President Barack Obama is to tour Greece’s most famous ancient monument, the Acropolis, and deliver a speech to the Greek people Wednesday as he winds up the first leg of his final foreign tour as president and heads from Greece to Germany. Greece’s government has hailed Obama’s visit – the first official visit of a sitting U.S. president since a 1999 trip here by Bill Clinton – as being of massive importance. It has pinned its hopes on him persuading some of the financially stricken country’s more reluctant international creditors to grant debt relief, as well as pressuring other European countries to share more of the burden of the continent’s refugee crisis.
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While Obama was receptive to Greece’s woes and repeated his belief that debt relief is necessary, though also stressing Greece must continue implementing painful reforms it signed up to in return for successive international bailouts, it is questionable how much of this stance will also be adopted by his successor, Donald Trump, following the latter’s recent election victory.
Speaking during a joint news conference with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on the first day of his visit Tuesday, Obama explained Trump’s victory as a reaction against economic uncertainty, suspicion of elites and a desire to reign in the excesses of globalization, and said world leaders should pay attention to their citizens’ very real fears of inequality and economic dislocation.
“The more aggressively and effectively we deal with those issues, the less those fears may channel themselves into counterproductive approaches that can pit people against each other,” Obama said.
The U.S. president said he had been surprised by the Trump victory, but indicated he did not see it as a repudiation of his own policies.
Obama’s words are being watched closely by world leaders who see parallels between Trump’s election and the rise of far-right and populist movements in their own countries amid continued economic anxiety.
Tsipras himself won elections last year on what critics say was a populist platform, though one on the left of the political spectrum. He pushed his formerly small radical left party onto the forefront of Greece’s tumultuous political scene by telling Greeks weary from six years of financial crisis and falling living standards that he would reject austerity measures imposed in return for the country’s bailouts.
But after the near collapse of negotiations with Greece’s creditors, other European countries using the euro currency, and the International Monetary Fund _ Tsipras performed a political about-face, signing up to a new bailout and more austerity to prevent his country being forced out of the euro.
Speaking during Tuesday’s news conference, Tsipras said he had refrained from criticizing Trump after his election win, although he had made critical comments during the election campaign.
“Let me point out that it was one thing that we knew about Donald Trump when he was seeking to become the candidate for the Republican Party, another thing during the election period, and now that he is the President-elect, and it’s quite another when he will be the president of a country that is a major player, a global player,” Tsipras said.
Obama is to start his final day in Greece, which he has lauded as the birthplace of democracy, with a tour of the ancient citadel of the Acropolis, topped by the 5th Century B.C. Parthenon temple. The ancient site will remain closed to the public for the day to accommodate the president’s visit.
He is then to deliver a speech to the people of Greece that is expected to touch on both the country’s efforts to emerge from its financial crisis, and on its role in dealing with hundreds of thousands of refugees who have crossed Greece’s borders on their way to more prosperous European countries. A reluctance by many other EU countries to host refugees has left more than 60,000 people stranded in Greece, many living in poor conditions in massively overcrowded camps dotted across the country.
On Tuesday, Obama acknowledged the impact of the financial crisis on Greece, which has wiped out a quarter of its economy and led to unemployment rates of above 25 percent.
“I know this has been a painful and difficult time, especially for Greek workers and families, pensioners and young people. This crisis is not an abstraction, but has had a very concrete and devastating impact on the lives and livelihoods of millions of people across this country,” Obama said. In a boost to Greek efforts to argue for debt relief, he added: “I’ve been clear from the beginning of this crisis that in order to make reforms sustainable, the Greek economy needs the space to return to growth and start creating jobs again. We cannot simply look to austerity as a strategy.”
Security has been draconian in Athens during Obama’s stay, with more than 5,000 police deployed, a ban on public gatherings and demonstrations in swathes of central Athens and near his seaside resort hotel, along with shutdowns of roads and subway stations when he has been on the move.
Despite the restrictions, riot police used tear gas and stun grenades Tuesday evening to disperse about 3,000 left-wing demonstrators protesting the visit after they tried to enter an area off-limits to gatherings. Police made at least four arrests and said one woman was slightly injured in the clashes, which took place far from Obama’s meetings.