February 5, 2016 / 2:05 PM / 3 years ago

Greece and lenders want to finish review by end-Feb

ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece and its international creditors will seek to finish an assessment of bailout reforms this month to unlock new financial aid, its finance minister said on Friday, as speculation grew that talks were snagged on pensions.

Greek Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos addresses journalists during a news conference at the ministry in Athens, Greece, January 18, 2016. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

Mission chiefs of Greece’s lenders, the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and EU’s bailout fund wrapped up a first week of talks in Athens on Friday. They were expected to return to Greece around Feb. 15.

“We are all focusing our efforts on completing the review on Feb. 26-28,” said Greek Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos.

“The main thing is that they (creditors) understand the government’s commitments ... the government’s position of no cuts in pensions,” he told reporters.

Greece has promised to cut pension spending by 1 percent of GDP, or 1.8 billion euros, this year. To protect pensioners whose benefits have been cut 11 times already since 2010, the government plans to increase social security contributions by employees and employers.

Asked about progress in negotiations with the Greek authorities, EU Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis said: “discussions are constructive. We are making progress on all relevant items”, including pensions and public administration reform, he told a news conference in Brussels.

Greece’s left-led government is trying to balance lenders’ demands with the concerns of thousands of Greeks angered by the pension reforms. Farmers, who have been sporadically blocking motorways for days, have threatened to escalate their action.

Lenders are also known to have misgivings over the plan, but because they worry the government’s numbers don’t add up.

“The negotiation is tough because we (Greece and creditors) are not saying the same things,” Labour Minister George Katrougalos told Greek Antenna TV earlier on Friday.

Thousands of Greeks protested against the plan across the country on Thursday, fearing the additional contributions will push them further into poverty.

Athens wants to conclude the review swiftly to start talks on debt relief that might convince Greeks their sacrifices are paying off after six years of austerity and a deep recession that has left a quarter of the workforce unemployed.

DISPUTE SPILLOVER

The government’s standoff with professional groups has already reverberated beyond Greek borders. Long queues of trucks have formed at the northern border Greece shares with Bulgaria, stranding dozens of truckers on either side.

Bulgaria’s transport minister Ivailo Moskovski visited the border area on Friday, asking farmers to provide a clear timetable for the blockades to avoid escalating tensions.

“We insisted for a timetable when trucks will be allowed to pass,” Moskovski told reporters. Farmers said they would permit crossings for two hours every two days.

“We explained to him that we don’t have anything against them, but blocking the border crossing is the only thing we can do to make the Greek government listen to us,” said Yiannis Tourtouras, head of a committee coordinating farmers’ action in the area.

Additional reporting Francesco Guarascio in Brussels and Tsvetelia Tsolova in Sofia; Writing by Michele Kambas; Editing by Catherine Evans

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