The anti-austerity coalition that took power in Athens this week could threaten the West’s hold on Greece and give Russia a chance to expand its influence in the country.
In a sign of things to come, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ new government said on Wednesday it opposed a European Union statement issued in Brussels a day earlier that condemned continued Russian aggression in Ukraine and opened the door to further sanctions.
“Greece doesn’t consent,” the government said in a statement.
Tsipras’ far-left Syriza party won the election on Sunday but fell two seats short of an outright majority. It entered into a coalition with the right-wing Independent Greeks who won thirteen seats.
Having been elected on a promise to put an end to austerity, Tsipras defied his European Union creditors a day after taking office by rolling back the privatization of Greece’s largest seaport and its public power utility. Both were supposed to be sold off under the terms of Greece’s bailouts.
Tsipras has spoken favorably of Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, in the past. His party opposed the European association treaty with Ukraine that triggered last year’s deterioration in East-West relations. Its pro-Russian orientation owes much to its rejection of the “neoliberal” project it calls the European Union.
Greece’s new foreign minister, Nikos Kotzias, advocates closer relations with Russia and has spoken out against a supposedly German-dominated Europe. A former communist, Kotzias praised the Polish government’s crackdown on the Solidarity movement in the 1980s, setting him up for an awkward encounter in Brussels. The current president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, started his political career as a Solidarity activist.
Syriza’s otherwise liberal views on social issues would seem to conflict with the religion-infused propaganda coming out of Moscow.
The socially conservative Independent Greeks have no such qualms. They appreciate Putin’s defense of traditional values against encroaching liberal influences from the West.
Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reports that Russia’s courtship of both parties — Putin was one of the first leaders to congratulate Tsipras on his victory — is part of a deliberate strategy to win support from anti-establishment movements across Europe. “The aim is to divide the EU and prevent existing European sanctions from being extended or new measures from being imposed,” according to the newspaper. Both would require unanimous consent from the member states.
Countries in the European Union first imposed financial sanctions on Russia’s political and business leaders after the country occupied and annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in March last year. The embargo was extended after Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine were suspected of having shot down a commercial airliner, killing nearly three hundred passengers and crew. The missiles that were used to shoot down the airplane likely came from Russia.
Russia still denies it actively backs the insurrection in southeastern Ukraine but has admitted to deploying troops in the Crimea, something it earlier denied as well.
The Western sanctions triggered a trade war. Russia responded by banning certain agricultural imports from Eastern European countries and reducing natural gas flows to Poland and Slovakia. It was notably light on embargoing products from Greece, however.
Russia is a major trading partner for Greece. It accounted for 14 percent of its imports in 2013.
The country is also heavily dependent on Russian natural gas. Business Insider reports that under a deal the country did with Russia’s energy conglomerate Gazprom last year, it is obligated to pay for up to two billion cubic meters of gas per year. Because demand for gas unexpectedly dropped 35 percent last year, Greece is stuck with a €100 million energy bill.
The threat of a court case over that bill and urgent calls on the Greek side for a renegotiation of the 2014 contract have left the country in a difficult position with respect to Russia: while it lobbies for concessions from state-owned Gazprom, Greece will be asked to vote on further sanctions against Moscow for its role in the ongoing crisis in Ukraine at a meeting in Brussels on Thursday.
Russia’s strategic goals extend beyond maintaining Gazprom’s monopoly on the Greek energy market and blocking more sanctions.
If Russia is to project power into the Mediterranean, it requires Greece’s acquiescence. Even if it improves relations with Turkey — and Putin appears to have found an ally in that country’s increasingly erratic and anti-Western leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — it could still be blocked by Western powers in the Aegean Sea. But once Greece succumbs to its influence too, the Mediterranean will be wide open.
Hence Western support for the Greek national government against the communists during the 1946-1949 Civil War.
Syriza’s ambiguous position on NATO inspires little confidence. The party says it seeks “the refoundation of Europe away from artificial divisions and Cold War alliances such as NATO.” One party lawmaker called for Greece to leave the alliance altogether last year but was quickly hushed down by more senior officials.
Working in Russia’s favor are ideological affinities. It shares an Orthodox Christian faith with Greece and an illiberal mindset with the country’s new ruling parties.
Which is not to suggest Greece will turn into a powerful Russian ally soon. The Moscow Times points out that the country’s fragile position within the European Union makes it an “improbable pro-Russian crusader.”
The newspaper — which is allowed to operate fairly independently because it publishes only in English — cites Dimitris Papadimitriou, a professor of politics at the University of Manchester, saying the new government in Athens “will not want to risk a major confrontation with the EU over the imposition of sanctions against Russia. But it would not be surprising if the new government gets closer to Russia and looks to it for greater support.”