Debt-swamped Greece braced for two days of strikes, protests and potential violence as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, long demonized for her tough-talking, austerity-minded approach to Europe’s deepening woes, prepared to visit the epicenter of the crisis, three years since it began here.
To fend off potential attacks, at least 7,000 plainclothes police and hundreds more undercover agents have been mobilized from across the country to lock down the capital and erect steel fences around parliament. Snipers were already visibly stationed on the roof tops of government buildings in Athens; Commando Seals and Frogmen were also ordered on standby as helicopters began patrolling the Athenian skyline from Monday.
Police have announced a ban on all demonstrations in downtown Athens on Tuesday between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m. local time.
“It will be one of the biggest security drills in recent years,” said a senior police official speaking on condition of anonymity because of his knowledge of the security preparations.
In 1999, amid swelling opposition to NATO-led bombing raids in Kosovo, then U.S. President Bill Clinton shortened a visit to Athens because of heightened security concerns mounted by a rash of rolling protests.
Deemed highly symbolic, Merkel’s seven-hour trip on Tuesday signals Berlin bid to keep Greece in the 17-nation euro and further mend strained relations with Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, the 61-year-old conservative leader, and one of the chancellor’s staunchest anti-austerity critics.
“We want to help Greece stabilize itself in the euro zone,” German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said in announcing the surprise visit, on Friday.
Looming budget cuts have uncorked fresh social unrest, with the young, firebrand leader of Greece’s main opposition party, Syriza, calling on workers to flood the streets of Athens on Monday and Tuesday to show Merkel “the real Greece.” Other opposition parties are urging Greeks to gather at the German embassy and form a human shield around the building as Merkel meets with Samaras.
GSEE and ADEDY, the umbrella labor unions for private and public sector employees, have called for a three-hour job walk out across the greater Athens area Tuesday, bringing the country’s already anemic economy to fresh standstill as a rash of demonstration are set to grip the capital.
Swelling anti-German sentiment here has revived haunting memories of Greece’s Nazi occupation. While West Germany paid $22 billion in reparations to Greece in 1960, opposition parties have staked fresh demands for added outlays. At least 300,000 Greeks starved to death after the Nazi regime requisitioned food and other material.
Thousands of people were slaughtered, the country's gold reserves were plundered by Hitler's forces and nearly 90 percent of the country's Jewish population was deported and exterminated.
The timing of the trip could not be more crucial: Samaras is struggling to reach agreement with his country’s international lenders on some $14 billion in added budget cuts. Failure to seal a deal could propel European leaders meeting on Oct. 18 to hold off on some $40 billion in bailout funds to Greece. That could push this tiny Mediterranean nation to bankruptcy within weeks, imperiling the fate of the European single currency.
“The stakes are enormous,” George Pagoulatos, professor of European Politics and Economy at Athens University, told CNBC. “That Merkel, however, has agreed to come to Athens and afford political backing to Samaras demonstrates in most demonstrable way possible, her decision to tackle Europe’s debt troubles with Greece within the euro equation.”
“For markets, international lenders and European leaders heading into that summit next week, this is a powerful message and any decision to arise [from that summit] will most probably be within that context.”
Even so, pundits and politicians here say that support will fall well short of any design by Europe’s biggest economy and Greece’s most powerful lender to let up on Berlin’s curative approach to the continent’s deepening debt woes: austerity.
Over the weekend, in fact, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble warned that any disbursal of bailout funds to Greece hinged on Athens’ compliance with agreements to press ahead with added budget cuts — a condition Samaras has already agreed to in securing a second $170 billion rescue loan from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund earlier this year.
Samaras, who fought his way to the helm of government after two divisive elections in May and June, has been trying to win over more time from creditors to ease the pain of a deeper-than-expected recession — now in its fifth year.