ATHENS Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said on Wednesday he was willing to talk to protesting farmers over pension reform but said it was essential to overhaul the system to ensure Greeks could continue to receive pensions.
Greeks are furious over the plans, which will entail increased social security and tax payments for many groups of workers, and the farmers swiftly rebuffed Tsipras' offer of talks, pledging instead to step up their blockades of highways.
Greece's leftist government has promised to reform the costly pension system as part of a multi-billion euro bailout deal with its international creditors, but Tsipras said he was ready to look at helping specific groups hurt by the changes.
"We are already doing that with the self-employed ... we are aspiring to do the same with farmers, provided they want to sit down for a dialogue to find a solution," he told a cabinet meeting.
"We have to be clear that the reform is not optional, or just a conventional obligation of the country. It is absolutely necessary for the social insurance system to have a future," Tsipras added.
Without the pensions overhaul, Greece cannot conclude a first assessment of its broader economic reforms which would pave the way for discussions on sorely needed debt relief.
Elected on a pledge to end austerity only to cave in months later, Tsipras is trying to juggle the competing demands of Greece's lenders and voters wearied by years of recession and austerity. He has a parliamentary majority of just three.
The overhaul aims to protect Greece's current pensioners, who have already endured 11 cuts to their pensions in the past five years as governments have struggled to avert bankruptcy.
Greece's central bank chief said on Wednesday the timely conclusion of the lenders' economic review was crucial, warning that delays risked derailing a projected economic recovery in the second half of 2016.
Farmers, who face a tripling of social security payments under the current pension plan, have been blockading motorways across Greece for the past three weeks and have threatened to descend on Athens with their tractors on Friday.
"We will only examine the possibility of a dialogue with the prime minister if he rescinds the (pension reform) bill," said Vangelis Boutas, a representative of a farmers alliance of 65 groupings across Greece staging protests.
(Additional reporting by George Georgiopoulos, Lefteris Karagiannopoulos; Writing by Michele Kambas; Editing by Gareth Jones)