Despite the sensationalist hype surrounding the visit of Greek PM Alexis Tsipras to Moscow, the real reason for the trip was simply to enable Greece to explore new directions in its foreign policy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras speak during a signing ceremony in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, April 8, 2015. Photo: AP
The recent visit to Moscow by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras provoked a fairly strong response from Europe's political community and the media in Western Europe. However, if one examines the proceedings from an impartial perspective, there is nothing really surprising to report.
Even before leftist party Syriza came to power in Greece, its leaders quite openly stated that the priority task of a Syriza government would be “to restore the sovereignty and dignity of Greece.” From the viewpoint of Tsipras and his kindred spirits, it was perhaps not only a question of overcoming the huge foreign debt stifling Greece’s economy and financial system, but also one of diversifying the country’s foreign economic policy.
Given that the financial reserves of Hellas are running low, and Tsipras urgently needs funding (according to the Western European press), Greece’s new Syriza-dominated government is showing willingness to compromise with Brussels and make concessions. Yet, at the same time, the Tsipras cabinet is not ready to abandon the ambitious leftist principles that effectively secured the party’s resounding victory in last January’s parliamentary elections.
Yes, the Greek cabinet came to an agreement with the EU on the modalities of extending the country’s credit line, and consented to some of the European Commission’s demands regarding its debt problems. Moreover, Athens agreed to reform its tax system and do more to counter corruption and tax evasion.
But at the same time, despite strong pressure from within the EU’s top echelons, in particular Germany, Tsipras’s leftist cabinet has not abandoned its strategic objectives. For example, in March the Greek parliament adopted a new poverty law to provide free electricity, food stamps and manufactured goods for the poor. Hence, the Syriza government’s top priority of reducing poverty and social inequality remains unaltered, despite the serious financial problems it faces.
The Tsipras cabinet has been in power less than three months. But that is long enough to conclude that at this historical juncture Syriza is not ready to break with the EU and lead Greece out of the euro zone. A “Grexit” is a leap into the unknown, and the prospect frightens not only the radical left, but the better part of Greek society, too. The government is not prepared to take the risk.
As a matter of fact, at a joint press conference in Moscow on Wednesday with Vladimir Putin, the head of the Greek government made it quite clear that Greece would try to solve its problems with creditors inside the EU and the euro zone, and to reach a compromise with the IMF. Whether an ambitious leftist anti-liberal experiment inside a single EU country is compatible with the European Union is a separate issue. But that is the current position of the Greek authorities as things stand.
As for the Syriza leader’s visit to Moscow, even before his party’s victory in January, Tsipras had spoken openly about the detrimental impact on Greek farmers of the country’s support for anti-Russian sanctions. In the run-up to the elections, Syriza promised voters that it would make national foreign policy more dynamic and “multilateral,” meaning, above all, improved trade, economic and cultural relations with Russia.
Arriving in Moscow, the leader of Greece’s radical left once again confirmed the importance that his party attaches to the “Russian vector” of foreign policy.
“Today spring has arrived in Moscow, and I think we can put spring back into our relationship,” said the head of the Greek government.
In bypassing the issue of credit (which some experts maintain was the whole purpose of the trip), Tsipras seems to have let down the sensationalists.
But of far greater significance is the adoption of a specific document — the Joint Action Plan for 2015-2016. It is all the more important given that in 2014 bilateral trade turnover fell by 40 percent. In actual fact, a similar state of affairs exists in Russia’s commercial relations with the majority of EU member countries. But the difference here is that the Greek authorities and the Greek public understand the abnormality of the situation, and the Tsipras cabinet is ready to do everything it can to reverse the trend.
No less important is the fact that the talks in Moscow touched heavily upon stronger ties in the field of energy. Both Putin and Tsipras stressed that an elaborate framework needs to be put in place to allow Greece to join the “Turkish Stream” project.
It is perfectly clear that the European Union does not want Greece to participate in Russia’s new energy project. But the reality is that Russia accounts for about two-thirds of the Hellenic Republic’s gas needs. And Greece itself would benefit from partaking in Turkish Stream, because its stock as a transit player would rise.
Overall, Alexis Tsipras’s visit to the Russian capital dovetails with the desire of his new government to conduct a more differentiated and active form of economic diplomacy. It is aimed not only at Russia, but at China, India, Latin America and the Arab world, too. But there is no doubt that the Russian vector of current Greek diplomacy is top of mind inside the corridors of executive power in Athens.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.