Why Greek-Russian Relations Haven’t Improved

When the far left came to power in Greece, there were fears it would seek an entente with Moscow.

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras answers a question from a reporter in Moscow as Russian president Vladimir Putin looks on, April 8, 2015
Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras answers a question from a reporter in Moscow as Russian president Vladimir Putin looks on, April 8, 2015 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

When the far-left Syriza party took power in Greece in 2015, there were fears (including here) that it might trade the country’s Western alliance for an entente with Moscow.

The party had called for a “refoundation of Europe” away from Cold War divisions and its leader and the new prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, suggested Greece could serve as a “bridge” between East and West.

Three years later, nothing has come of it.

Why not?

In a new report (PDF) for the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, Dimitar Bechev gives five reasons:

  • Russia refused to exempt Greece from countersanctions banning European agricultural imports.
  • It was unable or unwilling to give Greece an alternative to European financial aid.
  • Russia is making mischief in the Balkans, where Greece seeks a stable hinterland.
  • In particular, it has tried to sabotage Greek rapprochement with Macedonia after the latter agreed to change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia in order to unblock a Greek veto to EU and NATO memberships talks.
  • Longstanding rivalries in the Eastern Orthodox Church have burst out into the open. Although the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is based in Turkey, it is run by ethnic Greeks.

Wishful thinking

Syriza’s leaders could have expected much of this if they had taken a hard-eyed look at Russia’s behavior and interests rather than let Marxist nostalgia and wishful thinking get the better of them.

Bechev does not expect relations to deteriorate. Greece has long maintained close ties with Moscow in order to hedge between East and West. That is why the Russians are biding their time.

But nor should we expect Greece to abandon Euro-Atlantic institutions. When push comes to shove, it knows who its friends are.