Development / Politics

Tsipras visits Putin: Are tables really turning?

Alexandros Apostolidis comments on Greek perceptions of the recent visit paid by Prime Minister Tsipras to the Kremlin

The current Greek government, led by the left-wing party of SYRIZA, is renowned for challenging the European status quo, through attempts to redraw the diplomatic map of Europe. Concerns are being raised across the EU, regarding the government’s perception of Russia as a diplomatic ally, rather than a ruthless perpetrator of European peace. Despite Putin’s and Tsipras’ declarations, most European institutions, governments and journalists perceive the relationship between the “Orthodox Brothers” as a Hellenic effort to blackmail Europe. Is this the real purpose behind the Greek visit to the Kremlin?

First and foremost, any discussion about Greece requires cultural analysis. One must remember that Russia is a highly popular country amongst the Greeks. Tsipras’ government has – successfully thus far – struggled to keep its popularity high, at a perilous time when political concessions end up disappointing Greek citizens. Slavs are thought of as co-heirs of the Byzantine culture, whereas Russia is a nation where Greeks have been channeling hopes towards external help, ever since the time of the Greek Orlov Revolution in 1770. The Messianic vision of “the blond nation from the North” is explicitly mocked in Solomos’ “Hymn to Liberty” – the Greek and Cypriot national anthem. As far as nowadays politics are concerned, many Greeks disagree with the sanctions imposed against Russia and consider the repercussions for their troubled economy, also affected by Russian sanctions imposed onto EU member-states.

Greek experts and journalists have expressed hopes regarding the prospect of transforming Greece into a European crossroads of natural gas pipelines. Previously, Greek governments have been harshly criticised for failing to undertake a decisive step in the Greco-Russian friendship, which is a necessary precondition for accomplishing the plan. By upholding the pro-Russian stance maintained before the elections, Tsipras is presently attempting to persuade the electorate that SYRIZA stands out from a messy crowd of previous governments. The Prime Minister’s visit to the Kremlin earlier this month targets those living within Greek borders. Indeed, the meeting with Putin aims to reassure Greek voters of the dynamic pace of change driving the new government, with the added benefit of pleasing popular pro-Russian popular sentiment. To an extent, one is justified in labeling this pure populism.

A glance through different lenses reveals the ideological stance upheld by the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nikos Kotzias, whose opinions are fully incorporated within SYRIZA’s foreign policy. Mr Kotzias is firmly convinced that the rise of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) constitutes an imperative change within the international system. A telling example for Mr Kotzias is the institution where he lectures – the University of Piraeus – which inaugurated a Master Degree on the topic and even opened a new research centre, exclusively dedicated to BRICS countries. The target of warming up Greek ties with Russia and China hence constitutes part of his wider vision of a diversified foreign policy, as depicted in his books.

The successful pursuit of Mr. Kotzias’s vision would form an undesirable outcome for Europeans and Americans alike, who perceive Greece as an “obedient” country, abiding by the policies of the Western establishment. Present-day relations between Greece and the West resemble a perilous love affair, in which one partner is taking the other for granted, until flirting with a third party triggers jealousy. Given the Greek political framework, practicalities and foreign influences, it is unlikely that Greece will manage to effectively strengthen its ties with Russia. Nonetheless, actions like Tsipras’s visit intend to make it evident that the country is determined to diversify its foreign policy. SYRIZA wants to reassert its commitment to a pro-BRICS policy, which should send out a message to other world powers, such as China. The visit to the Kremlin hence demonstrates a change of policy in Greek foreign affairs to third parties, beyond the Russian Federation. These involve the Greek electorate, the European Union, China and even the United States, which as of yet, has failed to condemn Turkey for its violence against Greece and Cyprus.

Importantly, Greece asserted a fresh priority in its European policy, namely to prioritise discussion concerning geopolitics, international security, and cultural affairs during EU political negotiations. Greece’s crucial geographical location and cultural status are likely to be used as negotiation tools in talks with its European partners, who persist in highlighting economics – Greece’s sore point – as a field of great importance. Tsipras’ visit to Moscow can thus be interpreted through utilitarian lenses, by a country attempting to prove that a good economy is not the only feature that renders it worthy of respect. Let us remember that Greece remains the third largest contributor to NATO’s defence forces, which underlines SYRIZA’s interest to demonstrate the Greek diplomatic and strategic role as a pillar of political stability within Eastern Mediterranean Sea and the Balkan region. Government supporters flag up the policy as a sincere, pro-European stance which has the net effect of widening up the spectrum of European politics, by forcing it to reconsider notions of security, strategic and cultural diplomacy.

No doubt, Greece has had a lot to gain from this visit – though perhaps far less than expected by populists or Eurosceptics. New agreements on tourism and cultural affairs – Greece’s “largest industries”, are being set in stone, as two peoples prepare to celebrate a millennium of relations by the Russian Year for Greece and the Greek Year for Russia in 2016. Alexis Tsipras will be the honourary foreign guest at the Economic Forum of Saint Petersburg and Greece will be the first European country to be approached by Russian investors, once the Crimean Crisis is over. According to Putin’s declarations, Russia will be placing Greece at the heart of its European mediations of Balkan issues. In this scenario, there is a two-sided advantage for Greece, as the nation would see its diplomatic role within the EU and NATO enhanced, whilst receiving a kick start for its economy. Is Tsipras justified in relinquishing an affiliation with Russia and its associated gains, with the purpose of pleasing the countries deemed responsible for Greek socio- economic demolition?

A fairly pro-European party, SYRIZA is undertaking a significant effort to see pro-EU sentiment gaining popularity. An essential element responsible for Greek antagonism towards the European Union is the popular feeling that the country is looked down upon by the EU, despite it nearing four decades of membership (1981). Greek citizens hence think themselves stereotyped as ‘second-class Europeans’, notwithstanding their profound European identity. In order to justify its compromise with the European establishment, the new government pledged to increase the popularity of the EU within Greece.

Europeans have done little to help remedy the situation thus far. While France was granted approval for two extra years of budgetary freedom, Greece was rejected a similar request proposal, for the duration of merely six months. When the Greek government proposed to institute the German model of privatisations, the policy faced instant EU rejection. Ideologically, the Greek government is mocked as being far-left and pro-Russian, upon asserting that further European sanctions against Russia would strengthen the ties between Russia and China. Meanwhile, German and French officials gain widespread approval when making a similar claim, only a few days later. The new agreement signed in March 2015, between Greece and its European partners, necessitated validation by all the parliaments constituting the Eurozone, except for the Hellenic one. By the same token, Germany, France and the United Kingdom uphold an extended network of diplomatic ties with Russia, while Greece is openly condemned for pursuing a similar link, one year before the 1000-year anniversary of Greco-Russian cultural relations. SYRIZA’s visit to Russia should therefore be perceived in a general context, in which the Greek government is willing to convince its citizens that the Hellenic Republic is a dignified EU-member, under its new leadership.

Sadly, such factors fail to outshine anti-Greek political statements and the new government should own up to the negative repercussions of Tsipras’s visit to the Kremlin. Putin’s invitation to the Prime Minister divided public opinion in Europe, which effectively resulted in the cultivation of discord amongst EU member states. In this game of Russian chess, Greece has allowed itself to become a mere pawn. Its people holds great expectations when it comes to forging a closer relationship between Greece and Russia, though such expectations contain a dose of idealism. The international situation makes it likely for foreign media outlets and governments to perceive Tsipras’s visit as a form of geopolitical exhibitionism and an indicator that the West is not the sole choice for the ‘cradle of Western civilisation’. The tool proved quasi-efficient. A good representation of this is the European Central Bank, which made a number of economic concessions, only a few hours after the Greek visit to the Kremlin. Still, diplomatic exhibitionism may witness a reverse scenario being put into place, marked by alienation of EU governments into a collectively stricter stance towards Greece. The message to be sent by the EU, as a political institution, is that it will neither be impressed nor blackmailed. The pertinent question to be asked is: why is it unacceptable to use political blackmail on other EU countries, except for Greece? 

Alexandros Apostolidis

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