• Riot police fired tear gas against anti-Merkel protesters (Photo: S.J.Borne)

Merkel to Greece: 'I come here as a friend'

09.10.12 @ 18:05

  1. By Valentina Pop and Paul Kidner

Brussels and Athens - German leader Angela Merkel on Tuesday (9 October) showed sympathy for Greek "pain," as tens of thousands filled the streets, clashed with police and chanted angry slogans.

"I have come here today conscious of the very difficult times, of the pain many people are going through," Merkel told a joint press conference with Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.

Her visit, the first in five years, came amid widespread street protests and an almost unprecedented security effort.

Many Greek people blame Germany for the austerity and recession gripping the country. The demonstrations were largely non-violent, with police estimating that 40,000 took to the streets during the Merkel visit.

But some clashes did occur, with riot police firing tear gas to disperse the crowds and arresting a few dozens of people.

One protester was captured by press photographers wearing a Nazi uniform and imitating Hitler, while others burned Nazi flags.

Meanwhile, Greek commentators noticed a badly-inspired wardrobe choice on Merkel's side, as she wore the same olive-coloured jacket she had on when Germany beat Greece in the European football championship in June.

During the press conference, Merkel tried to mend ties with the alienated Greeks: "I did not come here as a teacher to give grades, I am here as a partner, as a friend."

She gave assurances that she wants Greece to stay in the eurozone and that "we are all in this together, as partners."

A lot of reforms were under way and had accelerated in recent months, Merkel noted.

But she could not promise the next tranche of bailout money - needed for Greece to avoid bankruptcy, and already delayed for over three months - was going to come anytime soon.

Merkel clearly distinguished between her "bilateral" visit and the ongoing examination by the troika of international lenders whose report has also been postponed several times as the Greek government struggles to cobble together enough cuts before more money can be disbursed.

For Samaras' part, he claimed that "with Ms Merkel's visit, we are breaking a Greek isolation from the international scene" and pledged to do all the necessary reforms to stay in the eurozone.

"Everyone knows Germany's economic and political power in Europe. The strengthening of our relationship can only be beneficial for our country," he added.

He said painful reforms were "needed to make Greece more competitive and to change the image of our country."

At the same time, speaking alongside anti-Merkel protesters in Syntagma square, left-wing leader Alexis Tsipras told Skai TV that her visit was just a show of support for the "Merkelites" in the Greek government and their "barbaric austerity measures."

He again criticised the fact that most of the €130 bailout money goes to repay Greece's debt and to prop up its banks, but not into the real economy, which is shrinking rapidly.