Greece pressured to finish debt talks

Sunday, February 5, 2012

ATHENS, Greece -- Greece is under heavy pressure from its creditors to implement further austerity and structural measures if it wants to get a second, $171 billion bailout and avoid bankruptcy.

Representatives of Greece's public creditors -- the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund -- have concluded a meeting with Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, who, in turn, will meet the leaders of the three parties backing his three-month-old coalition government this afternoon.

Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos said Saturday negotiations with its creditors are at "a very crucial stage" and that a very thin line separates eventual success from an impasse.

A measure of the growing impatience of Greece's eurozone partners with what they see as Greece's inability to implement changes in the economy was given in an interview by Eurogroup chairman Jean-Claude Juncker to German news magazine Der Spiegel.

The possibility of bankruptcy in March should give the Greeks "muscles where they now still have some symptoms of paralysis," he was quoted as telling the magazine in an interview released Saturday.

Should Greece fail to implement the necessary reforms, then it may not expect "solidarity efforts from the others," Juncker added.

In Athens, Venizelos told reporters negotiations for the bailout deal Greece needs to avoid defaulting on its debts must be completed by late today, but that a breakthrough is being held up by demands from debt inspectors for more austerity measures.

Earlier, he had joined a two-hour conference call with other eurozone finance ministers, and resumed talks with debt inspectors from the EU, the ECB and the IMF -- known as the "troika" -- after a 12-hour meeting with them Friday.

Venizelos also met with Greece's ministers of health, labor, defense, interior and public sector reform to discuss demands for wage cuts in the private sector and faster staff cuts, including dismissals, in Greece's large public sector.

"The euro group conference call was very difficult. There is great anxiety and great pressure from [the troika] as well as individual eurozone member states, each of which has its own priorities," Venizelos told reporters, without providing details or naming any of the countries.

"There is a very small margin separating a successful end in [negotiations] from an impasse that could be due to a misunderstanding," he said. "We stand at the razor's edge."

He said the negotiations must be completed by tonight, without saying why.

Venizelos said the talks are being held up by demands from debt inspectors to impose cuts in private sector pay and new austerity measures to keep Greece within its tight deficit-reduction targets.

"We are at the point when we must make decisions and commit to them. Two major issues remain outstanding: labor relations and private sector pay, and fiscal measures required to stay absolutely on target in 2012," the finance minister said.

Heavily in debt and suffering a fourth year of recession, Greece needs the (euro) 130 billion ($171 billion) rescue deal, backed by eurozone countries and the IMF, to avoid bankruptcy next month.

Tied to that agreement is a proposed deal with banks and private investors who hold nearly two-thirds of Greece's debt that would slash the country's borrowing costs and save it from a default. The investors, who hold around (euro) 200 billion ($263.2 billion) in Greek bonds, could forgive about half of that in exchange for a cash payout and new bonds with more favorable repayments terms.

Top bank negotiators arrived in Athens on Saturday night for more talks. Josef Ackermann -- the CEO of Germany's Deutsche Bank who is also the board chairman of the creditor group, the Institute of International Finance -- said in Munich that he was flying to Greece Saturday.

Ackermann told reporters that "we are in a make-or-break situation and Greece plays a very important role."

Unions and employers have failed to reach agreement on voluntary cuts in wage costs, arguing that a series of emergency taxes imposed by the crisis-hit government over the past two years have already seen workers lose 14 percent of their income.

Stathis Anestis -- deputy leader of GSEE, Greece's largest union -- described the latest austerity measures being considered by the government as "a recipe for catastrophe" that would sink Greece into deeper recession. "They must respect collective wage deals that have been signed and implemented," he said.

On Saturday morning, about 100 Communist unionists demonstrated outside the prime minister's official residence. In the evening, a group of about 30 anarchists attacked the apartment building where Greek President Karolos Papoulias lives -- not his official residence, police reported. There were no reports of damages.

Without additional international support, Greece would go bankrupt, since it is unable to cover a (euro) 14.5 billion ($19.1 billion) bond repayment on March 20.

Juergen Baetz in Berlin and Geir Moulson in Munich contributed to this report.

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