ATHENS (Reuters) - Germany’s finance minister told Greeks to stop lobbying for more debt forgiveness during a visit to Athens on Thursday that forced authorities to shut the city center and ban protests against the deeply unpopular champion of austerity.
Visiting the country for the first time since its debt problems kindled the euro zone crisis four years ago, Wolfgang Schaeuble’s motorcade drove through streets empty except for riot police to meet a packed audience of Greek businessmen.
Germany has been forced to stump up billions in aid to keep Greece and other struggling euro member countries afloat.
His visit came hours after Greece’s parliament narrowly passed a scheme to fire thousands of public sector workers to secure an additional 7 billion euros in aid, ignoring mass protests by teachers and policemen outside.
After praising Athens for trying to get its finances back on track, Schaeuble bluntly told Greeks to stop asking for a second debt writedown on the heels of a restructuring last year that imposed massive losses on private holders of Greek bonds.
“My advice is not to continue this discussion,” he told businessmen at an event in central Athens.
“We have to stick to what we’ve achieved. Anything else is not in the best interest of Greece. Another haircut beyond the 53 percent for the private sector in not doable.”
Official lenders like the euro zone and the International Monetary Fund now hold more than 90 percent of Greece’s debt.
That means the burden of any further debt relief - which Athens hopes will follow once it hits its financial targets this year - will fall on euro zone states fed up with Greece’s seemingly never-ending funding needs and poor record on reforms.
Germany in recent weeks has repeatedly ruled out a writedown of Greek debt, although critics believe the government is simply trying to hold off discussion on it until after Chancellor Angela Merkel runs for re-election in September.
The “troika” of the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and European Commission is propping Greece up with over 240 billion euros in aid but is fiercely disliked here for its insistence on austerity. Earlier this week, the EU justice commissioner called for the troika to be dissolved, though other senior euro zone officials have defended it.
Schaeuble is expected to sign a deal later on Thursday offering Greece 100 million euros for a fund to help pull the country out of a recession that is now in its sixth year.
That has failed to impress many Greeks, who blame Germany’s insistence on fiscal rigor for a record unemployment of 27 percent and plummeting living standards that have driven up suicides and stoked near-daily protests and strikes.
“Hail, Schaeuble!” the leftist Avgi newspaper screamed on its front page on Thursday. “The moribund salute you,” it wrote above a stern-looking photograph of the minister.
A ban on demonstrations during his visit prevents protesters from gathering in central parts of Athens, including around parliament in Syntagma Square, the focus of often violent protests against cutbacks designed to tackle the debt crisis.
The ban includes groups of more than three people holding banners and shouting slogans, and will be in force from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. local time. Central metro stations will also be shut.
“Who is Mr Schaeuble for you to prohibit Greek citizens from protesting against austerity?” asked Panagiotis Lafazanis, a lawmaker from the radical leftist Syriza opposition party, which wants to tear up the bailout plan.
“You are governing the country like a protectorate, a banana republic.”
Syriza, which branded the ban a “coup-like” move, called on Greeks to rally in a central Athens square against a visit by the “architect of austerity policies in our country”.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators defied a ban on protests during Merkel’s visit to the Greek capital in October, while some pelted police with rocks, bottles and sticks. Pictures lampooning Merkel as a latter-day Nazi, festooned with swastikas, are commonplace in Greece.
Some 3,500 police are being deployed in the streets of Athens during Schaeuble’s visit, while another 3,000 will be on standby.
Additional reporting by Karolina Tagaris and Tatiana Fragou; Writing by Deepa Babington; Editing by Catherine Evans