ATHENS, GREECE - As thousands of Greeks protested government spending cuts with a general strike that crippled the country Thursday, struggling Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced one-off measures to ease the burden on pensioners and island residents.
Tsipras said the government would distribute 617 million euros this Christmas to about 1.6 million low-income pensioners, replacing a holiday bonus scrapped by Greece’s bailout creditors.
Bonuses, tax cuts
In a nationally televised address, Tsipras said the cash would come from a larger-than-expected surplus in Greece’s primary budget, which excludes the cost of servicing the country’s crippling debt.
Tsipras has seen his popularity plummet after a series of income cuts and tax hikes demanded by creditors. His left-wing Syriza party trails the main opposition conservatives by more than 10 percentage points in opinion polls.
Tsipras also said his government would restore a lower sales tax rate for Aegean Sea islanders who are struggling to cope with mass arrivals of migrants from Turkey.
“The more the country recovers, the broader and more effective the social redistribution will be, to support those who are in true need,’’ Tsipras said. “We are covering the last hard meters of a very difficult marathon. We will succeed in exiting the crisis.”
Protests around the nation
Thursday’s nationwide strike disrupted public transport, state-run schools, ferries and national rail services, and left public hospitals running with emergency staff.
Protests were held in cities around Greece, with more than 7,000 demonstrators marching in the capital of Athens and 5,000 in the country’s second-largest city, Thessaloniki.
Years of recession and austerity have left nearly a quarter of Greeks unemployed — with most no longer receiving any state benefits.
Thursday’s 24-hour strike went ahead despite a decision this week by bailout lenders to grant Greece a series of short-term debt relief measures aimed at evening out the country’s repayment schedule.
More reforms on tap
Tsipras’ government is still negotiating a new series of reforms that are expected to remove protection measures for private-sector jobs and distressed mortgage-holders.
“Nothing has been decided until everything is decided,’’ Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos, referring to the ongoing negotiations, told parliament.
Bailout negotiators, he said, were expected to return to Athens next week with a deal possible by the end of the month on the term of upcoming bailout payout.
“We’ve been at this stage before,” he said. “Everyone has to stay calm.’’
The reforms are part of requirements the country must meet to continue qualifying for emergency loans from its international bailout — the third such rescue package for Greece since 2010.
In return for the cash, successive governments have had to implement sweeping reforms. The crisis has wiped out a quarter of Greece’s economy.