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Greeks Protest Against Austerity as Leaders Try to Negotiate With Creditors in Brussels

While a Eurogroup meeting in Brussels broke down without an agreement, people gathered peacefully in Athens to support their government's anti-austerity plan.

by Nikolia Apostolou
Feb 12 2015, 1:03am

Photo by Virginia Mayo/AP

More than four years after the violent protests sparked by the Greek government's agreement to impose austerity measures in exchange for a multi-billion dollar debt bailout package, demonstrators returned to the streets of Athens on Wednesday carrying banners that read "Stop Austerity," "Support Greece," and "Change Europe."

This time, however, there were no Molotov cocktails, no damaged ATMs, and no conflicts with the police. The mood in Greece has changed completely since new Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his anti-austerity Syriza party triumphed in the country's elections last month. The new government has vowed to let people protest freely.

With an emergency Eurogroup meeting underway in Brussels to discuss how to handle Tsipras's pledge to end the austerity measures that have plagued the Greek middle and lower classes, people gathered peacefully to show their support for the Greek government, braving snow in Athens and other central cities.

"We're here to tell the EU leaders that we can't accept any more austerity," said Leda Stavraki, a 25-year-old unemployed math professor. "We're barely surviving."

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On Wednesday, Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis presented a counter-proposal to the austerity measures and asked his Eurozone counterparts to give the Greek government until summer to prepare and design a new program. In the meantime, the Greeks are also asking creditors to lower the primary surplus target from 3 percent of GDP to 1.5 percent, and to approve a debt swap plan.

But Europe doesn't seem open to relenting. Most finance ministers entering the meeting told the media they expect Greece to stick to its plan, and warned that it might be long time until a deal is reached.

"I don't expect any results today," said German Finance Minister Wolfgang Shauble, speaking for one of Greece's most influential lenders. "But it's up to Yanis Varoufakis. Every country is free to do what it desires and I'd be interested to hear what he plans to do outside the [current] program."

The talks broke down without an agreement or even a plan of action, the Associated Press reported.

Varoufakis has vowed to continue negotiating until a new deal is reached.

"The pyramidal austerity is over," Varoufakis said Tuesday in the Greek Parliament. "The agreement with our partners is not over. [But] in order for it not to be toxic [for Greece], a new agreement is required and we were elected in order to negotiate a new agreement."

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Greece's partners, though, are pressuring the government to accept an extension of the current austerity program. Tsipras has ruled that out, saying he won elections on a mandate to stop austerity. A summit Thursday in Brussels will be Tsipras's first meeting with his EU counterparts. Everyone is waiting to see what card he has up his sleeve and whether he will overplay his hand.

The current bailout program ends this month, and Greece might run out of money without a new one. If that happens, it could undermine confidence in the euro and cause headaches from Madrid to Berlin.

With no agreement reached Wednesday, the finance ministers are scheduled to meet again Monday. "Some progress has been made, but we have not made enough progress to reach a joint conclusion," Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem said after the meeting.

Varoufakis told Greek journalists after the talks broke down that the conference Wednesday "was never meant to settle any issues."

"I was invited to speak because I am the new kid in the block," he said.

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