By Renee Maltezou and David Stamp
ATHENS (Reuters) - Greek political leaders say the nation must accept yet more punishing austerity or face a social explosion, but after a night of violence and destruction in Athens, some people fear this explosion may already be about to begin.
Trade union leader Ilias Iliopoulos condemned the mayhem in which buildings burned across Athens as parliament debated new budget cuts but said the government had to listen to the people.
"People sent a message yesterday: Enough is enough! They can't take it any more," Iliopoulos, general secretary of public sector union ADEDY, told Reuters.
"The social explosion will come one way or another, there is nothing they can do about it any more."
Prime Minister Lucas Papademos has repeatedly told his people that however much the budget cuts ordered by Greece's international lenders hurt, the alternative was far worse.
He says Greece must avoid going bankrupt at all costs next month when it has to meet 14.5 billion euros in debt repayments, and the only way to achieve this is to accept the tough terms of the bailout offered by the European Union and IMF.
"A disorderly default would set the country on a disastrous adventure," Papademos told parliament. "It would create conditions of uncontrolled economic chaos and social explosion."
"The country would be drawn into a vortex of recession, instability, unemployment and protracted misery and this would sooner or later lead the country out of the euro," he added.
However, much of this is already happening. Greece has entered its fifth year of recession, unemployment is over 20 percent and life for many Greeks is undoubtedly miserable following big pay and pension cuts - with more to come.
Likewise, it is hard to argue Greece remains stable. As parliament responded to the prime minister's appeals by endorsing the austerity bill early on Monday, protesters fought pitched battles with riot police outside.
By morning, shocked Athens residents gathered outside the burnt shells of buildings, speaking quietly and photographing the rubble-strewn wrecks with their mobile phones.
"It is very likely that such protests will be repeated because people are very angry," Vassilis Korkidis, head of the Greek Commerce Confederation, told Reuters.
City authorities said 93 buildings were wrecked or seriously damaged. Some were much-loved, such as the Attikon cinema that was housed in a neo-classical building dating from 1870.
Workers cleared barricades while cleaning crews collected an estimated 40 tonnes of shattered marble and stone from the streets and pavements.
The riots were the worst since 2008 when the police shot dead a 15-year-old schoolboy, provoking weeks of violence.
Mary Bossis, professor of International Security at the University of Piraeus, said the trouble, which also provoked less serious incidents in towns and cities across Greece, was merely a taste of things to come.
"It's not over yet," she told Reuters. "On the contrary, this was just the beginning. We will see more."
At the moment relatively small numbers of people get involved in violent protests, many of them young but sometimes led by older, radical intellectuals.
They organize using electronic media including websites which are easy for anyone to monitor. "These people are talking openly, they are not hiding at all, but the state is not listening," said Bossis. "If they listened they would know that this was only the beginning and that they want to continue."
While Athens has a long-standing radical community, the riots of the past 24 hours were marked by groups from the provinces converging on the capital to take on the police.
Injuries were numerous but largely not serious, unlike in May 2010 when three bank workers died in their burning office.
"What scares me is that this kind of organized operation may lead to murders. It doesn't surprise me, it just scares me," said Bossis.
With youth unemployment around 50 percent, young Greeks face a particularly bleak future as political leaders say the country will endure a decade of hardship.
What remains unclear is whether mainstream Greeks will join the radicals in resisting the austerity violently.
Leftists believe a general uprising is under way. "The Greek people, regardless of ideology, have risen," said 89-year-old Manolis Glezos, a hero of Greek resistance to the Nazi occupation of World War Two, during the disturbances.
Many seem exhausted by more than two years of political, social and economic chaos. They lead stressful lives, constantly worrying about losing their job - if they have one - and how they can cope with tax increases on top of pay and pension cuts.
Greeks are often bewildered, unable to understand what good the torment they are going through will achieve.
"I wouldn't mind paying for the next two years if I knew austerity would take us somewhere," said Leto Papadopoulou, 32, a civil servant whose monthly pay has been almost halved to 900 euros. "But this crisis seems endless. In 10 years from now, I will be a lost cause for the labor market," she told Reuters as she watched a recent protest.
Those who argue that the deal with the EU and IMF has saved the country from a social explosion, rather than hastened it, say that chaos among the general population could have come in the form of panic rather than violence.
"Just imagine the state of chaos that Greece would have been in today," former minister Adonis Georgiadis, who defied his far-right party to vote for the package, told Mega TV.
"Just imagine if the loan agreement had not passed, we would have thousands of people outside banks trying to get their money, thousands of people rushing to the supermarkets."
If Greece were to suffer a major breakdown of law and order, the government would need an absolutely loyal police force. Riot police has fought countless battles with protesters in the past few years, but its biggest union said the force also had its limits of tolerance.
"We refuse to stand against our parents, our brothers, our children," the Greek Police Federation said.
(Additional reporting by Harry Papachristou and Tatiana Fragou Editing by Maria Golovnina)