Africa, Eurasia or the Levant Calling? Greece’s Dilemma

With Greece on the verge of leaving Europe, could it find a place for itself in the Middle East?

Scene outside the city of Thermes, Greece, near the border with Turkey, November 28, 2009 (Ggia)
Scene outside the city of Thermes, Greece, near the border with Turkey, November 28, 2009 (Ggia)

Greece’s debt crisis has brought to the surface a serious question — where actually does Greece belong in financial, geopolitical and social terms?

The modern Greek state was founded on a strange mix of Arab, European, Levantine and Ottoman influences. Two of its greatest leaders of the last century, Eleftherios Venizelos and especially Konstantínos Karamanlís, firmly believed that the nation was an inseparable part of the West.

Before Greece entered the European Union in 1981, Karamanlís, who was serving out his fourth term as prime minister, argued that European culture “is a synthesis of the Hellenistic, Roman and Christian spirit.”

A synthesis to which the Greek spirit introduced the idea of freedom, truth and beauty; the Roman spirit contributed the idea of the state and justice and to which the Christian spirit gave faith and love.

Even Greece’s socialist party, which initially rejected European Union membership, came to recognize the political and financial benefits it offered.

Some thirty years later, Greece is at the center of Europe’s sovereign debt crisis and without political leadership. The rise of radical left- and right-wing parties has shocked European leaders from Berlin to Brussels. The call for Greece to leave the eurozone is heard ever more loudly. It would likely mean Greece’s exodus from the European Union as well.

If that happens, what path should Greece follow?

Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, suggests in the Financial Times that Greece could be an integral part of Russia’s strategy in the Mediterranean.

Russia currently shields Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who has been internationally condemned for his brutal crackdown of an anti-government uprising in his country, because Moscow needs him right where he is. Syria is Russia’s most reliable Middle Eastern commercial partner. Moreover, access to a Mediterranean port holds considerable strategic value for Russia, itself largely cut off from the world’s major oceans.

If Assad falls, could Greece be Russia’s Middle Eastern proxy? It shares some affinity with at least several of the nations in the Levant where, controversially stating, the only marker of qualifying is to be in a state of ongoing decline.

Greece meets several of the criteria to be considered part of the Middle or Near East. It is heavily in debt, its church is deeply involved in politics and protected by the state. It has a longtime sworn enemy — Turkey.

A Greek exit from Europe could prompt a series of geopolitical domino effects. As Nick Ottens wrote at the Atlantic Sentinel earlier this week, “If Greece is forced to leave Europe’s single currency union and possibly suffers a bankruptcy, its Cypriot allies would necessarily lean more heavily on their newfound friends in Israel.” He also pointed out that Russia could seek to take advantage of the situation.

The question is in the hands of Greek voters. Will they choose Europe or the Middle East? The euro or the drachma? If the tone of the political debate is any indication, the Greeks are as divided as the rest of Europe is undecided about whether to let them stay or go.

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