Thursday, April 9, 2015

Alexis Tsipras risks fresh schism with Europe after warning of new Cold War with Putin

By Mehreen Khan 08 April 2015

Leftist leader uses Kremlin visit to assert Greece will forge an independent foreign policy as his near-bankrupt government courts eastern suitors

Charm offensive: Greek PM hailed "new spring" in Greco-Russian relations Photo: TASS / Barcroft Media

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras ramped up his defiance towards Eurozone creditors on Wednesday, using a visit to the Kremlin to assert that his country’s sovereignty remained undiminished in the wake of its protracted debt crisis.

In a highly symbolic visit to Moscow on the eve of a crunch International Monetary Fund loan repayment, Mr Tsipras insisted Greece was not a “debt colony”, but a “sovereign nation with the indelible right to carry out its own foreign policy”.

Following a three-hour meeting with president Vladimir Putin, the Leftist premier asserted his government would continue to forge an independent economic and foreign policy, hailing a “new spring” in Greco-Russian relations.

"We are a sovereign state and we can sign agreements in our common interest in order to combat the crisis in our country. This is why we came here. We want to create bonds of trust with Russia."

Mr Tsipras attended a wreath-laying ceremony in Moscow on Wednesday

Mr Tsipras also risked opening up a new schism with the European Union, repeating his claim that economic warfare against Russia would not resolve Europe’s simmering security problems with its eastern giant, and could presage a new “Cold War in Europe”.

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Ahead of the visit, EU officials warned Greece of undermining the continent’s unity over economic sanctions imposed on Moscow in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.

The Kremlin has been courting Greek political support to block anti-Russian sanctions, threatening a fresh rupture between the debtor state and the EU.

In return, Mr Putin said he stood ready to assist Athens, feeding Greece's needs for natural gas through the proposed “Turkish Stream” pipeline and pumping investment in the country's energy and transport sectors.

“Just because Greece is debt-ridden, this does not mean it is bound hand and foot, and has no independent foreign policy,” said Mr Putin.

Moscow’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, also attacked Europe for fostering a "with us, or against us” mentality.

“If one of the Europe’s leaders acts according to his national interests then it is perceived as a violation of the principle of solidarity – as if the principle of solidarity was invented only in order to support the Russo phobic minority in the European Union,” said Mr Lavrov.

Russian companies are now expected to take part in the planned sell-offs of Greece’s strategic assets – including its ports, airports and energy grids. The likes of state-backed Gazprom have already been invited to explore for oil and natural gas off mainland Greece’s eastern shore.

"If the Greek government is involved in privatisations, then we are ready to take part in the bidding process and I hope Russian companies won't be given less favourable terms than others,” said Mr Putin.

Greece’s fledgling government has also made attempts to court Chinese investment as it has turned east in search of political allies and alternative sources of financial firepower.

In a stark change in tone from Mr Tsipras’s frosty maiden visit to Berlin last month, the Syriza leader stressed the shared “religious, cultural and historical” ties of the two Orthodox nations, as well as their joint efforts in defeating the Nazi forces in Europe.

Mr Tsipras’s arrival in Moscow came as Greece is due to repay €448m loan to the International Monetary Fund on Thursday. The government has told its Eurozone creditors it will be unable to make the loan repayment and continue to meet its obligations to pay state wages and pensions due on April 28.

In a move that is likely to further antagonise its creditors, the Greek parliament will be voting on a bill to hire 12,000 public sector workers on Thursday, 3,900 of whom were sacked under the previous government's austerity drive.

The re-hiring have been a key plank of Syriza's election pledges and will cost the government €72m.

Tensions within the debtor country were also laid bare on Wednesday as Athens’ representative to the IMF, Thanos Catsambas, resigned from his position at the Fund, according to local media reports.

Mr Catsambas, an IMF veteran who was appointed by the previous Greek government in 2012, had called for a third bail-out for Greece. The reasons for his resignation are not yet known, but the decision comes after finance minister Yanis Varoufakis met with IMF chief Christine Lagarde in Washington on Monday.

Alexis Tsipras risks fresh schism with Europe after warning of new Cold War with Putin - Telegraph