ATHENS International lenders could return to Greece within the first 10 days of March to complete a bailout review, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said on Tuesday, a move desperately needed by Athens to move on to debt relief talks.
"We should have a clearer picture of when they will return next Monday (March 7)," Tsipras said. "My assessment is that they will return in the first 10 days of March," he told a live interview on Greece's Star TV.
Tsipras, who has a fragile parliamentary majority, wants to conclude the review swiftly to start talks on debt relief hoping to convince an angry public that their sacrifices are paying off after six years of austerity and lure back investors.
Greece signed up to a new bailout agreement worth up to 86 billion euros ($93.6 billion) last year, staving off the immediate threat of the country toppling out of the euro zone.
But differences among the lenders on an estimated fiscal shortfall by 2018, which may force the left-led government to cut pensions despite its pre-election promises, have delayed the EU/IMF mission chiefs return, casting a cloud on Tsipras' plans.
Athens puts the fiscal gap at 1 percent of economic output while EU lenders estimate it will be around 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) sees a gap of at least 4.5 percent of GDP, according to sources.
"There must be agreement among lenders so that we can progress," Tsipras said calling on the IMF to "return to realism".
Pressed on whether the assessment would be concluded in March, Tsipras answered: "I think Easter will bring a resurrection of the economy."
He did not specify if he meant Western Easter, celebrated on March 27 or the Eastern Orthodox Easter, marked on May 1.
The inspectors of all four institutions comprising the so-called "quartet" - European Commission, European Central Bank, European Stability Mechanism and IMF - will return after they reach a consensus on the projected fiscal shortfall and other fiscal targets, a source close to lenders said.
Government officials say the IMF, which has been persistent on pension cuts since Athens signed up to its first bailout, is "less cooperative" than its EU counterparts.
The IMF is also expected to decide in the second quarter of the year whether it will participate in the program Greece agreed to last summer.
($1 = 0.9186 euros)
(Writing by Michele Kambas; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)
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