'Rock the boat' in Brussels, cry Greeks, as bailout talks begin

A protester displays his sign during an anti-austerity, pro-government demonstration outside the Greek parliament in Athens on the eve of a crucial euro zone finance minister's meeting to discuss the country's future, Feb 11, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
A protester displays his sign during an anti-austerity, pro-government demonstration outside the Greek parliament in Athens on the eve of a crucial euro zone finance minister's meeting to discuss the country's future, Feb 11, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

ATHENS (AFP) - "I live with hope. Greece has a new voice which is rocking the boat."

So says Aleka Triantafyllou, a pensioner who joined 15,000 other government supporters gathered in Athens Wednesday evening.

Young and old flocked to the capital's Syntagma square, the scene of fierce anti-austerity protests in the past, to mark the start of tense negotiations in Brussels between Greece's new leftist government and its bailout creditors.

Braving the bitter cold, children waving the blue and white national flag huddled with parents and grandparents while youths brandished banners reading "Un-f*** Greece" and "Give Greece a chance".

Finance minister Yanis Varoufakis was set to present to a Eurogroup meeting in Brussels his radical government's controversial proposals on revising a loathed EU and IMF aid plan adopted during the financial crisis.

The majority of European countries have insisted Athens must stick by its obligations and apply for an extension to the multi-billion euro bailout before the end of February - or risk defaulting on its debts and crashing out of the euro zone.

Dimitris Dagakos, an engineer in his 50s, said he was ready "to fight on the side of a government which dares to negotiate on an equal footing with our European partners, without bowing to (orders in) creditors' emails."

"Finally, a government which fights for Greece's interests," he said.

It was the second pro-government demonstration in a week, organised via Facebook, where photographs of the snow-covered city in the past few days were tagged: "Snow or rain, we'll be there."

'BRING BACK JUSTICE'

Last Wednesday, on the day the European Central Bank decided to withdraw a key borrowing option for the country's banks, some 5,000 people took to the streets to protest, shouting "no to ECB blackmail".

"It's reassuring, at least we see our leaders talking to their European counterparts and not employees of European institutions, like the Troika," said Aleka Triantafyllou, referring to the EU- IMF-ECB representatives who have been monitoring the bailout process.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, head of the ruling Syriza party, will be in Brussels on Thursday in an ambitious bid to win over a highly sceptical German Chancellor Angela Merkel and their fellow European leaders.

"In the cities of Greece and Europe people are fighting to negotiate. That's our strength," he tweeted.

More than seven in 10 Greeks approve of the new government's attempts to turn the page on austerity within the framework of a deal with the EU, according to two polls published Tuesday.

The demonstrations "show the need for a new social and political way based on the values of cooperation, solidarity and justice," deputy PM Ioannis Dragasakis said Tuesday, adding that it wasn't just Syriza voters that wanted that.

In Thessalonika, the capital of the Macedonia region in northern Greece, a separate rally under the slogan "European people all together" brought at least 5,000 demonstrators out to the monumental White Tower.

"It's time to bring back justice," said Thanassis Goumasis, a 48-year old former army man who said he did not vote for Syriza, but that the government needed all the support it could get to win over European paymaster Germany.