Europe

Greeks take a stand against unpopular property tax

Tasos Dimitriadies and his grandmother Katerina Leta
Image caption Tasos Dimitriadies and his grandmother Katerina Leta are refusing to borrow money to pay the tax

As part of the Greek government's sweeping austerity measures, property owners are facing a tax which, if not paid within 80 days, means their electricity will be cut off. Chloe Hadjimatheou reports from Athens.

The deadline is approaching for Greeks who have not yet paid a new property tax attached to their electricity bills. Many could lose their power supply by the end of the month; others have been given until January to pay up.

Such is the resentment towards the austerity levy that groups of activists have promised civil disobedience, including bypassing the electricity company to reconnect those who have been cut off.

One of those who cannot afford to pay the tax is 87-year-old Katerina Leta. She lives with her grandson, Tasos Dimitriadies, a mature student in a small apartment in north Athens.

The property has been in their family for generations but without a single income between them, they are dependent on relatives for most of their expenses.

Until now, they have never missed a payment. This month, Mr Dimitriadies has decided not to pay the electricity bill with the new property tax attached to it.

He says he cannot afford it and won't borrow the money because he is angry there is no exemption for people in his position.

"They are asking us to pay a tax that we paid when we bought the house and the constructor paid when he built the house," he tells the BBC World Service.

"Now we are being asked to pay it a third time or they will cut off our electricity. We feel we are being held hostage by the government," he says.

'Barbaric' tax

In cafes and tavernas, talk of the tax seeps into almost every conversation and many refer to it as the "haratsi", a name for the hated levy imposed on them under the Ottoman occupation.

Image caption Mayor Iraklis Gotzis is encouraging his constituents not to pay the tax

Even the union representing electricity workers at state run company DEI has called on its members to boycott the tax, describing it as "barbaric".

Some workers have said they will refuse to carry out government orders to cut the supply to households that cannot afford to pay.

Last month the electricity employees' protest took a tougher line as they plunged the Ministry of Health into darkness for a few hours in a symbolic gesture, complaining that the ministry owed DEI more than €3.8m (£3.1m, $5m), while state institutions overall owed more than €140m in unpaid electricity bills.

The Greek government further alienated itself when Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pangalos, part of the government that devised the tax, told Mega TV channel that he could not afford to pay the €7,500 (£6,250, $9,785) bill for the many properties he owned.

Activist electricians

On a local level, activists are springing up around the country.

The mayor of Nea Ionia, a relatively poor district in the north of the capital, is encouraging his constituents to take a stand.

Image caption Electrician Vangelis Avlonitis says he is prepared to reconnect anyone who is cut off

Iraklis Gotzis has set up a town hall office to offer legal aid to those who cannot pay or who take his advice and refuse to pay. Many other Greek municipalities are doing the same.

And Mayor Gotzis has gone a step further.

"Because my constituency includes so many people who cannot afford the tax, I have brought together a group of voluntary electricians who have agreed to reconnect anyone that the electricity board cuts off," he says.

"Of course, what we are doing is illegal but I consider it my duty to protect people who are being threatened with having their power cut."

One of those working with the mayor is electrician Vangelis Avlonitis.

"I have been shown how to do it by someone who works for the electricity company - obviously I cannot say who," he confides.

Business has been pretty bad since one in four of the shops along the high street - many of them his customers - closed down.

Tax avoidance

Greek Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos said the levy was being imposed on electricity bills because of widespread tax avoidance.

"It is the only measure that can be enforced immediately and produce results quickly because it does not depend on the tax collecting mechanism," he said.

And new Prime Minister Lucas Papademos decided earlier this month that the levy would not be withdrawn at the end of the year because it was "absolutely necessary to ensure that public finances did not stray from the targets set".

But he did offer some concessions, promising to seek a fairer way of excluding those unable to pay the tax, which ranges between €0.50 and €20 per square meter depending on the location of the property.

The deadline for payments was extended from 40 days to 80 days to ensure nobody would be without power for Christmas.

'Blackmail'

So far no one in Athens has been cut off but as the deadline for payments draws closer many are fearing the worst.

With a mother who has cancer and a son who is a full-time student living at home, Dimitra Koutsis struggles to make ends meet on her meagre pension.

Unable to afford the tax, she has been given another fortnight to pay up.

"I am hoping that something will change, that they will see that this is madness," she says,

"My mother has cancer and she needs to be comfortable. We even keep her medicines in the fridge so I don't know how we would manage."

Greece's highest court is considering whether the threat of withdrawing people's power supply is unconstitutional, but so far the measure seems to have been effective.

The government says it has already collected 80% of the first wave of property taxes.

"It is pure blackmail, that is what it is," says Mrs Koutsis.

"Next we will be finding taxes on our water bills and who knows where it will end."

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