Athens Digest 20.04.2018

• PM’s office tells ministers to speed up prior actions as Tsakalotos takes temperature at IMF

• Conservatives maintain strong lead, polls show

• Gas grid sale approved for EUR535 million

• Protests on Lesvos as migrants face two-tier regulations

• UNICEF terminates its arrangements with its National Committee in Greece

# Dimitris Liakos, a close aide to the prime minister, has told cabinet colleagues involved in bailout negotiations to speed up work related to finalising the rescue programme. In a bluntly-worded e-mail, Liakos warned that there was “no room” for delays in preparing the blitz of prior actions required by lenders. Earlier, speaking at a tax conference, Liakos conceded it was unlikely the government would be able to roll out promised tax cuts in 2019. The tax season was officially launched yesterday with the government portal opening for annual declarations.
Meanwhile Euclid Tsakalotos has travelled to Washington to gauge the willingness of European lenders and the IMF to narrow differences on Greek debt relief. The Finance Minister will meet tomorrow with Christine Lagarde. Lagarde yesterday praised progress made under the Greek programme, noted that there was still more work to be done on reforms, and insisted that the IMF was not pressing for more austerity.

# Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ New Democracy party has maintained a strong lead in an opinion new poll over Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ governing Syriza. The Pulse tracking poll for Skai television gave the conservatives a 10-point advantage in its vote projection, roughly unchanged over the past six months, while New Democracy last led since early 2016. The Socialists kept third place, ahead of Golden Dawn, while junior coalition partner Independent Greeks remained below the 3-percent threshold. A second poll, by the Alco research firm for news website News24/7 gave New Democracy a 4.7-point advantage (Alco had reported a 4.9 percent gap in tis previous poll last February). According to this poll, it is the Golden Dawn which keeps the third place, slightly ahead of Movement for Change.

# Privatization agency HDRAF has approved a bid worth EUR535 million for the sale of a 66 percent stake in natural gas grid operator DESFA by the consortium made of Italy’s Snam SpA, Spain’s Enagas Internacional, and Fluxys SA of Belgium. The offer was also backed by Desfa stakeholder Hellenic Petroleum, which called a board meeting to provide formal approval next month. On Wednesday, Greece launched an international tender to sell a majority stake in Hellenic Petroleum.

# Migrants and refugees on Lesvos have staged sit-ins for a third day in the island’s main town to protest overcrowding at the Moria refugee camp. The protesters ignored a plea from the island’s mayor to move away from a square in the main town of Mytilene to allow in municipal cleaning crews. The protests were launched after Greece’s top administrative court ruled that new arrivals would be free to travel to the Greek mainland but that those who traveled before the court decision could be forced to remain. In parliament, the government submitted draft legislation aimed at streamlining migrant processing regulations, including new ruled to provide better protection for unaccompanied minors.

# UNICEF announced that it is terminating its arrangements with its present National Committee in Greece due to concerns arising out of a recent independent audit. UNICEF said that critical work with migrant and refugee children in Greece will be continued as part of the refugee and migrant response plan supported through the Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia, in collaboration with the Government of Greece and other civil society partners.

On our Radar: Turkish ‘plotter’ released
A high court has ordered the release of a Turkish servicemen branded as a coup plotter in Ankara, ruling that he would not have to remain in custody while awaiting the result of his asylum application. The man was to be denied access to travel documents and was ordered to report daily to his local police station. Though his release was sanctioned under strict conditions, similar orders are expected to follow for seven other soldiers who fled to Greece in a military helicopter hours after the failed coup in 2016. Turkey has repeatedly requested their return to stand trial but extradition requests have been rejected in Greek courts _ adding tension to relations between Athens and Ankara.