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Wednesday, 6 February, 2002, 15:10 GMT
Farmers threaten Greece with standstill
Farmers' demonstration burning cotton
The farmers' roadblocks are being stepped up
By Daniel Howden in Athens

Defiant farmers are threatening to bring Greece to a standstill as roadblocks continue for a ninth day.

We are going to shut down all movement

Farmers' union leader Yiannis Patakis
Talks with the government over subsidy payments and compensation have collapsed, and farmers say their blockades will now become round-the-clock protests.

Hundreds of tractors have been sporadically blocking the main motorway connecting Greece's two largest cities - Athens and Thessaloniki - since protests began on 28 January. Border crossings and the main eastbound Egnatia Highway have also been disrupted.

New protests and road blocks are expected on the scale of demonstrations in 1997, which inflicted estimated trade losses of 173m euros ($150m).

Road rage

Farmers are demanding higher cotton subsidies and immediate compensation for massive crop damage suffered during January's harsh weather.

But on Tuesday, four hours of talks between farmers' unions and Agriculture Minister Giorgos Drys failed to deliver a compromise deal.

"The agriculture minister is a tough opponent so we are going to shut down all movement," said farmers' union leader and communist MEP Yiannis Patakis.

But Mr Drys insisted that the ministry was "open to dialogue" on all problems in Greek agriculture.

Farmers' protest
The protests have sparked anger on the roads
The government has offered to pay 50% of compensation up front and relax loan repayments for farmers. But the issue of cotton subsidies is proving harder to resolve.

Protests have gradually spread from cotton farmers in Thessaly in central Greece as far south as Crete and north to border crossings with Bulgaria and Macedonia.

With motorists facing miles of tailbacks around the country, angry clashes have broken out in some areas. One farmer faces an 18-month prison sentence for ramming a car with his tractor.

In another incident a knife-wielding farmer who suffered severe damage in January's blizzards had to be restrained, after threatening to commit suicide in front of television cameras.

Weather wreckage

The coldest January for nearly 40 years had a devastating impact on Greece's ailing agricultural sector, causing damage estimated at 45m euros ($39m).

Snow in Greece
Harsh winter conditions have hit farmers badly
Government warnings that damage assessment, and subsequently payments, could take months have fuelled grievances over state subsidies after a bumper cotton harvest.

Thousands of farmers are expected to converge on Thessaloniki on Tuesday for an emergency meeting of the national union to decide on what officials called "the shape of the battle from here on."

Opposition parties voiced support for the farmers' demands but only the Greek Communist Party (KKE) has publicly backed the escalating roadblocks.

"The small farmers should not take even the smallest step back from their reasonable demands which the government failed to satisfy," said a KKE spokesman.

Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis returned from a Brussels meeting on 30 January with promises of assistance from an EU special fund for natural disasters.

But farmers have not been satisfied with commitments to reimburse them for up to 75% of damages and are demanding swifter payment.

See also:

24 Sep 01 | Europe
Greek diplomats strike for pay
26 Apr 01 | Europe
Strike brings Greece to a halt
05 Sep 01 | Europe
Europe's neglected race
03 Sep 01 | Europe
Greece learns to love the euro
27 Mar 01 | Europe
Athens airport raises doubts
16 Feb 01 | Europe
Athens told to speed up
05 Sep 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Greece
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