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In Greece, protests, desperation, and 'the mother of all strikes.' Which way forward?

Greeks flooded Athens today in fierce protests against yet another round of austerity measures and higher taxes coming their way.

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Demonstrators protest in central Athens on Wednesday. A two-day general strike that unions vow will be the largest in years grounded flights, disrupted public transport and shut down everything from shops to schools in Greece on Wednesday, as at least 50,000 protesters converged in central Athens.

Petros Giannakouris/AP

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Greece is today racked with protest and violent episodes in what is being called the "mother of all strikes," ahead of another vote on austerity cuts and higher taxes.

Those cuts will now start to reach into the core of the Greek public sector, which has long been seen as bloated and loaded with patronage. But the austerity measures Prime Minister George Papandreou's government is expected to implement, starting with 30,000 jobs, will begin to touch more deeply the middle class of a country that is a founding member of the European Union.

The economic consequences of Greece's debt crisis continue to shake Europe, whose leaders convene on Sunday in Brussels to contain the crisis.

But with 70,000 and possibly 120,00 people on the street, pushing their way to the top of the parliament stairs in Athens, clashing with police – more questions will be asked about the social consequences of the crisis.

Today’s protest now increasingly appears to be just the surface expression of an anger and bewilderment that is no longer confined to Greece’s trade unions, unemployed youth, and to others that live close to the street. It is spreading to small business owners, the intelligentsia, the policy community, academics, and other members of the elite and near elite.

Desperation

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“The main sentiment right now is desperation,” says Andreas Antoniades of the Institute of International Relations in Athens. “We don’t know where we are, or how to get out of this problem. Not just ordinary people, but political elites feel this. It feels like the situation is not in Greece’s control, and that Europe can’t control the crisis.

"We are told we will have stricter demands to meet than were decided on July 25, but we don’t know whether this is good or bad," says Mr. Antoniades. "We not only don’t see light at the end of the tunnel, we don’t see the tunnel anymore. The government will pass the austerity measure, but no one knows what will happen the day after.”

Which way out?

There is little public confidence that austerity cuts can solve a crisis in which government debt runs close to 160 percent of gross domestic product. Economists in Greece can’t do math that shows a way out.

Meanwhile, the Papandreou government is widely seen as not an authoritative decision maker, but dependent on decisions by Germany and France, which as it is pointed here, don’t agree on a solution either.

Today’s strike includes businesses, stores, and federal offices. Reports detail 150 international flights cancelled after air traffic controllers leave their desks.

“From a rational point of view, these rallies have no consequence,” says Charalambus Tsardanidis, director of the Institute of International and Economic Relations in Athens. “Any reformers in government are obliged to follow the EU, so from their point of view, the people see no alternative but to go on the street, even if it seems not to matter.

“We are arriving at the point of no return,” Mr. Tsardanidis continues. “The policy adopted by the government in agreement with the troika [EU, the European Central Bank, and the IMF] is not possible to achieve … the austerity is not seen as effective.… At this point, the middle class is being effected, and we don’t know the social consequences of that.”

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