Minister buys time on taxi driver action

Transport Minister Yiannis Ragousis appeared to defuse mounting tensions among protesting taxi drivers on Tuesday as he avoided rising to their challenge to state his position on reforms aimed at opening up their sector to competition, declaring that dialogue would continue until October.

But the issue appears to have divided ruling PASOK, with Ragousis coming under fire from many of his party?s MPs during a heated session of Parliament?s transport committee. One deputy, Leonidas Grigorakos, even called for the minister?s resignation.

Outside in Syntagma Square, about 8,000 cabbies converged to protest the controversial reforms under discussion. But the demonstration was peaceful and the feared clashes with police did not occur, possibly because Ragousis avoided upping the ante.

According to sources, the minister said that discussions about the reforms, aimed at liberalizing the cab drivers? sector along with dozens of other so-called closed professions, would continue until October 2, when a three-month grace period for the opening of these professions is to expire.

Taxi drivers, who are in their second week of strike action, reportedly responded by demanding written guarantees from the minister that limits on the number of taxi licenses issued in different parts of the country would be based on population size.

The cabbies also called on Ragousis to clarify his stance on the planned reforms and how they differ from an original bill approved by the minister?s predecessor, Dimitris Reppas, which set certain restrictions on the issuing of licenses. Ties between Ragousis and Reppas are reportedly at an all-time low.

Protesters argue that fully lifting restrictions on the number of permits that can be issued for taxis would not only create a free-for-all in which supply would far outstrip demand but would also lead to major financial losses for current permit holders, who may have paid as much as 200,000 euros to be issued a license.

Cabbies, who have scaled down their action in recent days after blocking ports, airports and roads, were to decide on Wednesday on whether to continue their action. Protesters have changed their tactics in recent days, occupying toll stations and allowing motorists to pass through without charge, in an apparent bid to get the public on their side.

On Tuesday Athens prosecutor Eleni Raikou asked police to investigate whether violence had been used in any cases of tollbooth occupations by taxi drivers.

Police are expected to inspect surveillance camera footage from toll gates.

Another new tactic of protesting taxi drivers – an apparent bid to rebuff claims that their actions are harming the tourism sector – has been to open the gates at several key archaeological sites.