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Greek coalition signals state TV deal near, to meet again

Employees stand by the windows inside the Greek state television ERT headquarters at Aghia Paraskevi suburb in Athens June 18, 2013. REUTERS
Employees stand by the windows inside the Greek state television ERT headquarters at Aghia Paraskevi suburb in Athens June 18, 2013. REUTERS

By Lefteris Papadimas and Renee Maltezou

ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece's ruling party leaders have signaled they are moving towards a compromise on the restart of state TV broadcasts and pledged to resolve a political standoff by Thursday.

A court ruling on Monday ordered the public broadcaster ERT back on air, but its screens were still black or showing color bars after Prime Minister Antonis Samaras's surprise decision a week ago to pull the plug at a few hours' notice to save money.

The risk of a snap election has significantly faded since the ruling, but Samaras and his junior coalition partners remain at odds over whether ERT should reopen as before, or continue for now in a "transitional" form with fewer staff.

After three hours of talks at Samaras's office on Wednesday, Evangelos Venizelos, head of the Socialist PASOK party, emerged to say the three leaders would reconvene on Thursday at 1730 GMT (1330 ET), and sought to dismiss fears of a new crisis over the issue.

"It was a long and tough discussion among the three leaders, a discussion that will be continued and in any event completed tomorrow," he said.

"In addition to this discussion, we are concluding a series of issues. Therefore I want to reassure every Greek that our stance is a responsible stance."

The leader of the other junior partner in the coalition, Fotis Kouvelis of the Democratic Left party which, like PASOK, was angered that it had not been consulted about ERT's closure, said the agreement governing the coalition must be updated to improve relations between the three parties.

Both leaders said public broadcasts must resume but did not repeat earlier demands for ERT to restart exactly as before, giving few clues about what form a compromise would take.

"The country must find the way out of the impasse it has reached due to the crisis," Kouvelis said.

PRESSURE TO SAVE

The government is under pressure to cut the number of state employees to show that it is serious about making the savings required under an international bailout program.

Samaras's New Democracy party says ERT, viewed by many Greeks as a source of patronage jobs for political parties, is a "typical case of ... incredible waste".

Greece's top administrative court is due to hold a follow-up hearing on ERT's closure on Thursday, but may not say until Friday whether it has confirmed or overturned the suspension of the government decree.

Samaras is due in Vienna on Thursday for a European People's Party summit, but will return before the evening meeting.

The ERT crisis exploded last week when Samaras abruptly yanked it off air, saying a new public broadcaster would restart later in a smaller, leaner form.

The resulting outrage from the two junior coalition partners, unions and journalists threatened to bring the government down, until the court suspended the closure order and Samaras offered a cabinet reshuffle and a revision of the coalition agreement to appease his allies.

Some 2,600 staff who have defied management orders to leave their studios have continued broadcasting a bootleg version over the Internet, with newscasters lamenting that the government was dragging its feet.

"We are marking the second 24 hours since the government failed to implement the court's decision," anchorwoman Alexandra Douvara said as she opened the afternoon news bulletin.

Journalists' unions tried to bring a suit against Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras and government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou, a deputy minister on media issues, for not implementing the order to reopen ERT, court officials said.

However, Greek ministers cannot be prosecuted unless parliament lifts their immunity.

(Additional reporting by Harry Papachristou and Karolina Tagaris; writing by Deepa Babington; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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