Lull in cotton protest may precede storm

Most of the country’s road network was functioning smoothly over the weekend, following Saturday’s decision by cotton farmers to suspend their roadblock protest that started on Friday, but a new series of disruptions are expected from today when Communist-affiliated unionists are set to join the fray. Cotton farmers are seeking higher crop subsidies through an increase in production quotas, a move which the government has repeatedly ruled out as incompatible with European Union regulations. After four days of camping out beside the Tempe tollpost on the Athens-to-Thessaloniki national road, some 400 kilometers north of the capital, Thessaly unionists – Greece largest and most vocal cotton-farming group – blocked the crucial road with their tractors on Friday, for 24 hours. But on Saturday, the union, which is dominated by farmers affiliated with the ruling New Democracy party, decided to open up the highway pending new talks with the government. This decision was reaffirmed yesterday. Nevertheless, protesters will remain by the road, with their tractors, poised for further action. This may be triggered within the next couple of days, as Communist Party (KKE) affiliated unionists will launch protests today that could draw in their wavering colleagues. The KKE-affiliated unionists – who represent all sectors of agricultural production, and not just cotton-growers – are planning to set up 12 roadblocks in various parts of Greece. Today, rallies will be staged in the towns of Karditsa and Trikala, as well as the smaller townships of Tyrnavos, Elassona and Ayia in Thessaly, while minor roads will be blocked for part of the day at two points in Thessaly. Northern Greek farmers – including rice-growers – also called off a series of roadblocks over the weekend, in what they termed a goodwill gesture, but remained poised with their tractors to resume action. Following Saturday’s decision by the Thessaly farmers, Agriculture Minister Evangelos Bassiakos publicly avowed his good intentions, without specifying how a final agreement could be struck with protesters. «We will continue, following talks, to take all action that is suitable, legal and compatible with EU regulations… to improve farmers’ income,» he said. So far, a bid by Bassiakos to readjust the final quota by eliminating fraudulent claims has failed to impress unionists. In Larissa on Saturday, opposition leader George Papandreou accused the government of having betrayed farmers after securing their vote in last March’s national elections. «All the problems were created by this government,» he said.