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People with disabilities take part in a march against the government's new austerity measures in central Athens on Thursday. (AP)

More Austerity Looms For Weary Greeks

by Joanna Kakissis
Sep 29, 2012 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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The Greek government is set to present a new austerity budget on Monday that's supposed to please the institutions that are lending billions to the country to save it from bankruptcy.

But the cuts also come at a time when a deep recession has dragged into its fifth year. More than a third of businesses in Greece have closed, and nearly a quarter of Greeks are unemployed.

Busking For The Next Generation

Eighty-year-old Stelios Ioannidis, a retired businessman, says his daughter lost her sales job a year ago and is about to lose her house. He tries to help her by playing his accordion for money on a busy sidewalk in central Athens.

"My daughter has a mortgage on her house," he says. "I come out here to help her keep it. My wife and I can live on my pension, but what about our daughter?"

Dressed in pressed slacks and a buttoned-down shirt, Ioannidis looks ready for work. A tan cap is at his feet, filled with coins.

"I've been playing since I was a child," he says. "I'm pretty good."

Ioannidis gets a monthly pension that's about $840 a month. He gives half of it to his daughter to help with her mortgage. The coins from busking are for groceries.

Ioannidis knows hardship; he comes from a generation that survived World War II and the bloody Greek civil war that followed. He believes austerity is unfair, but he's trying to manage.

Disabled Greeks Demand More Support

Others are fighting austerity. During a protest last Thursday, about 100 disabled Greeks tried to push through a police barricade to march to Parliament. Many of the protesters are in wheelchairs. Others, like 22-year-old Giorgos Papadogiannis, are blind.

Papadogiannis doesn't like the troika, which is shorthand for the country's lenders: the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. He says the troika only wants its money, and that it doesn't care that Greeks can no longer afford medicine.

"The government owes the pharmacies so much money, it can no longer subsidize prescriptions," he says. "My disabled friends search all over town to find pharmacies that stock their medicine, then have to pay out of pocket for it."

Many Greeks are paying more for medicine, taxes and utilities on reduced incomes. That's why a demonstration on Wednesday against the new austerity measures brought out tens of thousands of people.

A Case For Redistributing The Burden

Dimitris Sotiropoulos, a research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, says austerity will work if it's distributed fairly. He says salaried workers are bearing the burden of austerity because self-employed workers — who make up about a third of the workforce — largely evade taxes.

"That means that until a better and more efficient taxation mechanism is in place, the troika will insist that the measures should be unfortunately directed toward those who cannot hide their incomes, which is mainly the salaried strata," he says.

The burden has fallen to people like Alexandros Koulouris, a 39-year-old library science professor at a technical college. The day before Wednesday's mass demonstration, he and other educators held their own anti-austerity protest — a candlelight vigil and concert outside the old university building in central Athens.

Koulouris and his wife both work for the state. Together, they make about $2,500 a month, though their wages will probably be cut.

"We cannot survive," he says. "We cannot maintain our family, our kids."

Much of the money goes to house payments, taxes and heating bills that have doubled in the last two years, he says.

Lose-Lose Budget?

The new austerity measures include new taxes as well as cuts to public sector salaries, pensions and health care spending.

The troika, which rejected initial measures because they weren't tough enough, must still approve the new ones. Then the budget goes to the Greek Parliament for a vote.

If approved, the austerity cuts are intended to save $15 billion through 2014 and trigger the release of the latest installment of loans to Greece, about $40 billion.

The new measures are expected to deepen the worst recession in half a century. But without them, Greece could go bankrupt and exit the euro zone.

Either way, Ioannidis, the 80-year-old retiree, says he'll keep playing his accordion for extra money.

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