By George Georgiopoulos
ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece's new finance minister on Saturday pledged to carry out reforms and privatizations demanded under its latest financial rescue in an attempt to regain credibility with international partners stumping up money to keep the country afloat.
In his first policy speech since taking office, respected economist Yannis Stournaras reiterated the government's plan to ask lenders for an additional two years to implement deficit cutting measures, citing a deeper-than-expected recession.
But he also warned of a tough road ahead in convincing the so-called troika of European Union, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank lenders to give Greece more time and money.
"The negotiations will not be quick - they will be long and arduous," he told parliament during a debate ahead of a confidence vote on the government on Sunday.
"Additional time is required because the recession was bigger than expected. The extension means someone will have to give us more money and this is not simple."
He warned the near-bankrupt country risked a great deal if it failed to hit the targets it had signed up to.
"Greece must carry out the measures that it has already voted on as part of its 2012 budget so that it moves towards the targets it has committed to and to avoid losing more of its credibility and risk the next aid tranche," he said.
Faced with public anger and an emboldened opposition, Greece's new conservative-led government has promised to push for changes to a deeply unpopular 130 billion euro ($162.6 billion) bailout deal keeping the country away from bankruptcy.
But that has set it on course for a showdown with its increasingly impatient lenders, whose inspectors this week began their first visit to Athens since the government took office.
FOCUS ON PRIVATISATIONS
Athens, due to run out of cash in weeks without further aid, has already conceded that it has fallen behind agreed targets and euro zone officials have warned the country will get no further aid until it gets back on track with reforms.
Seeking to soothe some of those concerns, Stournaras said Greece was committed to carrying out an ambitious privatization plan, albeit with a delay due the elections, as well as structural reforms including cutting red tape, liberalizing the economy and improving efficiency in the justice system.
The privatization agency will accept Greek government bonds as payment in a bid to encourage investment, he said.
"Privatizations are the main pillar of structural reforms and a central lever of growth for the economy through investments, and hence a top priority for the government."
He also pledged to turn around the economy through use of EU funds and efforts to boost competitiveness. He also noted some initial signs of hope for Greece's tottering banking system, confirming a "significant" return of deposits since the June 17 election.
Greeks had withdrawn billions of euros in the run-up to the vote on fears that a leftist victory would push the country of the euro zone.
FAR RIGHT IN PARLIAMENT
Earlier on Saturday, Socialist leader Evangelos Venizelos also pressed the government's case for additional time to implement austerity cuts at a meeting with the troika officials visiting Athens.
Venizelos, whose PASOK party is one of three in Greece's coalition government, negotiated the bailout when he was finance minister in an earlier government, but has since called for three more years to implement cuts included in the rescue plan.
Inspectors from the troika are due to leave Athens in the coming days after holding meetings with ministers in the new government, and are expected to return later in the month for discussions on Greece's progress in meeting its targets.
On Friday, in his first policy speech since taking office, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said his aim was not to demand a change of the goals set in the bailout deal, but in the austerity policies imposed to meet them.
A Metron Analysis opinion poll published by weekly newspaper Ependytis on Saturday showed Greeks are equally split on whether the country should stick to the bailout terms or ditch them.
The poll showed 48 percent were in favor of sticking with the bailout and efforts to improve it, while another 48 percent felt it should be renounced for having failed.
Saturday's parliamentary debate also saw the leader of the far-right Golden Dawn address parliament for the first time, prompting Communist and radical leftist Syriza lawmakers to leave the chamber in protest.
The party, which denies it is neo-Nazi but whose members are known to give Nazi-style salutes, kept up its fiery rhetoric against immigrants, politicians and the bailout program.
"Golden Dawn is against the bailout because it is against ceding national sovereignty," Golden Dawn leader Nikolaos Mihaloliakos said. "Privatising strategic sectors of the economy is unacceptable; we must not sell even one meter of national land to foreigners."
(Writing by Deepa Babington; Editing by Pravin Char)