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Greece: Numbers improve, problems worsen in 2014

Thursday - 1/2/2014, 3:56am  ET

Homeless people hold yogurts as they leave a New Year's meal for the homeless organized by the municipality of Athens, Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014. Homelessness has increased dramatically during the financial crisis in Greece, which has depended on international rescue loans for more than three years. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

DEREK GATOPOULOS
Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece (AP) -- Greece assumes the presidency of the European Union Wednesday, starting 2014 with a promise by the government to pull the country out of a six-year recession, keep a balanced budget, and effectively end a financial crisis that rattled the euro.

"In 2014, Greece will return to the markets and start to become a normal country again," Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said in a televised New Year's address. "After six unending, painful years, 2014 will herald the prospect of growth ... What's important is that we've avoided the worst."

But have they?

With most of the 240 billion euros ($330 billion) in bailout loans already paid out, Greece still has an unsustainably high national debt, faces the threat of renewed political instability, and has more than one-in-four jobless and steadily sliding into poverty.

Greeks greeted the New Year after many spent hours lining up in tax offices to pay austerity levies on time. And heavy smog has returned to the country's capital after decades this winter as households left with no heating throw scrap wood and garbage onto the fireplace to try to keep warm.

Here's a look at some of Greece's most pressing problems:

NO JOB, NO INSURANCE

Greece's financial tailspin wiped out nearly a quarter of its economy and roughly a million jobs. From 7.2 percent before the recession in 2008, unemployment exploded, reaching 27 percent in the third quarter of 2013, giving Greece the worst job rating among the 34 advanced economies in the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

More than 70 percent of the unemployed have been out of work for more than a year, leaving most to rely on charity after losing monthly benefit payments and health insurance.

"It's inconceivable that someone with the misfortune of having no work cannot have proper access to state health care," said George Patoulis, head of the Athens Medical Association.

Worst affected, he said, are those with chronic illnesses, unemployed parents seeking vaccinations for their newborn children, and patients in need of expensive drugs including cancer treatment.

"We estimate that about 2 million people are without health insurance, out of a total of nearly 8 million who require insurance ... and the problem looks set to continue in 2014," Patoulis said. "It's like planting dynamite under a country's public health."

BARBER'S BUREAUCRACY

Pro-bailout governments have tried to stimulate employment by slashing the minimum wage and axing long-standing labor rights and market protection rules -- liberalizing everything from truck licenses to permits for neighborhood bakeries.

But unemployment numbers continued to get worse, and critics argue the system remains bogged down in excessive bureaucracy.

Unemployed barber Spyros Priftis has been trying to open his own hair salon for nearly three years at a holiday resort on his native island of Corfu, with rules still unclear on the status of his hairdressing diploma obtained from a private college.

"It takes you five years to open up a barber shop in Greece: Two years for a diploma, two years for an apprenticeship, and one year to get your papers sorted out," the 37-year-old said.

"Five years! What am I, a heart surgeon? I just want to open a barber shop."

In desperation, Priftis began writing dozens of letters of complaint and faxing them to Greek authorities, as well as European Union finance commissioner Olli Rehn and International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Largarde.

Some of his letters got an answer. And the usually stern EU-IMF negotiators even promised to take up his case with the government during their inspections in Athens. He's still waiting for news.

POLITICAL PERIL

Greece is being run by its third pro-bailout government in two years, as unpopular austerity measures wear out public support for the parties backing them. Conservative Prime Minister Samaras heads the current coalition government and has seen his support in the 300-seat parliament dwindle in the past 18 months from 179 lawmakers to 153.

Samaras recently fell behind in the polls to the left-wing Syriza party that wants to radically renegotiate or even tear up bailout deals, arguing they have failed to deliver recovery and are socially catastrophic.

Syriza has vowed to try to topple the government at twin elections in May for local government and the European Parliament.

"In (2014) we will leave behind the decadent political establishment that left the country bankrupt, an establishment of graft and corruption," said Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras, who turns 40 this year. Surveys strongly suggest the two main parties both lack the support to govern outright.

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