Worlds colliding in Greek tug-of-war

MARCH 15 — The chess-like world of European politics is fast developing a new twist in the form of an increasingly strong alliance between Russia and Greece following the election victory of left wing Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza party in the latter’s recent elections.

Put simply: Greece needs money to cover its debts and does not want to continue to avail itself to the demands of the European Union, especially Germany, which is showing little leeway in its insistence upon austerity measures to be implemented by the Greek government in return for loans.

And on the other side of the coin, Russian leader Vladimir Putin is in the position of needing every ally he can get within the European Union during his embattled nation’s ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

When you further consider that Tsipras and many of his new governmental colleagues spent their early political lives in the Greek Communist Party and therefore have a clear affiliation to the ideologies which continue to dominate Russian political thinking, it appears that an alliance between Putin and Tsipras is only natural.

Enhanced Russian/Greek relations would also act as a considered joint snub to western European powers, in particular the German leader and spiritual queen of austerity, Angela Merkel, giving both countries reason to believe — and tell the rest of the world loud and clear — that they are not alone and can manage just fine without the support of the EU.

And looking at the bigger picture, it could even act as the catalyst for a reversal in EU expansion, a trend which has dominated the European political landscape for the last couple of decades.

Greece’s example, if successful, could serve as an inspiring example to other fringe EU nations who feel undermined or unsupported by Brussels, maybe even encouraging them to look eastwards and take sides with Russia, which has seen its political clout increasingly marginalised since the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

With Tsipras having spent less than two months in office and his relationship with Putin at a tentative stage, the process is still very much in its early days but in time it could feasibly become the most significant development in European politics since the introduction of a common currency, the Euro, in 1999.

Putting to one side the diplomatic backslapping and fisticuffs between Tsipras, Putin, Merkel and co, the bigger question is how all of this will actually affect normal people.

That, too, remains to be seen. Everyday Greeks, it is clear, have been badly affected by the welfare cuts imposed by the EU’s austerity mission and it is no surprise they have decided that enough is enough and elected Tsipras to back away from those frugal spending policies.

Whether an alliance with Russia would help turn Greece’s economic corner is another matter, however.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras delivers a speech during his visit to the OECD headquarters in Paris, on March 12, 2015. — Picture by AFP
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras delivers a speech during his visit to the OECD headquarters in Paris, on March 12, 2015. — Picture by AFP

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Access to Russian money, it is true, could well allow Tsipras to implement many of the reforms he pledged during his election campaign: free healthcare and electricity for the poor; the creation of thousands of public sector jobs; scrapping an unpopular property tax.

An alliance with Russia may also give Greeks the benefit of cheaper household bills if Putin allowed subsidised access to his country’s greatest tangible and political assets: oil and natural gas.

But that does not necessarily mean it would lead to a long-term revival of the Greek economy, and it is precisely that question which lies at the centre of the disagreement between the EU and the new Greek government: to boost an economy, is it more effective to employ policies of austerity (cutting back on governmental spending to avoid the accumulation of debt) or stimulus (increasing government spending to encourage economic activity throughout the country)?

These colliding, conflicting and mutually exclusive policies represent two separate trains of thought which have been endlessly debated by economists and politicians without successful conclusion for centuries.

The problem with social science, indeed, is that unlike traditional science it does not often provide one identifiably correct answer. Whereas gravity always “works”, in social sciences such as economics there are grey areas: sometimes the best policy is austerity; at other times it is stimulus.

Greeks, for the past half-decade, have been forcibly pushed down the road of austerity. Its results have been mixed, to say the very least, and so now a significant number of the population would like to see whether stimulus works any better.

To do so, however, money is needed, and this, to return to our starting point, is where Russia comes in.

Cosying up closely to Putin would, however, be a risky strategic move for Greek leader Tsipras, whose left-leaning beliefs mean that he already lacks credibility in much of the outside world. Getting into bed with Putin, a widely discredited leader anywhere outside Russia, would further jeopardise his attempts to be taken seriously on the international stage.

And even within Greece, it would be a dangerous ploy, because many Greeks identify themselves closely with western Europe and would be aghast at the prospect of snubbing Brussels in favour of Moscow.

The state of tension within Greek society, despite Tsipras’s election victory, was evident again this week when a football match between two leading clubs, Olympiacos from the port city of Piraeus and AEK from the capital city of Athens, ended in rioting. Although Tsipras is largely popular, evidenced by his election victory, domestic support for him is by no means unanimous.

Tsipras is due to visit Moscow for his first official meeting with Putin in May; but he has other diplomatic options, with Chinese officials also ready to extend a welcome. And, of course, many within the EU are still desperate to keep Greece within their fold.

So for Greece and Tsipras, there will probably be options. Whichever they take, the ramifications could be highly significant.

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