Fri, Sep 28, 2012 - Page 7 News List

Protests erupt in Athens and Madrid

FINAL STRAW:Hordes of frustrated people took their anger to the streets, but leaders of both countries know they cannot back down on further austerity measures

Reuters, ATHENS and MADRID

A riot police officer stands in front of burning firebombs on Wednesday in Athens during a 24-hour general strike against a new round of austerity cuts.

Photo: AFP

Demonstrators have clashed with police on the streets of Athens and Madrid in an upsurge of popular anger at new austerity measures being imposed on two of the eurozone’s most vulnerable economies.

In some of the most violent confrontations on Wednesday, Greek police fired tear gas at hooded rioters hurling petrol bombs as thousands joined the country’s biggest protest in more than a year.

The unrest erupted after nearly 70,000 people marched to the Greek Parliament chanting “EU, IMF Out!” on the day of a general strike against further cuts.

“We can’t take it anymore — we are bleeding. We can’t raise our children like this,” said Dina Kokou, a 54-year-old teacher and mother of four who lives on 1,000 euros (US$1,250) a month.

In Madrid, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy faced violence on the streets of Spain’s capital on Tuesday and growing talk of secession in Catalonia.

In public, Rajoy has been resisting calls to move quickly to request assistance, but behind the scenes he is putting together the pieces to meet the stringent conditions that will accompany rescue funds.

Rajoy was to present a tough budget for next year yesterday, aiming to send a message that Spain is doing its deficit-cutting homework despite a recession and 25 percent unemployment.

Spain appears on course to miss its public deficit target of 6.3 percent of GDP this year and its central bank has said the economy continued to contract sharply in the third quarter.

On Friday, ratings agency Moody’s will publish its latest review of Spain’s credit rating, possibly downgrading the country’s debt to junk status.

Rajoy is gradually shedding his reluctance to seek a sovereign bailout for the euro zone’s fourth-biggest economy — a condition for European Central Bank intervention to cut his country’s borrowing costs.

“I can assure you 100 percent that I would ask for this bailout,” he told the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday.

He also said he had not made his mind up on whether to allow pensions to rise in step with inflation, which could cost Madird an extra 6 billion euros this year.

The Spanish government’s drive to rein in regional overspending as part of its austerity measures has prompted a flare-up of independence fervor in Catalonia, the wealthy northeastern region that generates one-fifth of Spain’s economic output.

Catalonia needs a 5 billion euro bailout from Madrid to meet debt payments this year, but Catalans believe they bear an unfairly large share of the country’s tax burden.

Artur Mas, the conservative president of Catalonia, said on Wednesday that Catalonia should hold a referendum on independence, which the central government says would be unconstitutional.

Rajoy’s fellow eurozone struggler, Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, also faced a major test, in the shape of a 24-hour strike called by the country’s two biggest unions.

Ships stayed in port, museums and monuments were shut, and air traffic controllers walked off the job. Trains and flights were suspended, public offices and shops were shut, and hospitals provided a reduced service.

Union anger is directed at spending cuts worth nearly 12 billion euros over the next two years that Greece has promised the EU and IMF in an effort to secure its next tranche of aid.

The bulk of those cuts is expected to come from cutting wages, pensions and welfare benefits, heaping a new wave of misery on Greeks.

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