Athens ground to a halt today for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s first visit since the financial crisis began, with 7,000 officers deployed in the Greek capital to prevent violence at planned protests.
Authorities made entire sections of downtown off-limits, notably around Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s office, where the two leaders will meet, and the German embassy. Merkel arrived shortly before 1:30 p.m. Three separate protest marches gathered in front of Parliament and police used tear gas to push back some protesters near the assembly building.
“I call on all Greeks and whoever wants to protest to, firstly, safeguard the peace of the city and, above all, the country’s image abroad,” Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias said in a statement yesterday.
Merkel has become the face of austerity in a country suffering a fifth year of recession, seen in Greece as mainly due to German-led conditions attached to emergency loans. While Samaras has called the chancellor’s visit a “very positive development,” opposition and union leaders are planning to use her presence to capture Greeks’ anger and frustration.
A joint Merkel-Samaras press conference is scheduled for 4 p.m. local time.
Buses and trolleys stopped services and will resume at 4 p.m. Six centrally located subway stations shut down at 10 a.m.
The visit comes with talks in Athens set to resume this week with the so-called troika of international inspectors on completing a package of pension and wage cuts that may allow the release of a 31 billion-euro ($40 billion) payment under the international rescue.
Greece’s most-read newspaper, Ta Nea, yesterday had a front-page shot of Merkel with the headline: “Will she blink over the tranche?”
European finance ministers late yesterday hailed Greece’s determination to cut the budget and reshape its recession-wracked economy, raising the chances that aid will keep flowing to stop the country from careening out of the euro.
As the biggest contributor to bailout commitments totaling 240 billion euros, Germany rejects responsibility for Greece’s hardships.
“Germany is doing whatever we can to help Greece on its difficult path,” German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said yesterday. “The chancellor isn’t the troika. The chancellor is traveling to Greece the same way she travels to many other European countries and just as the Greek prime minister was in Berlin.” She last visited Greece in July 2007.
“Chancellor Merkel’s visit to our country is an opportunity for the government to prove and promote a political solution to the country’s problems,” Democratic Left, a member of Samaras’s coalition, said in an e-mailed statement.
Greece’s economy is set to contract for a sixth year in 2013 as the austerity measures throttle consumers and businesses. Samaras’s three-party coalition is hoping that forging agreement on a new package of cuts will be enough to convince European Union countries to give the country two more years to implement the economic reform plan.
Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras said the extra time wouldn’t cost creditors anything, since Greece could, for example, continue higher-than-planned sales of bills.
The rallies today will send a “a message of resistance and democracy,” the anti-bailout Syriza party, which finished second in June’s national elections, said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. The “unprecedented” security measures aim to create a climate of fear, it said. The union protests are scheduled to take place outside the prohibited zone.