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Greece Faces ‘a Make or Break Moment’ as Austerity Protests Swell

October 19, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Riots erupted Wednesday in Athens, Greece, as tens of thousands protested another round of tax hikes and spending cuts. Judy Woodruff gets an update on the riots, concerns over the nation's future job market and the physical toll that stress is taking on some Greeks from reporter John Psaropoulos in Athens.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For a closer look at the situation in Greece, we check in again with John Psaropoulos, a freelance reporter based in Athens.

John, obviously, there have been demonstrations before. What was different about what happened today?

JOHN PSAROPOULOS, freelance reporter: Well, today, you had a very, very large number of people. Definitely, the crowd was in the tens of thousands.

You also had some very young people there, people in the high school ages, because schools were on strike. But you also had, of course, mature workers, from people in their 20s all the way up to people close to retirement. It’s a very broad, representative swathe of society.

What perhaps made it qualitatively different is that, now that the country is in such desperate shape for its sixth installment of this bailout plan, people really feel that it’s a make-or-break moment for Greece. And with every new austerity bill, this dance of demonstrations, sometimes violent demonstrations, timed to coincide with parliamentary debates has happened, but now people feel that everything really is at stake.

And that’s reflective in the debate inside Parliament as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, John, what is it that the protesters say they want? Are they in agreement on any set of demands?

JOHN PSAROPOULOS: Well, many people who work for the public sector simply don’t want this bill to go through, because it carries into law promises the government has made to the country’s creditors, which it must be held to. It will retire 30,000 people from the public sector. It will lower pay for the remaining 550,000-odd.

And it will also make it easier to fire people next year in a sector that has got used to tenured, lifelong employment. If you ask people in the private sector, they want the government to do more to develop the economy, to focus on boosting the economy, which is now in its third year of recession. People are looking at their fourth year of recession in 2012. A lot of businesses won’t survive that, small and large.

And so, on the whole, there are different reasons for opposing this bill, some people because their livelihoods are directly affected and others because they feel it’s pushing us in the wrong direction, deepening the recession and speeding up the rate at which Greece seems to be falling apart economically.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John, you were telling me earlier that the stresses of what’s taking place are now reaching deep into society. You were telling me about people leaving the country, about how this is affecting people’s health.

JOHN PSAROPOULOS: Well, there are enormous numbers of people who have left in last two years since the crisis began or who are leaving now, particularly highly educated, highly skilled white-collar workers. You hear conversations, for instance, in the medical professions about how highly specialized doctors no longer have a client base here, and they have gone to the more lucrative markets of Northern Europe or the United States.

You hear about people in the arts, even, graphic designers, architects, leaving, going to North America if they can. A lot of repatriated Greeks particularly who have dual citizenship are doing so. And it’s becoming more and more palpable to everyone that Greece is going nowhere fast.

This country is not going to be a viable job market for the young people now entering the work force and graduating from university maybe for the next decade, in people’s perception, and therefore the future is elsewhere.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You also were describing health strains, more people having heart attacks.

JOHN PSAROPOULOS: There are enormous stresses in just about every profession you care to mention, from advertising to finance, but also to blue-collar professions, plumbing, electrical work. Everything has gone down. Ask any sector of the economy.

Take something as simple as gasoline. Gasoline consumption has gone down 35 percent in the last year-and-a-half — 1,100 petrol stations have shut down. That’s a very large number of small, medium-sized enterprises out of work. That’s a family at least, maybe two or three families, behind each business.

We had a local jeweler suffer a fatal heart attack over the summer because he was so stressed about the way his business was going, leaving two small children behind. And it’s happening. It’s happening all over town. You hear anecdotally stories of people who are simply not able to cope with the stress of merely remaining in the profession that they’re in.

People aren’t even hoping for anything better. They’re just trying to survive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Psaropoulos in Athens giving us a human look at what’s taking place there on the ground in Athens, in Greece.

Thank you, John.