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Greece blasts demand on asset sale

Athens slams debt inspectors after IMF and EU visit, accusing them of overstepping roles


ATHENS (AP) ― An indignant Greece slammed EU and International Monetary Fund inspectors overseeing its efforts to reform its debt-crippled economy, accusing them Saturday of overstepping their role and interfering in Greece’s internal affairs.

In an unusually harshly worded, pre-dawn statement, government spokesman Giorgos Petalotis called the behavior of the inspectors at a Friday news conference unacceptable.

“We have needs, but we also have limits. And we do not negotiate the limits of our dignity with anyone,” Petalotis said. “We take orders only from the Greek people.”

It was the first time the government has publicly struck back at the IMF and the European Union, which rescued Greece from bankruptcy but at a price that many Greeks consider too harsh.
International Monetary Fund representative Poul Thomsen (left) and European Commission representative Servaas Deroose speak during a press conference in Athens on Friday. (AFP-Yonhap News)
International Monetary Fund representative Poul Thomsen (left) and European Commission representative Servaas Deroose speak during a press conference in Athens on Friday. (AFP-Yonhap News)

The IMF, the European Central Bank and the European Commission delegation said Greece must privatize 50 billion euro ($68 billion) in state assets and speed up structural reforms in the next few months to keep the country’s troubled finances afloat. The IMF representative also said some of the frequent demonstrations against the Greek government’s reforms were being carried out by groups angry at losing their “unfair advantages and privileges.”

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou expressed his dismay at the comments to IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn in a phone call Saturday, according to his office. The statement said Strauss-Kahn had called Papandreou.

“Mr. Strauss-Kahn expressed his understanding for the spirit of the prime minister’s remarks and his respect toward the Greek government and the Greek people,” the statement said.

The opposition conservative party, however, struck back at the Socialist government, saying it was “too late for false tears,” and the government’s “post-midnight theatrical performance is a farce.”

Greece’s economy is under strict supervision as part of a 110 billion euro ($149 billion) bailout loan package from the IMF and the other European Union countries that use the euro ― funds that saved Greece from defaulting on its mountain of debt last May.

In return, the government has been pushing through stringent and unpopular reforms, cutting public sector salaries and pensions, increasing taxes and overhauling labor laws. The austerity program has prompted labor unions to stage a series of strikes and demonstrations.

Batches of the loan are released every quarter, before which representatives from the IMF, the EC and the ECB visit Athens to review progress.

On Friday, the representatives, dubbed the “troika,” said Greece must privatize 50 billion euros ($68 billion) in state assets ― seven times larger than a target set only three months ago ― and speed up structural reforms.

IMF mission chief Poul Thomsen said Greece’s long-term reforms were being “fiercely tested by vested interests” like truck drivers and pharmacists who work in closed industries the government was trying to open up.

“(I’m) not surprised that these groups are protesting but I’m also convinced ... that the Greek population see it for what it is: an attempt to preserve their unfair advantages and privileges,” he said.

The Friday press conference led to quick outrage in sections of the Greek press, with one TV anchor describing Thomsen’s remarks as “unacceptable.” But there was no government reaction until Petalotis’ statement before 2 a.m.

“We asked them to help and we are fully honoring our commitments. But we didn’t ask for anyone to intervene in our country’s internal affairs,” Petalotis said, adding the government would make clear that “everyone must understand their role.”

Greek national debt is set to exceed 150 percent of GDP this year.

Thomsen scoffed at a suggestion that Greece might sell its ancient monuments to raise money, but argued “the mismanagement of public property is a major source of waste” in Greece.

Privatization targets are likely to include state companies not listed on the stock market and the development of public land, including Olympic facilities that have languished since the Athens Games in 2004. Greece will seek 15 billion euros ($20 billion) in privatization and real estate development this year alone, according to Finance Ministry officials.

Petalotis said the government had frequently spoken of the need to better utilize state property, but stressed that any such program would have to be done transparently and “in no case means the sale of public land.”
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