The Loud Athenian: Greece’s new leadership is stirring up trouble

As Alexis Tsipras and his victorious Syriza party try to make good on the promises that put them in power, world leaders are struggling to keep their frustration in check. In January, Greeks voted the radical left-wing party into office, hoping to reverse the austerity measures that saved Greece’s government from default but left its economy mired in recession. Tsipras wasted no time in unveiling plans for sizable social programs with wide popular appeal. It is no surprise that this promised surge in government spending put Greece’s lenders, namely France and Germany, on edge. Far more unexpected, however, are the new government’s controversial foreign policy tactics that have challenged Greece’s relationship with the European Union and other traditional allies. Syriza’s coalition with the right-wing Independent Greeks (ANEL), fronted by the radical new defense minister, Panos Kammenos, was a foreboding sign that Greece could soon stir up trouble. Ultimately, Tsipras’ methods and the inflammatory inclinations of his partners in government may further isolate Greece. Tsipras’ foreign policy makes it more likely that his pleas to the EU and other allies to pull Greece out of a social and economic crisis will be rudely rebuked.

By forming a coalition with the Independent Greeks, Syriza has married radical foreign policy ideals to its already radical domestic agenda. What attracted Greeks to Tsipras and his party in the first place was the promise to reverse foreign-imposed austerity measures and provide economic relief through various forms of government aid. Yet his alliance with ANEL and Kammenos has thrown in a wild card. Kammenos, whose party was described by the Greek Reporter as “patriotic,” “church-loving” and “anti-immigration,” is an unconventionally nationalistic choice for defense minister, considering how much of Tsipras’ job will involve easing international resistance to his domestic goals. Additionally, Kammenos’ nationalist sentiments may provoke him to diverge from Syriza’s main line. Already, his recent claims that Germany is “trying to abolish the European Union and NATO altogether” and that its demands amount to “blackmail” are a taste of his provocative rhetoric. Kammenos’ statements pander to an enthusiastic domestic audience wary of foreign pressure on Greece, but they may ultimately destabilize Greece’s economic and military interests in the larger region.

Syriza itself has shown few qualms about antagonizing its neighbors — particularly EU allies scandalized by the new government’s demands for debt relief. In order to bankroll its domestic spending, Syriza has insisted on drastic changes to its debt deal with international creditors. Some estimates report that 90 percent of bailout funds from the so-called Troika — the EU, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank — are currently earmarked for repaying foreign bank loans with significant interest rates. When it became evident that Syriza was headed for victory, Germany and other major EU creditors voiced their willingness to renegotiate when and how Greek debt would be repaid. The flexibility of other EU leaders is by no means new. The fact that the Troika bailed out the Greek government three times between 2010 and 2012 is a testament to the degree to which creditors have been flexible with Greek debt repayment. Syriza Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis nevertheless articulated his disinterest in continuing what his party believes is an endless chain of debt and austerity. Rather, Varoufakis intends to write off most of Greece’s debt, forcing European banks and governments to absorb the costs. Foreign creditors have barely flinched in the face of this provocation. Governor of the Bank of France Christian Noyer ruled out Varoufakis’ proposal during a radio interview only a few days after Syriza’s victory. On February 5, German Federal Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schäuble similarly said a write-off was “off the agenda,” according to the BBC.

To counter Germany’s dissent, Syriza has conjured a historical argument that reflects its tendency to appeal to pathos rather than sincere negotiation: war reparations. Citing the massive sums that Nazis exacted from Greece during World War II, Syriza has repeatedly demanded compensation from Germany. This request harkens back to a “top-secret report” released in 2013 by the Athens finance ministry, which cited no-interest loans that Hitler forced the Greeks to provide after the Nazi occupation in 1941, as well as serious infrastructure damage done to Greek cities at the time. The report concluded that the current German government owed Greece €162 billion ($212 billion at the time of the report), a number that other advocacy groups like the National Council on Reparations quote to be as high as $677 billion by including the value of stolen artifacts and individual claims.

But the demands for reparations led nowhere, at least under the previous government, a failure that was often derided by Syriza’s antiestablishment campaign. Tsipras even promised that his government would “demand debt reduction, and the money Germany owes [Greece] from World War II, including reparations.” This, however, is doubtless more rhetoric than policy. The Guardian’s Phillip Inman noted that France, the Benelux countries and Britain made similar reparations demands directly after the war in 1945, but they all rescinded their requests once the Marshall Plan began to revive their war-wrecked economies. Syriza therefore has little historical precedent for its demands. Instead, by resorting to the emotional topic of the Nazi occupation, while simultaneously demanding changes to the debt deal, Tsipras may be attempting little more than to strong-arm German Chancellor Angela Merkel into reconsidering her stance on Greece’s debt situation.

Refusing to further acquiesce to EU economic demands, a Greece with Syriza and Kammenos at the helm could challenge other aspects of its relationship with Western Europe and the United States — specifically its longstanding membership in NATO. Syriza has voiced its intention to reevaluate the country’s role in NATO, despite the fact that Greece’s membership stretches back to 1952. According to the BBC, the official party line supports “a multi-dimensional, pro-peace foreign policy for Greece, with no involvement in wars or military plans.” Foreign policy spokesman Costas Isychos also pronounced that NATO has “no reason to exist,” echoing another Syriza statement suggesting that NATO is a dated byproduct of the Cold War. These incendiary statements have come at a rather inconvenient time for Europe, when many of its nations are revisiting the importance of military coalitions in the face of growing aggression from Moscow.

So far, however, it seems that Tsipras is merely trying to use NATO membership as a bargaining chip with its conventional allies. According to former International Herald Tribune correspondent Judy Dempsey, Greek armed forces “rely on NATO for their security,” and while Kammenos’ statements might make it seem otherwise, the actions of the new government haven’t departed from previous policies. On February 3, Kammenos met with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to reaffirm Greece’s commitment to the organization and to resolve the perplexity caused by Syriza’s statements. Kammenos specified that Greece would still cooperate with NATO “on a political level and also on a military level.” Rather than gesturing towards an exit, Greece may be floating the possibility of their departure so that NATO feels pressured to concede to its demands. The government’s rhetorical maneuvering might result in some superficial successes for the fledgling administration, but it is just as likely to result in new tensions with countries that will increasingly read the new government’s ambiguity as antagonism.

The status of Macedonia and Kosovo is at the heart of Greece’s spats with the EU and tangles with its neighbors. Though the EU has tried to bring these countries into its sphere of influence, Greece has repeatedly disrupted these attempts. Macedonia is a candidate for full membership in NATO, and it has been repeatedly tapped for accession talks into the EU since 2005. Greek opposition to Macedonian membership is largely related to the country’s official name, the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.” According to a policy statement by the Greek foreign ministry, “the term ‘Macedonia,’ which is a Greek word, refers to the kingdom and culture of the ancient Macedonians, who belonged to the Hellenic nation and are unquestionably part of Greek historical and cultural heritage.” Greeks are afraid that the country’s name will push the nation to sustain claims to parts of Greece, as in some school books, in which Macedonia presents “Greek territory as being within the territory of a ‘greater’ Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.” Kyriakos Moumoutzis of King’s College London believes unfriendly Greek policy towards Macedonia will not change under Kammenos; ANEL previously made an independent statement saying it would “refuse to negotiate over the issue of [Macedonia’s] name altogether.” This is problematic for EU policy, which prioritizes political and economic stability in Eastern Europe and doesn’t consider Macedonia’s path to democratization guaranteed. A similar case exists with the self-proclaimed state of Kosovo, which Greece also refuses to recognize. EU member states Spain, Romania, Slovakia and Cyprus all consider Kosovo a part of Serbia so as to not inflame similar independence claims by minorities in their own countries. The new government’s rhetoric threatens continued and heightened obstructionism to EU policy goals in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, increasing the chances of instability in a region already scarred by a long history of bloody conflicts.

An uncooperative Greece may also reignite its antagonism towards Turkey, waking tensions that could spell disaster for both Greece and the EU. Initially, it seemed as though Syriza’s ascendance could lead to closer ties with Turkey. Turkish analysts saw Tsipras’ talk of “the prospect of a settlement on Cyprus” as a positive sign that Syriza’s Greece would solve one of its long-standing disputes with Turkey. Since 1974, Cyprus has been split in two, with the independent Cypriot state under Athens’ sphere of influence, while the island’s northern section is occupied by the Turkish military. Turks hoped that the new Greek government would be open to recommencing talks to resolve the issue, which were stalled by Greek withdrawal in December 2014. With a similarly hopeful tone, both sides lauded a December 2014 meeting between Tsipras and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu as an “important beginning in bilateral relations.”

However, some of the latest moves by Kammenos suggest that hopeful predictions of Greek-Turkish reconciliation may have been premature. First, Syriza’s tenuous relationship with NATO is troubling Turkey. The two states joined NATO in the midst of the Cold War, a military tie some analysts believe has allowed them to avoid animosity over the years. Former Turkish military advisor Metin Gürcan considers Kammenos’ plans to “develop the military” and mold “new pacts outside NATO” as a direct challenge to Greece’s alliance with Turkey, especially since this rhetoric is coming from a defense minister whom Gürcan labels as an “unadulterated nationalist” and “dedicated anti-Turkish politician.” Fears that the new nationalist defense minister might spark conflict with Turkey were further stoked when Kammenos flew by helicopter to the disputed Imia Islets in the Aegean Sea — the site of previous conflict between the two countries — despite the visit’s apparently benign nature. The Turkish Doğan News Agency portrayed the resulting chaos as an “unfriendly confrontation” between the Turkish and Greek navies, and it interpreted Kammenos’ move as a message that Greece intended to recommence its claims over the uninhabited islets.

It may still be too early to tell whether Kammenos’ nationalist sentiments will impact Turkish-Greek relations, as these initial aggressions are more likely meant to appeal to nationalist Greeks than to establish anti-Turkish policies in the long run. “On both sides of the Aegean,” writes Gürcan, “the hope is that the first action by Kammenos…was a one-time populist move to prove his credentials.” If Gürcan is wrong, however, heightened tensions between Greece and Turkey would come at a problematic time for the EU as a whole, since Turkey is a major strategic partner in combating the spread of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. In what Reuters has called “one of the highest-ranking EU visits to Turkey in years,” the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini — essentially the EU’s foreign minister — visited Ankara in December to rally Turkish support for EU policies, promising €70 million in aid for the Turkish government in response to the influx of Syrian refugees. If Greece’s provocative acts continue, though, Turkey may be more reticent to fall in line with EU policy on the Middle East.

Kammenos’ political convictions may also fray Greece’s developing military alliance with Israel. The two countries and the United States have carried out joint military exercises since 2011. Shortly thereafter, there were talks amongst Greek, Cypriot and Israeli energy ministers about exploiting recently discovered natural gas deposits in the eastern Mediterranean. The flourishing relations between Greece and Israel were reflected in a 2013 editorial written by former Greek Interior Minister Evripidis Stylianidis, in which he insisted that Greece was the “ideal transnational partner,” for Israel and that an Israel-Greece-Cyprus alliance could “alter the status quo in the region.” Defense Minister Kammenos has promised to continue this line of cooperation with Israel “both on a political and military level,” considering the importance of strong ties between the countries to counter Turkish influence in the region.

Despite a history of strong ties between Israel and Greece, Kammenos’ blunt and politically incorrect statements may sour the spirit of cooperation. In a widely publicized comment last year, Kammenos claimed that “Greek Jews paid less taxes than other citizens,” which the Greek Central Board of Jewish Communities attacked as a “seriously anti-Semitic act.” Though Kammenos has since tried to make amends through positive comments about Greek-Israeli cooperation, Israel did not take kindly to his appointment. Israeli news network Arutz Sheva published an article titled: “Anti-Semitic Politician Now Greek PM’s Ally,” accusing Kammenos of being “fond of conspiracy theories.” Israeli newspaper Haaretz published an article with a similar tone, but it tried to put the statement in context, explaining that “anti-Semitic stereotypes are widespread [in Greece],” suggesting Kammenos’ statements may not exactly reflect an anti-Israeli policy. The same article said Kammenos “is still likely to be more pro-Israel than the Syriza lawmakers,” who it claims have supported pro-Palestinian demonstrations in the past. Kammenos’ policies may be pro-Israel, but anti-Semitic rhetoric could complicate Greek relations with Israel in the long run. Kammenos’ challenge now will be maintaining a balance between bolstering domestic support through his nationalist rhetoric and maintaining diplomatic rapport with Greece’s strategic allies. So far, Kammenos’ tactless moves leave little hope that this balance can be attained.

Tsipras’ campaign promises for monumental changes to Greek policies already had EU leaders braced for the worst, but one move in particular has left the Brussels establishment in shock: In a break with EU policy, Syriza has taken to defending Russian interests. The Greek elections came at an especially grave time for EU-Russia relations, when upticks in violence along the Ukraine-Russia border forced the United States and several EU leaders to strengthen their resolve to respond to violence in eastern Ukraine. But when the EU published a condemning statement aimed at Russia earlier this year, the newly elected Tsipras asked to delay the issuance of this strongly worded communiqué. The EU continued regardless. Snubbed, Tsipras declared that Greece did “not consent” to the statement and sent a complaint to Mogherini over the issue. Regarding the EU plan to impose further sanctions on Russia, Syriza also made it clear that it “would not back another batch of measures, let alone support those already in place that come up for renewal in March.”

Greece’s pro-Russia stance was not ignored in Moscow, and Russian Minister of Finance Anton Siluanov even offered to help Greece settle its debt problems. As sanctions have to be approved unanimously by the European Parliament, Moumoutzis said moves like these by Greece “could undermine the effectiveness of EU foreign policy.” Tsipras’ position also outraged other EU heads of state, with Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Linas A. Linkevičius summarizing that the Greeks were “forced to change their stubborn position over sanctions.” Although a diplomatic crisis within the EU was averted, Tsipras’ initial decision to step out of line with other EU leaders demonstrated just one more way in which Greece has antagonized EU foreign policy.

Such crude moves by Tsipras may also hurt the country’s ties with some nations that have so far been unfazed by Greece’s poor economic and military track record. In particular, Syriza’s economic policies might soon put it at odds with China, a prospective ally that is investing heavily in European state-controlled firms. In previous administrations, one plan to reduce national debt included privatizing the state-owned Piraeus Port, one of the largest ports in Europe. But Tsipras’ government put all privatization plans for state firms and public infrastructure on hold “as an open challenge to international creditors,” who had demanded the privatizations in order to finance debt repayments. The privatization freeze has angered China, whose COSCO company was one of the primary contenders to buy the state’s share of the port. Commerce Ministry spokesperson Shen Danyang issued a statement saying China was “deeply concerned” by Syriza’s decision, pushing Syriza to arrange a meeting on the issue with the Chinese ambassador in Athens. Some surmise that Syriza wants to privatize these state structures on its own terms, using the funds to bankroll social programs as opposed to paying foreign creditors. However, an effort by Greece to increase public spending is more likely to alienate it from the countries that are currently willing to continue to negotiate on its debt, while further frustrating Greece’s other economic allies.

As it becomes increasingly clear that Syriza’s domestic and foreign policies are unsustainable, other radical parties in Europe may realize the need to temper their populism with a dose of pragmatism. In the aftermath of Syriza’s victory, it was predicted that the spread of Syriza’s anti-austerity policies would create a pan-European alliance against German domination of EU bodies. Pablo Iglesias, leader of the Spanish anti-austerity party Podemos, proclaimed that the Greek election was a precursor to “a year of change in Spain and in Europe.” Podemos celebrated Syriza’s victory by holding a highly publicized rally in Valencia. However, the failures of Tsipras, Varoufakis and Kammenos are likely to push Iglesias to keep his distance from Syriza in the future.

It is not as though Syriza’s policies are shockingly radical in and of themselves; other Greek politicians have certainly espoused the virtues of debt renegotiation and more progressive regional policies. But Syriza’s attempts to use foreign policy as a weapon to reverse German and French attitudes towards Greek debt have proven futile, if not counterproductive. Inflammatory rhetoric, whether calculated to drum up national support or to attain foreign policy goals, has placed Greece’s international relations in increasingly precarious circumstances. Unfortunately for Syriza, the party may soon have to eat its words.