By George Georgiopoulos
ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece's economy is inching towards recovery, Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras said on Thursday before a visit by foreign lenders and as unemployment registered its first quarterly fall in almost four years.
The country's battered economy expanded from April to June on a quarterly basis for the first time since its crisis erupted four years ago, Stournaras said, citing government estimates.
"Signs of a recovery are now evident," he told a privatisations conference in Athens.
Stournaras was referring to government estimates of seasonally adjusted GDP figures, which the country's statistics agency ELSTAT does not report. Based on unadjusted ELSTAT data released this month, the economy shrank 3.8 percent year-on-year in the second quarter.
Greece hopes that a return to growth after six years of recession will boost government revenues and help Athens avoid further, painful austerity measures to meet the fiscal targets under its international bailout.
The trio of European Union, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank lenders begin an inspection on Sunday to assess compliance with reforms and how much further financing Athens will need before it regains market access.
Encouraged by the latest GDP figures, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has urged lenders to not demand any more cuts to jobs, wages and pensions onto Greeks struggling through the country's worst crisis in decades.
The crisis has led to many street protests, some violent. It has contributed to the rise of a far-right group, Golden Dawn, which was being blamed on Thursday for having links with the killer of an anti-racism rapper.
Civil servants, meanwhile, were on the second day of a 48-hour strike to protest planned layoffs as part of the bailout.
Stournaras told Reuters earlier on Thursday he expected the economy to shrink by about 3.8 percent in the full year, less than a 4.2 contraction projected by the EU and the IMF.
But he stopped short of saying that the country was already out of its six-year recession.
"Indicators are showing a trend in the Greek economy, towards a smaller recession and slowly towards recovery," he said.
Jobless data released on Thursday seemed to confirm that the economy might be bottoming out. Unemployment dropped in the second quarter for the first time in almost four years, boosted by a bumper tourism season.
But the jobless rate dropped only slightly, to 27.1 percent in the second quarter from a record 27.4 percent in the previous three-month period.
Employment in hotels and restaurants rose by 11 percent from the previous quarter, to 256,300 employees, the data showed.
Youth unemployment - the rate among those aged 15-24 who are not students or doing military service - is 59.0 percent.
(Additional reporting by Harry Papachristou Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)