Jeered Troika Back, Greece Sees Deal

Even before envoys from international lenders began new talks on Feb. 24, Greece said it had a deal close at hand on unsettled reforms and a budget hole.

ATHENS — Greece and its international debt inspectors on Feb. 24 resumed talks on the austerity measures the country must make to keep receiving rescue loans. The government insisted a deal is “very close.”

The officials from the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund — together known as the Troika — were holding talks in Athens with Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras and other government officials.

The officials entered the finance ministry using a side door amid jeers from dozens of demonstrators who gathered outside the building, including laid-off government cleaning staff.

The Troika is pressing for sweeping changes in market practices and labor rules. The negotiations are seen as key to talks expected later this year on how to make Greece’s massive national debt sustainable.

“We are in the final stages. We are very close to an agreement,” government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou told private Mega television.

Greece’s main opposition party, the left-wing SYRIZA, said the government should not meet with the Troika officials, citing growing poverty and 28 percent unemployment resulting from the harsh reforms.

In a weekend newspaper interview, Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras said his party would demand that European lenders cancel a portion of Greece’s debt, or suspend interest payments on debts “unilaterally if necessary.”

The inspectors are pressing for sweeping changes in market practices and labor rules. The negotiations are seen as key to talks expected later this year on how to make Greece’s massive national debt sustainable.

Even before talks were due to resume, Greece’s coalition government said it was confident of reaching a deal in negotiations that have sputtered for almost six months.

Representatives from the Troika haven’t been able to find a consensus with the administration of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, the New Democracy Conservative leader and his partner, the PASOK Socialists.

Still unsettled are some 153 reforms pushed aside for several years as Greece has been getting $325 billion in two bailouts, and the big question of how close a hole in the budget the government says is one billion euros but which the Troika has put at as high as 2.4 billion euros.

Greece, which holds the symbolic European Union Presidency until June 30, but so far has done almost nothing with it, wants to reach an an agreement in principle by the March 10 Eurogroup and to secure the disbursement of 8.8 billion euros in bailout loans by a meeting of Eurozone finance ministers due to be held in Athens on April 1.

Among the issues that remain to be settled are the lifting of barriers to competition in several sectors and the reduction of employers’ social security contributions by 3.9 percentage points. “We are very close to an agreement on both things,” Kedikoglou told Mega TV.

He didn’t mention the other 151 unsettled items apart from that the government was ready to make alternative proposals on the issues of fresh milk and non-prescriptions medicines.

The Troika wants Greece to extend the shelf life of fresh milk and allow some drugs to be sold in super markets. Pharmacists said they want to keep a monopoly on drug sales, even for items such as aspirin.

Kedikoglou wouldn’t discuss how big Greece’s 2013 primary surplus would be although Samaras predicted it will be as high as 1.5 billion euros and the trigger to seeking debt relief from the Troika.

“We will see how big it will be,” said Kedikoglou. “I am sure that it will exceed most people’s expectations.”

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)