Greece promised to slash its deficit in a 2012 budget unveiled Friday thanks to a planned debt deal with banks, but warned of a deeper than expected recession next year as austerity measures bite.
The blueprint was published as auditors from the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund discussed releasing desperately needed foreign loans with the new unity government in Athens.
The budget forecast that Greece's public deficit would drop to 5.4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2012 from 9.0 percent this year, an ambitious target given the previous forecast for next year of 6.8 percent.
The coalition government led by former ECB deputy chief Lucas Papademos also estimated that the economy would shrink next year by 2.8 percent, a deeper contraction than the 2.5 percent previously forecast.
Nevertheless, that would represent an improvement from the expected 5.5 percent contraction in 2011, the third year of recession.
Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos said he hoped lawmakers would approve the budget before an EU summit on December 9, an indication of the cabinet's determination to appease its creditors as bankruptcy looms.
He also said no new austerity measures were needed beyond those agreed by the previous government -- but those deeply unpopular reforms, including slashing the public sector and overhauling the tax system, still had to be forced through.
Many Greeks are already at breaking point after two years of measures including sweeping pay cuts and tax rises. More than 40,000 people joined protests against the measures on Thursday in Athens and Thessaloniki.
The estimated deficit figures would put Greece well within the goals agreed with its EU and IMF creditors, after it missed its 7.4 percent target by a long shot this year, but they are highly dependent on a still shaky debt deal.
Eurozone leaders agreed with the banks last month to write off 50 percent of Greek debt as part of a second rescue plan which also provides Athens with 100 billion euros in loans and 30 billion euros to recapitalise its banks.
The man leading the talks on behalf of the banks, Institute of International Finance chief Charles Dallara, said Thursday he hoped to reach agreement on the details of the deal, worth 100 billion euros, within weeks.
Venizelos said he hoped all of Greece's private creditors would sign up to one of two or three models being hammered out.
"We will do all we can," he added.
According to the budget, the government's debt interest payments will fall to 12.75 billion euros in 2012 following the debt deal, from 16.38 billion euros this year. Without the agreement, the payments would rise to 17.9 billion.
Papademos' new government of socialists, conservatives and a small far-right party is in a race against time to implement measures demanded by the EU and IMF.
Their most pressing need is to get the release of eight billion euros in loans frozen since August, funds that must be delivered by December 15 to stop Greece going bust.
The sum, part of a 110-billion-euro bailout agreed in May 2010, has been held up by delays in the implementation of reforms and a political crisis.
Two of the three coalition parties are still resisting one demand from the EU, that they sign a pledge committing to the reforms. They argue Wednesday's vote of confidence in Papademos, carried by 255 votes to 38, was commitment enough.
Speaking before his talks Friday with the so-called troika of the ECB, the EU and the IMF in Athens, Venizelos said they would centre on "the political framework". The troika would also meet the three party leaders on Saturday, he added.
Papademos will discuss the deadlock with EU President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso in Brussels on Monday, and then with eurozone leader Jean-Claude Juncker in Luxembourg on Tuesday.
Source: AFP Global Edition