Ahead of vote, Greek farmers warn ‘we refuse to be serfs’

Party rallies are drawing crowds in most Greek cities ahead of Sunday’s general election, but in the village of Mavrothalassa, deep in the country’s agricultural north, politicians would be wise to stay away, Vassilis Kyriakoulis reports for AFP.

“Political parties have no place here,” says Yiannis Panagis, a farm unionist coordinating a tractor protest outside the area’s defunct tomato processing factory, shut down due to competition from China.

“After the election, we know we’ll have the political system against us. But we will not let them turn us into serfs,” he says.

Once part of Greece’s tax-privileged classes, farmers are facing a radical income overhaul under the terms of a new international bailout agreed by the leftist government of Alexis Tsipras before his resignation in August.

Their income tax rate is to progressively double to 26 percent from 13 percent currently, their pension contributions will rise, and a vital tax break on fuel will be scrapped.

Yiorgos, a 37-year-old farmer, describes these measures as the “final nail in the coffin” of the Greek agricultural sector.

“I am disappointed and angry. For the first time in my life I don’t want to vote,” Yiorgos says.

Greek farmers have suffered years of falling prices, but have faced criticism for being over-reliant on EU subsidies and failing to adapt to a changing market.

They mount protests almost every year, blocking toll and border crossings against the rising cost of supplies and the falling price of produce.

To avoid taking sides ahead of Sunday’s vote, the protests have been kept local so far.

“We will gather to take decisions after the election,” says Stelios Vogiatzis, general secretary of the Panhellenic Farmers’ Union.

But the backlash they plan later this year will rival the angry French movement in August that saw highways blocked, foreign trucks ransacked and manure dumped in cities, some warn.

“The French mobilisation will be nothing compared to what we are prepared to do if the new government tries to enforce these tough measures,” says 40-year-old sugar beet farmer Zafeiris Kyrgiannakis.

“In a few years, the village will be abandoned. The conglomerates will buy our land and put us to work on it. Is this Europe’s plan for us?” adds 43-year-old farmer Thanasis Gegas, a father of two.

“For 20 years, governments and parties have lied to us. Now it seems they want to wipe us out,” he says.

“I’m one of the few people who stayed behind in the village. But the way this is going, there will be no young people left.”

Greek farms tend to be run on a smaller scale than some of their European competitors, which analysts say has left them struggling to keep up.

“The Greek agricultural model is condemned to change,” says Stavriani Koutsou, a professor of urban and rural sociology at the technical institute of Thessaloniki.

“The average size of a Greek farm is 4.9 hectares compared to over 20 hectares in France. It’s difficult to stay competitive in Europe,” she says.

But union leader Vogiatzis argues that the new measures are impossible to manage.

“The average farm family earns 12,000 euros a year and with the new tax rates it must pay 6,000 euros. Which family can live on 6,000 euros a year?” he asks.

Farmers remain a key voting group in Greece — especially for the conservative New Democracy party, which has a clear shot at taking power on Sunday and has jumped to their defence.

Speaking in the agricultural hub of Velestino earlier this month, New Democracy chief Vangelis Meimarakis said he would oppose the tax changes.

“The farmers have given what they can to the national effort… It is unthinkable to accept even tougher measures,” Meimarakis said.

His leftist opponent Tsipras has also pledged to renegotiate as much of the bailout as possible to help the country’s poorest citizens.

The next Greek government must approve the farmer tax overhaul in October — or offer credible alternatives — in return for bailout funds.


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