Germany's Angela Merkel arrived in Greece on her first visit since Europe's debt crisis erupted here three years ago, braving protests to deliver a message of support — but no new money — to a nation hammered by recession and fighting to stay in the euro.
Thousands of Greeks defied a ban on protests, gathering in Syntagma square in central Athens as Merkel's plane touched down. Two protesters dressed in German military uniforms waved a red-black-and-white swastika flag and held out their arms in the Nazi salute.
Many Greeks blame Merkel for forcing painful cuts on Greece in exchange for two EU-IMF bailout packages totaling over 200 billion euros.
Police have readied 6,000 officers, including anti-terrorist units and rooftop snipers, to provide security during the six-hour visit. German sites in the Greek capital, including the embassy and Goethe Institute, are under special protection.
Merkel was given the red carpet treatment and full military honors at Athens airport. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras greeted her with a handshake as she exited the German air force jet. A band played the German and Greek national anthems.
In the centre of Athens, the reception was less warm. On Syntagma square, banners read "Merkel out, Greece is not your colony" and "This is not a European Union, it's slavery."
"We don't want her here. Merkel go home!," said Maria Dimitriou, a 40-year-old unemployed woman who travelled to Athens from southern Greece to protest. "They've turned our lives into hell."
After steering clear of Greece for the past five years, Merkel decided to visit for several reasons.
She wants to show support for Samaras, a fellow conservative, as he struggles to impose more cuts on a society fraying at the edges after five years of recession.
At a joint appearance before the press in the afternoon, she is expected to confirm her desire to keep Greece in the eurozone, after members of her government flirted with the idea of an exit earlier this year.
With a year to go until Germany holds an election, Merkel also hopes to neutralize opposition criticism that she has neglected Greece and contributed to its woes by insisting on crushing budget cuts.
"Her visit to Athens is primarily about political positioning, and the opportunity to clarify her position on Greece," said Alex White, an analyst at JPMorgan.
RISK OF VIOLENCE
Teachers, doctors and other public employees stopped work on Tuesday in a gesture of protest, while trade unions and opposition political parties took to the streets, risking confrontation with police.
Demonstrations in Athens have a habit of turning violent, hijacked by radicals armed with petrol bombs and rocks ripped from the streets.
Greece is in talks with its "troika" of lenders — the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund — on the next tranche of a 130-billion-euro ($170-billion) loan package, its second bailout since 2010.
Without the 31.5-billion-euro tranche, Greece says it will run out of money by the end of November.
Many Greeks say they cannot take more of the wage cuts and tax hikes that have left a quarter of the workforce jobless and slashed the country's economic output by a fifth.
Ties between the Germany and Greece run deep. Thousands of Greeks came to Germany after World War Two as "guest workers" to help rebuild the shattered country and more than 300,000 Greeks currently reside there.
But relations are also clouded by the atrocities Greeks suffered at the hands of the Nazis during World War II.
Samaras' own great grandmother committed suicide when she saw Nazi tanks rolling down the streets of Athens after Germany occupied Greece, flying the swastika flag from the Acropolis.
Greek President Karolos Papoulias, whom Merkel will also meet on Tuesday, fought against the German Wehrmacht as a teenager, before fleeing to Cologne to escape persecution by the Greek military dictatorship.
The crisis has revived long-dormant animosities, with Greek protesters burning effigies of Merkel in Nazi gear and German media playing up images of lazy Greeks keen for German cash.
Relations hit a post-war low early this year when Merkel's finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, likened Athens to a "bottomless pit" and proposed imposing a European "Sparkommissar" on Greece to control its finances.
In addition to her meetings with Samaras and Papoulias, Merkel is also due to meet with Greek business representatives.
The timing of the visit, showing Merkel very publicly with the new premier, suggests growing trust in the Greek leadership under Samaras, after a litany of broken promises and stalled reforms under the previous administration.
But she is not expected to offer him any concrete promises of aid or other concessions before the "troika" publishes its latest assessment of Greece's reform progress by early November.
"The average German voter is irritated at the thought of dispatching more taxes or savings to feckless southerners, yet is desperate for the respect and goodwill to Germany that comes from public displays of magnanimity," said David Marsh, chairman of think tank OMFIF. "When Merkel flies to Athens, she's showing she's in charge, and she cares.
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