New Internationalist

Death in Athens

All that was missing from the Greek crisis was for someone to die. On Thursday evening Parliament’s deputy speaker Anastassios Kourakis announced the death of a 53-year-old trade unionist just ahead of the vote on a new wave of austerity measures.

A 48-hour general strike had already halted much of the country’s infrastructure, bringing Greece to its knees over the past two days. The strikes also gifted Athens its biggest demonstrations since democracy was restored in 1974.

Unions from both the public and private sectors called the strike, timed to coincide with the parliamentary vote on Thursday night.

One man named Panos, who took part in the demonstrations, said he had joined the protests because, although he still had a job, he was enraged by the rising taxes. ‘It has made my life extremely difficult and I can only afford to pay the taxes but nothing else. I cannot even afford to live,’ he said.

Prime Minister George Papandreou managed to pass the new bill, which will force cuts to wages and pensions, tax hikes and changes to collective bargaining, by a slim majority. But in a major blow to the ruling Pan Hellenic Socialist Party (Pasok), a former labour minister broke ranks and voted against the measures.

Outside parliament, workers descended on Athens Syntagma Square to protest the government’s economic policy. Inside, Papandreou, together with the support of the ‘Troika’ (The name given to the European Union (EU), International Monetary Fund (IMF) and European Central Bank (ECB)) passed the new measures - despite the public fury. International lenders to Greece have demanded that the austerity measures before they release another bailout.

Earlier in the day, demonstrators came from all sections of society to peacefully voice their opposition. But violence later apparently broke out between protesters fighting for control of Syntagma Square.

The trade unionist Dimitris Kotsaridis died on Thursday afternoon. He was thought to have suffered from respiratory problems, and his cause of death was recorded as heart failure. His is the first death during protests over the economy. The Greek media sources say the tear gas used by police may have triggered Kotsaridis’ heart attack.

Another 16 people were injured in the violence, with most reported to be suffering from head injuries caused by Molotov cocktails, marble rocks and other missiles being catapulted around the square.

Greek television channel-Skai-showed footage of a handful of Communist unionists being brutally attacked by men in masks. Demonstrators retaliated and because they outnumbered the attackers they were able to push them back for a short time. Riot police later intervened, firing tear gas and stun grenades to separate the warring groups.

Street battles continued late into the afternoon, with young people setting fire to piles of rubbish. By early evening Syntagma Square was awash with smoke, tear gas and small fires. It looked like a war zone.

This new round of unpopular cuts and tax hikes could potentially challenge Pasok’s grip on power and transform the Greek political landscape. As the new bill comes into force after Thursday’s vote, Pasok’s popularity is fast evaporating.

Perhaps more worrying to the Pasok leadership is the fact that former minister Louka Katseli voted against the measures. Prime Minister Papandreou responded by expelling Katseli, weakening his party’s fragile majority that now stands at 153 seats out of 300.

Life for the demonstrator Panos will be made a lot harder when the new austerity laws are implemented in the coming weeks.

But as Pasok’s strength deteriorates a snap election in the coming months may be on the cards.

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