Greece shut down by general strike
Greece has been brought to a standstill by a general strike, with key union groups leading up to two million workers in a 24-hour stoppage against the government's austerity program.
Tens of thousands of protestors filled Syntagma Square in the centre of Athens and spilled out beyond, led by unions, activist groups, the Greek Communist Party (KKE) and Syriza, the smaller left coalition.
Beginning in the northern inner area of Athens around Omonia Square, the march came down Stadiou boulevard, taking more than an hour to reach the city centre.
More than 40,000 protesters chanted "we won't pay for their crisis" with radical songs blaring from speaker vans coming behind.
The strike shut down the entire public-sector infrastructure, including schools, airports, transport and government offices.
Hospitals were operating with skeleton crews, and many large shops and commercial enterprises closed.
Journalists also came out on strike, as did a wide range of self-employed people such as taxi drivers.
Police fired tear gas at a separate anarchist contingent near parliament, although the event was largely peaceful and orderly.
However, sources said the prospect of separate anarchist action later could not be ruled out, especially as an anti-fascist rally was planned in Amerikis Square, a neighbourhood dominated by supporters of the anti-immigrant LAOS party.
The strike and protests came as officials from the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and other financial bodies arrived in Athens at the invitation of Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou to advise on further efforts to impose austerity measures on the country, in a bid to restructure its economy in line with EU requirements.
On February 22, financial rating agency Fitch downgraded the ratings of the four major Greek banks, in response to what it said was the banks "weakening asset quality due to anticipated fiscal adjustments in Greece".
The decision will in turn raise yields on Greek bonds, further increasing the deficit.
"We don't deny there is a crisis", Greek Communist Party (KKE) MP Yanis Ghiokas told the Morning Star. "However it is not our crisis and we shouldn't pay for it.
"While Papandreou has talked about tax evasion, the corporate tax rate has been lowered from 45% to 25%.
"We want it raised back to make up the shortfall, and reduce reliance on indirect taxes."
Ghiokas also rejected widely publicised claims that Papandreou enjoys up to 70% support for the measures.
"People are polled and they are asked 'does something need to be done', and they say 'Yes'. That is then taken as support", he laughed ruefully.
[Reprinted, with the author's permission, fro, the British Morning Star.]