Coats buttoned all the way up, woolen gloves and hats to protect them from the drizzle, Greek pensioners formed long queues in front of ATMs earlier this week, patiently waiting to withdraw a bonus payment provided by the government.
A few weeks ago, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced he would give €617 million ($644 million) to more than a 1.5 million low-income pensioners — defined as those receiving less than €850 per month — as a one-off bonus.
However, senior citizens are furious after it emerged that — despite receiving the bonus — ongoing cuts to their payments elsewhere meant their pensions had effectively fallen.
The Pensioners’ Social Solidarity Benefit they had been receiving has been cut in half, and according to the budget for 2017, it will be even lower next year.
Now the government is facing a backlash, with many pensioners angrily recalling earlier promises made by Tsipras.
Elsewhere, European creditors are not amused to find the Greek government spending money supposed intended for debt repayments.
“It has been the government’s pledge to redistribute every euro of surplus from available sources to our weaker citizens,” Tsipras had said in a live televised announcement.
“Today, staying true to this pledge, we decided on the immediate redistribution of the outperformance of 2016 revenues to low-income pensioners,” the Greek premier added.
Dimitris Rapidis, a political analyst and consultant to Tsipras’s ruling left-wing SYRIZA party, explained that “this was a promise made more than a year ago — that when the government has some money, they would give back to those who need it the most”.
Last week, the bill containing the one-off bonuses plus VAT deductions for some northern Aegean islands heavily affected by the refugee crisis, was passed by parliament.
“There are no secondary thoughts, it is not part of a pre-election giving, it is part of a commitment made by the government a while ago,” Rapidis told Anadolu Agency, brushing aside rumors of a snap election in the first months of 2017.
Greeks have experienced a lot of cuts in their pensions in recent years as part of austerity policies and reforms which followed the economic crisis.
According to a law voted passed in May, which will be fully implemented in 2017, those who will retire next year will receive reduced pensions — sometimes getting 10 to 30 percent less than the amount they would have got had they retired in 2016.
“Me and my wife’s pensions were cut down by 30 percent,” Miltiades Kaukaletos, 71, a former pharmacist from Exarcheia, Athens, told Anadolu Agency.
“The people should not serve the state, on the contrary, the state should serve the people. Unfortunately, in this case, the state is killing its people,” the silver-haired pensioner said, sipping Greek coffee at a coffee shop in his hometown.
“Unfortunately, in Greece, there is this norm that pensioners are third-class citizens,” he said, adding that “Tsipras is simply afraid to take other measures to generate income; pensioners are an easy target”.
Kaukaletos is one of many angry pensioners who find Tsipras’ bonus “ridiculous”.
“The Prime Minister is trying to placate us through this bonus, but in reality he will just take more measures in the future to take that money back,” he said.
Last week, more than 5,000 angry pensioners hit the streets of Athens in protest, describing the bonus as demeaning. They marched all the way to the prime minister’s office, chanting against the cuts their incomes have suffered.
“We do not owe that money to anyone, we worked all our lives to deserve it,” Dimos Koumpouris, head of the Social Insurance Pensioners campaign group, told Anadolu Agency.
“We demand that we get back all the money that has been cut. It is unbelievable that they cut the supplementary pensions, the Christmas and Easter bonuses, and so much more, and now they give some of us a one-off allowance,” he said.
However, pensioners are not the only ones reacting negatively to the Christmas bonus. When the government announced its plan to use some money of this year’s surplus to give back to the people, European creditors were shocked.
Amid reports that Greece’s lenders have frozen negotiations for debt relief, due to Tsipras’ “unilateral decision”, Rapidis described the situation as a “misunderstanding”.
“No Eurogroup decided to pause the negotiations, this was an individual proposal by some EU members,” he said. “The Greek government had previously informed Europe of its plans to use part of the surplus towards vulnerable social groups.”
According to numbers provided by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), in 2012 almost 20 percent of Greece’s population was elderly when the average for the rest of the EU countries, at the same time, was 18 percent.
As for 2013, Eurostat data show that almost a quarter of Greeks benefited from at least one pension while Greece was the highest spending country on pensions in comparison to its GPD.
Greece is currently in its third bailout program provided by European creditors.
OECD data also suggest that the country has a government debt of more than 180 percent of its GDP and almost a quarter of the citizens are currently unemployed.
While Christmas is approaching and expenses rise, agitated pensioners continue to demand they receive full pensions instead of allowances. “We want all of our money back, this bonus is a mockery,” Koumpouris fumed.