[Protesters gather Oct. 9, 2012, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel makes her first visit to Greece since the eurozone crisis began here three years ago. / Lefteris Pitarakis, AP]
by Nikolia Apostolou and Louise Osborne, Special for USA TODAY
ATHENS — Tens of thousands of protesters greeted German Chancellor Angela Merkel here Tuesday when she arrived for a meeting with Greece’s prime minister.
Demonstrators expressed anger that the Greek government must cut spending further to qualify for European aid and avoid national bankruptcy. But Merkel said after her meeting that Greece will rise from its current debt crisis with the help of Germany.
“I did not come here as a teacher giving grades,” Merkel said.
“I am convinced that although it’s tough, this path will pay off for Greece,” she said, drawing parallels to the difficulty of reforms in East Germany when it reunified with West Germany after the collapse of the Soviet Union. “Germany will be a good partner and friend along the way.”
Demonstrators marched on Syntagma Square in spite of a ban on gathering there and tried to push through barricades to voice anger at Merkel, whom they accuse of unfairly forcing Greece to slash government jobs and benefits to keep the European Union intact.
Some demonstrators threw stones and bottles. Police fired tear gas to hold them back, but violent flare-ups were isolated.
Merkel, who arrived for a five-hour visit at the invitation of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, has made Germany one of the biggest contributors of bailout money to Greece. But she and other European leaders have demanded Greece cut spending to receive the next bailout loan scheduled for next month.
Samaras said he told Merkel that the Greek people are “bleeding.”
“But that I am sticking to the plan,” he said of cutting the government payroll and trimming generous public benefits in return for loans. ” We won’t ask for favors.”
Greek President Karolos Papoulias thanked Merkel for visiting as he described the hardship that ordinary Greeks are going through because of scare jobs.
“We have almost exhausted our endurance. We must think of measures that will bring hope, particularly growth measures,” he said according to Athens News.
More than 7,000 police patrolled the streets of the capital; large areas of the city were shut off to the public and gatherings were banned outside the German Embassy. Greek hospital workers at the Henry Dunant Hospital were reported to have thrown objects at Merkel’s motorcade as it passed. Police officers responded with tear gas, according to Athens radio station reports.
“She knows she’s not welcome here,” said protester Leta Karayanni, 28. “I think Merkel came here (for the typical diplomatic visit) but also to show her power. We have nothing against the Germans (but) she’s just another unethical politician like the Greek politicians.”
Meanwhile, newspapers played on Germany’s Nazi World War II history. Proto Thema newspaper ran the headline, “Heil, Merkel!” and the publication Dimokratia said Merkel wants to “build a fourth reich.”
German newspapers have branded Greeks as “lazy” and corrupt.
“They (Greeks) see the new dictate for austerity as coming from Germany,” said Carsten Brzeski, chief economist for ING investment group in Brussels. “They think that if Germany wasn’t doing this, then they would continue to live in prosperity, but that is nonsense.”
People like to have an object for their anger, which is why I think there is such focus on Merkel, he said.
Greece borrowed heavily off the good credit rating of the euro currency after it joined the eurozone, ditching its drachma currency. The money paid for ever-increasing spending projects, government jobs and public benefits until Greece brought itself to the brink of bankruptcy.
The nations of the eurozone stepped in with bailout funds to carry Greece along while it met demands from its debt monitors, the EU, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, to cut spending and keep the bailout money flowing.
Athens must pass these so-called austerity measures worth $17.5 billion over the next two years to qualify for its next loan payment next month. If it fails, it may run out of money to pays its creditors and government salaries.
New cuts are set to further reduce pensions and salaries and increase the retirement age by two years, to age 67.
The debt monitors, known as the “troika,” are to issue a report this month on Greece’s adherence to the the lenders’ demands. Greece’s government has previously been accused of masking spending to avoid making the cuts.
Greece has been in recession for five years and unemployment has reached 25%. Greece has seen numerous tax hikes over the past two years and budget cuts have affected services and jobs in hospitals, schools and pensions.
Merkel has not only faced criticism from Greece. Back home she is facing a revolt from conservatives within her own Christian Democratic Union party, some who have formed the Election Alternative 2013 in the run up to next year’s federal elections. The aim of the group is to oppose further bailouts.
In an interview in the German newspaper Handelsblatt, Prime Minister Samaras said Greece is facing a situation very much like that of the Weimar Republic in Germany, when high unemployment and severe recession “threatened democracy.” The republic marked the period before National Socialist leader Adolf Hitler took power in 1933, leading to World War II.
“There is some truth in that if you look from an economic point of view,” said economist Brzeski. “The only policy option the country has is austerity measures and that’s what (Heinrich) Bruening (Germany’s chancellor from 1930 to 1932) did.”
The troubles in Greece have seen an emergence of a movement among political parties here to slow debt payments or renege entirely on its debt. Some of the debt has been forgiven, but leftist parties have suggested Greece slow or end its debt repayments and stop its budget cuts.
Some experts say the majority of Greeks want to remain in the European Union and are resigned to the need to pay off the country’s debts and cut spending.
“While there does seem to be general skepticism about the efficacy of the measures that are being proposed … I have to say that the level of opposition is not as big as one might have thought,” said Roman Gerodimos, a senior lecturer in global current affairs at Bournemouth University. “We’re talking about tens of thousands, maybe 20 or 30, that’s nowhere near what big protests have been in Athens in the past,”
Contributing: Charles McPhedran; Osborne reported from Berlin.