Thursday 19 January 2017

Greece 'is at risk of serious violence due to Syriza lies', says leading opposition politician

* Tens of thousands attend rival rallies
* Three polls put 'Yes' vote marginally ahead
* PM Tsipras urges vote for 'dignity in Europe'
* Court rejects complaint against referendum

Caroline Crawford, Michele Kambas and Lefteris Papadimas

Published 04/07/2015 | 02:30

A general view of the crowd as Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras addresses his supporters during the 'No' campaign rally in Syntagma Square in preparation for Sunday's referendum
A general view of the crowd as Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras addresses his supporters during the 'No' campaign rally in Syntagma Square in preparation for Sunday's referendum
Anti-austerity demonstrators tussle with Police in Syntagma Square
An anti-austerity demonstrator is arrested in Syntagma Square during an anti-Austerity rally
Anti-Euro protesters scuffle with riot police at the European Union Representation offices in Athens
A member of the Communist-affiliated PAME labor union shouts slogans at the police during an anti-austerity protest calling to "Vote NO" in central Athens
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras addresess an anti-austerity rally at the Syntagma square
An activist is backed by a Yes flag as she campaigns in Athens
Anti-austerity protesters clash with a policeman in Athens

One of Greece's leading opposition politicians has warned the country is at peril of serious violence if an agreement is not reached.

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Theodore Fortsakis, the former rector of Athens University and Greek MP hit out at claims made by Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, saying he and his party had "lost the last signs of seriousness".

Speaking to the Irish Independent, Mr Fortsakis launched a stinging attack on Mr Varoufakis and Syriza calling it a party "addicted to lies". He also warned that the country was at peril of serious violence, insisting the banks would be unable to reopen on Tuesday without a deal with Europe.

"I feel that my country is going through a real nightmare and I cannot understand how it was possible for the Government to take so many bad decisions in such a short time. In the space of five months we lost most of our friends and allies in Europe and we destroyed our economy and now we're in a situation where you really have to struggle to avoid the worst scenarios in Greece," he said.

An activist is backed by a Yes flag as she campaigns in Athens
An activist is backed by a Yes flag as she campaigns in Athens

Read more: Athens brought to a standstill by Yes and No rallies

Responding to comments by the minister that the banks would re-open on Tuesday, Mr Fortsakis (below) said: "I'm afraid Mr Varoufakis has lost the last signs of seriousness. You know we cannot ask the economy to behave as we would like. It has it's own reactions.

A pensioner is helped by a bank manager after collapsing while waiting along with dozens of other pensioners outside a National Bank in Athens, Greece, July 2, 2015. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis
A pensioner is helped by a bank manager after collapsing while waiting along with dozens of other pensioners outside a National Bank in Athens, Greece, July 2, 2015. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis
Pensioners sit on the steps outside a National Bank branch in Athens, Greece, July 3, 2015.REUTERS/Christian Hartmann
A Greek flag flies atop the parliament building as people watch as demonstrators from the Greek Communist party gather during a rally supporting the no vote for the upcoming referendum in Athens, Thursday, July 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
A demonstrator walks along a road with leaflets reading 'no' scattered on the ground, following a demonstration supporting the no vote on the upcoming referendum, outside of the European Union office in central Athens, on Thursday, July 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
A demonstrator, left, waves a flag reading "YES" as a supporter of the no vote reacts in the northern Greek port city of Thessaloniki, Thursday, July 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)
Demonstrators from the Greek Communist party gather during a rally supporting the no vote for the upcoming referendum in front of the parliament in Athens, Thursday, July 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Demonstrators wave European Unions flag in support of the yes vote for the upcoming referendum in the northern Greek port city of Thessaloniki, Thursday, July 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)
A security guard carries a box with cash into a branch of the National Bank of Greece Athens, Greece, July 2, 2015. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis
Demonstrators gather during a rally supporting the yes vote for the upcoming referendum in the northern Greek port city of Thessaloniki, Thursday, July 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)
An elderly man finds old clothes as he searches in a garbage bin in the northern Greek port city of Thessaloniki, Thursday, July 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)
Demonstrators burn a European Union flag during a rally supporting the no vote for the upcoming referendum outside European Union office in Athens, Thursday, July 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)

"We have no hope of seeing our banks open again without an agreement with our European friends," he added.

He also dismissed the ruling party's claims that private negotiations have been ongoing with Europe.

A member of the Communist-affiliated PAME labor union shouts slogans at the police during an anti-austerity protest calling to
A member of the Communist-affiliated PAME labor union shouts slogans at the police during an anti-austerity protest calling to "Vote NO" in central Athens

"I think he is lying. He is somebody who has always declared contradictory things and unfortunately this government is addicted to lies and is a government that lies constantly for the past five months," he alleged.

Mr Fortsakis urged all Greek parties, including Syriza, to vote Yes. However, he also urged Europe to show more awareness of what life was now like for ordinary Greeks.

"Our European friends have to understand that Greece has lost more than 30pc of its GDP. And salaries were reduced almost 40pc, my salary also. The pension of my mother was divided by three. She was receiving €2,400 and now she receives €700. Such a reduction means people find themselves in a situation which is not any more under control.

Read more: Greeks face tough referendum choice

A general view of the crowd as Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras addresses his supporters during the 'No' campaign rally in Syntagma Square in preparation for Sunday's referendum
A general view of the crowd as Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras addresses his supporters during the 'No' campaign rally in Syntagma Square in preparation for Sunday's referendum

"If you lose 10-15pc of your salary that means you reduce some expenses and you're going to survive. If you lose 40pc or two thirds of your pension, that means you have to change your way of life. And this is something extremely important. I have seen no European country making such sacrifices," he added.

He also pointed out that a significant amount of Greek expenditure went on products which its European partners had urged it to buy, including a significant military spend.

Mr Fortsakis said he believed the situation was now so serious that violence could break out.

"I think that we have an extreme situation. Extremely violent things could happen in Greece. We have a tradition of violence. I feel that it could escalate to a very, very dangerous level, we have a profound division of the civil society," he told the Irish Independent.

Anti-Euro protesters scuffle with riot police at the European Union Representation offices in Athens
Anti-Euro protesters scuffle with riot police at the European Union Representation offices in Athens

However, despite his concerns about Syriza he also stressed that the party must stay in power for the four-year term. "The government is a legal government that must stay for the four-year period provided, but it must take into consideration the will of the people. If he [Tsipras] wants to remain he has to take into consideration the answer to be given on Sunday," he added.

Even if the people vote No tomorrow, Syriza must find a solution within 48 hours, he added.

Read more: It's Europe that has suffered a reputational catastrophe in Greece

Anti-austerity protesters clash with a policeman in Athens
Anti-austerity protesters clash with a policeman in Athens

Rallies

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Greeks took to the streets on Friday in rival rallies that laid bare the deep divide heading into a referendum that may decide the country's future in Europe's single currency.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, elected in January on a promise to end years of austerity, urged people packing Syntagma square in central Athens to spurn the tough terms of an aid deal offered by international creditors to keep the country afloat.

His European partners say a 'No' vote will jeopardise Greece's membership of the euro.

Tsipras says they are bluffing, fearing the fallout for Europe and the global economy. A 'Yes' vote may bring him down, ushering in a new period of political instability for a country reeling from five days of shuttered banks and rationed cash withdrawals.

Framing Sunday's ballot as a battle for democracy, freedom and European values, the 40-year-old left-wing leader told Greeks to "turn your backs on those who terrorise you daily".

"On Sunday, we are not just deciding that we are staying in Europe, but that we are deciding to live with dignity in Europe," he told the crowd of at least 50,000.

His opponents accuse Tsipras of gambling Greece's future on a rapid-fire plebiscite that a major European rights watchdog says falls short of international standards of fairness.

Four opinion polls published on Friday had the 'Yes' vote marginally ahead; a fifth put the 'No' camp 0.5 percent in front, but all were well within the margin of error.

"We know that the lenders will close the door if we say no, but we must fight," said 65-year-old pensioner Irini Stavridou, who attended the 'No' rally.

"We must fight not only for Greece but all the people in Europe, for those who just have a different opinion."

Read more: Tsipras makes last-ditch appeal to Greeks for a No vote

Ode to joy

On Syntagma, patriotic songs blared out over loudspeakers. At the 'Yes' camp, thousands rallied in front of the old Olympic Stadium to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," the anthem of the European Union. There appeared to be fewer people than in the 'No' crowd.

"I prefer to vote 'Yes', have a few more years austerity and give my child a better future," said unemployed economist Marina Peppa, 45. "It's not going to be easy, but if 'No' prevails we'll have Armageddon, total poverty."

With tension building, police fired stun grenades and briefly scuffled with a few dozen black-clad people carrying red flags, often carried by anti-establishment radicals. The violence appeared to be isolated.

In a televised address earlier in the day, Tsipras seized on a report by the International Monetary Fund - which argued that Greece's massive public debt could not be sustained without significant writedowns - as vindication of his rejection of the lenders' terms.

Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis called the IMF report "music to our ears". Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, Greece will need some 50 billion euros as well as a massive debt writedown, the report said.

European policy makers, however, issued fresh warnings of the costs of a 'No' vote in a plebiscite called with just eight days' notice after the breakdown of talks with the European Commission, the IMF and the European Central Bank.

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble dismissed Tsipras' argument that his government would be able to move smoothly to negotiate more favourable terms if Greeks backed his rejection.

"If the Greeks will vote 'No', the Greek position is dramatically weakened," Juncker told a news conference.

Brinkmanship

Tsipras is betting Europe will compromise rather than let Greece slip out of the euro zone. But behind the rhetoric, there were more concrete signs of the pressure Europe can exert on Greece.

The euro zone's rescue fund, Greece's largest creditor, said it was reserving the right to call in 130.9 billion euros of debt ahead of time after Athens defaulted on an IMF loan.

With banks shuttered all week, cash withdrawals rationed and commerce seizing up, Sunday's ballot could decide whether Greece gets another last-ditch financial rescue in exchange for more harsh austerity measures or plunges deeper into economic crisis.

One in four Greek workers are jobless; the economy has shrunk by a quarter since 2009.

Tsipras' opponents have pointed to the fact that the referendum is on a deal that is no longer on the table, accusing him of recklessly endangering the country's future.

Greece's top administrative court, however, rejected an appeal against the referendum by two Greek citizens, who argued that the constitution bars plebiscites on fiscal issues and that the question is too complex.

The 'No' campaign has directed much of its venom at Germany, the euro zone's dominant power and Greece's biggest creditor.

One poster plastered in central Greece shows a picture of German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble with the slogan: "For five years he's been sucking your blood. Tell him NO now."

But fuelling fears of worse to come, the Financial Times reported that Greek banks were making contingency plans to possibly "bail in" depositors, a prospect Greek leaders have repeatedly denied.

The report said plans to shave off at least 30 percent on deposits above 8,000 euros were "an increasingly likely scenario for at least one bank", as part of a restructuring of the bank sector once Greek is back in a bailout programme.

Louka Katseli, head of Greece's Bank Association and chair of the National Bank of Greece, dismissed the report as "completely baseless".

She told Skai TV: "There are no such scenarios at any Greek bank, not even as an exercise on paper."

(Additional reporting by Reuters, Michele Kambas and Lefteris Papadimas)

Irish Independent

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