World and Nation

Finance minister in Greece moves from crisis to crisis

ATHENS, Greece — As he approached the end of another 16-hour workday, Evangelos Venizelos had one question on his mind: Will Europe come up with the money that Greece so desperately needs? As the new Greek finance minister, Venizelos is the man in charge of steering a nearly bankrupt economy back on track — and, perhaps, preventing another global financial crisis.

No sooner had he presided over the close passage of a new austerity bill last week, than he was contending with the growing controversy over how much money private banks would contribute by taking on more Greek debt.

And as he prepared to travel to Berlin on Wednesday to make the case to Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schauble, that Greece could fulfill its end of the bargain, Europe’s assistance was just one of the challenges that lay before him.

“This is a problem for not just Greece and Europe but for the global economy,” Venizelos said as he sank into a chair in his office late Tuesday evening.

His face was slightly pale and his eyes tired — the consequence of a relentless work pace that takes him from arm-twisting stubborn party members to support the government’s program to leading tense negotiations with Greece’s creditors in Europe.

Outside his office, protesters camp out in Syntagma Square, many criticizing the tough policies that will result in 120,000 public sector workers’ losing their jobs in the next three years.

Venizelos acknowledges the deep strains that austerity has brought to Greece, but he argues that, in spite of the rising anger, there is little appetite for new elections and a change of government.

“Yes, we have protesters on the streets, but according to the polls, the big majority of popular opinion reject the idea of early elections,” he said.

In the eyes of many, though, the Greek government’s task is a fruitless one. Greece must raise 172 billion euros by 2014 — of which 85.6 billion euros will go to paying off bondholders.

In Berlin on Wednesday, Venizelos will make the case to his European partners that via an aggressive privatization program and other reforms — like opening up closed professions as varied as truck drivers, lawyers, beekeepers and lifeguards — Greece can return to growth in 2012.

Venizelos also has the tall order of carrying out the measures.

“I have no problem about the implementation,” he said. “The problem is the financial stabilization and also the behavior of the different international factors, because we have some asymmetric threats,” he added, referring to the ratings agencies that are watching his government’s every move and every figure in its balance sheets.

Unlike his predecessor, George Papaconstantinou, who was made environment and energy minister in a cabinet shake-up last month, Venizelos has the role of deputy prime minister, which allows him to convene cabinet meetings at his request.