Greeks brim with pride as country totters on the edge

Sun Feb 15, 2015 3:19am EST
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By Deepa Babington and Karolina Tagaris

ATHENS (Reuters) - For over a fortnight, Europe's single warning to Greece has been that the chaos and misery of national bankruptcy await it unless its new left-wing government changes its anti-austerity tune.

The message of impending doom appears to have gone largely unnoticed on the streets of Athens, where a mood of hope and optimism bordering on euphoria reigns as Greeks see themselves finally shaking off foreign shackles to shape their own destiny.

"Bankrupt but free" proclaimed a banner at a pro-government demonstration on Wednesday that drew thousands. Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis was isolated at Thursday's crunch euro zone meeting in Brussels, but Greek TV channel Mega's main news broadcast on Thursday gushed over him "stealing the show".

"For the first time in years I feel proud to be Greek," said Lena Dousiou, a 32-year-old who worked in a printing shop before being laid off two years ago. "We went to the Europeans with our head held high and told them 'Enough is enough!'"

Another TV feature on Varoufakis had the pop hit "Can't take my eyes off you" in the background. Far from obsessing over a potential Greek banking collapse or a euro zone exit after Thursday's talks ended without agreement, Greek newspapers ran headlines suggesting a "bridge" deal would soon be adopted. "Spring in Athens, fog in Brussels" proclaimed Efimerida ton Syntakton on its front page.

Two polls this week showed that over three-quarters of Greeks support Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras's hardline stance for a wholesale cancellation of Greece's bailout program, which has alarmed Europe and left Athens dangerously close to bankruptcy.

An opinion poll this week showed 79 percent of Greeks backed Tsipras's policies and 74 percent believed his negotiating strategy will succeed, even though Greece has so far found not a single ally among 19 euro zone nations.

The mood is in stark contrast to 2012 when panic over a potential Greek euro zone exit prompted Greeks to vote in a pro-bailout government despite popular discontent with the program. Two and a half years later, the public mood has shifted from anger to the point where many Greeks feel they have nothing more to lose. Austerity imposed as a condition of the 240-billion-euro EU/IMF bailout has pushed joblessness over 25 percent and cut incomes by over a third.   Continued...

Eurogroup President Jeroen Dijsselbloem (L) looks at Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis (R) during an extraordinary euro zone Finance Ministers meeting to discuss Athens' plans to reverse austerity measures agreed as part of its bailout, in Brussels February 11, 2015.  REUTERS/Yves Herman