Greek state finances wilt as talks with creditors grind on

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ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece has slipped back into deficit so far this year, new figures showed Monday. But the country's left-wing Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras ruled out any trouble paying public sector workers' salaries or state-backed pensions.

The central government's cash balance was 684 million euros ($723.12 million) in deficit for the first two months of the year, compared with a surplus of 139 million euros ($146.95 million) in the same period of 2014, the central bank said.

Before interest payments on debt, the so-called primary surplus for the two-month period fell to 503 million euros ($531.8 million) from 1.68 billion euros ($1.78 billion) a year ago.

Tsipras' Syriza party won elections Jan. 25 on a pledge to lighten the country's rescue loans. It also wants to slash budget surplus targets, demanded by lenders for debt repayment, arguing that they are too high for an economic recovery. The budget targets were meant to reduce debt but have also hurt the Greek economy, putting it through a savage six-year recession.

In a newspaper interview Monday, Tsipras renewed government assurances that state salaries and pensions would not be affected by the tough ongoing negotiations with bailout creditors.

"We cannot hear such things, not even as a joke," Tsipras told the Athens daily Ethnos. "There is no danger for salaries and pensions ... and no threat to bank deposits."

Tsipras' government has convinced creditors to give it a four-month extension on the bailout program, but to get the money it must still detail a list of reforms by the end of April. If creditors do not approve the reforms, they will not unlock some 7 billion euros ($7.4 billion) remaining in the loan funds.

Greece on Monday repaid a loan worth some 584 million euros ($615 million) to the International Monetary Fund, a finance ministry official told the AP. But it faces a punishing repayment schedule though the summer, leaving it dependent on the bailout cash remainder.

Technical teams from the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund — a group collectively known as the "troika," a term dropped from official use at Greek insistence — are in Athens to review Greek proposals.

"I won't hide from you that there are very many difficulties in the ongoing negotiations," Tsipras said. "There still are voices of intransigence ... The key to reaching an honorable compromise is the recognition that the previous policy of extreme austerity has failed."

Christian Schulz, a senior economist at Berenberg Bank, said the eurozone was unlikely to give into to Greek demands on the reforms measures.

"Greece and the eurozone remain in different story lines," he said. "While the eurozone thinks it has given Greece time to implement the necessary reforms to secure funding, the Greek government seems to think it has been given time to negotiate a new grand bargain with the eurozone."

In Brussels, EU Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas described Greece's situation as "serious."

"There are technical discussions underway, including discussions being held in Athens. The commission feels that right now, it's time to work, not make statements."

Uncertainty over Greece pushed shares on the Athens Stock Exchange nearly 1 percent lower in late afternoon trading, despite gains across Europe.



Bank of Greece figures:


AP writer Nicholas Paphitis in Athens contributed


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