Natalie Nougayrède Friday 3 April 2015
Hostility to Germany has brought the Greeks and Russians closer but for Athens the move is risky
There is nothing wrong with travelling to Moscow these days if you are a European politician. The problem is what you say, or do, when you’re there. The danger isn’t so much ending up in prison – Russia is not North Korea. Nor is it that no one should talk to Putin or his regime. Russia is a player that cannot be ignored across many international fields, from the Middle East to nuclear proliferation and even climate change. It attacked Ukraine and trampled on a half-dozen treaties and rules that uphold the post-1945 European security order, but no one has considered breaking off diplomatic relations. The risk of a trip to Moscow is that you may be taken for a “useful idiot”: the expression, often attributed to Lenin, applies to those who become instrumentalised when they take a position that serves Moscow’s propaganda aims much more than their own interests or intentions.
Comments come a week ahead of Greek prime minister’s controversial visit to Moscow but Tsipras insists country can be ‘a bridge’ between Russia and west
Alexis Tsipras calls western sanctions against Russia 'road to nowhere'
I can see several reasons why Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, has decided to travel to Moscow . Greece is deeply isolated in Europe as it struggles to harness much-needed funds from its lenders. Faced with a scenario of default or bank runs, Greece is in dire straits, with renewed speculation of a Grexit from the Eurozone. On 9 April, Greece must pay back €450m to the IMF. Tsipras wants to show his European colleagues that he can turn east, playing Russia off against the EU. His government has indicated it doesn’t intend to seek Russian money as an alternative to the European bailout, but that doesn’t mean an offer is excluded. His energy minister has just asked Russia to grant Greece lower gas prices, in the hope of alleviating budgetary pains. TV pictures of a warm welcome in Moscow will go down well in Greece, where Tsipras has to consolidate a seemingly fractured political base.
Greece and Russia have old historical ties. In the early 19th century tsar Alexander I helped Greece gain independence from the Ottoman empire. Orthodox Christianity brings a sense of belonging to the same culture. Religious affiliation may not be the most important thing for Tsipras, whose Syriza far-left movement is rooted in stark atheism. But it certainly appeals to his coalition partner, the far-right Independent Greek party, which is comfortable with Putin’s ideology of traditionalist nationalism and social conservatism, including anti-gay repression.
But the strongest glue that binds Tsipras and Putin at this point may well be anti-German sentiment – that is, deep aggravation against Angela Merkel. The German chancellor is portrayed in Greece as the source of all economic woes. In Moscow, Putin has been irked by Merkel’s turnaround in 2014, when she set Germany on a much stricter course against Russia, whose behaviour she has come to see as a threat to the whole of Europe. Both Greek and Russian officials enjoy laying the blame for all their domestic difficulties on external pressures.
Of course, memories of the second world war and of the Greek civil war come into it. The Tsipras government has had no qualms about asking for German war reparations money, just like the Putin system has played on Germany’s past to gain advantages in Europe over the years.I would bet that Tsipras will return to Moscow again on 9 May to attend ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the great patriotic war. Other European leaders, including Merkel, have decided to shirk that military parade, in protest at Russian aggression in Ukraine.
So, is the Greek government about to sell itself off to Russia? Probably not. Even if Athens wanted to, Moscow simply doesn’t have the goods. This explains to a large degree the relative indifference that this trip is being met with in other European capitals. Merkel has shrugged it off as a sideshow.
Russia is going into recession. It suffers from a combination of the low global oil prices and western financial sanctions. This makes a Russian bailout for Greece highly unlikely. Greece will need another bailout by this summer, say many experts. The current EU bailout stands at €240bn. Russia’s hard currency reserves are still high (€330bn) but they have shrunk by about a third over the last year. Those who monitor the impact of sanctions estimate that in two years’ time, Putin will be running out of necessary resources to keep pension and salary promises. Domestic political stability is surely more important to him than organising a money airlift to Greece.
So Putin has more to gain from Tsipras’s visit than the Greek leader does. It will be another demonstration of European divisions, and a good chance to showcase pro-Kremlin networks within the EU. Russia’s financing of France’s far-right National Front was a comparable PR stunt for Putin last year. Tsipras will be seen as joining the ranks of those, like the Hungarian prime minister Victor Orbán or the Serbian government, who are readily available to applaud Putin. Tsipras has already shown himself to be a “useful” partner to Putin by saying European sanctions against Russia are “a road to nowhere”. In fact, they are a serious concern for the Kremlin and currently represent Europe’s only leverage of soft power.
Hugging close to Putin is not the best way to show that you are 'a proud member of the European Union'
Greece’s position within the EU will not be strengthened by this. Hugging close to Putin is not the best way to show that you are “a proud member of the European Union”, as the Greek government’s reform document – handed to its lenders on Wednesday – confidently states. Nor is it likely to convince anyone in Europe to show more solidarity to Greece, something Tsipras has been repeatedly, and understandably, calling for.
Perhaps the Greek PM thinks he doesn’t need to worry so much about the damage done to Greece’s image. After all, his defence minister, the far-right-wing Panos Kammenos, threatened last month to “flood Europe with migrants, including jihadis” if bailout money wasn’t forthcoming (the Greek government later backtracked on that). But provocation will only get you so far. The trip to Moscow is perhaps more a sign of Greek weakness and despair than pragmatism. It demonstrates short-sightedness. It is hard to see how Russia, as Tsipras recently declared in an interview, can bring Greece a “wonderful future together”. Greece may be trying to sell itself as a loose canon, hinting at dropping out of euro-Atlantic solidarity, but does it really want to join Russia’s sphere of influence alongside places such as Belarus?
Here’s a suggestion that might help Tsipras gain some traction. He will be the first European leader to travel to Moscow since the assassination of Boris Nemtsov. Tsipras has branded himself a politician who wants to rejuvenate Greek democracy, end corruption and oligarchic privileges. He claims to defend those who feel crushed by the powers that be. A word of support in Moscow for those who, in Russia’s democratic opposition movement, stand for exactly the same kind of values would be, well, a nice surprise.