ATHENS, Greece – More than a dozen tractors rolled through Athens on Friday, honking horns and flashing lights outside parliament as thousands of Greek farmers thronged the capital’s main Syntagma Square to protest tax hikes and pension reforms.
The two-day protest kicked off Friday morning with clashes between riot police and Cretan farmers wielding shepherd’s staffs that left 10 policemen slightly injured and smashed windows at the agriculture ministry.
Music blared from loudspeakers and protesters braving rain lit a bonfire near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the foot of parliament, while about 20 tractors parked nearby. Tents were set up in the adjacent central Syntagma Square in preparation for an all-night sit-in.
Farming associations have been blockading highways across the country with tractors for more than two weeks, forcing traffic into lengthy diversions to protest a planned overhaul of the country’s troubled pension system. So far, they have refused talks with the government, insisting the pension reform plan must be repealed.
Bailout lenders are demanding that Greece scrap tax breaks for farmers and impose pension reforms that will lead to higher monthly contributions from the self-employed and salaried employees.
“They fooled us,” Manolis Paterakis, head of one of Crete’s farmer blockades, said of the left-led government. “They were telling us that they support us, that they are fighting for the survival of the farmers, … that young people need to return to their villages and work their land.
“The same people (now) come and confirm the exact opposite,” he said. “Whoever farms today, the only thing they will achieve is to have debts to the tax office.”
The most severe clashes came in the morning outside the agriculture ministry, where about 800 farmers from Crete were demanding access to the building. Riot police used tear gas to repel groups hurling rocks and tomatoes and setting dumpsters alight.
Numerous windows of the ministry building were smashed, and rubble from broken paving stones littered the road outside. Police said the farmers threatened to spray them with a pesticide used for olive trees if the police used tear gas. At least four farmers were detained.
One outnumbered riot police unit was forced to flee up a street, with farmers wielding staffs and pieces of wood in pursuit.
Separate clashes broke out on highways leading into the Greek capital. To the east of Athens, farmers used tractors to circumvent a police roadblock, drive over a highway barrier and block the main highway to Athens’ international airport for about half an hour, leaving travellers with planes to catch walking along the road, wheeling their suitcases behind them.
West of the city, riot police fired tear gas to disperse farmers demanding to be allowed into the city with agricultural vehicles despite a government ban. Running clashes ensued along the highway, with some protesters smashing the windscreen of a patrol car.
“These scenes were aimed at blackening the struggle of the farmers,” said Agriculture Minister Vangelis Apostolou. “For us, there is one path — that of dialogue to solve the problems of farmers.”
The protests against the pension changes have united a disparate group of professions, including lawyers, artists, accountants, engineers, doctors, dentists, seamen and casino workers.
Throughout Friday, farmers in buses, pickup trucks and cars from north and south were heading to the capital for the main evening rally and all-night sit-in, which is to be followed by another rally Saturday.
Derek Gatopoulos and Raphael Kominis in Athens contributed.