No problem yet with Syriza’s view on Russia
A new narrative on Greece has emerged. Syriza, the country’s recently elected left-wing party, has for months been known across Europe and across capital markets exclusively for its anti-austerity views. Now, we are hearing something at once more surprising and more worrying: that Greece, under its new government, is beginning to side with Putin’s Russia.
But this analysis lacks nuance, and much supporting evidence.
Last week, news emerged that the European Union was debating fresh sanctions on Russia, as a response to increasing tension in eastern Ukraine, and especially to a separatist attack on residential areas of the city of Mariupol.
It seemed a done deal. EU hawks, including Britain, Poland and Lithuania, pushed for a harder stance, and there was talk of further curbing Russian corporate access to the capital markets.
But on Wednesday, Greece looked set to derail those talks. The country’s energy minister Panagiotis Lafazanis was quoted as saying he was opposed to sanctions on Russia, adding: “We have no differences with Russia and the Russian people.”
Syriza’s independence vis-à-vis the Russian authorities was immediately brought into question.
“Alarm bells ring over Syriza’s Russian links” ran the Financial Times. In a similar vein, the Wall Street Journal headline read: “Russia links loom larger as Greece seeks debt relief”. The Foreign Policy blog had: “Why Putin is the big winner in Greece’s elections”.
The implication is quite clear: Greece, once at the heart of the European project, may be moving apart from its closest allies, not just in economic matters but also in the realm of foreign policy. In its most extreme form, the argument suggests Greece may become a quasi-puppet state to Russia.
All these ideas made financial markets even more concerned about Greece than they already were. If Syriza and the EU can’t agree on Russian sanctions, how could they reach a compromise in the tense negotiations over Greece’s bailout package?
But on Thursday, Syriza agreed to a text by the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council which extended until September of this year the restrictive measures targeting people and entities viewed as “threatening or undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”, and proposed adding new names to the list of targets.
In other words, Syriza did not veto the sanctions. By then it was too late, though: the new narrative had taken hold.
That narrative is misleading: It relies on a limited set of facts, and a coloured interpretation of those facts. It is a variation of the age-old theme: ‘You’re either with us, or against us”.
Nowhere has Alexis Tsipras, Greece’s prime minister, said that he supports Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine, or that he condones the Russia-backed separatists making use of violent means to achieve their goals.
Rather, Tsipras has specifically criticised the EU’s response to the Ukraine crisis, which has been a vast, and slowly expanding, policy of economic and financial sanctions.
Such criticism is justified, first because there is ample proof that the Russian people are affected by the sanctions imposed by the EU on Russia, and the counter-sanctions imposed by Russia on the EU, and secondly because they have so far failed to discourage Russian involvement in Ukraine.
Lafazanis was speaking outside his remit. When Greece's foreign minister Nikos Kotzias expressed himself on the subject, he said he wanted to avoid widening the rift between the EU and Russia but added that he was “not against every sanction”. The passing of the Foreign Council’s text on Thursday gave weight to that statement.
And Yanis Varoufakis, the much-discussed new finance minister, was also worth listening to.
In a post on his blog last Thursday, he wrote: “Our Foreign Minister, Nikos Kotzias, briefed us that on his first day at the job he heard in the news bulletins that the EU had approved new sanctions on Russia unanimously. The problem was that he, and the new Greek government, were never asked! So, clearly, the issue was not whether our new government agrees or not with fresh sanctions on Russia. The issue is whether our view can be taken for granted without even being told what it is! From my perspective, even though (let me state it again) I am certainly not qualified to speak on foreign affairs, this is all about a question of respect for our national sovereignty.”
The Greeks’ perception that their national sovereignty has been compromised by the Troika-imposed austerity measures had much to do with Syriza’s win in the legislative election on January 25. Varoufakis was making the point that Greece wanted its voice to be heard in all matters.
With respect to Greece’s sovereign debt, Tsipras has said he is intent on finding an agreement with Europe, and will refuse economic aid from Russia. Those wary of Putin’s possible overreach in Greece should find that statement reassuring.
Greece has long had closer ties with Russia than have most other Western countries. We must pay close attention to what the exact nature of those ties are in the case of Syriza. Reports indicate that some of Greece’s new leaders have been in contact with members of Putin’s inner circle and that the first foreign official Tsipras met after his election was Russia’s envoy. Doubts are also being cast on the views the Independent Greeks, Syriza’s junior coalition partner, hold on Russia. It is important to further investigate those links.
But when Standard Bank writes of Syriza’s “pro-Moscow orientation”, as it did in a research note published yesterday, one is entitled to question the logic. Much more evidence would be needed to credibly accuse Greece of a conflict of interest, with its obligations to Europe on one side and its supposed allegiance to Russia on the other.
As yet, there is little to suggest Syriza has made Russia’s interests a priority.