May 22, 2013
Merkel to face protests on first crisis visit to Greece
German Chancellor Angela Merkel will tell Greeks she wants to keep their country in the euro when she visits Athens this week, but she faces a hostile reception from a people worn down by years of austerity and recession.
Many Greeks blame Merkel, who has publicly chastised them for much of the past three years, for the nation's plight. Opponents, some of whom have caricatured her as a bullying Nazi, have promised protests on Tuesday during her first visit to Greece since the euro zone crisis erupted there in 2009.
"She does not come to support Greece, which her policies have brought to the brink. She comes to save the corrupt, disgraced and servile political system," said Alexis Tsipras, who leads the opposition Syriza alliance. "We will give her the welcome she deserves."
About 6,000 policemen will be deployed in the capital for her 6-hour visit, turning the city center into a no-go zone for protest marches planned by labor unions and opposition parties.
"We don't want her here," said Yannis Georgiou, 72, who has seen his pension cut by one third. "We will take to the streets against austerity and against the government. Maybe Merkel will hear something and see what we're going through."
Merkel's visit is a sign of Germany's support for the coalition government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras as it struggles to agree new budget cuts with international lenders, overcome the objections of reluctant coalition partners and cope with rising public anger.
After toying with the idea of a Greek exit from the euro zone in the first half of 2012, Merkel has come full circle and decided the risks of the country leaving are too high, especially with a German election looming next year.
The trip is a sign of German solidarity, a message to the Greek leadership and people that Berlin does not want to cut them loose, and a signal to the members of Merkel's coalition who want Greece out that it's not going to happen soon.
At the same time, the trip shows Merkel's trust in Samaras. Aides to the chancellor say they have been positively surprised by his commitment to reform. One reason for not visiting Greece before was frustration with progress under his predecessors, technocrat Lucas Papademos and Socialist George Papandreou.
"In our view Samaras is really trying to get things done," one German official said, requesting anonymity. "Nobody should see this trip as a sign that all is perfect. But we recognize things are moving in the right direction."
The Greek government was ecstatic about the news, promising to treat Merkel with the honors befitting the leader of a great nation. Greek officials credited Samaras's charm offensive in Berlin in August for Germany's change of heart.
"Samaras showed a real will to change things. He stressed what Greece had to do, not what others had to do for Greece," a Greek government official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Merkel is scheduled to meet Samaras, President Karolos Papoulias and representatives of Greek industry.
In a measure of tension between Athens and Berlin earlier this year, Papoulias accused Merkel's Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble of insulting the country by likening Greece to a bottomless pit.