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Greek activists target sales of homes seized over bad debts

Protests thwart plans to hold around 25,000 auctions as banks struggle to sell properties to settle shortfalls

The cavernous halls of Athens central civil court are usually silent and sombre. But every Wednesday, between 4pm and 5pm, they are anything but. For it is then that activists converge on the building, bent on stopping the auctions of properties seized by banks to settle bad debts.

They do this with rowdy conviction, chanting not a single home in the hands of a banker, unfurling banners deploring vulture crows, and often physically preventing notaries and other court officials from sitting at the judges presiding bench.

Poor people cant afford lawyers, rich people can, says Ilias Papadopoulos, a 33-year-old tax accountant who feels so strongly that he has been turning up at the court to orchestrate the protests with his eye surgeon brother, Leonidas, for the past three years.

We are here to protect the little man who has been hit by unemployment, hit by poverty and cannot keep up with mortgage payments. Banks have already been recapitalised. Now they want to suck the blood of the people.

The tall, bearded brothers were founding members of Den Plirono, an activist group that emerged in the early years of Greeces economic crisis in opposition over road tolls. The organisation, which sees itself as a peoples movement, then moved into the power business restoring the disconnected electricity supplies of more than 5,000 Greeks who could not afford to pay their bills. Auctions are their latest cause. Solidarity is the only answer, Papadopoulos insists.

Rich people have political influence. They can negotiate their loans and are never in danger of actually losing the roof over their heads.

The protests have been highly effective. In law courts across Greece, similar scenes have ensured that auctions have been thwarted. Activists estimate that only a fraction of auctions of 800 homes and small business enterprises due to go under the hammer since January have actually taken place. Under pressure to strengthen the countrys fragile banking system, Athens leftist-led government has agreed to move ahead with around 25,000 auctions this year and next. In recent weeks they have more than doubled, testimony, activists say, to the relaxation of laws protecting defaulters.

There is not a Greek who does not owe to the banks, social security funds or tax office, says Evangelia Haralambus, a lawyer representing several debtors. Do you know what it is like to wake up every morning knowing that you cant make ends meet, that you might lose your home? It makes you sick.

Seated in the fourth floor office of the United Popular Front (Epam), a framed picture of Che Guevara behind her, the lawyer belongs to the growing numbers who believe Greece would be better off out of the eurozone.

We see our country as a country under occupation. It is inadmissible what has happened to Greece, she splutters. These vulture crows, homing in on the properties of the poor, are all part of the larger plan to control us.

Epam is among the fringe groups on both the left and right seeking to capitalise on the outrage over auctions as anti-euro sentiment mounts.

Few issues have highlighted prime minister Alexis Tsipras volte-face over austerity more than this. Resistance to home foreclosures was a rallying cry of the leftist leader before he assumed power in January 2015.

Tsipras decision to enforce some of the harshest austerity measures to date the price of a third bailout programme to avert default and debt-stricken Greece exiting the eurozone has exacted a heavy toll. Amid accusations of betrayal, his own popularity and that of his Syriza party, have plummeted.

The leaders much-vaunted promise that not a single home would be seized from Greeks unable to keep up with mortgage payments has become the stuff of satire played on radio shows to emphasise what is widely perceived as Tsipras hypocrisy.

But seven years into the crisis, any government would ignore non-performing loans (which will never be repaid, in full or at all) at its peril. A slowburning 106bn fuse under the Greek economy the equivalent of 50% of GDP they are regarded as the biggest risk to the banking systems stability. Some 41.3% of mortgage holders are estimated to have defaulted on loans.

Non-performing loans now account for 45% of all loans which is very high, said the Bank of Greeces governor Yannis Stournaras. It is imperative for the survival of Greek banks and the Greek economy that they are reduced. Our plans is to reduce them by about 40bn in the next three years, he added, blaming the weekly court dramas, squarely, on strategic defaulters. There are strict income criteria and property criteria that protect the poor.

In an atmosphere that has become increasingly explosive, as anti-austerity protesters again take to the streets , the anti-auction activism has also turned ugly.

Attacks against public notaries who are processing the sales have soared. Recently the downtown office of a prominent notary was ransacked by masked men belonging to an anti-establishment group who said they wanted to send a message to the crows. In court the officials are abused and booed out of the room by baying crowds.

We have been wrongly singled out, said notary Athina Karamanlis, struggling to speak above the din of protesters taunting her.

Our association has stated clearly that it will not condone the auction of primary residences. But it is our duty to follow the law. There are auctions that people want for all sorts of reasons.

The drama has forced the government to rethink its strategy. Fears are mounting that if the banks fail to recover losses, a Cypriot-style bail-in could follow and the government has announced that it will pushed ahead with electronic auctions. But the prospect of mass auctions at a click of a button has only incensed critics further.

It will create huge tensions and destabilise Greek society, said Papadopoulos, claiming that laws protecting the poor had been increasingly whittled down. They will have to evict people from their homes and that wont be easy. The people will react in unforeseeable ways.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/11/greek-activists-target-sales-of-homes-seized-over-bad-debts


Greece pushes fresh austerity drive through parliament

Alexis Tsipras gained approval by 152 of 153 of his deputies, despite many of them having previously rejected the proposals

The Greek parliament has approved a fresh round of austerity incorporating 1.8bn in tax increases and widely regarded as the most punitive yet amid hopes the move will lead to much-needed debt relief when eurozone finance ministers meet this week.

Alexis Tsipras, the prime minister, mustered the support of 152 of his 153 deputies on Sunday to vote through policies that many have previously rejected.

Addressing the 300-seat house during the heated three-day debate that preceded the ballot, Giorgos Dimaras, an MP in Tsiprass leftwing party, said he was appalled at being forced to support measures he had spent a lifetime opposing.

I am in mourning, he said. This is what can only be called wretchedness.

As parliamentarians had prepared to vote, large crowds of protestors took to the streets with Panaghiotis Lafazanis, a former minister who broke ranks with Syriza to form the Popular Unity party, taking the demonstration to the foot of the building itself where he unfurled a giant banner proclaiming: The memorandum will not pass.

The belt-tightening legislation, outlined in a 7,500-page omnibus bill, includes measures that range from the taxation of coffee and luxury goods to the creation of a new privatisation fund in charge of real estate assets for the next 99 years. Under the stewardship of EU officials, the body will oversee the sale of about 71,500 pieces of prime public property in what will amount to collateral for the 250bn in bailout loans Greece has received since 2010.

They are with the exception of the Acropolis selling everything under the sun, said Anna Asimakopoulou, the shadow minister for development and competitiveness. We are giving up everything.

The multi-bill, which also foresees VAT being raised from 23% to 24%, is part of a package of increases in tax and excise duties expected to yield an extra 1.8bn in revenue. Earlier this month, Tsiprass leftist-led coalition endorsed pension cuts that were similarly part of an array reforms amounting to 5.4 bn, or 3% of GDP.

At the behest of the EU and International Monetary Fund, the government has agreed to adopt tighter austerity in the form of an automatic fiscal brake referred to as the cutter in the Greek media if fiscal targets are missed.

Despite official claims that goals will be achieved, there is a high degree of scepticism as to whether this is feasible. The Greek economy has seen a depression-era contraction of more than 25% since the outbreak of the debt crisis in late 2009, and with high taxes likely to repulse investment, economic fundamentals are also unlikely to improve.

We are talking about indirect taxes, property taxes and income taxes all going up, Asimakopoulou said. Nobody will be able to pay them, targets will be missed, more austerity will be imposed and of course public rage will have to be vented. People will not only feel angry, they will feel conned.

The measures the ultimate U-turn for a government that once pledged to eradicate austerity are the latest in a set of prior actions Athens must take to complete an economic review that will unlock desperately needed bailout funds to avert default. The country has to meet 3.5bn in debt repayments this summer, starting with a 300m loan instalment to the IMF on 7 June money the country simply does not have.

Eager to avoid more drama before next months in/out EU referendum in the UK, general elections in Spain and regional polls in Germany, lenders have indicated they will disburse the loans at Tuesdays Eurogroup meeting. Berlin, which has provided the bulk of Greeces emergency aid, signalled the instalment could be as much as 11bn more than twice the original 5.4bn, according to the German financial daily Handelsblatt.

But creditors are still fiercely divided over the red-button issue of tackling Athens staggering 321bn mountain of debt. Although the EU and IMF now both concede the load is unsustainable, member states reject outright the prospect of a debt writedown for fear of losses on bailout loans. Euro finance ministers insist that if it is ever to recover, Greece has to achieve a primary budget surplus of 3.5%, excluding debt repayments. They have hinted that at most, they will agree to discuss debt relief when the countrys current – and third bailout programme expires in 2018.

The quarrel deepened last week when the Washington-based IMF, which has openly questioned Athens ability to achieve such a high surplus, proposed that Greece defer all debt repayments until 2040 and extend its repayment period with maturities that would run through 2080 on a capped interest rate of 1.5%. The standoff is expected to intensify on Tuesday.

Addressing parliament on Sunday, Tsipras insisted it was a huge achievement that Greece had finally succeeded in putting the debt issue on the table. Previous governments had done little more than kowtow to creditors without ever dealing with the source of Athens financial woes, he said.

No other party but the left could pass such measures, said Nikos Athanasiou, who has watched the crisis unfold from the kiosks he runs facing parliament in Syntagma square. If the right were in power Athens would be in flames.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/22/greece-to-unveil-fresh-round-of-austerity-to-unlock-bailout-funds


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