By COSTAS KANTOURIS and DEMETRIS NELLAS, Associated Press
ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece's economy will start to recover next year and by 2020 will reach pre-crisis, and probably higher, levels of prosperity after six years of deep recession, the prime minister said Saturday.
Antonis Samaras said most of the efforts to get the country out of the crisis have been completed and that revenue will exceed spending in 2013, excluding debt repayment.
"Greece has turned the corner ... After the end of the year, we will achieve a new lightening of the debt burden, which our creditors have committed to," Samaras said in a speech opening up the annual international trade fair in Thessaloniki, Greece's No. 2 city.
Samaras said his optimism was fueled by data that showed the economy shrank less than expected in the first half of 2013 and by what he termed a "record" rise in the number of tourists, which could add "more than 11 billion euros ($14.43 billion) directly, and 30 billion euros ($39.35 billion) indirectly, into the economy."
Despite the upbeat speech, there were still signs that a sense of normalcy is far from being restored. Authorities restricted access to the trade fair grounds to keep protesters a kilometer (more than a half-mile) away from there and another site where Samaras visited local businesspeople. Most of the city center has been cut off to traffic since Friday and nearly 4,500 police officers patrolled the area.
Samaras himself stayed in the city less than five hours, forgoing, for the second straight year, the traditional long news conference that every premier used to give on the day following the inauguration.
Thessaloniki police said an estimated 17,000 anti-austerity protesters took part in three separate demonstrations Saturday evening.
A rally called by the country's two largest unions ended peacefully; one by pro-communist unionists went by mostly without incident, although a few farmers drove a truck to one of the international fair gates and dumped large quantities of tomatoes and peaches in protest.
A third rally, by opponents of a Canadian-led gold mining project east of Thessaloniki and joined by anarchists, ended with minor scuffles with police when protesters started throwing rocks and bottles. Police responded with tear gas and detained an unknown number of protesters.
Opposition leader Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Radical Left Coalition (SYRIZA) party marched with the mainstream union rally and called for early elections. He will also fulfill his more traditional role of opposition leader by officially visiting the trade fair next Saturday and giving a news conference the following day.
Samaras criticized the opposition Friday, accusing it of rejoicing in the country's problems and of rejecting any "reasonable" way out of the crisis. He hit out at both SYRIZA and the far right Golden Dawn party, saying the two extremes were voting the same way, against his coalition government, so that "they can fight it over Greece's ruins."
On the other hand, Samaras thanked his socialist coalition partner, and even the Democratic Left party, which left the coalition a couple of months ago, for helping pass austerity measures that staved off bankruptcy.
Samaras took an indirect swipe at his predecessor as conservative leader, Costas Karamanlis, whose government has been blamed for policies from 2004 to 2009 that helped derail the economy.
"We have achieved the biggest fiscal adjustment (cutting the budget deficit) in the world," he said, referring to the efforts of the socialist government, from 2009 to 2011, and two coalition governments hence.
"In 2009, we were paying 13 billion a year to service the debt and ... at that, pace, we would be paying 29 billion in 2013. Instead, we will be paying just 6.5 billion this year. Because we also achieved the biggest debt haircut ever, 145 billion euros, in 2012," Samaras said, referring to the agreement that allowed Greece to be forgiven that sum from private creditors.
"All this, without defaulting or leaving the euro ... Staying in the euro, has allowed Greece to be made an island of stability in the wider region," he said, referring to the situation in the Middle East and northern Africa. He added that Greece could enhance its international status by becoming, together with Cyprus and Israel, an "axis of stability in the region."
Greece's better-than-expected performance in lowering its deficit has already allowed it to cancel measures it had agreed to, such as an additional tax on companies and cuts in the wages, pensions and benefits to the armed forces and the police. It also means that "no new (austerity) measure, besides those we have already committed to" will be taken. He promised he would spend most of the 2013 budget surplus on helping the poorest and he added that, "as long as revenues are going well, you will see tax cuts. I am still committed to a 15 percent corporate tax as soon as the primary budget surpluses become regular."
Samaras promised to help bring in foreign investment, citing meetings with the heads of many large foreign companies he has had in recent weeks, including the CEOs of Philip Morris, IBM and Procter & Gamble. He also promised to combat bureaucracy, tax evasion and corruption and to enforce performance assessments of civil servants. He also promised greater security.
"We are slowly cleaning up the city centers that had been taken over by illegal immigrants," he said, referring to systematic sweeps and deportations of migrants without proper documentation by the police over the past year.
Costas Kantouris reported from Thessaloniki.