Greek Foreign Policy: Drilling into Europe's Patience

Novinite Insider | Author: Angel Petrov |February 2, 2015, Monday // 12:04
Bulgaria: Greek Foreign Policy: Drilling into Europe's Patience Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, an expert in game theory, is seen here probably meditating on the next move following a meeting with the Eurogroup's chief at the Finance Ministry in Athens, Greece, January 30 2015. Photo by EPA/BGNES

Strangely enough for many observers, the leftist SYRIZA party and its leader, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, did not stop surprising its European partners after ascending to power in Greece. But how should this rhetoric be interpreted? Novinite is having a look at two of the "pillars" of Greek foreign policy in the past week - its push to change bailout terms and an apparent "sympathy" for Russia.

A 'German-Style' Debt Haircut?

For another time in the past years of a debt crisis rocking Greece, a government in Athens has managed to turn the country's internal matters into an international - and  more specifically European - affair, using sharp rhetoric to apparently stand for what it sees as the independence of his country from international lenders and the conditions of international bailout. Even comparing the situation of Greece to that of Germany in 1953, back then a defeated country which had half its financial burden written off, the new PM Alexis Tsipras has struggled to convey the image of a country that will not backtrack on its demands... and yet a number of official meetings between him and European leaders this week are dedicated to the issue of Greece's bailout.

"A lot of people - including a significant part of Syriza voters - expected Mr Tsipras to start toning down his rhetoric as soon as he was elected, but that does not seem to be the case. One after the other his ministers have come out and made strong statements and pledges that they are overturning key measures required by the debt relief programme agreed with the Troika," Dr Roman Gerodimos, founder and convenor of the Greek Politics Specialist Group, has told Novinite. In his words it is yet to be seen "whether there is money to pay for the rehiring of public sector workers, the rise in pensions and the minimum wage."

His Finance Minister Varoufakis's move to declare Athens would not work with inspectors of the so-called "Troika" of lenders, who occasionally arrive in Greece for talks with government officials, was followed by reports EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker would eventually accept and end of the Troika's mission, in a move which would certainly leave the future of Greece in the hands of the EU and the European Central Bank (ECB), rather than in those of the IMF, the most "international" among the three lenders. German daily Handelsblatt reported that Berlin was also considering the option to back such a move if Greece stuck to the general terms of reform. However, European leaders seem determined not to allow any reduction of the debt, and perhaps this also contains a domestic reason, since taxpayers at home also have to be convinced.

"Selling any further haircut to EU partners will indeed be a challenge for Mr Tsipras, so one way of doing this would be for the haircut to be part of a much broader, strategic, shift in the EU's approach to the crisis, i.e. towards growth and spending, for example through further quantitative easing, investment packages etc. It certainly won't be easy," Mr Gerodimos believes.

Last week a Bloomberg article quoted Ruslan Stefanov, director of the economic program at the Center for Study of Democracy, who voiced a similar opinion. "It's very difficult to make the point to a worker in Bulgaria that they should give part of their taxes to help people in Greece who are richer than they are," he said, reminding Bulgaria's per-capita GDP for instance is three times lower than that of Greece.

In the light of a massive quantitative easing that started in Europe last week, however, the political question of "bargaining" might more easily turn into a debt relief covered in "financial stimuli", other experts say. Meanwhile US President Barack Obama made a shift in his support for EU effort to tackle the financial crisis saying that Greece needs "a growth strategy" and underlining it is hard to pursue reform "when a country's economy has contracted dramatically."

All that said, Europe is under pressure to act in support of a change in its attitude to Greece's recovery; and judging by the speed at which events have been recently occurring in Greece, political talks this week could be decisive.  

What about Russia?

Tsipras's government at first surprised EU leaders rejecting an extension of the sanctions against Russia, thus following a similar path of that of far-right Golden Dawn party, which has repeatedly maintained current EU policy on Russia contravenes national interest. Merely 24 hours later the country's Foreign Minister, Nikos Kotzias, tacitly approved the move at a Council of the EU meeting. As Kathimerini reports, Kotzias has been "accused" of having ties with Aleksandr Dugin, often described as the founder of Neo-Eurasianism and as a "Goden Dawn sympathizer". Still, Kotzias's vote at the council session was no different from that of his predecessor in the previous cabinet, with the latter being widely criticized by the new executive body over ditching relations with Russia. All this makes the first steps of Tsipras's cabinet resemble those of his predecessors, who tended to call for "softening" the EU tone on Russia, but voted in a lockstep with the majority.

A shift in Greek foreign policy "is consistent both with the profile of the new foreign minister, Prof Kotzias, who has long argued for a multipolar foreign policy, and with the first actions and statements of Mr Tsipras and his new government," Dr Gerodimos believes. Gerodimos is referring precisely to the issue of sanctions on Russia.

The new Prime Minister caught European politicians off-guard by meeting Russia's ambassador to Athens hours after being sworn in on Monday; nevertheless, it is EU destinations, such as Cyprus (a country having deep economic and cultural ties with Greece), France, UK, and Belgium (or more precisely Brussels, the heart of the EU) that have become part of Tsipras's first trip schedule as head of the government.

Asked whether receiving the Russian ambassador was a gesture of deepening ties with Russia or to infuriate Europe, Dr Gerodimos was cautious. "It may have been either or both... if the thinks that Greece has something to gain by deepening ties with Russia, he may also want to use this as a means of pressure in his negotiations with the troika of lenders."

Truly, as, Dr Gerodimos also points out, the two countries are historically and culturally close; what is more, a further closer relationship between Athens and Moscow will not "necessarily harm EU partners," he opines. Intense economic relations and Russian investment into infrastructure and energy (the latter party harmed by an earlier Bulgarian decision to ditch a multi-billion oil pipeline carrying Russian crude from the Black Sea city of Burgas to the port of Alexandroupoli) have been especially important to Athens as it has been clutching at straws to mitigate the impact of austerity. Ahead of election results, and prior to the formation of a SYRIZA-led government, a member of the leftist party gave an interview for Russian daily "Rossiyskaya Gazeta" where he praised the importance of Greece-Russia relations for both Greece and Europe.

"[T]here could be benefits for everyone involved from a closer cooperation between Russia and, indeed, Europe as a whole," Dr Gerodimos says at a time when conflicting voices could already be heard among top EU politicians, with foreign policy chief Mogherini, for instance, opining a turn in the common stance has to be considered.

So we might expect that Athens' efforts to talk European leaders into accepting Russia as a partner might fit well into the debate of whether another approach is needed against Moscow. In a Westerner's eyes, Greece is still far from the "illiberal democracy" into which the EU believes Hungary is turning. Neither is a parallel between Mr Tsipras and his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orb?n, from the point of view of Dr Gerodimos, who believes they are alike "Only to the extent that elements within Mr Tsipras' government, the coalition partner Independent Greeks in particular, also subscribe to a far right ethnonationalist ideology". If this is true (though it is still too early to draw a definitive conclusion), the EU might choose to turn a blind eye on a Greek rapprochement "in principle" with Russia if it will help the former to get back on its feet and reduce the pressure on its economy.

In another article Bloomberg also claims Tsipras's intention last week was to trade a "yes" vote on sanctions against Russia for a debt haircut. But Dr Gerodimos disagrees: "It's hard to see how such a simplistic perspective would work." Indeed the text on Bloomberg's website appeared before the vote where Greece actually approved the sanctions. But regardless of any prospective behind-the-scenes motivation, one has to note that for SYRIZA, Russia-related rhetoric and gestures were not the most distinctive point in the pre-election period. Whatever the motivation, it seems to be related not so much to a "voter-friendly" agenda, but rather to other considerations. Unlike the Bulgarian party Ataka, a notably Russophile entity which commended Tsipras on his results, good relations with Russia are not at the core of SYRIZA's platform. At the same swiftly carrying out the abovementioned activities just hours after winning an election is unmistakably a well-premeditated decision aimed at drawing foreign attention.

Time to Turn Words into Practice

The government in Athens is yet to show whether a thoroughly different, resolute approach will be applied to its standing in the EU and to the details of the bailout agreement. But the first impressions suggest Greece's new government is certainly looking at most of its actions as a bargaining chip to use in its foreign relations. It was swift to voice its determination to bring all of its promises to a successful end, and it might have a good reason to do so. Analyzing SYRIZA's platform, Bulgarian political scientist Daniel Smilov wrote in an article published by that the striking victory of this leftist group is driven by a "conservative, angry backlash of a threatened majority of median voters which sees it is losing status and privilege, losing an entire way of life which it has started to consider its own right." In Smilov's view, the move to vote en masse for SYRIZA is "a rational choice of the most appropriate instrument to carry out negotiations and ensure concessions for Greece from the EU's side... [SYRIZA] might solidify its position, but [will do so] only to test the limits of a possible compromise from the side of Brussels."

From this point of view, the government of Mr Tsipras is possibly looking at both Europe and Russia in the same way: as a testing ground. With money in the treasury running out quickly, it has limited time to put "test results" into practice.

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Tags: Syriza, Alexis Tsipras, Ataka, debt, haircut, Yanis Varoufakis, troika, Jean-Claude Juncker, Nikos Kotzias, golden dawn, Aleksandr Dugin

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