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Of Trojan horses and realpolitik: The Tsipras-Putin meeting and its broader implications

Today Alexis Tsipras will sit down in Moscow for talks with Vladimir Putin. This meeting has been dogged by controversy and has led many to wonder: what exactly do Russia and Greece hope to gain from this encounter?

Greek and Russian flags fly together. Demotix/VASSILIS TRIANTAFYLLIDIS. All rights reserved.During Costas Karamanlis’ term in office as PM (2004-2009), the Greek government sped up bilateral cooperation with Russia in energy issues. Apart from economic considerations, this foreign policy resonated with the public mood in Greece vis-à-vis the US. George W. Bush’s reckless foreign policy in the Middle East was met with bitter discontent.

Various segments across Greece’s political spectrum saw a guarantee that Western arbitrariness in Global Politics would be regulated if Russia emerged as a potent global actor. George A. Papandreou, who succeeded Karamanlis in 2009, assumed a more pro-Atlantic stance and froze the major projects of energy cooperation between Greece and Russia (e.g. the Burgas-Alexandroupolis pipeline). Nevertheless, the outbreak of the financial crisis in 2010/2011 brought about the decline of popular confidence in New Democracy and, especially, PASOK.

As soon as the SYRIZA/Independent Greeks coalition took over in January 2015, it expressed both parties’ discontent over a second round of sanctions on Russia. The Greek government couched its reservations in economic jargon. It stressed the negative impact new sanctions would have on Greek exports to Russia and, by extension, on the country’s trajectory towards recovery from the economic crisis. The value of total trade between Greece and Russia reached 9.3 billion Euros in 2013, surpassing trade flows between Greece and fellow EU-member Germany.

Apart from Greece, certain countries from the Visegrad Four group (i.e. Czech Republic, Slovakia, and, especially, Hungary) also parked their inhibitions over new sanctions against Russia under the ‘trading argument’. Nevertheless, several commentators were rather quick and vocal in their judgments that the Greek government’s Euroscepticism may render it a Kremlin ‘Trojan horse’ in the long run.

Firstly this piece introduces the Greek government’s political outlook(s) on Russia and the current expectations that Greece and Russia have, or may have, from each other. Then, it offers some tentative suggestions over the balance(s) that the Greek government should try to maintain in its maneuvering with Moscow.  

Mutual outlooks and current expectations: Greece and Russia

Starting with the Independent Greeks/ANEL, the party leader and current Defense Minister, Panos Kammenos, has been urging Greece to borrow money from Russia in order to repay its foreign debt. Apart from stressing the historical and cultural bonds between Greece and Orthodox Russia, the ANEL leader views Russia as a more reliable economic and political partner in comparison to ‘hegemonic and corrupt Germany’.

Panos Kammenos has not only accused Berlin of waging ‘economic warfare’ against Greece and bullying the country. He has also accused the German government of hypocrisy and ‘doublespeak’ over the CDU scandal in which Wolfgang Schäuble allegedly is involved. Furthermore, the ANEL leader has castigated Berlin for condoning illegitimate activities of German companies in Greece (e.g. the Siemens bribery scandal in 2007) and harbouring ‘common criminals and embezzlers’ (e.g. the former Siemens-boss in Greece, Michael Christoforakos).

During SYRIZA’s campaign in opposition and after its victory, Alexis Tsipras pledged that he would restore and extend the fruitful cooperation between Greece and Russia in a number of areas. Alexis Tsipras has also stated that Greece is a sovereign state and that, within a multipolar international system, it should be free to maintain relations with Western and non-Western agents alike. Throughout 2014, SYRIZA, together with other leftist parties (e.g. Podemos and Sinn Féin), expressed reservations over a tougher stance on Russia on the part of the EU but without distinctly pro-Kremlin undertones.

Nevertheless, certain segments among the party’s affiliates have displayed more vivid pro-Russian sympathies. Premises (‘συνιστώσες’) such as the Leftist Platform or others with an explicit Communist identity (e.g. the Communist Organization of Greece/KOE) tend to display Russophile sentiments ‘by default’ on the grounds of their harder Euroscepticism and opposition to Euro-Atlantic institutions. Most importantly, Greece’s, so-called, ‘patriotic left’ has emigrated en masse to SYRIZA from other parties (i.e. ‘old’ PASOK, the Democratic Social Movement/DIKKI, and, some of them, from the Communist Party/KKE). The participation of the ‘patriotic left’ under the party’s banner is largely to account for the more pronounced nationalism and, by extension, Russophilia among certain segments of SYRIZA.

Under the current circumstances, the Greek government has been exploring ways to ‘bypass’ the EU sanctions against Russia and their detrimental repercussions on Greek economy. From a more political angle, Athens may also, if only subtly, seek to engage Moscow as an external agent that can exert some soft power in Greece’s dispute with the EU and Germany over the management of the economic crisis. Particular attention has been paid to the ongoing cooperation between Germany and Russia in energy issues and Chancellor Merkel’s indecisiveness over endorsing tougher sanctions on Russia throughout 2014.

The Kremlin, for its part, has been situationally adaptive in its search for external sympathizers. Employing the Great Patriotic War’s symbolism and portraying the Ukrainian crisis as an ‘anti-Fascist struggle’ has helped Russia to gain sympathies amongst the broader left. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has been equally successful in capitalising on the populist and far right’s hard Euroscepticism and insecurities over worldwide acculturation. In the first instance, the Kremlin may pledge financial support in order to lure Greece to function as its advocate for the relaxation of sanctions within the EU. In the longer term, and in the event of further deterioration in the relations between Athens and Brussels, the Kremlin may also ponder on a more decisive shift in foreign policy that would bring Greece more firmly into Russia’s orbit.

Making sure not to cross the other ‘red lines’

During the negotiations with Brussels over the financial crisis, the Greek side has constantly reiterated that it does not intend to cross certain ‘red lines’. These red lines mainly refer to the government’s strident opposition to additional cuts in pensions or salaries and layoffs in the public sector. However legitimate these objections from Athens are, the Greek side should be equally cautious not to cross some other red lines in its maneuvering with Moscow.

The Ukrainian crisis poses a major security test for the EU. Russia’s political and military involvement inside a state with ambitions to join the EU makes it an imperative that the EU acts as a coherent and single agent. Federalists have stressed that combatting the economic crisis enhances their argumentation for the further centralisation of decision-making within European structures. Apart from risk management, the Ukrainian crisis hints that the EU should also centralise decision-making in its foreign policy. In other words, the symbolic, as well as political, implications of the necessity to stand against Russia as a concrete bloc are rather crucial.

Under the current circumstances, it is very unlikely that trade and other economic considerations can gain precedence over this principal aim. This is true not only for the more ‘peripheral’ member-states such as Greece or Hungary, it is equally valid for the ‘core’ actors such as France and Germany. Meanwhile, Greece cannot afford to strike a more ‘hawkish’ stance either. Since the 1990s, a series of Greek governments have constantly maintained a communication channel with the Kremlin in a wide range of affairs.

Apart from a common European foreign policy, there also exist ideological constraints, which should prevent the Greek government from potentially acting as the Kremlin’s ‘Trojan horse’. During SYRIZA’s campaign as an opposition party, Alexis Tsipras repeatedly accused Chancellor Merkel and Wolfgang Schäuble of promoting a brand of neoliberal capitalism which is disastrous not only for Greece but for the entire EU, including Germany.

As an alternative, Tsipras has juxtaposed a ‘Europe of the Peoples’, where the main emphasis is on social equality and not on the voracious appetites of bankers and transnational capital. This reformist platform is endorsed by various other emerging leftist initiatives in crisis-hit Southern Europe, such as Podemos in Spain. This party has been rather skeptical over the prospects of escalation in the political tension between Russia and the EU. Nevertheless, Podemos have been equally quick to condemn Vladimir Putin for Russia’s military and political engagement in Ukraine.

As part of this endeavor to propose an ‘anti-model’ to the neoliberal paradigm, SYRIZA’s policymakers should be particularly rigorous not to get carried away by Greek identity politics and/or the harder Euroscepticism of certain factions within the party. If only for image-making purposes, SYRIZA’s policymakers should also be alarmed by the political attraction that the Kremlin has exerted on various parties among the European far right (Golden Dawn included).

If neither the common foreign policy nor the ideological argument suffices, then the Greek government should reflect on Greece’s recent experience in its dealings with Moscow over a possible bailout from the financial crisis. Back in 2011, Vladimir Putin had continuously underlined to George A. Papandreou that Greece must closely cooperate with the IMF towards the management of the crisis. Moreover, the Kremlin did not seem particularly eager to offer a bailout alternative to Cyprus during its latest recession (2013) either. The sum of the abovementioned foreign policy, ideological and more ‘practical’ considerations should serve as a reminder to the Greek PM over the other red lines that should not be crossed in his forthcoming visit to Russia.

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About the author

Vassilis Petsinis is a Marie Curie Experienced Researcher at the University of Tartu (Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies). His specialisation is European politics and ethnopolitics with a regional focus on central and southeast Europe (including the Baltic States). He holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham. His personal profile on academia.edu can be accessed here.

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