Greece on Wednesday took over the rotating presidency of the European Union amid hopeful forecasts of an end this year to its protracted recession but lingering resentment of the austerity imposed by the 28-nation bloc.
Public anger over the belt-tightening that has been required as the Greek economy shrunk by 25% over the last six years prompted authorities to ban protests in Athens for 18 hours while EU officials and Greek leaders celebrated the transfer of the ceremonial six-month leadership term from Lithuania.
Still, on the far outskirts of the capital, about 400 leftists gathered to denounce the painful measures imposed on Greece in exchange for bailouts to keep its economy afloat. Police dispersed the assembly with tear gas, and one protester was arrested.
Greek leaders put a confident face on their economic circumstances and skirted questions from journalists about whether some of the country's massive debt would have to be written off for the glimmers of recovery to be realized.
"Greece, after great sacrifices, is leaving the crisis behind," Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said at a news conference, according to the Greek news site ekathimerini.com.
Samaras said Athens would focus its EU presidential term on reducing Greece's staggering 27% jobless rate and improving security in a country that has become a conduit for illegal immigration into Europe.
"The challenges are still immense, social conditions are still demanding, and unemployment remains at unacceptable levels," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said at a ceremony with Samaras, the Associated Press reported. "But important progress was achieved. Greece is turning around its economy."
After six years of recession, the Greek economy is forecast to grow at a modest 0.6% rate this year.
But the spending cuts and tax hikes imposed on Greeks have sown resentment, fueling social unrest and undermining the coalition government's efforts to stay the course through years of hardship.
Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Syriza radical left opposition party, which retains a strong following with its defiant stance against EU economic strictures, boycotted Wednesday's events. Ekathimerini said Tsipras was protesting what he considers insufficient focus on social conditions by the governing coalition of Samaras' New Democracy Party and the socialists headed by Evangelos Venizelos.
Venizelos, who is now foreign minister, and Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras downplayed analysts' predictions that Athens may have to seek debt relief from its creditors to make a recovery sustainable.
"A reduction in the interest rate and a pushing back of the amortization schedule is more effective from the point of view of the financial markets," Stournaras told reporters who had asked whether and when Athens would ask for a debt write-down.
"No other country during peacetime has achieved as much as Greece has achieved since 2009," Stournaras said. "People should this year begin to feel the impact in their pockets and in their everyday lives."
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