Greece's prime minister promised Saturday to deliver economic growth to a country hammered by years of economic hardship, as thousands gathered in protest at more planned austerity measures.
About 15,000 protesters — beating drums, waving black flags and holding helium balloons bearing anti-government slogans — took part in demonstrations, marching through the center of Greece's second-largest city, Thessaloniki, where Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras spoke on the state of the nation's economy.
"In five disastrous years ... a quarter of our national wealth was destroyed, disposable income fell by 40 percent, unemployment soared to 28 percent and the level of poverty rose to 38 percent," Tsipras told an audience of politicians and business leaders, referring to governments before he took office in early 2015.
"Now, all the indications are that this chapter is closing...Finally, we are going from a negative direction to a positive one."
As expected Tsipras said that 246 million euros, the proceeds of a recent auction of TV licenses, would go toward the "needs of the welfare state." He promised 10,000 new jobs at state hospitals, thousands more free meals at schools, more kindergarten places and a program aimed at bringing back young Greeks who left the country due to the crisis. “Every last euro of the 246 million euros will go the people," he said.
He also heralded a five-year action plan – “a realistic road map for the recovery of the economy and reduction of burdens” -- that would bring about a "new Greece" by 2021 and promised to freeze the social security contributions of self-employed Greeks as well as reducing taxes in two years time.
Tsipras appealed to foreign and local entrepreneurs to invest “without hesitation” in the Greek economy. “It will be mutually beneficial for you and the economy,” he said, noting that authorities were offering a stable tax environment for 12 years to companies investing more than 20 million euros.
Greece has spent most of the last eight years in recession and is currently going through its third major round of austerity measures tied to international bailout packages.
Bailout inspectors are due to return to Athens next week following a weekend warning by European lenders that the Athens has again fallen behind on financial reforms aimed at boosting privatization and slashing state regulation of the private sector.
After slipping behind rival conservatives in opinion polls, Tsipras' left-wing government is pressing lenders to grant Greece debt relief measures — more generous repayment terms considered vital to revive the economy burdened by a national debt set to peak at around 185 percent of gross domestic product this year.
But creditors are demanding additional reforms that would strip workers of redundancy protection and leave troubled mortgage holders in greater danger of property foreclosure.
Greece's largest labor union, the GSEE, organized the main protest Saturday and signaled it would call strikes against the labor reforms.
"Unions have sent a clear message that the struggle will continue, by all means necessary, to counter the government's disastrous policies," a GSEE statement said.
"Today, thousands of protesters ... voiced their anger against the ongoing actions of the government that are increasing poverty and unemployment, placing a heavier burden on salary earners, and strangling society."
About 5,000 police officers were on duty to provide security during the rallies which ended peacefully. Also angry at pay cuts and austerity, police officers held an anti-government protest on Friday.
[AP, Kathimerini English Edition]