGIOLI: Koutsodimas says his union will continue to fight the government's austerity policies and privatization schemes with more strikes. But he worries about the possible outcome of mounting hardship and poverty.

KOUTSODIMAS: I really fear a violent social explosion. When you have a family that has been programming their economics in a way and then you have a government that is coming and reversing everything like that, then you can't really control the way those families are going to react. And this is a confession of failure, that you have a socialist government that is responsible for such a social explosion.

POGGIOLI: The government has told Greeks they'll be taxed on all income above $7,000 a year. And the media is full of speculation on more measures to come - further tax hikes, public sector layoffs and another round of wage and pension cuts.

But speaking to a group of German businessmen in Berlin, Prime Minister Papandreou seemed determined to go on.

GEORGE PAPANDREOU: Many ask me: But do you have the support? My first answer is that is not my problem. I am here to work for my country, save the country, change the country, whether I am re-elected or not is not my problem.

POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Athens.

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