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Page last updated at 15:44 GMT, Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Dampened spirits at Greek public sector strike

By Jonny Dymond
BBC News, Athens

Demonstrators in Athens, 10 Feb
Protesters are angry at the government's austerity plan

Under leaden skies a long line of strikers trudged, umbrellas in hand, through Syntagma Square on Wednesday morning.

Teachers, nurses, doctors, dock workers, civil servants and airport staff walked with banners protesting at the Greek government's plans to rein in the country's deficit.

There is a fair amount of chanting, but on this grey day, there is not much enthusiasm about.

The seriousness of Greece's situation seems to have infected even those agitating against the government's proposed solution.

The gap between what Greece spent and what it raised in taxes last year was almost 13% of the country's output - double the figure the outgoing government had said it was.

The country's debt is the largest in Europe for an economy of its size. The public sector is widely regarded as grotesquely inefficient, corruption is rife, and the country mired in recession.

Line of fire

The government, though socialist in name, has implemented some of the toughest measures in years
Eleni Toli
University lecturer

The new socialist government of Prime Minister George Papandreou has proposed hiking taxes, cutting benefits for public sector workers, cracking down on tax evasion and reforming the country's generous but underfunded pension system.

Those first in line - the public sector - are first out on strike.

"We want to demonstrate against a government, which - though socialist in name - has implemented some of the toughest measures in recent years," says university lecturer Eleni Toli, 41.

"We are called upon to pay for a crisis when the previous government gave 28bn euros (£25bn; $38bn) to the banks."

There is a lot of talk about the bank bailout and about the unfairness of cuts that hit the poorer sections of Greek society while the rich skip taxes with impunity.

The march winds around Syntagma Square and in front of the Greek parliament.

To one side of the yellow stone building, a group of strikers from the ministry of finance stand behind a banner, shouting slogans, fists punching the air.

'Fairytale crisis'

Given that a large part of the government's plans for deficit reduction rests on cutting Greece's endemic tax evasion, the rolling strikes by tax inspectors do not bode well.

Demonstrators play drums in Athens, 10 February
Public sector workers stand to take a big hit in pay and benefits

"They are taking our money, but for what?" says ministry worker Eliza Karakousi, 49. "Who stole all our money?"

"You are not going to do it your way," her colleagues chant at the parliament, before moving on up the street.

There is a long tradition of left-wing protest in Greece, allied with anti-capitalism and anti-Americanism.

But whether it is because of the weather, or the scale of the crisis the country faces, the march feels thinly attended and often the protest is rather desultory.

"This is pathetic... we expected a huge turnout and that the city would burn down," says a publisher, 46, who did not want to give his name.

"This fairytale about crisis is being believed, the people believe all this [rubbish] about bankruptcy. They believe that the government is trying to do something, but the problem is systemic," he says.

There will be more strikes in coming weeks. But on Wednesday the square clears of marchers by early afternoon. Traffic roars back in to take their place.



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