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Page last updated at 15:38 GMT, Thursday, 6 May 2010 16:38 UK

Cracks widen in Greek society

Pedestrian walks past broken window in Athens

The BBC's Malcolm Brabant reports on a Greece that is reeling from the deaths of three bank workers during violent protests over planned austerity measures to tackle the country's financial crisis.

"Pigs." "Thieves." The graffiti on the shutters of the underwear shop next to the burned out shell of the Marfin Egatia Bank was signed with an A in a circle, the symbol of the anarchists.

The insult was aimed at the police, politicians and the banks.

But for those laying flowers and lighting incense and candles beneath the crime scene tape, the insult could be applied to those who had stolen the lives of three bank workers.

They choked to death in the inferno caused by a rioter's petrol bomb.

Many Athenians walking past the bank were too upset to speak.

Bank workers went on strike to protest against the outrage. Among them was Dimitris Dragones, a colleague of the three victims.

"The firemen came on foot and the people who were demonstrating didn't let them through. Perhaps they could have been rescued. It's stupid," he said.

'Not my fault'

The arson attack has accentuated divisions in society.

There were claims from a protester that violent military-style action by the police had created the climate in which a petrol bombing turned lethal.

Greeks view bank where three employees were killed in riots
Many Greeks have been shocked at the scene of the bank inferno

Anarchist websites circulated claims that bank employees were ordered not to leave despite the trouble brewing outside.

Out in cyber space, social networks were humming in response.

On Facebook, Kostas Karakonstandis complained about the old Greek mantra, Den ftaio ergo - it's not my fault.

"It's not my fault, it's always somebody else's fault, the IMF, the government, the Financial Times, Wall Street, everyone except for me. I'm just the poor oppressed Greek public servant. The innocent working class victims [of the fire] made the mistake of choosing to work on a day that the mafia said they shouldn't. What a complete disgrace," wrote Mr Karakonstandis.

Greece is a fractious society and often, in times of crisis, turns inward and devours itself, which is why the President, Karolas Papoulias, appealed for social cohesion.

His words were endorsed by an editorial in Kathimerini, a liberal broadsheet newspaper.

"Can a society self destruct? Yes, it most definitely can and the way Greece is headed right now, it is a very real possibility that it will. We see a society that is mad, and justifiably so, and we see it going down an ill-advised path."

There's no way to prevent them from doing what they did yesterday, at least peacefully
John Psaropoulos
Independent analyst

"Then we see the government, caught in the grips of panic, contributing to the populist fever, and pouring more oil over the fire."

One of the newspaper's columnists, TV journalist Alexis Papachelas, believes the government could persuade the country to accept the painful and unfair austerity measures if it could punish some of those responsible for amassing Greece's elephantine 300bn euro (£255bn)debt.

"The only cure is for politicians to agree on a constitutional amendment that will annul immunity from prosecution for former and serving ministers and MPs, on trimming down parliament to 200 members, and to sending the crooks and tax evaders to court and jail," he wrote.

'Buy time'

There is little doubt that the Greek police lost control of the streets on Wednesday, despite a promise by the Citizens' Protection Minister, Michalis Chryssohoidis, that he would never again allow Athens and other cities to burn, as they did during the riots of December 2008.

The aggressive tactics that were prevalent in Athens in December 2009, during the anniversary of the previous year's social uprising, were toned down on Wednesday - although there were some fierce clashes with rioters who hurled petrol bombs and chunks of marble at the police as they repelled an attempt to storm parliament.

There will be fears that Greece will be incapable of forcing through the austerity measures if the demonstrations continue.

"This is a country that up until 1974 had a military dictatorship and people are extremely sensitive to the police presence," said John Psaropoulos, a former newspaper editor and independent analyst.

"Right and left wing governments have handled the police presence very carefully. The biggest unions in the country together control, they say, about three million workers, which is about three quarters of the workforce in this country.

"There's no way to prevent them from doing what they did yesterday, at least peacefully. The trouble is that will create an environment for criminal acts on the sides, the government just has to live with that and handle it the best it can."

So is there an alternative to the austerity programme, which will get the demonstrators off the streets and appease international investors, while preventing Greece from going bankrupt and becoming even more of a financial pariah?

Jens Bastian, an economist with ELIAMEP, a Greek think tank, believes there is.

"Far too much focus has been placed on restructuring [Greek debt]. No. I think the name of the game is now rescheduling. Buy yourself time," he said.

"Get a breathing space. Try to convert five-year bonds to 10-year ones. You still honour the repayment and you honour the interest coupon. But you buy time and that's what the government needs right now."



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