Friday

18th Jan 2019

Analysis

Greece: too much talk, not enough vision

  • Tsipras rules a fractious party and a fractious government (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Almost two months after it came to power, Alexis Tsipras' government is still a mystery to many Europeans.

Confrontational and contradictory statements from his ministers, and failure to deliver on Eurozone reform demands in exchange for a badly-needed loan, raise questions about his ability to govern and his willingness to keep Greece in the euro.

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  • Varoufakis could be the man to unite Syriza's different factions (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

This month, for instance, interior minister Dimitris Mardas indicated Greece would default on a €450 million repayment to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), shortly before finance minister Yanis Varoufakis said the country would "meet all obligations to all its creditors, ad infinitum".

A few weeks earlier, defence minister Panos Kammenos also indicated Greece is willing to plunge into crisis rather than coming to an agreement with its creditors.

"If we don’t get what we want from negotiations, we’ll do a Kougi," he said, referring to a fortress where Greek soldiers blew themselves up together with Ottoman troops in 1803 in order to avoid surrender.

Since Tsipras came to power, his left-wing government has ruffled feathers in Brussels and other EU capitals with its undiplomatic talk.

These various statements are often relayed in European media as Greece’s position.

But knowledge of how Tsipras’ government works is limited and it is difficult to know which declarations truly express the government’s strategy.

Tsipras was elected on a pledge to lead Greece out of the “memorandum”, a document by which the troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF imposed austerity measures in exchange for a €240 billion bailout.

He is now faced with a series of loan and bond repayments even as the state’s coffers run on empty.

Under pressure from radical factions in his parliament majority, he often appears overwhelmed by the situation.

"I do not think there is a specific policy by Tsipras to confuse lenders. He has no experience of governing and he has inherited a very difficult situation," Greek journalist Nick Malkoutzis told EUobserver.

"All this is weighing on him psychologically. He doesn’t want to disappoint his MPs, but he knows that if he keeps the party satisfied, the country will pay the price," Malkoutzis, who is deputy editor of the English edition of Kathimerini, a leading Greek daily, added.

From nowhere to PM

Tsipras is the leader of Syriza, a coalition of left-wing parties formed 10 years ago which was propelled to power by the crisis.

He is also the prime minister of a coalition government of Syriza and Anel, a right-wing nationalist party founded three years ago.

This union of two inexperienced parties largely explain the current cacophony.

"There is not a single strategy in this government. Everyone has his own agenda and the prime minister’s office doesn’t give a line," Greek financial columnist Thanasis Koukakis told EUobserver.

"Syriza is a party that won 4 percent of the vote six years ago and continues to operate like a party of that size. In Syriza’s culture, there is no censorship. Everybody talks about everything," added Koukakis, who writes for the Estia and To Vima newspapers.

Anel’s chief, Kammenos, who comes from a wholly different political culture, has been the most controversial member, with his Kougi declaration, but also when he threatened to "flood Europe with migrants" if it "leaves us in the crisis".

"There is such a spotlight on Greece that every little thing said becomes international news," Kathimerini’s Malkoutzis noted.

"You have to ask yourself who said what, and why, and to what extent they are serious in what they say?” he added, noting that most of the wild statements are intended mainly "for domestic consumption".

Another controversial figure is foreign affairs minister Nikos Kotzias.

Kotzias, who has ties with Russian nationalist ideologue Aleksandr Dugin, is often seen as the man behind Tsipras' wooing of Russia and China.

"What the Europeans are doing to us is cultural racism. It is necessary for the future of Europe to find a different way of behaving toward Greece. It is also a geostrategic necessity," he said in March.

Despite this statement, or Tsipras’ visit to Moscow on 8 April, the government has no real intention to "pivot" from Europe to Russia or China, according to political analyst George Tzogopoulos, who recently wrote on the subject for the European Council of Foreign Relations, an influential thinktank based in London.

Koztsias "can inspire a rapprochement with Moscow but only within the EU-Nato framework. I think the government is united on the matter. Kotzias never suggested Greece to abandon Euroatlantic orientation," Tzogopoulos told EUobserver.

"China is mainly interested in business, while Russia is also interested in politics. [But] Russia is aware that Greece will not abandon its euro-atlantic orientation and therefore has low expectations”.

Whatever might be their true significance, Greek ministers’ untimely comments do real harm to Greece’s image in Europe and might worsen its position in negotiations.

Discipline

So why doesn’t Tsipras impose some discipline?

"They [he and his ministers] share the same populist agenda. They are allies with mutual benefits," Koukakis, the financial couminst, indicated.

"It’s theatre, with Tsipras as the main protagonist and his ministers in supporting roles. Tsipras is not willing to impose discipline, because it’s a coalition, not a confrontation.”

The play put on by Athens is neither understood nor appreciated in Brussels.

An agreement between Greece and its Eurogroup partners to extend the country’s bailout was reached on 20 February.

On 19 March, Tsipras was asked by German chancellor Angela Merkel, French president Francois Hollande and top EU officials to “quickly” propose a set of detailed reforms to unfreeze the €7.2 billion loan he needs to make ends meet.

It is now mid-April and no satisfactory list has come forward, according to eurozone officials. An agreement at the 24 April Eurogroup meeting of finance ministers appears less likely every day.

This is partly due to the Greek government’s internal contradictions, says Eleni Xiarchogiannopoulou from the Institute for European Studies in Brussels.

"It’s a government with ministers from different parties, with different views on Europe, and from different political groups within Syriza with their own economical philosophy," Xiarchogiannopoulou told this website.

A party with Marxist roots, Syriza is now facing a reality check which creates tensions within its structures.


Tsipras, in particular, must square with Panagiotis Lafazanis, the influential minister for productive reconstruction, who thinks that Greece should leave the eurozone rather that make concessions to the Eurogroup.

"If Tsipras is more moderate and proposes more cuts, which would be closer to what EU institutions asked, he would lose some support in his government," said Xiarchogiannopoulou.

In the end, "there will be a way to find a compromise," Xiarchogiannopoulou added, suggesting that Tsipras should evolve towards "something closer to social-democracy".

Such an evolution would possibly break Syriza in two, she noted, however.

Break-up scenario

To a certain extent the threat of a break-up explains Tsipras’ balancing act between assurances to the EU and harsher comments on the Eurgroup or Germany.

"Tsipras is different internally and externally," said Xiarchogiannopoulou.

The one who could bridge the gap between Syriza radicals like Lafazanis and Tsipras could be Varoufakis, the man the media most loves to hate.

After clashes with Eurogroup president Jeroen Dijsselbloem, clumsy PR stunts like a glamour photo shoot in French magazine Paris Match, or controversy about his alleged TV-middle-finger to Germany, Varoufakis appeared to be in trouble.

But in a government with no clear direction, the academic-turned-politician remains Tsipras’ main ally.

"Varoufakis is still backed by the party and is still influential," Xiarchogiannopoulou said.

"He still seems to be trusted”, Malkoutzis noted. But he added that, ultimately, Varoufakis "will only bring the process to a certain point where Tsipras will have to decide” between pleasing Athens and Brussels.

Given the contradictions, pressures, and complexities around him, nobody knows how the new PM will untie the Gordian knot.

Maybe he himself doesn't even know.

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