Thousands of police marched through Athens on Thursday, chanting “thieves, thieves” and carrying black flags to oppose planned pay cuts under a huge new austerity package meant to save Greece from defaulting on its mountain of debt.
The 4,000 protesters, who also included firefighters and coast guard officers, lit flares, blared horns and set up mock gallows outside the country’s parliament.
The demonstration came amid deepening social gloom as official figures showed Greece’s unemployment rate surged to 24.4 percent in June. It was the latest in a string of protests against the new 11.5 billion euro (US$14.57 billion) austerity package for 2013-2014, demanded by rescue creditors from other eurozone countries and the IMF.
A top labor leader warned on Thursday that the spending cuts would unleash unprecedented social unrest without helping the recession-shackled economy.
“To insist on the [current] austerity program and adopt new measures against the less well-off will provoke a social explosion that is violent and of an intensity never seen before by Greek society,” said Yiannis Panagopoulos, head of the country’s main GSEE union.
Without the measures, Greece will lose access to the vital bailout loans that are shielding it from bankruptcy, but after two and a half years of punishing austerity, the new cutbacks planned by Greece’s conservative-led governing coalition have sparked deep anger.
Thursday’s protesters set up mock triple gallows on an open-top van, with a sign reading “Troika” — in reference to the austerity inspectors from the EU, the IMF and the European Central Bank. An officer from each of the services — police, coast guard and firefighters — stood with his head in a noose.
“The troika is sucking our blood,” they shouted.
The staged hangings were meant as a reminder to politicians that suicide rates have soared in Greece since the austerity measures took hold.
Earlier on Thursday, protesting officers blocked the entrance to the riot police headquarters, preventing buses carrying forces from leaving for the site of major demonstrations planned this weekend.
Scuffles broke out as riot police tried to clear the entrance of several dozen police union members chanting anti-austerity slogans and holding banners.
“They would not let riot police buses depart for Thessaloniki,” a police official said, referring to the northern city hosting a weekend trade fair where anti-austerity demonstrations are planned.
Some riot police appeared reluctant to tackle uniformed officers.
“They make us fight against our own brothers,” said one riot policeman who declined to be named.
The new austerity program, though not yet finalized, is expected to see further cuts to benefits and pensions for several groups of employees on the state payroll.
“If you think a country’s security can be protected by beggars and people in rags, you are making a big mistake,” Dimitris Saitakis of the coast guard officers’ association said.
The jobless figure released by the statistical authority on Thursday jumped from 23.5 percent in May and 17.2 percent from the previous year — and was more than three times higher than in June 2008, the year before Greece’s acute financial crisis began. An average 1,000 jobs were lost every day between June last year and June of this year.
Among young people aged up to 25, unemployment was a crippling 55 percent, compared with 20 percent four years ago.