Greek anti-crisis protesters vow to stay the course

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Greeks flooding Athens' main Syntagma Square to rail against their country's draconian austerity measures vowed to stay course on Wednesday after a similar protest in Madrid fizzled out.

Protesters decrying Spain's economic crisis since mid-May decided late Tuesday to dismantle their encampment in Madrid's Puerta del Sol square that has become a symbol of the anti-establishment movement.

But their Greek counterparts on Syntagma Square said they would not budge.

"We are here because enough is enough," said Christina, a 40-year-old mother of four, who has just managed to find employment after a year on the sidelines.

Christina works as a cleaner at a hair salon for six hours daily and earns just 500 euros ($732) a month, far less than the legal minimum wage in Greece.

"We must show them that they have taken enough so far, we must rise up," she told AFP, referring to Greece's sheltered political elite.

The size and vitality of the Greek protest movement has taken many in the country by surprise, including unions, political parties and many of the protesters themselves.

Even before the crisis, protests in Athens were held nearly every week.

But they are almost always held under the supervision and control of labour groups, which are themselves usually affiliated with political parties.

Now, thousands of Greeks seem to have found a solidarity they never knew existed. The protest has crystallised around Greece's economic impasse which is roundly blamed on the country's politicians.

"I am not indignant, I am determined," adds Lakis, a civil servant in his fifties. "There is nothing left for us, the people are condemned to misery."

Official statistics released this week showed unemployment soaring to 16.2 percent in March and over 800,000 people out of work, particularly the young.

"That is the official figure, but in reality it's closer to 18 percent," Spyros Papaspyros, the head of Greece's second largest union Adedy that represents hundreds of thousands of public sector staff, told Flash Radio.

For decades, a succession of socialist and conservative governments spent vast sums on cultivating political support, buying votes with bribes and appointments to the country's overstaffed civil service.

The profligacy caught up with Greece last year and the country nearly went bankrupt. But while hundreds of thousands are suffering the effects of a harsh fiscal correction, few politicians are seen to be suffering.

Among the slogans directed at the parliament building just across the square, one chant has dominated: "Thieves, thieves."

The outrage has led some Greeks to even advocate a payment default on Greece's monster debt of 340 billion euros, accumulated from a run of budget deficits.

"I don't owe, I don't pay, I don't sell," read stickers plastered around the square, the last phrase a reference to a controversial privatisation of choice state assets planned by the government.

"You stole, you pay," says a protest banner.

Persistent attempts by political youth groups to set up booths on the square have been turned back.

"No parties on the square," reads one prominent banner hanging over a small tent city that has sprouted on the site over the past fortnight.

But there is no shortage of camaraderie.

Volunteer lists have been drawn up to handle cleaning duties, debate organisation, the coordination of the protest's website and a barter system to exchange services such as haircuts and language or music lessons.

"Together, we seek a solution to the problems," said a young father with his six-year-old daughter in tow.

The Greek 'indignant' movement set off on May 25, two weeks after gatherings began in Spain which is grappling with even higher unemployment and was to hold local elections at the time.

It peaked last Sunday when an estimated 70,000 people flocked to the square, calling on the government to abandon a loan rescue deal with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund deemed to have made the economy worse.

Elections are not currently foreseen in Greece, but the embattled Socialist government of George Papandreou has hinted that it could hold a referendum on a new round of austerity measures to address the country's crushing debt.

Lawmakers later this month are to vote on a new package of cutbacks worth over 28 billion euros over the next four years in order to secure continued assistance from Greece's eurozone peers and the International Monetary Fund.

"Our goal is to stop this vote," says 'Alpha', the sociologist.

© 2011 AFP

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