ATHENS, Greece (AP) — The Greek government said Monday its painful austerity drive is paying off, with the budget deficit reduced to the target of 6.6 percent of annual output in 2012 from 9.4 percent a year earlier.
A finance ministry statement said that, not counting the cost of servicing Greece's debt mountain, the government posted a modest budget surplus of €434 million ($588 million) last year. "These positive developments ... show that efforts at fiscal adjustment and discipline are bearing fruit, which creates the necessary conditions to stabilize and gradually restart the economy," Deputy Finance Minister Christos Staikouras said.
However, popular anger at repeated income cuts remains high, with striking seamen keeping island ferries tied up for the past five days and unions planning a general strike and protests on Feb. 20. On Monday, Finance Minister Yiannis Stournaras was sent a threatening letter containing a bullet that warned of "severe consequences" if Greeks have their property confiscated for debts.
Police said the letter, copies of which were also sent to tax offices on the southern island of Crete, was signed "Cretan Revolution" — a hitherto unheard-of group. The conservative-led governing coalition has promised to reduce the budget deficit to 5.2 percent of annual output this year — down from a peak of more than 15 percent when the Greek economy started to implode in 2009.
Greece is surviving on international rescue loans, granted since 2010 in exchange for harsh fiscal discipline through repeated cuts in pensions and salaries, coupled with tax hikes. The deeply resented austerity plunged the country deeper into a recession, now in its sixth year, amid record-high unemployment that has seen about 1,000 private sector jobs lost daily since 2009.
The government has said it hopes to stem the recession later this year, forecasting a return to growth in 2014. Labor unions have held a string of strikes and protest marches over the past three years against the austerity measures. Last month, the government was forced to issue a rare civil mobilization order to force striking Athens metro workers back to work.
Ferry seamen are on strike until early Wednesday, and have threatened to continue after that. They are angry at high taxation and pay arrears, and want new collective pay agreements. Farmers across the country are also threatening to block highways to protest tax hikes.