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Despair and resignation in Greece as more pain looms

Oct 3, 2011, 10:46 a.m.
A high-school student is detained by riot police during a protest march against economic austerity and planned education reforms in Athens October 3, 2011. REUTERS/John Kolesidis

By Peter Graff and Renee Maltezou

ATHENS (Reuters) - The slogans on the street are about storming the barricades, but when you talk to Greeks about the financial crisis that has brought their country to its knees, their anger quickly gives way to resignation and despair.

With news on Monday that the recession will last at least a fourth year -- and the government promising ever tougher reforms that will bring even more hardship -- labor unions have vowed to call Greeks out into the streets.

They will turn out in their thousands, but despite escalating rhetoric and the prospect of unrest, Greeks express little hope that their public expressions of outrage can change their fate.

"What can you do? Throw stones? Throw oranges? Even if you spat on the politicians all day long it would accomplish nothing," said Amalia Dougia, a 45-year-old single mother, resting wearily on a bench in downtown Athens, where she was waiting to see a lawyer to find a way out of debt.

She has been unemployed for two years since the economic crisis forced her to close down her shop selling household goods, leaving her with nothing but unpaid bills and a benefit cheque of 175 euros ($250) a month.

Two daughters are at university studying cosmetics and project management, but these days they have little hope of a job in those fields when they graduate. The best they can find now is temporary work in the summer, waiting tables or handing fliers to tourists.

"The oldest wants to leave the country, but where would I get the money to help her out? I've given up planning for the future. I just accept life as it comes," she said. "I've thought about suicide, but I have to look after my children."

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Three years into a recession that has seen wages tumble, unemployment surge and living standards eroded, the Greek government has little to promise the public but more pain.

To satisfy EU and IMF inspectors that it can sort out its debt, the government has imposed wave after wave of public sector wage cuts and tax rises but has yet to get its finances in order.

On Monday it announced that the deficit this year will be worse than expected, and the economy, once predicted to finally grow next year, will instead shrink by a further 2.5 percent. The newest package of austerity measures -- tax hikes, layoffs and pay cuts -- failed to make a dent in this year's deficit.

You can hear the pain articulated almost at random as you walk through the streets of Athens. At a busy intersection, nobody even glances up when an elderly man crossing the road shouts out, to no one in particular: "The 300 members of parliament have stolen everything!"

Yet there is virtually no support for abandoning reforms and turning back on membership of the euro single currency. Polls show four out of five Greeks want to keep the euro, although more than half expect Greece to default on debt within months.

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