Greek premier defends bailout deal, painful cuts

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Warning of a “catastrophe” that would leave Greeks subsisting on food stamps and the country wallowing in bankruptcy, Greek leaders urged lawmakers Saturday to pass more painful spending cuts on the eve of a crucial vote to qualify for a massive bailout.

In a televised address Saturday, Prime Minister Lucas Papademos defended the thousands of job cuts, drop in the minimum wage and other austerity measures that would earn the country a euro130 billion ($171.6 billion) bailout deal and stave off bankruptcy.

“The deal will ensure our country’s future inside the euro. … A bankruptcy would lead to uncontrollable economic chaos and social explosion,” Papademos said. He added that a bankruptcy would lead to Greeks losing their savings; the state being unable to pay salaries and pensions; and shortages in import items such as medicines, fuel and machinery.

He and the leaders of parties backing Greece’s coalition government — socialist George Papandreou and conservative Antonis Samaras — as well as Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos, a socialist — used stark images of a country under bankruptcy to convince the public and, more importantly, persuade Parliament members debating the measures to vote for the deal.

“If we do not dare today, we will live a catastrophe,” Papandreou said during a parliamentary debate session.

“What do you want, a country where food will be handed out with food stamps and where we will have no fuel?” Samaras angrily told a dissenting deputy.

“The battle is now. The war is now. If we falter, nothing will be left standing…The real dilemma is between painful measures and crushingly painful ones,” Venizelos told socialist lawmakers.

Several dissident lawmakers were unconvinced. At least 13 conservatives and seven socialists declared they would not vote and two more socialist deputies resigned, bringing the total to three. Their replacements will be seated Sunday.

Typical of the dissidents’ arguments was the one put forward by veteran socialist Vasso Papandreou (no relation to the socialist leader), a former minister and member of the European Commission. “If we say we do not pay the bond that matures on March 20, all (Europeans) will rush to find a solution,” she said.

Debt-stricken Greece does not have the money to cover a euro14.5 billion bond repayment on March 20, and must reach a vital debt-relief deal with private bond investors before then. The country’s woes have threatened its future in the 17-country zone that uses the euro currency.

The Europeans are waiting to see Greece finally act on their commitments.

“If the right course is now set sustainably in Athens, Greece can count on our support — but only then,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle was quoted as telling the weekly Der Spiegel.

“There can no longer be advance payments,” he said, according to the report. “Only actions count now.”

Westerwelle said that the “clear aim” is to keep Greece in the eurozone. But he insisted that “it is not enough to approve reform programs; it is necessary to begin the implementation of the reforms without delay. Not sometime, but now.”

The austerity measures included in the bailout deal, including the layoffs of 15,000 workers and a 22 percent drop in the minimum wage and pension cuts, have set off street protests and led to the resignations of half a dozen Cabinet officials.

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