Greece used emergency powers to order garbage crews back to work Tuesday to remove 17 days worth of rotting trash from the streets of Athens, as a campaign of strikes escalated against austerity measures to be voted on this week.
Socialist Prime Minister George Papandreou issued the civil mobilization orders, generally used for national emergencies and rarely required to solve labor disputes, as the country braced for the protests to culminate in a general strike on Wednesday and Thursday.
"I would like to ask all those who occupy ministry buildings, choke the streets with garbage, close off ports, close off the Acropolis, if this helps us stand on our feet again — of course it does not," Papandreou told parliament.
The general strike is expected to ground flights and halt most public services, and unions plan to disrupt a vote in parliament Thursday to pass among the toughest austerity measures since Greece's financial crisis began two years ago.
The highly unpopular new measures include tax hikes, further pension and salary cuts, the suspension on reduced pay of 30,000 public servants out of a total of more than 750,000, and the suspension of collective labor contracts.
The crisis has already taken a heavy toll on jobs. Unemployment in July rose to 16.5 percent, from 16 percent in June and 12 percent a year earlier, according to the national statistical authority. The total number of unemployed exceeded 820,000.
Meanwhile, European countries are trying to work out a broad solution to the continent's deepening debt crisis, ahead of a weekend summit in Brussels.
"The situation is exceptionally difficult, because there is great uncertainty in Europe, great uncertainty internationally," Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos said at a meeting with the country's president, Karolos Papoulias. "People ... are making big sacrifices. We are carrying out a patriotic duty because we have to save the country."
Venizelos also tempered expectations for reaching a definitive deal on a second rescue package for Greece at a European Union summit this weekend. The second bailout, worth €109 billion, was initially agreed in July, but crucial details remain to be worked out.
"We must not have great expectations for Sunday's summit," Venizelos said. "We will seek what is best for the country and the eurozone. Everyone understands that if Greece is saved, the eurozone will be saved too. And the reverse is also true: if the Europeans fail on Greece, they will not be able to safeguard themselves."
Railway workers and journalists joined ferry crews, tax officials and lawyers on Tuesday in the strike blitz against the austerity measures.
Greece's embattled Socialist government needs to pass the new measures — which some of its own backbenchers have threatened to block — to receive the next €8 billion ($11 billion) installment of the original €110 billion package of international rescue loans that have been keeping the nation afloat since May 2010.
"It must be understood that we are fighting a war here," the finance minister said. "If some people think that we live under normal circumstances and we are implementing a policy we want to implement of cutbacks and austerity, they are very much mistaken."
Greece, still frozen out of long-term borrowing markets, on Tuesday successfully auctioned €1.62 billion worth of 13-week treasury bills. The country had to offer buyers a slightly higher yield, 4.61 percent compared with 4.56 percent at the previous sale last month. Investor interest was slightly higher, with the auction 2.86 times oversubscribed.
The government has said it will run out of cash in mid-November if the next bailout loan installment is not forthcoming.