Greek farmers ramp up motorway blockade over pension reforms

AFP – Greek farmers on Tuesday stepped up their weeks-long protest against proposed pension reforms by setting up a blockade around the main north-south motorway, splitting the country in two.

Since mid-January, farmers have used their tractors to block dozens of highways. Earlier this month they also began blockading border crossings to Bulgaria and Turkey.

Their disruption of key commercial traffic is aimed at piling pressure on leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to review its pension reform plans.

His government has announced plans to lower the maximum pension to 2,300 euros ($2,500) from 2,700 euros currently, and introduce a new minimum guaranteed basic pension of 384 euros.

Farmers are also angry about plans to scrap benefits such as income tax breaks and cheaper fuel.

The reforms are part of the country’s efforts to cut 1.8 billion euros in costs as demanded by its creditors in return for Greeces latest international bailout.

The tractor blockade, a tactic the farmers have used previously, comes ahead of a major demonstration scheduled in Athens on Friday by other unions and groups opposed to the pension plans.

Calling for dialogue, government spokeswoman Olga Gerovassili criticised the “political exploitation” of the protests by opposition politicians on both the left and right.

She said the pension reforms would go to parliament for a vote “in around four weeks” after the government and the creditors reach “an honourable compromise” on the plans.

The farmers’ protest has angered Greece’s neighbours, causing long traffic tailbacks at the border.

On Tuesday, disgruntled truck drivers in Bulgaria formed human chains at the Kulata border checkpoint with Greece in protest.

“The drivers can’t cope anymore. For 10 years, Greek farmers have been blocking this European border with impunity every winter,” Krassimir Lalov of the Bulgarian association of road transport unions told AFP.

Bulgarian Transport Minister Ivailo Moskovski called on the European Union to create a “permanent transport corridor through Greece for Bulgarian truck drivers.”

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