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Near-daily protests add to the hardship in Greece

By Elena Becatoros

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Oct. 7 2011 12:30 a.m. MDT

A small protest in front of the Greek Parliament in central Athens creates bumper-to-bumper traffic in Athens on Thursday Oct. 6, 2011. Central Athens sees major avenues and roads blocked and traffic diverted by protests nearly every day, and sometimes several times a day, impacting businesses in the center of town. The scene played out in central Athens this week during a student demonstration was indicative of the increasing irritation felt by many Greeks struggling under the weight of a financial crisis that has led to repeated strikes and demonstrations as the government tries desperately to avoid a catastrophic default on its debt.

Dimitri Messinis, Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece — With no warning, a few dozen students blocked a major avenue in central Athens, marching slowly up the middle of the street to make sure motorists couldn't get through. Tempers frayed, horns honked.

A driver revved his engine, swerved suddenly and charged up the sidewalk, narrowly missing a woman who jumped out of the way in alarm.

The scene during a student demonstration this week reflected the increasing irritation and despair felt by many Greeks, weighed down by a financial crisis that has led to repeated strikes and demonstrations as the government desperately tries to avoid a default.

"It's a catastrophe. This has destroyed us," said Nikos Trovas, who runs a parking garage just off Syntagma, the large square outside Parliament that has become the focus of protests. "The roads shut every day. So we just sit around here with the employees, looking at each other with no work to do."

It is a curse for those who live or commute to the center of the Greek capital, once a vibrant showcase of what many hoped was a dawn of economic prosperity.

As the chanted slogans faded and the last shreds of stinging tear gas wafted away Wednesday after a demonstration during a civil servants' strike, business owners took stock of the damage to their operations — and wondered how much longer they could keep going.

Trovas said his monthly turnover was down 40 percent compared to last year — when the financial crisis had already begun to bite in Greece. The main problem, he said, was that demonstrations were often marred by clashes between rock-throwing youths and riot police.

"The consequences are long term. When people see the violence they're afraid to come into the city center with their cars," he said.

The Greeks whose livelihoods lie downtown don't know who to blame: the government, which says there is no option but to cut spending and raise taxes to secure international loans, or the protesters, who can't stand their leaders.

Stores and coffee shops hastily roll down steel shutters — installed over the last few years after repeated riots saw storefronts smashed again and again — for every large demonstration.

"You lose €1,000 ($1,300) a day on a strike or demonstration day. We soldier on without hope," said Constantinos, opening the doors of his coffee shop just off Syntagma Square after the main demonstration. He asked that his surname not be used out of concern that his cafe could be targeted.

And it's not just motorists who are avoiding the center. In the popular shopping district behind Syntagma, more and more shops now stand vacant, "to let" signs plastered across their windows.

"For 200 days out of 365, we can't work," said clothes shop owner Georgia Brezati, whose store stands near the popular tourist area of Plaka. "The center shuts down all the time, and nobody's doing anything about it. I can't be taxed for 365 days a year but only work for 100."

As shops and restaurants stand vacant, Brezati said she has seen a steady decline in the area she has worked in for the past 30 years.

"There's terrible insecurity. And we have a huge problem near Syntagma now. A place that used to be known as the 'neighborhood of angels' has turned into the 'neighborhood of devils," she said, noting the general decline of the area, with petty criminals, beggars, the homeless and drug addicts increasingly apparent as businesses shut down.

Customers are scarce. Brezati sat at a table outside her shop slowly sipping a small coffee as passers-by glanced at the leather jackets and fur coats in her storefront, but didn't stop in.

"Our clients don't come to buy any more," she said. "They come to sell their furs and leather coats, because they need the money to pay their electricity and water bills."

Since May 2010, Greece has been dependent on a €110 billion ($146 billion) international bailout from other eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund to remain solvent and the government has struggled to meet the conditions of the rescue funds.

Several rounds of spending cuts and tax hikes have cut deep into the incomes of average Greeks as the country struggles through its third year of recession, with the economy projected to contract 5.5 percent of gross domestic product this year. Unemployment has spiraled to above 16 percent, with the young most severely affected.

European leaders agreed in July on a second €109 billion ($145 billion) bailout as it became increasingly clear that the measures weren't working as well as had been expected. But now the Socialist government and international creditors are disputing the details of that bailout.

And each quarterly review of the country's reforms — required for Greece to get the next installment of bailout loans — invariably comes with yet more austerity measures. Many blame the government for failing to tackle the problems effectively.

"This government doesn't work," said Brezati. "It's like they sold us a fur and we found out it was a fake."

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