September 17, 2019

Greek Broadcaster Fights Closure

The administrative court, the Council of State, is expected to rule on the appeal Monday.

A decision in favor of the workers, who have been operating underground broadcasts of Greek news through satellite streams since ERT was pulled off the air in a surprise government decision on Tuesday, could lead to ERT’s signal being restored temporarily, until the decision could be reviewed in a hearing by the Council of State that would be scheduled for September.

Meanwhile, a Greek prosecutor, acting at the behest of the country’s finance minister, has begun an investigation into ERT’s finances, looking for signs of mismanaged funds.

Whatever the court verdict on the workers’ appeal, Monday will be a critical day for the country’s conservative prime minister, Antonis Samaras. He is to meet in the afternoon with the leaders of the two junior partners in his increasingly fragile coalition, socialist Pasok and the moderate Democratic Left. They have vehemently opposed his decision to shut down ERT as part of a broader cost-cutting drive imposed by Greece’s international creditors, the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Although a court decision vindicating the laid-off ERT employees might be considered an embarrassment for Mr. Samaras, political analysis on Greek blogs and news Web sites on Friday suggested that such an outcome might less damaging to his image than if he were forced to reverse his decision under political pressure.

In a speech before members of his conservative New Democracy party’s youth arm on Friday, Mr. Samaras suggested a compomise in an apparent bid to head off a government crisis. His proposal — for the “immediate creation of a cross-party committee to hire a small number of staff so that public television can immediately resume broadcasting” — was rejected within minutes by Pasok, which said the proposal “does not constitute a response to what Pasok has said.”

The political upheaval came amid reports from Brussels that the disbursement of the next tranche of rescue funding for Greece, a sum of about $4.4 billion, was expected to be released next week.

Earlier on Friday, a Greek Finance Ministry official said that European officials had approved the disbursement, subject to a final endorsement by euro zone finance ministers. That decision, the official said, had been largely influenced by the government’s decision to save money by closing ERT.

The state broadcaster, condemned by Mr. Samaras earlier this week as ‘’an emblem of lack of transparency and waste,’’ is to be the focus of a criminal investigation ordered on Thursday by the finance minister, Yannis Stournaras. Greece’s corruption prosecutor, Eleni Raikou, on Friday assigned two deputies to review all the employment and procurement contracts issued by ERT over the past decade for signs of mismanagement and waste.

The scale of suspected misuse of money within ERT over the years remains unclear. But, addressing Parliament on Friday, Mr Stournaras said the broadcaster’s ‘‘finances and viewing figures were very poor.’’

‘’I don’t want to raise tensions in the current climate,’’ he said, ‘’but when the time comes I will present the statistics.’’

Dismissed ERT workers, who have occupied the broadcaster’s headquarters in a suburb of Athens since ERT’s signal was cut on Tuesday night, continued to operate underground broadcasts of Greek news on Friday. Those streams were picked up Thursday evening by the the European Broadcasting Union, an alliance of public service media organizations in 56 countries, and re-transmitted via satellite link to Greece. The move had symbolic, rather than practical, value as only a few hundred thousand out of some 11 million Greeks have satellite connections; most have been following ERT’s pirate broadcast via online news Web sites.

The head of the European Broadcasting Union, Jean-Paul Philippot, who was in Athens on Friday, said he would ask the Greek government to restore the ERT signal. ‘’The reason we are here is because this has never happened before,’’ he told a media conference in the old headquarters of ERT. ‘’No European country has ever cut its broadcaster’s signal.’’

Mr. Stournaras had warned Thursday that any other television channel retransmitting the pirate broadcast of former ERT employees would be prosecuted. The announcement was apparently aimed at the Communist Party’s channel, called 902 TV, which had been carrying the underground broadcast but reverted to normal programming after the ministry’s warning. ‘’This is not a country where everyone does whatever they want,’’ Mr. Stournaras said.

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Greek Civil Servants Walk Out Over Ban on Teachers’ Strike

It was the third time this year that Greece’s fragile governing coalition had invoked the emergency measure, the civil mobilization law, to combat trade unions that oppose the austerity measures demanded by the country’s international creditors in exchange for continued rescue financing.

As with Athens subway workers and seamen, who were forced back to work earlier this year, secondary school teachers face arrest and dismissal if they go ahead with a 24-hour strike planned for Friday, the first day of university entrance examinations for high school students. The teachers object to the government’s plans to increase their working hours, fearing the move will lead to staff cutbacks.

But instead of thriving in the face of what political opposition parties have denounced as “blackmail” and “authoritarian tactics” by the government, unions appear increasingly split and weakened.

Tuesday’s strike by the civil servants union, Adedy, which disrupted tax offices and other public services, was not backed by protesting teachers, who were angered by Adedy’s refusal to support their planned walkout on Friday.

Echoing the government’s objections, Adedy said it was reluctant to support a job action that would create havoc for more than 100,000 pupils trying to secure a university or college position amid spiraling youth unemployment, which has topped 64 percent.

The rift bubbled to the surface at a rally by civil servants in Athens on Tuesday, which drew no more than 300 people, when a senior Adedy unionist was harangued by teachers crying, “Traitors!”

Addressing a business conference on Monday night, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said his government would continue to “protect the public good over sector-specific interests.”

If the authorities make good on this pledge, they may win support from an austerity-weary public that is keen to see the privileges of the few revoked, some say.

“The teachers don’t have the support of the people,” said Takis Michas, a political analyst. “Complaining about extra working hours when you have three months a year paid vacation and when unemployment is skyrocketing is not going to strike a chord with the average Greek.”

Last week, the finance minister, Yannis Stournaras, said authorities had liberalized hundreds of professions that formerly restricted access, including notaries and taxi drivers, and would open dozens more in coming months, including the powerful legal sector.

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Once More, Troika Asks Greece to Sharpen Pencils

Greek officials scramble to tackle demands for more austerity to obtain the money, even as social distress deepens.

The cycle was staged again Thursday as the Greek government tried to figure out how to meet one of the troika’s toughest requirements: designating 25,000 of the country’s 650,000 or so civil servants for eventual dismissal.

That was one of the international creditors’ demands late Wednesday as their inspectors suspended the latest examination of Greece’s economic overhaul program, leaving town and leaving Greek officials to sharpen their pencils and steel their resolve to find more budget cuts.

The mission chiefs are expected to return to Athens in early April, the troika of lenders — the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — said in a statement on Thursday.

After a week poring through Greece’s books, representatives of the three bodies did praise Greece for making “significant” progress in mending its finances. But they said Athens needed to follow through more strictly on pledges to reduce the size of its bloated government before unlocking the next installment of Greece’s bailout allowance: a 2.8 billion euro ($3.6 billion) tranche due next month.

On Wednesday night, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and his finance minister, Yannis Stournaras, expressed confidence that Greece would receive the money, speaking ahead of a European Union economic summit meeting in Brussels. European leaders there are trying to head off a rising anti-austerity tide while there are signs that programs like the one in Greece are retarding the bloc’s return to growth.

In the eyes of Greece’s creditors, the country has fallen short too many times on pledges to cut government spending and revamp major areas of the economy that the outside experts say Greece requires if it is to move toward financial independence.

Recently, though, Greece has shown progress. It reported a primary surplus of 1.64 billion euros for January — meaning that the government was bringing in more revenue than it was spending, excluding interest payments. It was Greece’s first primary surplus since 2002.

Further, inflation was only 0.1 percent in February, the lowest reading in 45 years. Such data have largely quieted fears that Greece could exit the euro zone.

The judiciary has also made several prominent moves in recent weeks to show it is rooting out corruption by jailing two former politicians for graft and tax evasion.

And yet Greece, which has received more than 200 billion euros in bailout loans since May 2010, is still making little headway on structural changes that creditors say must happen if the economy is ever to resume growing and become self-sustaining.

The most politically challenging moves for Greece’s coalition government involve the troika’s demands to continue cutting the number of public sector employees. Creditors said Greece had not provided enough details on how it plans to dismiss 7,000 civil servants accused of misdemeanors; to put 25,000 other workers into a special labor reserve that will eventually be eliminated; or to step up the pace of Civil Service retirements.

Until troika auditors are persuaded that Athens can hit those marks, the next aid installment may not be released.

Those measures would need to be taken even as Greek unemployment is at a record 26 percent. In the fourth quarter, nearly 1.3 million people were out of work, in a population of 10 million. Youth unemployment has surged to nearly 58 percent.

Greek consumers continue to make do with less, in response to three years of pay and pension cuts. The real disposable income of households has fallen by a third in that time, and recent increases in property taxes and the value-added tax have crimped spending.

The government reported a revenue shortfall of 260 million euros for the first two months of the year, citing increased tax evasion by citizens and businesses, and the closing of regional tax offices to trim government expenses.

And plans to privatize Greek state-owned assets to raise tens of billions of euros in revenue have stalled again. The head of the agency running that program stepped down last weekend after he was charged with breach of duty for commissioning a power plant in 2007 when he was head of the power board. It was the second such resignation in two years.

Officials say they remain hopeful, though, that some lucrative assets, including the state gambling agency, may be sold in the coming months, a step that they hope will restore confidence in the country and lure investors back to Greece.

Niki Kitsantonis contributed reporting.

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Greek Unions Walk Out in Austerity Protest

The 24-hour strike was called by the country’s two main labor unions, which represent about 2.5 million workers and have led public resistance to three years of austerity measures that have raised taxes and cut salaries and pensions. The unions called on Greeks to join them in protest rallies in Athens and other cities on Wednesday to oppose “dead-end policies that have squeezed the life out of workers and impoverished citizens,” slashing average incomes by a third and pushing unemployment to 27 percent.

Transport employees were to run a limited service to allow Greeks to join protest rallies. In Athens, the police were out in force to guard against violence that frequently accompanies demonstrations near Parliament.

Ferries remained moored in ports, trains stayed in depots and air travel was disrupted. Tax offices and courts also closed.

The action came just days before representatives of Greece’s international creditors — the so-called troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — were to return to Athens to assess the country’s progress in carrying out reforms. After a revenue shortfall of 7 percent last month, the shaky coalition government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras will have to convince foreign auditors that it can bolster tax collection and impose state sell-offs vehemently opposed by trade unions.

The government has taken a tough line in recent weeks, using emergency laws twice to force Athens metro workers and seamen back to work after protracted strike action. It has resisted demands from farmers who have been blocking roads in a bid to obtain tax breaks.

But authorities have yet to proceed with layoffs in the civil service that the troika has been demanding for two years. This week, the authorities announced that nearly 2,000 public workers facing possible dismissal would be transferred to other parts of the civil service where a wave of early retirements has left vacancies.

Recently, troika officials indicated that a failure by Greece to meet revenue targets through improved tax collection and lower public spending could require another round of cuts to salaries and pensions, a prospect the government has ruled out, warning of a social explosion.

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Greece Extends Deadline for Debt Buyback by 2 Days

LONDON — Greece, on the verge of completing a crucial plan to reduce its debt burden, on Monday extended for another two days the deadline for foreign investors and Greek banks to sell their deeply discounted bonds back to the government.

Announced a week ago, the deadline for taking part in the buyback was to have been last Friday. But even though Greek banks and hedge funds have offered close to €26 billion, or $33.6 billion, in bonds, that amount falls short of the goal of €30 billion that the government’s troika of international creditors have set as a minimum for the program to be considered successful.

The new deadline is noon in London on Tuesday.

Having borrowed €10 billion from a European bailout fund to buy back the debt, the goal is for net relief of €20 billion — an amount the International Monetary Fund has said Greece must retire if the institution is to continue lending to the country.

The I.M.F., along with the European Commission and the European Central Bank, make up the troika that has bailed out Greece twice.

Bankers close to the bond buyback program say that hedge funds, which for weeks have been coy about whether they might agree to sell at what would be an average price of around 33 cents per euro, have participated in larger-than-expected numbers. And the bankers say they still expect the buyback to be completed. But with Greek banks reluctant to sell all of their bonds back to the government, the buyback’s success remains dependent on foreign investors selling the majority of their holdings.

Greek banks are believed to own €17 billion worth of bonds. Unlike foreign investors, many of whom bought the securities at knockdown prices, the Greek banks will not reap big profits if they sold their bonds — which were restructured earlier this year — at around 33 cents per euro. Bankers estimate that foreign investors, which own about €24 billion worth of bonds, have offered between €15 billion and €17 billion in debt so far.

At a time when blue-chip collateral is hard to find in Europe, the restructured bonds are seen by the Greek banks as a premium asset that can be used to borrowing much-needed funds from the European Central Bank.

“If the foreigners do not come in we are toast,” said one banker who was involved in the transaction but requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

The head of the Greek debt management agency, Stelios Papadopoulos, in a statement on Monday, made it clear to reluctant investors that they might never get another chance to sell their debt at prices as high as the government is offering. “Investors should bear in mind that even if Greece accepts all bonds tendered in the invitation, it will continue to engage with its official sector creditors in considering further steps to put its debt on a sustainable path,” he said. “Future measures may not involve an opportunity to exit investments in designated securities at the levels offered for this buyback.”

Such measures might include a second buyback offer at a lower price, with the government invoking collective action clauses to force holdout investors to accept the terms. The government could also try to use provisions in the bond contracts that might allow Greece to keep paying its European creditors while forcing private-sector bondholders to take losses.

Such steps are aggressive, though, and would surely be challenged in courts by foreign investors. Given the recent successes that hedge funds have had in suing Argentina and Ireland with regard to past bond restructurings, Greece — and Europe — would think long and hard before taking this type of action.

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