Europe worried that the victory of the far-left Syriza party in Greece would spell trouble for the euro, but its ties to the Kremlin pose a more insidious threat to stability across the continent, writes Matthew Campbell in Athens
From a hillside near Athens, Adonis Giatris looked out over the Aegean Sea. For tourists heading to the islands by ferry, the picturesque bay is a gateway to paradise. For Giatris the view is from the damp and squalid hovel that he inhabits with his wife, his brother and three children.
Clinging to the hillside are other makeshift homes of corrugated iron and wood where other despairing victims of the Greek economic disaster scrape by as best they can.
“My unemployment benefits ran out years ago,” says Giatris, 53, a former lorry driver. “It’s really hard for us. We’ve been abandoned by the state. We’re stuck here.”
Maria, 7, his youngest child, often goes to school hungry, he says: “The lunch ladies are kind and take pity on her. They know we don’t have money for food.” He and Koula, his wife, eat once a day in a soup kitchen run by priests. They get medicine from a French charity usually associated with war zones.
This is a world away from western Europe — and from the golden decades when Greeks lived on western Europe’s largesse. No wonder Giatris and his neighbours were full of hope last week after Alexis Tsipras, leader of the left-wing Syriza party, became prime minister.
“He’s a clever young man, that Tsipras,” says Giatris’s brother, Thomas, another lorry driver without a lorry to drive. “If anyone can do something for us, he can.”
He believes — as Tsipras has suggested — that instead of Greece paying back its debt, Germany should pay “war reparations” for the devastation the Nazi occupiers inflicted during the Second World War. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is “worse than Hitler”, Thomas says.
So what was the “clever young man” Tsipras, a former communist youth organiser, doing on the morning after his general election victory last Sunday?
In his cramped party headquarters in a run-down district of Athens, Tsipras welcomed Andrey Maslov, the Russian ambassador, who was bearing a letter of congratulations from the Kremlin. It was Tsipras’s first meeting with a foreign envoy after taking office.
European capitals rapidly woke up to the fact that Syriza’s election victory is not just about Greek debt but also about the geopolitics of an increasingly unstable continent.
Greeks remember, if the rest of Europe does not, that the end of the Second World War triggered a four-year civil war here in which left and right committed atrocities while the Soviet Union played an ambiguous role. Syriza’s victory is the first time that members of the Greek hard left have had a role in government since their military defeat in 1949.
Moscow may no longer be run by the Soviet Communist party, but Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader, has every reason to be thrilled by developments in the birthplace of democracy. His strategy of cultivating populists on the European fringe has paid off in this desperately troubled member of Nato and the European Union.
Geopolitics and cultural ties — Greece and Russia both embrace the eastern Orthodox church and have similar non-Roman alphabets — transcend ideology, as does Putin’s strongman muscle-flexing, which appeals to Syriza’s strange bedfellows in the new government, the right-wing populist Independent Greeks party.
The benefits to Russia of Syriza’s victory became clear when Tsipras complained on Tuesday about a European statement blaming Moscow for an attack in eastern Ukraine that had killed 30 civilians.
His intervention shocked Brussels. Until then European diplomats had been anxiously mulling over the possibility of a Greek default on its enormous debt rather than Tsipras dividing the EU over sanctions on Russia.
The EU managed to maintain a fragile unity in Brussels at an emergency meeting of foreign ministers on Thursday when Greece agreed to sanctions on a wider circle of Russians connected to Putin. But now the Kremlin’s strategy seems clear: it sees in Greece a Trojan horse for attacking the EU from within.
The realisation has put western diplomats in a panic. It has also given the euro crisis a menacing aspect that will make for even more toxic relations between Berlin and Athens, complicating negotiations over the debt.
THE human toll of austerity measures imposed in exchange for the €240bn (£180bn) Greek bailout is visible everywhere, from the old women picking up food scraps on the road after the weekly market to the queues at soup kitchens.
Can Tsipras bring an end to all the misery by persuading the EU and its overlords in Berlin to forgive the debt or to impose even softer conditions? Some commentators imagine Tsipras playing a clever poker hand over the debt: holding up the threat of a Greek veto of sanctions against Russia at an EU summit on February 12 in an effort to persuade European leaders to satisfy his demands on writing down debt.
Whatever the dynamics of the negotiations, the chemistry between Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister who heads the eurozone finance group, and Yanis Varoufakis, the outspoken new Greek finance minister, did not seem promising after their first round of talks on Friday.
For all that the dashing Tsipras is the star of the new show in Athens , Varoufakis is the man who has achieved instant rock star status in his maroon T-shirt, jeans, black felt jacket with turned-up collar, shaven head and motorbike boots. He favours a big Yamaha, while Tsipras, for all his German-bashing, prefers a BMW.
Varoufakis describes himself as an “accidental economist” and “erratic Marxist”. As a veteran of Essex University and other centres of Anglophone academia, he knows how to coin a pungent quote — Greece, he says, has suffered “fiscal waterboarding”.
He is going to be a familiar face for many months to come in European capitals as he argues Syriza’s case for massive debt relief.
He and his Dutch counterpart looked like a couple going through an acrimonious divorce as they sat, side by side, at a press conference after their talks on Friday.
“Taking unilateral steps and ignoring previous arrangements is not the way forward,” said a prickly Dijsselbloem, referring to announcements that Greece would cancel some of its privatisation projects, double the minimum wage and rehire hundreds of cleaning ladies who had been sacked by the finance ministry as a cost-saving measure.
“It is of the utmost importance that Greece remains on the path of recovery,” Dijsselbloem said. But “there are no conclusions yet as to whether the programme will be further extended”, he added, in a reference to the bailout agreement so vital to Greece’s return to fiscal sanity.
Varoufakis, for his part, reiterated a promise by Tsipras not to let the “troika” of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund impose further austerity measures on Greece as demanded under the agreement.
He has made clear, however, that Greece does not plan to leave the EU, comparing it in an interview to the Eagles’ song Hotel California: “You can check out any time you like but you can never leave.”
EU finance ministers have never known anything like it. But from Spain to Sweden, populists of the left and right cheered these new-look Greek politicians last week as pioneers of a “Red Spring” that would sweep away stalled establishment parties all over Europe.
The political strategists in the Kremlin have plenty to cheer about too. While becoming increasingly estranged from Europe’s political mainstream because of Putin’s irredentism, Russia has been quietly cosying up to Europe’s populist movements, rightly calculating that public anger and frustration over economic hardship will propel them from the fringes to the heart of political debate.
Several of Putin’s new friends, from the National Front in France to Hungary’s Jobbik, have been elected to the European parliament. But Tsipras is the first to win national power. And never before has Greece had a cabinet so stuffed with fans of the Kremlin.
Tsipras himself is one of the cheerleaders, having visited Moscow in May last year after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. He met key Putin allies, including Valentina Matviyenko, chairwoman of the federation council of the Russian Federation, and Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the Russian parliament’s foreign affairs committee.
Both are on the American sanctions list. Matviyenko also figures on the sanctions list of the EU. They no doubt appreciated the way Tsipras parroted the Kremlin’s hostile rhetoric towards the “fascists” running the revolutionary government in Kiev.
However, nothing better exemplifies the depth of pro-Russia feeling in the ranks of the Syriza party than the antics of Nikos Kotzias, the new foreign minister. A former communist, he wrote a book decades ago attacking Poland’s Solidarity movement. More recently he has defended Russian actions in Crimea and Ukraine as the understandable behaviour of a superpower “encircled” by America and destabilised by Germany.
Even more alarmingly, he was photographed in 2013 on the steps of Piraeus University next to Alexander Dugin, a bearded Russian nationalist who has expressed admiration for the Nazis and wants to extend the Kremlin’s sway into western Europe.
Kotzias, a former professor at the university, introduced a lecture by Dugin, one of the most fervent advocates of a Russian military invasion of Ukraine. In it Dugin argued that Greece should participate “in the recreation of the architecture of Europe” to form an “eastern pole of European identity” with Serbia and other supporters of Russia.
Detailed evidence of Syriza’s ties to Dugin surfaced last December when a Russian hacker group released several emails between a close friend of Dugin who had lived for several years in Greece and an official in Dugin’s “Eurasia” movement. Some of the emails related to efforts by Dugin and Konstantin Malofeev, a Russian oligarch who supports him, to create a network of European politicians and intellectuals sympathetic to Russia.
A Greek intellectual and Syriza supporter who is a partner in a Russian security firm featured in one of the leaked emails. “I know very well how the enemy works,” he wrote to Dugin. “And under your patronage I can strike back, effectively and hard.”
According to Anton Shekhovtsov, a Ukrainian academic and expert on the far right, “Dugin’s role was to approach people in Europe, establish connections with them and pass those connections to higher-up people in the Kremlin.
“Russia will now be trying to capitalise on the fact that the new Greek government is a government of pro-Russian parties,” he added, referring to Syriza and the Independent Greeks under Panos Kammenos, the new defence minister.
In a clear sign of his priorities, Kammenos visited Moscow recently in the run-up to the election that brought Tsipras to power. He is the founder of the Athens-based Institute of Geopolitical Studies. According to one of the leaked emails, this organisation signed a “memorandum of understanding” with the influential Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISI) at the end of last year.
The RISI was linked to Russia’s foreign intelligence service, the SVR, until it was brought under the office of the Russian presidency in 2009. Leonid Reshetnikov, its director, is a retired SVR lieutenant-general. Kammenos’s deputy at the defence ministry, Kostas Isichos, is another ardent fan of Putin. Last year he described EU sanctions on Russia as “neo-colonial bulimia” and saluted the “impressive counterattacks” of Russian-backed militias in eastern Ukraine.
Echoing Russian propaganda, he accused the Kiev government of tolerating “neo-Nazi abominations”. He has also denigrated Nato as “not a peace-loving institution”. But leaving Nato was “not among Greece’s first priorities”.
His position reflects the Greek right’s view of Russia as the country’s traditional ally because of their shared Orthodox Christian faith. This was what led Greek conservative governments of the 1990s to support the Serbs during the wars in the former Yugoslavia.
How far will Tsipras push the new alignment with Moscow? Theodore Couloumbis, a professor of international relations at Athens University, has witnessed several Greek upheavals including, as a boy, the occupation of the country by the Nazis. He claims to be optimistic.
“Communism comes and goes,” he said last week. “Fascism comes and goes. But populism is a timeless ideology, not only in Greece. We’re used to it.”
His theory is that Tsipras, a quick learner, is trying to copy Andreas Papandreou, the former Socialist prime minister, who at first played to nationalist sentiment, promising to take Greece out of Nato and the European Common Market, only to pull off a dramatic volte-face when he came to power. He claimed in a catchy phrase — it sounds better in Greek — that “the cost of exiting is higher than the cost of remaining a member”.
“Papandreou even got to lecture Margaret Thatcher a few years later about her not being adequately pro-European,” Couloumbis said.
According to Couloumbis, Tsipras has shown a deft hand in appointing Kammenos to the defence ministry in a country whose armed forces have a record of intervention against politicians who are not to their liking.
“There were fears that some in the army might react [to the election of Tsipras],” said Couloumbis. “There was no better way of relaxing them than putting a right-wing nationalist in charge.”
Whatever the worries about Russia, Couloumbis believes that, in the end, Syriza may turn out to be nothing more dangerous than “the mouse that roared”.
Others believe it is too soon to judge. “Each day we find out new things about them,” said Stefanos Manos, a former finance minister. “The problem is that unless something is done very soon, Greece is going to run out of money.”
Could Russia come up with a lifeline if Athens breaks from Brussels and is spurned by the money markets when it seeks new sources of finance? Unlikely, said Manos, as Russia has its own dire financial problems.
And, he pointed out, it had not helped Cyprus — where many private Russian fortunes are reportedly invested — when it suffered a debt crisis two years ago. “And Cyprus was even closer to Russia than Greece is.”
Manos paused, before adding: “Perhaps there will be a surprise.”