NEWS

Athens upbeat after aid talks with IMF chief

Finance Minister Giorgos Papaconstantinou issued a message of hope from Washington yesterday after meeting with the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, for talks on the release of much-needed funding to debt-ridden Greece. «We are all confident that this will be done in time and that we will be able to continue to finance our public debt without problems,» Papaconstantinou said. Strauss-Kahn also appeared upbeat but stressed the significance of rapid action. «The IMF, the European partners and everyone involved in the financing effort recognize the need for speed,» he said. «I am confident that we will conclude discussions in time to meet Greece’s needs,» the IMF chief said. The emphasis by both Strauss-Kahn and Papaconstantinou on the need for swift progress is being prompted by immediate obligations – Greece needs at least 9 billion euros within the next month to repay bonds maturing on May 19. But it is also widely interpreted as an attempt to discourage speculation about Greece’s fate on the markets. Questioned by reporters in Washington about investors betting on the risk of a Greek default, Papaconstantinou retorted: «All I can say is that they will lose their shirts.» As Greek workers continue to protest austerity measures and the involvement of the IMF in a joint rescue plan with eurozone countries worth some 45 billion euros, the IMF’s Strauss-Kahn stressed that his organization had Greece’s interests at heart. «Greek citizens shouldn’t fear the IMF – we are there to try and help them,» said Strauss-Kahn, a former Socialist finance minister of France. Back in Greece, Prime Minister George Papandreou said the EU-IMF rescue plan was «not pleasant» but crucial. «Because of our problems, the EU [officials] arrived and now the IMF is here too and they are in control, in a kind of guardianship,» Papandreou told villagers at Kremasti on the Dodecanese island of Rhodes, noting that the ultimate aim was to «restore our autonomy.» The premier said he understood the anger of protesters holding banners reading «IMF go home.» «They will not leave in a hail of stones,» but rather when Greece has regained its «credibility» and restored its reeling economy, he said. Papandreou added that his government would struggle to ensure that «those who are not to blame [for the crisis] will not pay» and again blamed the previous conservative administration for the current situation. Opposition New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras, for his part, accused the government of making »massive mistakes» and lying about being forced to resort to IMF aid. «It was not forced, it chose to do so,» Samaras charged in a speech in his native Kalamata. «The IMF is going to force new measures upon us that neither our economy nor our society will be able to bear,» Samaras added. Germany stresses it could still say ‘no’ to Greece; France appears to adopt harder line As officials from the Greek government and the International Monetary Fund sought to send out reassuring signals about the immediate activation of a multibillion-euro rescue package for Greece, strong skepticism persisted in Germany, the eurozone’s strongest economy, and elsewhere about the prudence of dispensing aid without serious consideration. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble stressed that Germany could still refuse Greece’s appeal for emergency loans. «The fact that neither the European Union nor the German government have taken a decision means the outcome could be positive or negative,» Schauble told the mass-selling Bild am Sonntag newspaper. The gradual release of funds «will depend on whether Greece sticks to the strict course on which it has embarked over the coming years,» Schauble said, adding that «the Greek finance minister has said this as well.» Germany’s Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle did not mince his words. «We are not ready to write a blank check,» he was quoted as saying on Germany’s ZDF television channel. «It is not at all agreed that Greece will actually receive aid from Europe… There will only be aid if there is no other way of stabilizing our common currency,» he said. France’s Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, who has been among the most supportive of Greece’s efforts among her eurozone counterparts, yesterday stressed the importance of «firmness» and vigilance. «We are all obliged to show solidarity [with Greece]… but that doesn’t mean we should be complacent,» Lagarde said in an interview with the newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche. The French minister said the aid would be released «according to [Greece’s] needs and, in the case of default on repayment, we will immediately step on the brake.»