Closing of State Broadcaster Leaves Greece in Turmoil

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ATHENS -- Greeks were in shock and the fragile coalition government was in disarray on Wednesday, a day after Greece unexpectedly shut down the state broadcaster, the most drastic move to slash the country's bloated public sector since Athens applied for a foreign bailout in 2010.

Thousands of protesters, including many of the 2,900 workers laid off from the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation, known as ERT, rallied outside its headquarters northeast of Athens in the early hours on Wednesday as ERT's symphony orchestra played for them. The crowds dispersed and reassembled later in the morning.

Private television channels suspended their news coverage as of 6 a.m. Wednesday in solidarity with ERT employees, while newspaper headlines conveyed the shock felt by many Greeks at the closing of a 75-year-old institution.

The banners adorning street kiosks read "War Over ERT," "Fury Over Sudden Death" and "An Execution to Please the Troika," a reference to the trio of foreign lenders that administer the bailout money.

The country's two main labor unions, Gsee and Adedy, called a 24-hour strike for Thursday to protest the government's "provocative" decision to close ERT. Staff members at daily newspapers also plan to walk out on Thursday in solidarity with ERT employees.

In defiance of the government's decision, ERT employees continued to broadcast on Wednesday from the defunct organization's offices in the Athens surburbs and from the second-largest city in Greece, Thessaloniki, via digital television and the Internet.

The surprise decision on Tuesday to shut down ERT came a day after representatives of the troika -- the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund -- returned to Athens on Monday for new talks on the progress of the country's efforts to overhaul its economy. Greece's pledge to lay off public workers was high on the agenda.

Also on Monday, Gazprom, the Russian state-owned energy company, failed to submit a bid to buy Greece's national gas company, a deal that Athens had hoped was done after a series of meetings between Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and the Gazprom chief executive, Aleksei B. Miller.

In another blow, MSCI, which compiles world stock indexes, downgraded Greece to the status of emerging market from developed market on Tuesday, citing the country's failure to meet criteria for market accessibility, like practices regarding securities borrowing and lending facilities.

The timing of the decision to shutter ERT was widely seen by political analysts as an attempt by Mr. Samaras to show boldness and decisiveness after accusations of foot dragging on economic changes and the Gazprom snub. But his move further alienated his two coalition partners: the Socialist Party, known as Pasok, and the Democratic Left, which increasingly complain of being sidelined in decision making.

On Mr. Samaras's orders, the press ministry on Wednesday quickly released a bill outlining the framework for a new, leaner replacement for ERT. A government spokesman, Simos Kedikoglu, said Wednesday that the new entity would be set up over the summer. It remained unclear how many people it would employ.

Pasok and the Democratic Left immediately responded with a joint proposal to revoke the decision to close ERT. It was the latest in a string of internal disputes that have tested the stability of the fragile coalition, which was cobbled together last June to prevent a messy default and a Greek exit from the euro currency union. It is dominated by Mr. Samaras's center-right New Democracy party.

Some officials suggested that coalition would hang together, at least for now.

"We don't want to bring down the government," said Andreas Papadopoulos, an official for the Democratic Left. "But this is a mistake by New Democracy and Mr. Samaras and must be corrected. With such actions they are testing the limits of democracy."

Pasok called an emergency session of its political council for Wednesday afternoon and was expected to press Mr. Samaras for a meeting of coalition leaders.

On the streets of Athens, the reaction Wednesday was a mix of shock, anger and nostalgia.

"This is worse than the junta," said Thomas Dedes, a 67-year-old retiree, referring to the military dictatorship that ruled Greece in the late 1960s and early 1970s. "What's next? Tanks in front of Parliament?"

"You can't just shut down state television," said Irini Milaki, 50, a schoolteacher. "What kind of democracy are we? We don't deserve to be European."

Others expressed disbelief at the speed of the move on ERT. "It takes longer to shut down a taverna," said Costas Tasopoulos,45, a restaurant manager whose wife is a civil servant. The government, he said, "might drag their feet on other things, but when it comes to cutting jobs and salaries they move like lightning."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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