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Archive for the ‘Ancient Land of Greece’ Category

Despite risks, Greek islands keen to reopen to tourists

June 13, 2020

MYKONOS, Greece (AP) — The Greek island of Mykonos’ newest bar-restaurant, Pelican, seemed to appear from nowhere. Tables, light fixtures and staff members with matching black face masks were still being slotted into place as Greeks visiting the island for a long holiday weekend trickled in to check out the place. The owner expects a slow slummer but says he’s in a hurry to get back to business.

Greece is, too. Heavily reliant on tourism, the country is officially reopening to foreigners on Monday after closing its borders to most during the coronavirus pandemic. Its hopes are pinned on popular tourist destinations such as Mykonos and the islands of Rhodes, Corfu, Crete and Santorini, where regular ferry service already resumed and direct international flights are set to restart on July 1.

The Greek government has taken a gamble in deciding to relax COVID-19 health inspections at ports and airports in order to avoid another crippling recession, having only recently emerged from an economically painful period sparked by the international financial crisis.

Pelican’s owner, Vasilis Theodorou, has a view of the situation that is more steadfast than starry-eyed. Mykonos would normally be packed in early June, but it’s beaches were empty. Tourism might be down by as much as 80% this year, “so we’re waiting for the 20%, and we’re happy,” Theodorou said.

“No matter how much we wish for it and want it, it won’t be more than that,” he said. “We expect that tourists from central Europe will come first, and hopefully Americans at a later stage. They are our best customers.”

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis acknowledged Saturday that Greece is prepared for a huge drop from the 33 million visitors who came to Greece last year. Addressing foreign journalists Saturday during a visit to Santorini, Mitsotakis went on a full sales pitch, touting everything from local products to the possibilities of year-round tourism in Greece..from

“We don’t know the real impact of (a truncated tourist season) on GDP,” he said, “A lot will depend on whether people feel comfortable to travel and whether we can project Greece as a safe destination.”

Timely and strictly enforced lockdown measures have so far kept the infection rate in Greece low and the death toll below 200. But reopening means islands — many with only basic health facilities and previously sheltered from the outbreak on the Greek mainland — will again be receiving visitors from around the world far in excess of the local population.

Mykonos Mayor Konstantinos Koukas told the AP that islanders feel prepared and have clear government guidelines. “We want to open back up and we are heading into the 2020 season with optimism,” he said. “But we are fully aware that … (it) will be nothing like the season in 2019 — and hopefully nothing like the season in 2021.”

An island that to many epitomizes high-life and hedonism, Mykonos at this time of year would normally have high-paying customers spilling out of the bars and competing with cruise ship passengers for restaurant tables. VIP watchers have spotted pop star Katy Perry, soccer great Cristiano Ronaldo and other celebrities in recent summers.

This year, rented cars fill fenced-off lots, and most stores remain padlocked. Stray cats and the island’s mascot, a large, light pink pelican, roam the streets for company. Mosaic artist Irene Syrianou has kept her workshop open despite the lack of customers. “We watch the news and hope for the best,” she says, cracking pieces of marble into chips with a hammer.

“Nearly all my customers are American, whether it’s buying pieces of art, making orders online, or attending classes I give during the summer,” she said, before adding with a chuckle: “So it’s going to be a tough year. But I’m an artist and I’ve gone hungry before.”

The government’s reopening policy has been criticized by the left-wing Syriza party, which argued tougher controls should be kept in place and arrivals limited to those recently tested in their countries of origin.

Health Minister Vassilis Kikilias insisted Friday that a safety net had been built for the islands — with connections to each other and to mainland hospitals for testing and health evacuations. Doctors and support staff will be deployed with the help of more than 100 mobile units in cars and speed boats. The Health Ministry will also have 11 futuristic-looking “transit capsules” for patients heading to intensive care facilities.

Greece’s gamble follows a decade of tourism growth and increasing reliance on the industry, with annual visitor numbers more than doubling since 2010 to 34 million last year and revenue up 80% to some 18 billion euros ($20.2 billion).

During many of those years, the country teetered on the brink of bankruptcy and exit from the euro currency bloc, while Greeks endured harsh economic austerity in return for three international bailouts.

Tourism Minister Harry Theoharis, once Greece’s top official for tax and revenues, said Friday that the country is determined to support its tourism industry. “We’re sending a clear message to the world’s traveling public that we won’t take a step back, either in health safeguards or in opening up the country.”

And as the prime minister noted Saturday, there’s always next year. “Hopefully in 2021, we’ll have a vaccine; 2021 will be a bumper year,” Mitsotakis said.

Iliana Mier on Mykonos and Demetris Nellas in Athens contributed.

Communion ritual unchanged in Orthodox Church despite virus

May 29, 2020

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — One by one, the children and adults line up for the centuries-old ritual of Holy Communion, trying to keep a proper social distance. The priest dips a spoon into the chalice of bread and wine, which the faithful believe is the body and blood of Christ, and puts it into the mouth of the first person in line.

Then, with a move that would alarm an epidemiologist, he dips the spoon back into the chalice and then into the next person’s mouth. Again and again, through the entire congregation. Contrary to what science says, the Greek Orthodox Church insists it is impossible for any disease — including the coronavirus — to be transmitted through Holy Communion.

“In the holy chalice, it isn’t bread and wine. It is the body and blood of Christ,” said the Rev. Georgios Milkas, a theologian in the northern city of Thessaloniki. “And there is not a shred of suspicion of transmitting this virus, this disease, as in the holy chalice there is the Son and the Word of God.”

This is proven, he said, through “the experience of centuries.” Scientists warn that shared utensils can spread the coronavirus, and they also point to outbreaks linked to religious services around the world.

A communal spoon presents “fairly significant dangers,” said Dr. Nathalie MacDermott, an academic clinical lecturer for Britain’s National Institute for Health Research at King’s College London. “The danger of transmitting any kind of respiratory viral pathogen or even bacterial infections is quite high with the sharing of utensils,” she said. “And for it to be passed among what is probably a relatively large group of people means that all it would take is one person to have coronavirus at the back of their throat, which potentially is in their saliva as well.”

The Holy Synod, the church’s governing body, says any suggestion that illness or disease could be transmitted by Holy Communion is blasphemy, a stance echoed by the Church of Cyprus. “Regarding the issue that is unjustifiably raised from time to time about the supposed dangers, which in these blasphemous views are said to lurk in the life-giving Mystery of Holy Communion, the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece expresses its bitterness, deep sorrow and diametrical opposition,” it said in a May 13 circular on social distancing measures in churches.

The Synod “underlines one more time to all those who, either due to ignorance or conscious faithlessness, brutally insult all that is holy and sacred, the dogmas and the sacred rules of our faith, that Holy Communion is ‘the medicine of immortality, antidote to not dying, but to living according to the teachings of Jesus Christ forever.’”

Whether Holy Communion should be changed or suspended for health reasons has become a hot button issue across much of the Christian Orthodox world, with churches generally refusing to bow to pressure from governments and scientists.

Some concessions were made in Russia. In mid-March, the Russian Orthodox Church released instructions on adjusting the sacrament during the pandemic. Priests were told to wear gloves when handing out the bread, to disinfect the spoon and to use disposable cups for the wine.

In Ethiopia, which has the largest Orthodox Christian flock outside Europe, the ritual is unchanged, as it is in the Georgian Orthodox Church. In response to public pressure against using a common spoon, the Georgian church noted the tradition is thousands of years old.

“Throughout these years, there have been many cases of life-threatening infections, during which Orthodox believers did not fear but strived even harder to get Communion through a common chalice and a common spoon,” it said in a statement.

In Greece, a firebrand priest, former Metropolitan Ambrosios, said he had excommunicated the education minister, prime minister and the civil protection deputy minister — the first for suggesting the coronavirus could be transmitted through saliva during Holy Communion, and the other two for closing churches during the lockdown. The Holy Synod did not back him up, however, saying only it had the authority to excommunicate.

Greece imposed a lockdown early on, a move credited with curbing infections. The country has reported 175 deaths and 2,900 confirmed cases. But many of the faithful chafed under the lockdown that closed places of worship for all religions for about two months. It ran through Easter, the most important religious holiday for Christians, and the inability to attend services weighed heavily on many.

When it was lifted May 17, thousands flocked to church. “The issue of Holy Communion in particular is the only red line of the church and of the faithful in our souls,” said 19-year-old Michalis Gkolemis, attending services in Thessaloniki. “We don’t say that Holy Communion is the cure for all diseases, from the flu, for example, but we say that you cannot get sick by receiving Communion. You can’t catch a virus, something which isn’t proven scientifically but exists through experience.”

After ordering churches closed, the government has been more circumspect and has avoided the sensitive issue of Holy Communion. The limited spread of the virus also has reduced the risk of a renewed outbreak, at least for now.

For scientists, concern is tempered by knowing that opposing the powerful Orthodox Church, with a majority of Greeks as believers, could be counterproductive. “This is a matter of public health concern,” said Dr. Gkikas Magiorkinis, assistant professor of hygiene and epidemiology at the University of Athens. “As an epidemiologist, I would like to be able to reduce the risk of transmission.”

But changing the minds of the faithful is “very difficult,” he said. “It’s a matter that can only be solved through discussion, and theological discussion rather than scientific discussion. Scientific discussion never helped, and it might have even worse results.”

Discussions with the church were always open, said Magiorkinis, who also advises the government on the virus. “Only the church can provide a solution,” he said. —- Kantouris reported from Thessaloniki. Associated Press writers Daria Litvinova in Moscow; Elias Meseret in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Sophiko Megrelidze in Tiblisi, Georgia; and Menelaos Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus, contributed.

Greece, Israel, Cyprus sign deal for EastMed gas pipeline

January 02, 2020

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece, Israel and Cyprus signed a deal Thursday to build an undersea pipeline to carry gas from new offshore deposits in the southeastern Mediterranean to continental Europe. The 1,900-kilometer (1,300-mile) EastMed pipeline is intended to provide an alternative gas source for energy-hungry Europe, which is largely dependent on supplies from Russia and the Caucasus region.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who attended the signing ceremony with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, said the pipeline will offer Europe “better flexibility and independence in its energy sources.”

The pipeline would run from Israel’s Levantine Basin offshore gas reserves to Cyprus, the Greek island of Crete and the Greek mainland. An overland pipeline to northwestern Greece and another planned undersea pipeline would carry the gas to Italy.

The project could also accommodate future gas finds in waters off Cyprus and Greece, where exploration is under way. The project, with a rough budget of $6 billion, is expected to satisfy about 10% of the European Union’s natural gas needs. But it is fraught with political and logistical complexities.

The race to claim offshore energy deposits in the southern Mediterranean has created new tensions between Greece and Cyprus, on one side, and historic rival Turkey. Ankara has raised the stakes with recent moves to explore waters controlled by the two EU member countries. Cyprus and Greece are particularly disturbed because Turkey sent warship-escorted drill ships into waters where Cyprus has exclusive economic rights.

Cyprus’ Anastasiades said the pipeline affirms that Greece and Cyprus have sovereign rights in waters assigned to them under international law. “This cooperation that we have developed … isn’t directed against any third country,” he said. “On the contrary, whichever country wishes is welcome to join, on the understanding of course that it adopts the basic principles of international law and fully respects the sovereign rights and the territorial integrity of independent states.”

Alluding to Turkey’s stance, Anastasiades said cooperation is the only approach in an unstable region instead of embarking on a course of “self-isolation.” Netanyahu said Israel is set to become a “powerhouse in terms of energy” with its offshore gas reserves. He added that the three countries have established ”an alliance of great importance” that will bolster regional stability.

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz has said the EastMed pipeline would take up to seven years to build and that its advantages include being less vulnerable to sabotage and not crossing many national borders to reach markets.

Cyprus is divided into a Greek Cypriot south, where the island nation’s internationally recognized government is located, and a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north backed by Turkey. The split followed a 1974 Turkish invasion after an aborted coup aiming to bring Cyprus under Greek rule.

Turkey doesn’t recognize Cyprus as a state and claims much of Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone as falling within its own continental shelf. Turkey is also laying claim to large tracts under Greek control in the Aegean Sea and off Crete. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said no project can proceed without his country’s consent following a maritime border agreement that Ankara signed with the Libya’s Tripoli-based government.

The Cypriot government has licensed Italian energy company Eni, France’s Total, ExxonMobil and Texas-based Noble Energy to carry out exploratory hydrocarbons drilling in the country’s offshore economic zone.

Hadjicostis contributed from Nicosia, Cyprus.

Tens of thousands of goats munch Greek island into crisis

October 06, 2019

SAMOTHRAKI, Greece (AP) — With oak and chestnut forests, waterfalls and rugged coastline, Samothraki has a wild beauty and a remoteness that sets it apart from other Greek islands. There are no package holidays here or even a reliable ferry service to the mainland. Island authorities hope to achieve UNESCO Biosphere Reserve status. Yet still, the natural environment is under threat from an insatiable assailant.

Goats outnumber human inhabitants 15-fold and they are munching stretches of Samothraki into a moonscape. After decades of trying to find a solution, experts and locals are working together to find a 21st-century way to save the island’s ecology and economy.

Semi-wild, the goats roam across the island, which is roughly three times the size of Manhattan, and can be spotted on rooftops, in trees or on top of cars as they scour the landscape for anything to eat. Their unchecked overgrazing is causing crisis-level erosion.

Torrential rains two years ago swept away the island’s town hall and severed its roads. There were no trees or vegetation left on the steep, goat-eaten hillsides to stop the mudslides caused by the downpour.

“There are no big trees to hold the soil. And it’s a big problem, both financial and real because (the mud) will come down on our heads,” says George Maskalidis, who helps run Sustainable Samothraki Association, an environmental group.

Samothraki, in the northern Aegean Sea, is a two-hour ferry ride south of Alexandroupoli, a Greek city near the country’s border with Turkey. With just 3,000 inhabitants and hard to access, the island has largely missed out on Greece’s tourism boom. Mountain herding is still a way of life here and despite trying for three decades, regional authorities have found it hard to build a local consensus on how to deal with the issue.

The goat population, meanwhile, soared fivefold to an estimated 75,000 by the late 1990s. Some parts of the countryside were simply nibbled away. The goat numbers have since dropped to below 50,000 as there is little left to graze on. But this has left the island in a trap. Most of its goats are malnourished and too scrawny to be used commercially for meat, animal feed is too expensive to maintain a sustainable business and much of the soil is too depleted for trees to grow back.

At the same time, prices for wool, leather, meat and milk have dropped, leading Samothraki’s farmers to grow increasingly desperate. Yiannis Vavouras, a second-generation goat farmer, says many island farmers have few alternatives.

“Most of us are ready to give up. If I had another job, I would drop the goats,” he says, speaking over the noise of jangling goat bells. “It doesn’t make enough to buy you a coffee.” Herds soared due to European Union subsidies, under a system that critics say was poorly monitored and lacked any long-term planning. It now may have to be reversed as a livestock reduction appears inevitable, along with grazing limits.

But that correction doesn’t have to be painful, at least according to the island’s resident optimist Carlota Maranon, a Spanish lawyer who settled here a decade ago. She heads the sustainability initiative and has eased islanders’ deep-rooted mistrust of solutions from the mainland or beyond.

The environmental group has worked with overseas researchers and helped create a herd management app, among many other pilot projects, to tackle the issue. Fiercely independent livestock farmers have even joined a new cooperative to try to pool resources and establish a brand for the island.

“It is possible to do things in a more sustainable way,” Maranon says. “That might mean fewer goats but that could actually work out better for the farmers.” Having a tight-knit community, she says, will also help.

“Everyone here is connected to the herders in some way, so this issue affects everyone. To live off the land, you have to keep it alive,” she said.

Macedonia admitted to NATO after resolving Greece dispute

FEB. 6, 2019

By Clyde Hughes

Feb. 6 (UPI) — Macedonia officially signed on Wednesday to become an official member of NATO, after resistance from Greece was settled last month.

Greece had long objected to membership over a dispute with the Macedonia name, which Athens uses for a Greek region in the north. Last month, the two countries settled the dispute when the country agreed to change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia. In exchange for the name change, Greece agreed to drop its veto toward Macedonia’s NATO admittance.

The signing allows the Balkan nation to take part in NATO activities as an invitee while the 29 member nations ratify the agreement in their own countries. Macedonia will formally change its name after Greece’s ratification.

“NATO keeps almost one billion citizens across Europe and North America secure and with you joining NATO there will be thirty countries committed to protect each other,” NATO Secretary Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement.

“Your accession will bring more stability to the Western Balkans. This is good for the region and for Euro-Atlantic security.”

Macedonia already contributes to NATO’s training mission in Afghanistan and the alliance’s peacekeeping mission in Kosovo.

“This wasn’t inevitable — this wasn’t even very likely to happen,” Macedonia Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov said. “The impossible is actually doable. This is a family that strives to make our world more peaceful and a better place.

“This is a journey that has made us more mature… we have proven that we can assume our responsibility, face a problem, and resolve those problems.”

Macedonia and Greece have squabbled over the name — which has been around since Alexander The Great’s reign in the region during late B.C. — since 1991 when the country broke away from the former Yugoslavia.

Source: United Press International (UPI).

Link: https://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2019/02/06/Macedonia-admitted-to-NATO-after-resolving-Greece-dispute/6431549457608/.

Macedonian PM: Greece’s turn to make history with name deal

January 12, 2019

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Macedonia’s prime minister says he expects Greece’s parliament to do its part and ratify the deal changing his country’s name to North Macedonia so it can soon join NATO. Prime Minister Zoran Zaev told reporters in the capital of Skopje on Saturday that he expects neighboring Greece to be the first country to sign the accession protocol for Macedonia to become NATO’s 30th member.

NATO formally invited Macedonia to join the military alliance in 2008, but Greece vetoed the move, claiming that Macedonia’s name implies territorial aspirations toward Greece’s northern province with the same name as well as appropriating Greece’s historical heritage.

Zaev said that Macedonian lawmakers had “made history” Friday with their decision to back the constitutional changes associated with the name change. “I know how difficult that was … we are putting the bitterness in the past and we are looking now proudly to the future,” Zaev said.

He said he now expects Greece’s parliament to convene and do the same, and unblock Macedonia’s NATO membership. Zaev said that Greece has “got a new friend now North Macedonia,” adding that he hopes the two nations will build up trust and open “many new windows” for cooperation.

But in Greece, the upcoming parliamentary vote on the name change ratification has frayed relations between Greece’s coalition partners. Greek defense Minister Panos Kammenos, leader of the right-wing populist Independent Greeks party, is vehemently opposed to the deal. He has repeatedly threatened to pull his lawmakers out of the government, although he has sent mixed signals on whether he will bring down the government in a vote of confidence.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Kammenos will meet Sunday morning to discuss their differences. A Greek government spokeswoman told The Associated Press that by Monday, or at least later in the week, the timeline for ratification will be clearer. The vote could possibly even take place this month, unless a confidence motion, invoked either by Tsipras or by the opposition New Democracy party, is discussed first.

Several lawmakers from small center-left parties, as well as at least two from Kammenos’ party, have indicated they are ready to vote for the name deal. Tsipras, who has the unquestioned backing of the 145-strong Syriza parliamentary group, has repeatedly expressed certainty that he will find the 151 votes to ensure ratification of the name deal by a majority in the 300-member Parliament.

The Macedonian parliament’s ratification has been hailed by several foreign leaders, including NATO General-Secretary Jens Stoltenberg and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. Adding his congratulations late Friday, was Matthew Nimetz, the U.N. Secretary-General’s personal envoy on the name dispute since 1999, saying that the agreement paves the way for “a firmer basis for peace and security in the Balkans.”

“I wish to congratulate the (Macedonian) parliament and the country’s citizens for this accomplishment and for the democratic manner in which this important process was undertaken,” he said.

Nellas reported from Athens, Greece.

Macedonia vote rattles government in neighbor Greece

January 11, 2019

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Macedonia’s center-left government is holding emergency talks for a second day to try to secure the two-thirds majority in parliament needed to finalize constitutional changes for a landmark deal with neighbor Greece.

Talks between government and opposition lawmakers continued Friday following repeated delays in the vote. The governments of Macedonia and Greece are both struggling to secure the political support required to ratify the agreement reached last June, under which the landlocked Balkan nation would change its name to North Macedonia and Greece would lift objections to its accession to NATO.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is on a working visit to Athens, has expressed strong support for the agreement. But the issue has brought Greece’s coalition government to the brink of breakup.

Greece backs Macedonia’s NATO accession, settles dispute

February 08, 2019

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece’s parliament on Friday approved a measure for Macedonia to join NATO, ending a decades-old dispute watched closely by Western allies wary of Russian influence in the region.

Lawmakers voted 153-140 to back the NATO protocol that must now also be approved by all other alliance members. The Greek vote means the former Yugoslav republic will now formally change its name to North Macedonia, settling the spat over the country’s name which Greece saw as a potential threat to its own northern region of Macedonia.

“I would like to again welcome North Macedonia, a country that is friendly toward Greece, a country that must be a supporter — and not an opponent — of our efforts to establish safety, stability, and cooperation in the wider region,” Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told parliament shortly before the vote.

Western countries strongly backed the deal between Greece and Macedonia, after the country’s bid to join NATO had been shelved for a decade and amid European concerns over Russia’s vocal opposition to the alliance’s expansion further into the Balkans.

“Clearly it is in Greece’s interest to promote a European course for all its neighbors, not just for North Macedonia — and not (back) the influence of third forces in the neighborhood, with different aspirations and pursuits,” Tsipras said.

Tsipras had faced large demonstrations against the deal, while opinion polls showed that more than two-thirds of Greeks oppose it. The agreement also nearly toppled his government last month after triggering the breakup of his coalition with the nationalist Independent Greeks party.

Greek opposition parties argued the agreement made too many concessions to Macedonia. “(We) will vote against the accession protocol because it is, simply, the final act or the final act of a damaging agreement,” conservative opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis told parliament to applause from members of his party before the vote.

Greek approval of Macedonia’s NATO accession bid is the final step in the deal. Provided lawmakers vote for the motion, Greece’s foreign ministry will promptly notify the Macedonian government of the result.

Macedonia will then write to the United Nations, its member states and international organizations, formally announcing the name change. Government spokesman Mile Boshnjakovski told The Associated Press this would happen “in coming days.”

Konstantin Testorides contributed from Skopje, Macedonia.

Candidate for EU’s top job slams Greece over Venezuela

February 07, 2019

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — The conservative candidate for the European Union’s top job has sharply criticized Greece’s stance on Venezuela’s political crisis, saying Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is “blocking initiatives on a European level” that would support those “fighting for a democratic Venezuela.”

Manfred Weber, who heads the European Parliament’s largest center-right group, said Thursday it was “a tragedy to see how the Greek government is now behaving on (a) European level.” Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim president last month, saying President Nicolas Maduro’s re-election in May was fraudulent. The United States and a number of European Union countries have backed Guaido, but Greece’s governing Syriza party has expressed its “full support and solidarity” for Maduro.

Weber is running in May 23-26 European elections to succeed his EPP Christian Democrat party colleague Jean-Claude Juncker to run the European Commission. He told reporters in Athens: “Everybody who has eyes in his head must see that in Venezuela we have a dictatorship, a socialist dictatorship.”

He suggested the European Union should change its decision-making process in foreign affairs from requiring unanimous votes to allowing decisions to be taken through majority votes instead. That, he said, would ensure decisions “are not anymore in the hands of governments like here in Greece which have obviously more contact with (Russian President Vladimir) Putin and Maduro and not so much with the free world of democratic countries.”

Weber was in Athens to attend a two-day EPP group meeting. Greece’s left-wing government says it backs an EU initiative to try to find a political solution to the Venezuela crisis but has refused to endorse Guaido. Government officials had no immediate response to Weber’s remarks.

Greek opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis, a close ally of Weber, said Greece’s support for Maduro had hurt the country’s standing. “I’m very sorry to say this but the position of the Greek prime minister on this issue is a disgrace for our country,” Mitsotakis said. “It isolates Greece and it really reduces our political influence abroad.”

Amid highway protest, Greece hikes wages, eyes market return

January 28, 2019

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece announced plans to return to bond markets and increase the minimum wage Monday, amid protests against bailout-era measures by farmers who used tractors to block the country’s main highway.

Authorities unveiled plans to issue a 5-year bond, a first market test since the end of Greece’s international bailout in August. In a televised address, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said the minimum wage would be increased by nearly 10 percent starting next month — from 586 euros per month to 650 euros. A lower wage category for under-25 year-olds was scrapped.

“This is an essential but also a symbolic action — something owed to the people who bore the brunt of the (country’s) bankruptcy and fiscal adjustment, whose lives, prospects and expectations were immersed into the darkness of the crisis,” he said. “Now that the country is coming out of the crisis, we can gradually begin to heal the wounds.”

The increase, while slightly larger than expected, does not restore the minimum wage to the 751-euro level it was in 2012, when huge cuts were imposed as part of Greece’s bailout agreements. As Tsipras held the cabinet meeting, protesting farmers used more than 200 tractors to block Greece’s main north-south highway outside the central city of Larissa. Drivers were forced to take a detour around the blockade using secondary roads.

The protesters are demanding that the government scrap tax increases and pension measures introduced during the bailout programs, and are seeking intervention to address what they describe as unfair market practices from large buyers.

“The government didn’t listen to us and we need (market) prices that allow us to make a living,” protest leader Rizos Maroudas told the AP. The Greek bond auction, meanwhile, is expected to take place as early as this week and raise up to 3 billion euros ($3.4 billion).

Greece has held off returning to debt markets due to financial turbulence created by a budget crisis in Italy. But borrowing rates eased in recent weeks and the government last week survived the threat of collapse over a vote in parliament to normalize relations with neighbor Macedonia. Representatives of Greece’s international creditors also completed an inspection in Athens last week.

The yield on Greece’s 10-year-bond edged down on Monday to 4.06 percent while shares on the Athens Stock Exchange were unchanged. Tsipras, whose left-wing government is trailing conservatives in opinion polls, is facing local government and European Parliament elections in May and must call a general election before October.

Kantouris reported from Thessaloniki, Greece

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