Athens Mayor Takes On Protest Voters to Reclaim City’s Streets

George Kaminis is trying to reclaim the streets of Athens from protesters who elected him mayor in November. He scored his first victory this month when workers demanding permanent jobs ended a 25-day occupation of city hall.

The demonstrators kept the New York-born lawyer out of the building on March 28, forcing the municipal council to pass Athens’s 899 million-euro ($1.3 billion) 2011 budget at a nearby hotel. Kaminis, 56, held two other meetings at alternative sites during the sit-in.

His refusal to allow picketers to stop policymaking shows the mayor’s resolve to restore normalcy in a city crippled by work stoppages and voted Europe’s most unlivable in 2010 by the Mercer consulting firm. The municipal employees ended the protest April 15 after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of employees at gambling company Opap SA. (OPAP) The court decision may act as a precedent for pending cases.

“Blackmail, threats and violence have no place in democracy,” Kaminis said at an April 11 council meeting held at the offices of Athens’s local radio station, according to a statement posted on the municipality’s website. He made the comments as police and demonstrators clashed outside.

The country’s public and private sector unions have called for a nationwide strike on May 11 in response to the latest austerity measures backed by Prime Minister George Papandreou.

“Of course I worry about it,” Kaminis said in an April 6 interview at his office in central Athens.

Greece depends on the city of 750,000 people, part of a greater metropolitan area of 3.7 million, for almost half of its gross domestic product, according to Moody’s Investors Service. Moody’s downgraded Athens’s issuer rating on March 8 to B1 from Ba1 with a negative outlook.

Rising Unemployment

Commercial property vacancies in downtown Athens have climbed to 23 percent from 17 percent since August, according to a study by the National Confederation of Commerce. As national unemployment reached a record 15.1 percent in January, the jobless rate in Athens rose to 14.6 percent from 10.7 percent in the same month a year earlier.

“This city is in a very big crisis,” Kaminis said. With businesses closing and Athenians fleeing to quieter suburbs because of the unrest, “both our sources of revenue have gone down,” he said.

Almost 500 demonstrations took place on the city’s streets during 2010, according to police estimates. Three bank employees died in a fire set by anarchists in central Athens last May during a series of general strikes called against Papandreou’s latest austerity measures.

Sorbonne Education

Kaminis was born in New York where his father worked for the Livanos shipping company. The family moved to Greece when he was 5. He graduated with a law degree from the University of Athens and attended the Sorbonne in Paris, where he wrote his thesis on the transition from dictatorship to democracy in Greece and Spain during the 1970s.

Kaminis became mayor with the backing of Papandreou’s Pasok socialist party in November after more than two decades of conservative rule. As an ombudsman, he earned the respect of Papandreou, who invited Kaminis to address the prime minister’s first meeting of Cabinet in October 2009.

City hall “has a key role to play” to make Athens “a modern and competitive city,” said Constantine Michalos, the head of the Athens Chamber of Commerce and Industry, in an e- mailed response to questions. “It is a critical part of the national effort to revive the economy.”

Illegal Trade

Athens relies on the Greek state for about 20 percent of its budget, down from 37 percent in 2009, according to estimates by the city and Moody’s. The remainder of its funding comes from local levies and fees, both of which have dropped with the nation mired in its third year of recession.

Moody’s, in its March downgrade, cited the possibility of reductions in government transfers as a consequence of the weakening economy, and the “high level of integration” between the city’s economic base and the national economy.

The mayor is tasked with having to stamp out demonstrations and illegal street trade, which results in 6 billion euros of lost taxes each year, Michalos said.

Sprider Stores SA (SPRDER) had its flagship clothing outlet in central Athens completely destroyed by fire during riots in December 2008, which occurred after a 15-year old boy was shot and killed by Greek police.

“The city center has to stop being at the mercy of the demonstrators,” said Sprider Chairman Athanasios Hatzioannou in an email.

Tourist Flows

Revenue for hotels in the Athens metropolitan area fell by 62 million euros in 2010, according to figures from the Athens Hotel Association. Tourism, Greece’s largest industry, accounts for almost 16 percent of the country’s GDP, according to the London-based World Travel and Tourism Council.

Visits to the Acropolis, the city’s most famous landmark, dropped 16 percent in 2010, according to the Hellenic Statistical Authority. In October, culture ministry workers demanding permanent positions blocked the entrance to the Acropolis for three days and clashed with police.

Keeping Athens free of constant protests is essential to persuade visitors to come back to the city, said Tim Ananiadis, general manager of the Grand Bretagne Hotel, the luxury hotel opposite Greece’s Parliament House that is frequently attacked by demonstrators.

With the economy set to shrink again this year, Kaminis says he plans to cut waste and duplication at city hall and is looking for help from European Union funds to finance city investments.

“We can no longer depend on the money we get from the central government, or even from the local taxes,” Kaminis said. “The objective is to bring money to the city.”
http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-04-27/athens-mayor-takes-on-protest-voters-to-reclaim-city-s-streets.html

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