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Greece Paralyzed During Protests Against Austerity Budget

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Greek riot police have clashed with demonstrators in Athens on the fringes of major protest marches against government austerity measures.  Tens of thousands of civil servants, private sector workers and laborers staged a 24-hour strike to show their displeasure with the government's plans.

For the second time in two weeks, Greece's powerful trade unions and strikers paralyzed the country.

Public transport links were almost completely shut down, flights in and out Athens canceled, offices closed and even famous archeological sites such as the Acropolis closed to tourists.

Reporter Anthee Carassava spoke to VOA from the protest marches in central Athens and described the scene.

"I am in the center of Athens, in the business part of town where by some accounts more than 30,000 wage earners, laborers have taken to the streets to voice their discontent, to chant slogans against the government and measures that is has taken," said Carassava.

Scuffles were reported on the fringes of the protests, with police firing tear gas at demonstrators.  Police say the clashes broke out when rock-throwing youths tried to storm a building near parliament.

The Greek economy is in crisis with a spiraling public debt of nearly 13 percent - more than four times higher than allowed under the rules of the eurozone, to which Greece belongs.  The government is under pressure to bring its debt and spending under control and has been warned by its EU partners further austerity measures may be needed if the current proposed cutbacks are not sufficient.

The government's austerity measures include freezing public sector salaries, raising the average retirement age by 2015, raising taxes on gasoline, alcohol and tobacco and cracking down on tax evaders.

Some of those measures have people upset, says reporter Carassava.

"The overriding complaint that I am hearing here, having spoken to several of these protesters is not that they are against the government taking austerity measures, but the injustice of the working class having to endure the majority of these measures," said Carassava.

But the government has little choice, says London School of Economics Greek Studies professor Kevin Featherstone.

"It simply is not possible for Greece to correct its position and undertake the necessary reforms without the burden being shared across society, including those who are out on the streets this week," he said.

Reform of pension and public sector spending is long overdue, says Featherstone.  Despite the protests, he says there appears to be a shift in public opinion toward meaningful reforms.

"Recent opinion polls are showing a shift in public opinion - 2/3 to 3/4 of Greeks support reform measures, according to the opinion polls.  There is a recognition I think, that this time there has to be serious reform," he said.

But Featherstone predicts there will likely be more strikes to come.

Many Greeks have been angered by the lack of concrete help from the European Union.  The European Union has offered moral support, but no financial bail-out.  

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