Greece reels after leaders agree to harsh spending cuts

BERLIN — Greeks clashed on the streets of Athens and in the halls of government Friday, as protesters grew violent and one after another cabinet minister resigned, a day after the nation’s leaders accepted foreign lenders’ demands for tough austerity cuts to try to stave off bankruptcy.

By late evening, six cabinet members had resigned and Prime Minister Lucas Papademos went on state television to threaten members of his shaky coalition government with expulsion if they opposed making sweeping spending cuts in exchange for a bailout that would keep Greece from defaulting on its debts by mid-March. A Greek bankruptcy could shake the euro zone and potentially wreak havoc throughout the global financial system.

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U.S. stocks fell sharply Friday, interrupting the Dow Jones industrial average's steady climb toward 13,000, after Greece hit a roadblock on its way to a critical international bailout. (Feb. 10)

U.S. stocks fell sharply Friday, interrupting the Dow Jones industrial average's steady climb toward 13,000, after Greece hit a roadblock on its way to a critical international bailout. (Feb. 10)

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Greek politicians must approve the cuts by Wednesday, a deadline set by officials with the European Central Bank, European Union and the International Monetary Fund. The nation’s leaders fear that many of the new mandates will worsen an already harsh recession. But some European officials said Friday that they were still far from green-lighting the $182 billion bailout, and they expressed doubt that Greece would be able to institute the measures in time to avert disaster. Greece is a member of the European Union, and a disorderly default could force the country to abandon the shared euro currency.

Papademos said there was no alternative.

“It is a time of historic responsibility,” he said in his nationally televised address, saying a “social explosion” would take place if Greece went bankrupt.

But protests over the austerity plans were already paralyzing the capital, as thousands marched during a demonstration led by the country’s two largest unions. The new mandates will reduce the minimum wage to $780 a month from $1,000 a month, slash social entitlements, freeze salaries for years and cut 150,000 workers from government payrolls by the end of 2015. Greek unemployment already stands at 20.9 percent.

Some protesters threw gasoline bombs and stones at riot police, who responded with tear gas, the Associated Press reported. Police said that eight officers and two protesters were injured. The unions called for a 48-hour general strike, the second this week, and much of Athens was shut down.

The head of a junior partner in Greece’s coalition government, George Karatzaferis, said Friday that his right-wing LAOS party would vote against the bailout conditions. Members of his party in the Greek cabinet submitted their resignations, although they were not immediately accepted by the prime minister.

“Of course we do not want to be outside the E.U., but we can get by without being under the German jackboot,” Karatzaferis said at a news conference. “I would rather starve.”

The demonstrators blasted songs from the anti-dictatorship movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The civil servants union ADEDY said in a statement that the new mandates “are the ‘tombstone’ of the Greek society.”

The two main ruling political parties, the Socialists and the center-right New Democracy party, scheduled emergency meetings for Saturday.

A vote on the measures had been planned for Sunday, but the local news media circulated reports saying the vote had been pushed to Monday. The reports suggested that Papademos also may reshuffle his cabinet that day.

Even without the ruling coalition’s smallest partner, Greece’s leaders still control 236 seats of the 300-member Parliament, meaning that many members would have to defy the wishes of their own leaders to stymie the plan’s passage.

Still unresolved is an additional $432 million in spending cuts for this year that European officials have demanded. The country must reduce its debt load to 120 percent of its economy by 2020, the officials have said, a target they believe would help Greece avoid the need for future bailouts. Greece plans to target most of those cuts on defense spending, a government official said Friday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a matter still under negotiation.

But other European officials said that it might not be so simple, given Greek politicians’ habitual inability to quickly come to consensus.

“The dominant feeling here is extreme skepticism,” said a German official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to give a candid account of Germany’s assessment. Even with the new bailout, the official said, if the Greek government fails to find the additional cuts, “the country’s still going to go bankrupt.”

Without the bailout, Greece will likely default by March 20, when a deadline looms on a $19 billion debt payment.

 
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