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Troika inspectors to put return Greek visit on hold, officials say

Martin Santa and Jan Strupczewski
Thursday, 31 Oct 2013 | 11:36 AM ET

* Troika's visit to Greece put on hold for now

* Greek government rejects more austerity measures

* Athens says still expects visit next week

* EU, IMF, ECB want 2 bln euros budget hole closed

BRUSSELS, Oct 31 (Reuters) - International inspectors are set to put on hold a trip to Athens because they have been unable to bridge differences with Greece over how to close a 2 billion euro hole in its 2014 budget, euro zone officials said.

A team of officials from the IMF, the European Commission and the European Central Bank - the Troika - visits Athens regularly to check on progress on its bailout commitments and to decide whether to release the next tranche of loans.

Greek government officials said they were expecting them to come next week as scheduled.

"There are growing differences between Athens and the Troika," one euro zone official said, adding that the planned trip was, for now, on ice.

"The Greeks are saying: 'We are doing enough', and the Troika says they need new steps to close the budget," he said.

Greece has been kept afloat by a financial lifeline from the euro zone and the International Monetary Fund since 2010, with 240 billion euros ($330.5 billion) of loans granted in exchange for spending cuts and reforms.

Troika inspectors, who began the current inspection in September, had initially been expected back in Athens at the end of October. Greek officials said last week the inspectors would return on Nov.4 to resume the audit.

"Nothing has changed, we are expecting them early next week as planned," a senior Greek government official said.

After a six-year recession that wiped out 40 percent of household disposable incomes and sent unemployment soaring to almost 28 percent, Greeks are saying they can take no more.

The coalition government is rejecting any across-the-board wage cuts or tax increases, arguing it deserves some slack after delivering the biggest budget deficit reduction ever recorded in the euro zone.

Greece's president said bluntly his country would not yield to pressure from foreign lenders to impose more austerity.

"No one is going because no one wants them (the Troika) there," a second euro zone official said.

MEASURE FOR MEASURE

Greek Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras has rejected any new tax increases and across-the-board wage or pension cuts but said there was instead scope for "targeted" spending cuts and "structural measures" to plug any fiscal gaps.

Some new measures will have to be taken for Athens to make the 2014 budget work, officials said.

Since the decision was made in mid-2012, by EU leaders led by Germany, that Greece must remain part of the euro zone, the assumption has been that any disagreements will be solved.

"The Troika is talking about 2 billion euros. Greece is talking about closing all of that through better control of

social security contributions. They say no more measures," a

senior euro zone official said.

"The solution is new measures. It will of course happen. It is a matter of miscommunication to their own public."

The first euro zone official said there was still time to sort things out because Greece would only really need the money from the next tranche of loans in February.

After euro zone finance ministers met earlier this month, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who chairs the meetings, said they would review progress in December or January.

According to one source close to the talks, the Troika has yet to be convinced that Athens can deliver on a series of reform benchmarks it had promised to implement by end-September but which remain unfulfilled.

These are the so-called "prior actions" Athens needs to complete to qualify for its next scheduled bailout instalment of over 1 billion euros.

Greece and its lenders are particularly at odds over the future of LARCO, Hellenic Vehicle Industry and Hellenic Defence Systems, three loss-making state companies with 2,100 workers which cost taxpayers about 150 million euros a year.

The government has yet to prepare its two biggest water companies, EYDAP and Thessaloniki Water, for privatisation by settling all the arrears that municipalities owe them.

And it must also convince lenders it will meet a target to put 12,500 civil servants in a so-called "mobility scheme" of forced transfers or dismissals and fire another 4,000 by the end of the year.

The target for Athens is a primary surplus of 1.6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) for next year. The government believes it could fall short of that target only by 500 million euros, rather than the 2 billion predicted by the Troika.

Greek authorities say a growing economy is the only way to reduce the country's debt, which stands at about 320 billion euros or 175 percent of its GDP. The Troika holds almost 80 percent of that debt.