Greece’s Eerie Calm
An explanation of the government’s motives and behavior can be found in spheres beyond the economy, where the government has moved swiftly to impose its agenda on domestic and foreign policy — to the alarm of allies, opposition parties and investors.
Nowhere has the government shown an appetite to compromise. This mentality is rooted in a century of conflict between left and right, when foreign powers helped right-wing governments maintain power at the expense of leftist forces. Now, with a radical leftist party, Syriza, in power for the first time, working through this situation could be as self-destructive as it is inevitable.
Since its election on Jan. 25, Syriza has adopted programs aimed at easing some of the effects of austerity, while promising to crack down on tax evasion, particularly by the rich.
It has taken a more tolerant policy toward migrants and refugees, tested relations with foreign partners, and frozen or rolled back a number of reforms, not only in the economy.
In education, a new law would give students and political parties greater influence in the running of universities, restoring a model adopted in the early 1980s that seriously undermined universities (and was changed only in 2011).
The police have been instructed to tolerate self-described “anti-establishment” activists, to the point that protesters painted insults against the police on riot squad buses.
On judicial issues, prosecutors claim that a new law aimed at easing prison congestion and setting free ailing prisoners will release too many convicts unconditionally; the United States and families of the victims of the November 17 terrorist group condemn an impending decision that would allow Savvas Xiros, who is serving five life terms (for, among other crimes, the murder of a United States defense attaché in 1988 and a United States Air Force sergeant in 1991), to finish his sentence at home because of injuries sustained in 2002 when a bomb he had intended to plant at a shipping company’s office exploded in his hands.
In foreign policy, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras raised eyebrows in Washington and Brussels when he visited President Vladimir V. Putin in Moscow earlier this month, after his government had made clear its opposition to sanctions against Russia for its incursion into Ukraine. Last week, his defense minister was also in Russia, renewing calls for an end to sanctions. (Apart from words, however, Athens has not broken ranks with its partners.)
And even as the government says it wants investments and growth, several ministers and Syriza deputies oppose a Canadian company’s gold-mining operation in northern Greece, while government members have given out conflicting signals about the potential expansion of a Chinese company’s container terminal in Piraeus.
Mr. Tsipras’s first act as prime minister was to visit a site where German occupying forces carried out a mass execution during World War II. Since then, Parliament has debated Greek claims for reparations for German atrocities and damages, and for the repayment of a loan the Nazis forced the Greek central bank to provide during the occupation.
A government official said that the total claim came to 278.7 billion euros. Germany, which directly or indirectly guarantees some €65 billion of the €240 billion bailout, says this was dealt with in past agreements.
But the Greek Parliament has set up a committee to investigate — and press — the issue.
Another inquiry is looking into how Greece amassed a debt that reached €317 billion at the end of 2014; the committee is expected to recommend that part of the debt not be paid. A third committee is investigating the circumstances of the bailout deal signed in 2010.
The reparation and debt inquiries are headed by Zoe Konstantopoulou, the Parliament’s speaker, a high-profile opponent of the bailout agreement. They appear designed to play on the government’s message that Greece is the victim of foreign loan sharks and of a corrupt local elite, rather than a country that needs to reform its economy and public administration.
Suspicion of foreign powers is the glue that holds the coalition’s two disparate parties together. Independent Greeks, the junior partner, is a hard-line right-wing nationalist group born out of opposition to the bailout; Syriza is the offspring of part of the Communist-led resistance against the Germans in World War II. In the civil war that followed Germany’s defeat, first Britain and then the United States backed a right-wing government, and during most of the Cold War leftists were marginalized in Greece.
Challenging Greece’s allies and highlighting claims against Germany give Syriza street credibility, and allow it to appear more “patriotic” than previous governments, which had raised but not forced the issue of reparations.
In negotiations with creditors, the government refuses to reform pensions and labor law, increase value-added taxes and encourage privatization. Yet it expresses confidence that Greece’s European Union partners, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund will back down.
“I remain firmly optimistic that there will be an agreement by the end of the month,” Mr. Tsipras told Reuters on April 16. Europe would not “choose the path of unethical and brutal financial blackmail,” he said, but would opt for “the path of bridging differences.”
To avoid rifts in his party, save face over unrealistic promises he made to voters and underline that he will not be “blackmailed,” Mr. Tsipras prefers to risk a breakup with creditors, which could destroy the economy.
Relishing their rise to power, he and his party display intransigence while demanding compromise. They either have unshakable confidence that they will get their way, or blind faith that, as time runs out, others will care more about the Greek people than they appear to and will step in to avert disaster.