Hundreds of Cypriot electricity workers clashed with police on Monday in the first serious strike action protesting a public utility privatization plan stipulated by a bailout program introduced 11 months ago.
Electricity Authority employees skirmished with police outside the parliament's building as its finance committee considered framework legislation outlining the procedure of privatizing seven out of a total of 44 state-owned organizations.
They chanted slogans such as "down with privatization", "hands off Electricity Authority" and "no to the selling off of national wealth".
They also banged on ground floor windows, forcing the committee's legislators to move their session to a second floor room.
Demonstrators hurled fire crackers and bulbs at the police, who responded with tear gas after people jumped roadblocks and rushed to the latched entrances of the building.
Privatization of public utilities, mainly telecommunications, electricity and port services, is the thorniest issue resulting from a 10 billion euros (13.75 billion U.S. dollars) bailout package Cyprus agreed with the Eurogroup and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in March 2013.
Monday's action by employees was the first serious opposition in Cyprus since it implemented the bailout terms.
In return for assistance, Cyprus was forced to wind down its second largest lender in a banking shake up and to also use 47.5 percent of uninsured deposits over 100,000 euros (137,620 U.S. dollars) to recapitalize its main bank.
Industrial action is expected to climax on Thursday, when a plenary session of parliament is scheduled to vote on the privatization legislation -- a condition for the release of 236 million euros of bailout assistance ahead of a Eurogroup meeting on March 10.
The strike is expected to be joined by electricity production workers, Cyprus Telecommunications employees and port employees this week.
Public utilities employees say selling of state property at a time of recession would amount to a sellout and fear that privatization will lead to higher rates for consumers.
Cyprus has received the thumbs up in three reviews of its bailout adjustment program by the troika, representing the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF. Troika said the Cypriot economy has performed much better than expected.
Finance Minister Haris Georgiades said the strike action risked undermining the good image international lenders have of Cyprus.
He warned that failure to enact the legislation would endanger the government's ability to finance its operations and would possibly undermine efforts to attract badly-needed foreign investment to push the economy out of stagnation.
The privatization of public utilities was included in the bailout package with a view of raising 1.4 billion euros by 2018 to keep down the public debt at a manageable level. The public debt of Cyprus has just passed the 109 percent mark of its gross domestic product. (1 euro = 1.37 U.S. dollars)