Greeks pelt German diplomat in austerity protest

LIZ ALDERMAN & NICHOLAS KULISH

Demonstrators surrounded a German diplomat in Salonika in northern Greece on Thursday and hurled coffee and bottles of water at him, another reflection of growing anger in Greece against what is widely seen as a crippling austerity plan being imposed largely by Germany.

The incident involving the diplomat, Wolfgang Hoelscher-Obermaier, flared a day after Chancellor Angela Merkel's special envoy to Greece, Hans-Joachim Fuchtel, said studies showed that 1,000 German local government officials could do the work of 3,000 Greek officials.

His remarks, which came as European leaders dallied again over how to finance the debt-racked country, infuriated Greeks in Salonika who had been on strike and had occupied the town hall to protest a $17 billion austerity bill that Prime Minister Antonis Samaras's government approved last week. Greece had to pass the measure in order to receive $40 billion in aid that it needs to avoid bankruptcy.

On Thursday, Fuchtel said his comments were not directed at Greek officials. "I have met many industrious Greek civil servants," he said. "My point was about making the administration more effective, with fewer levels of decision making."

But in a country with unemployment nearing 30 percent, and where the austerity measures passed last week were equivalent to 9 percent of the country's economic output, Fuchtel's comments were seen as tone deaf.

Early reports that protesters had stormed a meeting in Salonika that included the diplomat, Hoelscher-Obermaier, were incorrect, Fuchtel said, adding that the only disruption came when coffee was thrown on Hoelscher-Obermaier.

But Greeks were still riled by Fuchtel's remarks. He "cannot understand exactly how serious is the problem, the social deterioration in Greece," said Nikos Xydakis, a columnist for Kathimerini, a daily newspaper. "I don't know if he understands how the unemployment rates are translated in human lives," he said, adding that Fuchtel lacked "the flexibility and the diplomatic skills" to speak more carefully.

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