The new left-wing government of Greece has caused deep consternation in the international arena. By making both formal and informal statements against EU sanctions on Russia, the Greek cabinet has already stymied a unified European response to Russian aggression. As the EU requires unanimous decisions to increase its sanctions against Putin, it is supposed that SYRIZA’s prime minister could use pro-Russia policies to create a leverage for Greece in the renegotiation of its public debt.
When the leaders of the EU issued a joint statement expressing their concern over the deteriorating situation in eastern Ukraine last week, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras complained to EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, indicating that the statement did not have Greece’s consent. Indeed, key members of the new Greek cabinet have gone on record explicitly opposing sanctions against Russia. In declarations before taking office Tsipras asserted that Europe was “shooting itself in the foot” over Russian sanctions. Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, leader of Independent Greeks party, publicly supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014. But perhaps the most vocal of Russia’s defenders in the current Greek cabinet is energy minister Panagiotis Lafazanis, leader of SYRIZA’s most radical leftist faction, who announced his firm opposition to the EU sanctions, stating that the Greeks have no differences with the Russian people. That opposition was also echoed by the minister for European Affairs Nikos Chountis.
Kotzias, who was a member of the Greek Communist Party during the Cold War, endorsed last week the extension until September of travel bans and asset freezes imposed on many Russian officials. But that decision didn’t involve either adopting new sanctions or expanding current ones. It is a reasonable expectation, then, that when the moment to discuss those kinds of decisions comes, Greece won’t stand with Europe. (Current sanctions were adopted in March 2014 and their renewal is expected soon.)
Greece and Russia have a solid relationship that has its roots in their common religious ties, as both countries practice the Eastern Orthodox faith. Camaraderie in politics is often built on these cultural similarities as well geopolitical proximity. Moreover, during the Greek Civil War (1946-1949) communist insurgents fought against the Western-backed government; though the rebels weren’t successful, there has been a strong communist strain in Greek politics for nearly 70 years, especially among the political elite. The countries are economically close, as well; in 2013, according to the IMF, more than 12% of Greek imports came from Russia. And 2016 will be the “Year of Greece” in Russia as well as the “Year of Russia” in Greece.
This of course doesn’t imply that Greece is going to reject its allegiance to the EU, NATO, or other institutions commonly associated with the West. Under severe economic and social stress, it would be certainly difficult for Greece to disassociate from Europe entirely. Nevertheless, the conduct of the current administration should be carefully studied, as various ministers have already revealed a substantial shift in foreign policy. For instance, in January Russia’s agriculture minister implied that his country could lift a ban on Greek food exports implemented after the EU approved its sanctions. And on his first day in office, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras had his first official meeting with the Russian ambassador. As Russian president Vladimir Putin tries to gain for Russia as much as he can from the former Soviet sphere of influence, either by force or other means, the attention shown to the Russian representative is definitely a statement both about Russia’s good standing with and direct access to the current Greek administration.
Mr. Tsipras was elected to lead his country out of a severe and long-lasting economic turmoil. He should therefore be held accountable if, instead of alleviating the symptoms of the crises, he deepens them by making erratic choices in foreign policy.