With Greece voting against EU-proposed austerity reforms in the July 5 referendum, it remains to be seen if the Kremlin will use the potential split within the EU to its advantage.
A supporter of the "No" vote reacts after the results of the referendum at Syntagma square in Athens, Sunday, July 5, 2015. Photo: AP
Also read: "How Greeces 'No' will impact EU-Russian relations"
Greece has decisively rejected the conditions put forward by the country’s international lenders. According to the results of the referendum, roughly 61 percent of Greek citizens voted against the proposals, with 39 percent voting in favor of them. The outcome has made an already unpredictable situation even more so, both for Europe as a whole and for Greece in particular.
The July 5 referendum in Greece has been testing the mettle not only of the Greek authorities, but also the entire European Union. There is even a chance that the Kremlin will try to take advantage of it, although, officially at least, Moscow says that it does not intend to exploit the Greek crisis for its own geopolitical purposes.
The announcement of the referendum by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras roused Greek society and the whole of Europe. Despite being the cradle of European democracy, the country is not used to referenda of national importance and such big scale, especially ones pertaining to economic and financial matters arranged at the drop of a hat. However, Greece’s financial position is so precarious that the country’s leadership believed that any delay could be fatal.
The pre-referendum talks between Athens and the “troika” of European lenders (the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank) failed to produce the desired result.
In his address to the nation ahead of the referendum, Tsipras stated that, “The proposals of the [European] institutions contain measures leading to further deregulation of the labor market, pension cuts, new reductions in the public sector and a rise in VAT on food, the hotel industry and tourism.”
Tsipras’ party Syriza, which came to power on the back of a promise to protect the socially disadvantaged, could not satisfy these requirements. As a result, the Greek cabinet, with the support of MPs from Syriza, the right-wing conservative party Independent Greeks and the ultra-right Golden Dawn, essentially “farmed out” the Greek people’s future by proposing to hold a referendum.
The risks for Greece and Europe of a Grexit
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The Greek government took a serious political risk. For many months the country’s leaders had told the Greek population that a compromise with their creditors must be found. All opinion polls at the end of June indicated that more than 60 percent of Greeks were in favor of their country remaining in the euro zone, and even more so in the EU.
However, Greece’s failure in early July to make a 1.6 billion euro ($1.7 billion) debt repayment to the IMF constituted, in the latter’s view, a “technical default.” Taking into account that the total external debt of Greece amounts to more than 320 billion euros ($352 billion, or nearly 180 percent of gross domestic product), the Greek government finds itself in a tight spot. Having persuaded the Greek public to reject the creditors’ demands, it now lacks the cash to implement its ambitious leftist policies.
In addition, the leaders of the European institutions made it clear to the Greeks before Sunday’s referendum that a “no” vote could ultimately mean a “Grexit” from the euro.
Addressing the Greek nation, European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker did not mince words in stating that a “yes” to the proposed reforms would be interpreted by euro zone and EU members as Greece’s desire to remain inside both organizations.
On the other hand, a positive outcome for the international creditors would have plunged Greece into even greater political hardship, with the prospect of the government’s resignation and early parliamentary elections.
In other words, on July 5 the Greek people faced a dilemma: Bow before Europe, or leap into the unknown. They chose to close their eyes and jump.
Could Russia become one of the “new seas” for Greece?
After the Tsipras cabinet announced the referendum, foreign media were again rife with speculation that Athens was prepared to play the Kremlin card in an attempt to blackmail the Western economic community.
For a start, Tsipras is one of a select group of EU leaders openly opposed to anti-Russian sanctions. At the same time, statistics show that Greece was not one of Europe’s big players in the Russian agricultural market before the sanctions war.
True, sanctions caused bilateral trade turnover to decline by 40 percent in 2014, and Russian tourism to Greece fell by 15 percent. That stated, however, Greek farmers’ losses are estimated at “only” 30-35 million euros, which against the backdrop of Greece’s financial woes looks like a drop in the Aegean Sea.
According to Greek political analyst Georges Prevelakis, “The geopolitical factor... has been virtually absent in Greek diplomacy since the beginning of the crisis.”
But it must be remembered here that Syriza sits on the European left, which on principle advocates a multipolar world and opposes the isolation of Russia.
This was confirmed by the Greek prime minister himself during a visit in person to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June. There, Greece and Russia are known to have signed a joint memorandum on the construction of an extension of the proposed Turkish Stream gas pipeline on Greek soil. Construction is slated to begin in 2016, and Russia will financially assist Greece in creating the necessary infrastructure.
There is no reason to believe that at the official level Moscow is somehow trying to score geopolitical points from the escalation of the Greek crisis, Press Secretary of the President of the Russian Federation Dmitry Peskov said recently.
“We are concerned about the possible negative consequences for the entire European Union,” he stated.
Neither the EU nor the euro zone has ever experienced such a whirlwind before. And neither has the single European currency ever been threatened by the departure of one of its members.
But it seems that the fears of some Western politicians over the “Russian dimension” of Greek foreign policy are rooted in (their version of) reality.
Tsipras himself stated figuratively at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum:
“We are being battered by a tempest. But as a seafaring nation, we are not afraid of the elements. We are ready to explore new seas in search of new ports of call.”
For those in Western Europe suspicious of closer Russian-Greek relations, are these “new seas” causing sleepless nights?
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.