Can Europe Make It?

The Collectivist, debt colonialism and the real Alexis Tsipras

As the new government’s statement on Mariupol reveals, Greece will leverage its position along a geopolitical fault-line to maximise its bargaining power. 

Iannis Carras
29 January 2015
The Collectivist, under the heading “Proletarians of all countries unite”. Newspaper of the Greeks of Mariupol and Donetsk, 1930

The Collectivist, under the heading “Proletarians of all countries unite”. Newspaper of the Greeks of Mariupol and Donetsk, 1930

Alongside the status-quo powers of Brussels and Berlin another movement has arisen, so far weak and incipient, but undoubtedly a movement that actually exists and is growing: the movement of the discontented peoples of Europe. And at the forefront of this movement stands the government of the newly elected Prime Minister of Greece, Alexis Tsipras.

Greece does not consent 

The first of many clashes between Alexis Tsipras and the status-quo powers concerns not debt restructuring and structural reforms but EU-Russian relations. A statement published on the January 27, 2015, claimed all twenty-eight leaders of the EU agreed that Russia bears responsibility for the rocket attack on Mariupol. The attack killed thirty people.

The Ukrainian city of Mariupol to which the statement refers, was originally a settlement of Greek and Tatar speaking Orthodox refugees who were encouraged to settle in the area in 1778. This resettlement constituted a central plank in the then Russian policy of undermining the economy of what, until 1783, was Tatar Crimea. Many died in the process, but the descendants of the settlers flourished, their cultural life seeing something of a revival in early Soviet times.

In the 1920s, local dialects of Greek and Tatar were promoted; a network of Greek language schools was created; works of literature and newspapers such as “Kolehtivistis” or The Collectivist were published. This renaissance ended abruptly with Stalin’s deportations of 1937. Today Greek speakers make up only a very small part of the population of the region. Still, it is precisely in the thirty or so villages where dialects of Greek and Tatar are still spoken by Orthodox populations that the war in the Donbass is currently being waged.

In this context, Alexis Tsipras’ expression of “discontent” at not having been consulted may have been justified. “The aforementioned statement was released without the prescribed procedure to obtain consent by the member states and particularly without ensuring the consent of Greece” the Greek government noted. “It is underlined that Greece does not consent to this statement”. Whether the oversight was intentional or a mix-up resulting from the transition of power in Greece remains unclear. That the new government of Greece will exert pressure in order to realign EU policies towards Russia should not however be in doubt.

Trade and expectation

Greece has many reasons to be dissatisfied with EU policies towards Ukraine and Russia.

In part these are economic. Touristic arrivals from Russia now rival those from the UK and Germany, their number having grown exponentially over the last few years. Greek exports to Russia have also increased and a number of Greek companies have invested in Russia. Compensation offered by the EU for the reduction in exports has not adequately made up for the loss of market access, reductions in production, and, inevitably, job cuts.

What is more, EU pressure contributed to the failure in the privatisation process of one of Greece’s state-owned energy companies to a Russian-backed consortium. Subsequent criticism to the effect that Greece is not privatising assets at sufficient speed have sounded hollow as a result. EU sanctions on Russia are thus directly affecting some of the few dynamic segments of the Greek economy and have contributed, albeit indirectly, to SYRIZA’s victory in these elections.

Dissatisfaction is also political. The deposition of President Viktor Yanukovich was viewed by many as an unconstitutional western-backed coup, in other words as an example of the imperialism they associate with Greek history of the post-war era.

Finally, dissatisfaction is emotional. Whereas Greece’s elites have traditionally looked to Britain and the United States for support, sympathy towards Russia and the Russians characterises much of the political spectrum. Some hark back to the “Russian Expectation”, a dominant ideology at the time of the Russian-Ottoman wars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Others, to the values of the Russian Revolution. Thus Manolis Glezos, Greek resistance fighter and currently MEP for SYRIZA, sent an appeal to Vladimir Putin, whom he addressed as “comrade”, asking the Russian President to reconsider his decision to place sanctions on Greek farmers.

In part, as a result of blossoming economic and cultural ties, the teaching of Russian in Greece has increased dramatically over the last few years. Students are flocking to a new Department of Slavic Studies at the University of Athens. The Municipality of Thessaloniki is offering free Russian courses to the unemployed. As a student put it during a discussion in Thessaloniki last week: “learning Russian means getting a job”. And getting a job is not easy in Greece today.

That, however, is not the end of the story. It is interesting to note that the new Greek government’s policies vis-à-vis Ukraine place it at loggerheads with the position of the (primus inter pares) senior hierarch of the Orthodox Church, the Istanbul based Ecumenical Patriarch.

The implications for the Cyprus issue, Greek foreign policy’s primary focus over the last half-century, are even more significant. As was the case following Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus, Ukraine has thus far received only verbal and legal support from western powers. Over the years, however the occupation has become a millstone around Turkey’s neck, both in terms of military costs and of European Court of Human Rights decisions, compensating victims and refugees. The annexation of Crimea if legalised would represent a disastrous precedent for Cyprus itself. Yet, despite the fact that Cyprus is the most obvious parallel for the situation in Ukraine, a full comparison between Crimea and Cyprus has yet to be made.

All things considered, Alexis Tsipras is wrong on Ukraine. The fact that EU policies have had such a destabilising effect on the country, and that even today the EU is not offering anything like adequate aid, are not sufficient to justify Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and its support for separatists in the East.

Debt colonialism

In a cabinet that has more PhDs than your average university department, Professor Nikos Kotzias is Greece’s incoming Foreign Minister. His most recent monograph is entitled Greece Colony of Debt: European Empire and German Primacy. This is classic dependency theory and tallies with current discussions over whether Europe is being transformed into an empire. Reports of connections to the Russian ideologue Alexander Dugin are worrying, but still need to be corroborated. 

Whatever one’s take on dependency theory, it should be self-evident that no democratic country can support running primary surpluses of up to 5% of GDP over decades, as called for by the Memorandum, when over 25% of its population is unemployed, poverty is endemic and the productive base of the country has been ravaged. Given similarities to economic conditions during the Great Depression, the EU should consider the victory of a democratic party like SYRIZA a relief. Still, it remains a source of surprise that the EU did not move to link debt reduction to GDP growth before April of 2014, in other words before the Euro elections, when such a move might more easily have been coupled with accelerating the pace of the structural reforms that are needed to strengthen Greece’s private and public sectors. 

The EU’s deflationary fiscal policies serve as the best justification for neo-Marxist theories positing the need for class-struggle today. In the place of class, expect to hear much along the lines of the struggle of the peoples of Europe against their elites, discourses that combine both nationalism and internationalism and that tally with the concerns of other populist parties across Europe. In this context, the much repeated mantra "pacta sunt servanda" is counter-productive.

As the new government’s statement on Mariupol reveals, Greece will leverage its position along a geopolitical fault-line to maximise its bargaining power. This high risk game may include not only Ukraine/Russia but also policies towards the Balkans and the Middle East. It is already exposing Greece to criticism. But can Greece’s economy – in particular its banking sector – survive such brinkmanship on all fronts for even a short period of time?

Hungary + ?

Before pulling the plug, the EU must think carefully about the precedents for debt renegotiation, and also whether it desires another failed state on the periphery of Europe: a Hungary + situation, where the centre-left and centre-right are marginalised, with the nationalist right vying for power with the fascists over an impoverished, humiliated and angry population.

Forget human rights violations, in such a scenario parliamentary democracy itself would be at risk. And all this a stone’s throw away from Syria, Egypt, Libya and, of course, Ukraine. Even in monetary terms such a failure will be much more expensive than official sector debt renegotiation, linking repayment to GDP growth, conditional upon structural reforms.

Takis Pappas has argued that Alexis Tsipras does not have the makings of a charismatic leader with the intellectual nous of Andreas Papandreou. There is in fact a chasm between expectations he has generated and the reality of Greece’s economic condition. This chasm makes it harder for the EU and Greece to compromise, as they must.

One thing should be certain, however. The new Prime Minister of Greece will have read his Lenin. He knows that power is produced, or rather mobilised and expanded through the assimilation of new groups into a political system. Today Alexis Tsipras stands at the gates, mobilising power. The next few days and weeks should determine whether the Prime Minister and his movement have enough wind in their sails to weather the many currents stacked against them.

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