ATHENS (Reuters) - Prime Minister George Papandreou pleaded for patience from Greeks growing increasingly angry with relentless austerity efforts, telling a newspaper his government was struggling to prevent a financial “catastrophe.”
In an interview with the weekly Proto Thema newspaper, Papandreou said the government was fighting to stop Greece defaulting on its debts but the road ahead was hard.
“I would very much like to guarantee everyone an immediate solution, a better life today,” he told the newspaper in an interview which hit newsstands Saturday.
“I would be the happiest man in the world if I could do that but I can’t and I have a duty to be honest and tell this truth to every Greek citizen,” he said.
Next week parliament is due to pass measures including pay and pension cuts and thousands of layoffs in the public service.
Greece’s two main union federations have called a 48-hour general strike which is expected to shut down much of the country to coincide with the vote Wednesday and Thursday.
Separate strikes by customs officials and municipal workers are expected to deepen the misery of ordinary Greeks by creating fuel shortages and leaving garbage to pile up in the streets.
Saturday, thousands of demonstrators filled Syntagma Square outside parliament as part of worldwide demonstrations attacking the financial system.
However, Papandreou dismissed any suggestion that Greece could afford to walk away from a debt burden estimated to reach 162 percent of gross domestic product this year.
He said he would be seeking the support of European partners at a summit in Brussels next week — the latest in a long line of emergency efforts to contain the crisis, which has spread from Greece to engulf Ireland and Portugal and to threaten the much bigger Spanish and Italian economies.
“All our efforts aim at safeguarding our country’s interests, the interest of the vast majority of citizens who would experience a real catastrophe if Greece defaulted,” Papandreou said.
He said that Europe had to help Greece tackle a crisis that now threatens the whole euro zone.
“We are not Atlas which can take all Europe’s problems on his shoulders,” he said, referring to a Greek mythological figure who supported the heavens on his shoulders. “If Europe cannot solve its problems, the consequences will be unpredictable for all of us in Europe.”
Papandreou’s ruling PASOK party has seen its ratings drop sharply in recent months as it meets the tough terms of European Union and International Monetary Fund aid, and has faced daily protests by groups ranging from taxi drivers to lawyers and municipal workers.
At least two of Papandreou’s deputies have threatened to vote against part of a new package. The government’s slender majority is expected to hold up, with support from smaller opposition parties, for the new austerity bill, however.
Papandreou said the ruling party would have no reason to exist if it did not “live up to the historical challenges of its era,” and ruled out quitting his post.
“All these months, I had to deal with challenges none of my predecessors have ever experienced,” he said. “But I have never thought of quitting, giving up the battle.”
The government’s term ends in 2013 but many analysts see snap elections on the horizon.
Editing by James Mackenzie/Ruth Pitchford