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SYRIZA’s win: a new place for Greece in Europe?

© Library of Congress

Image credit: Library of Congress

SYRIZA’s win in the recent Greek parliamentary election has caught everyone’s attention. The new government has run (and won) on an anti-austerity platform. Over the last week, the country’s new finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, has been touring some of the main European capitals to marshal political support for a renegotiation of Greece’s debt. In addition to that, Nikos Kotzias, Greece’s newly appointed foreign minister, has publicly denounced the European Union’s (EU) strategy of diplomatic confrontation with Russia. In other words, the incoming Greek government appears to be intent on challenging the current foundations of EU economic and foreign policy. There is only so much a country with Greece’s weight can accomplish. But this confrontation could arguably spur on a serious renegotiation of Athens’ position within Europe.

Europe and the West have constituted key referents of Greece’s geopolitical orientation for several decades – even more than a century. However, the seeds needed to articulate an Eastern narrative are still present within Greece. How much of what we are witnessing is real? And how much of it is just tactics?

Dating back to the early nineteenth century, the contemporary Greek state is the product of Balkan nationalism, which was partly influenced by the French Revolution and the European Enlightenment. Balkan nationalism was animated by the radical ideas that surrounded the so-called ‘Eastern Question’, namely how to manage the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and divide its European territories among the emerging nations of the Balkan Peninsula. From a geopolitical viewpoint, nineteenth century Greece straddled East and West, occupying a geographical space where three main forces converged: the expanding cultural and intellectual forces of Western Europe, Russian Imperialism and the receding lines of traditional Eastern authority. Against this backdrop, Europe’s Great Powers became the main sponsors and guarantors of Greek independence. In turn, the newly established Greek Kingdom in 1831 would become a springboard for territorial expansions eastwards – a process that lasted until as late as 1947.

Ever since the end of the Second World War, Greece has aimed to participate in every single stage of European integration. Both the ‘Western’ and ‘European’ conviction of the Greek national elite and the interests of the main Western powers in keeping Greece on their side coalesced in a geopolitical vision and narrative that has prevailed ever since: ‘Greece belongs to the West’. Remarkably, Greece managed to secure accession into the European Economic Community (EEC) as early as 1981.

In the late 1990s, Greece underwent serious efforts in order to join the Euro. Even after the euro crisis, during a shocking and lengthy recession period, the Greek people grudgingly endured unprecedented austerity measures in order to remain in the Eurozone. Austerity came at a high price, but consecutive Greek governments were resolved to shoulder the political cost. Admittedly, Greek foreign and trade policy made an effort to actively engage with emerging economic powers such as China or Russia. But this was never meant to constitute an alternative to EU membership, but rather an assertion of Greece’s potential to help bridge Europe to the rest of the world.

Up until the recent elections, Greece seemed resolute in her ‘Western Choice’, which was firmly grounded on reasonable prospects for economic growth, national security and an apparent preference for the principles of liberal democracy. In turn, this ‘Western Choice’ excluded alternative geopolitical representations in Greek discourse, such as existing historical and cultural affinities with Russia.

SYRIZA’s win may represent not only a rejection of the austerity measures that were part of the last bail-out deal, but also a more profound downgrading of Europe’s value for Greece, one that has been in the making throughout the financial and economic crisis. To some extent, Greece’s ‘Western choice’ has been sapped by latent radical and populist anti-European forces, which have occasionally resorted to Russia as an alternative geostrategic focal point. Such an interpretation would help explain the nature of the coalition government formed between left-radical SYRIZA and The Independent Greeks (ANEL), a marginally extreme-right party in the mold of belligerent Eurosceptic a la the United Kingdom Independence Party. It also explains the quick-tempered intention to block further EU measures against Russia over Ukraine by Nikos Kotzias, Greece’s newly appointed Foreign Minister – who according to the Financial Times has shady connections with Russia. In this regard, it is worth mentioning that the attempt to block further EU measures against Russia over Ukraine was embraced by Golden Dawn, an openly Nazi party that came third in the recent elections.

A few days after Athens had voiced reservations over EU sanctions on Russia, Moscow was eager to suggest that it would consider offering financial aid to Greece. In view of the worsening standoff with Europe over the issue, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said that, for the time being, seeking aid from Russia was not an option. At another opportunity, he did justify however the political ties between Athens and Moscow as a bridge of peace and cooperation between the EU and Russia. Admittedly, Russia is sitting on the doorstep of the Balkans, all too willing to exploit economic hardship and pro-Russian sentiment among Orthodox Christians in order to build influence in the region. So far, the Kremlin has focused much of its attention on Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro, tightening its grip on the energy sector and other strategic investments. But, Greece’s open position towards the Kremlin may be another point of entry for Russia in the Balkans.

Nevertheless, polls suggest that some 75 per cent of the Greek electorate remains ‘committed to Europe’, as well as firmly in favour of staying in the Eurozone. Does this mean that SYRIZA’s blend of open confrontation with the EU and pro-Russian mannerism is just a negotiating tactic aimed at spurring a change in EU economic policy – from ‘austerity’ to ‘growth’? If this were the case, SYRIZA’s win could be just the tip of a much larger economic and geopolitical iceberg. Wariness about German economic hegemony seems to be picking up not only in the so-called European periphery, but also in countries like France and the United Kingdom.

Whatever the case may be, SYRIZA’s win is not in itself endangering Greece’s strategic attachment to Europe. After all, SYRIZA had shrewdly watered down its euroscepticism in the weeks before the elections. Plus, we have the precedent of the Papandreou socialist governments of the 1980s. These started out embracing an exceedingly eurosceptic message and displaying a serious mistrust vis-à-vis the West: ‘Greece belongs to the Greeks’, and the ‘EEC and NATO are in the same syndicate’ were their political slogans. Eventually they consolidated as an established pro-European political force.

In the current predicament however, Greece is facing an extraordinary weakening of its economic position within the Eurozone. A 25 per cent drop in GDP in five years bears testament to this fact. Moreover, radical parties hold a shockingly large parliamentary majority (SYRIZA, ANEL, communist KKE and neo-Nazi Golden Dawn count 194 out of 300 seats in the Greek parliament). Such parties appear to be predisposed to review Greece’s geopolitical role and embrace a more equidistant position, between Europe and Russia. Taken together, the intensity of the crisis, the sheer parliamentary power of radical and populist forces and the ensuing sequence of events may hint at the possibility that the condemnation of German-imposed austerity could conceal a blatant anti-European agenda. Time will soon tell.

Vol. 7, No. 14 (2015)

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