ATHENS (AP) — Greek riot police used tear gas Thursday against a small group of left-wing activists protesting the visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Athens.
Defying a ban on demonstrations in the city center during Merkel’s two-day visit to the country during which she is meeting with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, a few dozen protesters peeled off from a march of around 400 and managed to break the police cordon before they were driven back.
No arrests or injuries were reported.
Around 2,000 officers, a police helicopter and drones were deployed for the visit, which ends Friday afternoon. Streets and subway stations were closed for security reasons.
Merkel is widely blamed in Greece for the austerity that the country has lived through for much of the past decade, which led to a sharp and prolonged recession and a consequent fall in living standards.
Germany was the largest single contributor to the three international bailout packages Greece received from 2010-2018 as it struggled through a dramatic financial crisis which almost saw it crash out of the eurozone. As part of those bailouts, successive Greek governments had to hike taxes, slash pensions and salaries.
In a televised preliminary chat with Tsipras before the talks, Merkel highlighted the improvement of Greece’s finances.
“Difficult years have passed but we succeeded in strengthening the European spirit,” she said. “The Greek people went through a very difficult phase and I would like to offer thanks for what Greece has achieved despite the financial difficulties and the tough (austerity) measures, and for what Greece is achieving even now.”
Merkel and Tsipras have met in person many times over the course of the past few years, but this is the first time the German chancellor has visited Athens since Tsipras became prime minister in January 2015 on a fiercely anti-bailout and anti-Merkel campaign. He once famously declared during a campaign speech before European elections: “Go back, Mrs. Merkel!”
Relations have since warmed, and Tsipras dropped his virulent anti-bailout stance and ended up implementing the reforms demanded by Greece’s creditors.
“The last time you visited was at the height of the crisis,” Tsipras told Merkel Thursday. “Now you are coming to a different Greece, which after great difficulties managed to overcome the (financial) crisis.”
He added that despite “differences of views, confrontations and disagreements,” Greece and Germany have since managed to achieve a good relationship.
Greece emerged from its third and final bailout in August last year, but its economy will remain under strict supervision and the government has pledged further reforms to ensure the public finances remain on track.
The two leaders are also expected to discuss migration, an issue on which the positions of Tsipras and Merkel have been relatively close, as well as the name-change deal Greece has reached with neighboring FYROM.
Under the deal reached last year, the former Yugoslav republic will be renamed North Macedonia. In return, Greece will drop its objections to the country joining NATO and eventually the European Union. Greece argues use of the term “Macedonia” implies territorial claims on its own northern province of the same name, and usurps its ancient Greek heritage.
The deal has met with vociferous opposition in both Greece and FYROM, where critics accused their respective governments of making too many concessions to the other side. The issue is threatening Tsipras’ coalition government, with the head of the junior coalition Independent Greeks party, Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, saying he could leave the government if it goes through.
Germany has made it clear it considers the name deal a historic opportunity.
A separate protest against Merkel’s visit by the Nazi-inspired far-right Golden Dawn party was called off due to the city-center ban.
By ELENA BECATOROS and NICHOLAS PAPHITIS , Associated Press
Derek Gatopoulos in Athens, and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.