Fears in the westthat Greece's economic woes could spiral into a geopolitical shake up
This article originally appeared in The Guardian
Greece’s battle to stay solvent and in the eurozone is becoming a game of dangerous brinkmanship. Beyond the war of words between Athens and Berlin, the dark arts of diplomacy are also being played.
On Tuesday, only hours after Greece’s leftist-led government announced that the prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, had accepted an offer by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, to visit Berlin, it was revealed that he would also be making a similar tour to Moscow. “The prime minister will visit the Kremlin on 8 April after being invited by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin,” his office said.
Before the sun had set over the Acropolis, the top US diplomat Victoria Nuland had waded in, holding talks with Greece’s foreign minister, Nikos Kotzias, in Athens.
Nuland, who is assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, flew into the capital amid mounting US concerns that the great euro debt crisis has begun to pose a geopolitical threat. Allowed to veer out of control, Greece could end up in the ambit of Russia, financially bereft and without the EU links that keep it bounded to the west. Nato’s south-eastern flank would be immeasurably weakened at a time of mounting global security worries over Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East.
Under Tsipras’s steely leadership, the country has worked hard to stoke such fears. Exploiting his far-left Syriza party’s traditionally good ties with Moscow, the young leader has allowed his ministers to suggest openly that they would turn to Moscow as a strategic protector in the event of Athens being ejected from the 19-nation currency bloc. Russia, in turn, has said it would happily consider a Greek request for aid – despite its own financial woes – should its fellow Orthodox state ask.
“We want a deal with creditors,” asserted Panos Kammenos, the rightwing nationalist who leads the ruling coalition’s small Independent Greeks party. “But if there is no deal, and if we see that Germany remains rigid and wants to blowEurope apart, then we will have to go to plan B.”
As negotiations with Brussels and Berlin have become ever more tortuous, Kotzias has increasingly played up Athens’ geostrategic role. Creditors, he recently warned, would cut off Greece at their peril. “There will be millions of immigrants and thousands of jihadis flocking to Europe if the Greek economy collapses,” he told EU counterparts 10 days ago. “There is no stability in the western Balkans and then we have problems in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq and north Africa.”
Seasoned euro crisis watchers fear that in his bid to extract concessions over the country’s monumental debt, Tsipras is overplaying his hand.
Almost six years into the crisis, patience with Greece among voters in Europe’s northern climes – and especially in Germany, the biggest contributor to the €240bn bailout programme propping up the Greek economy – is wearing thin. Tsipras’s desire to find a political solution when he meets Merkel next week – one that would focus less on figures than reforms – already smacks of evasion for austerity hawks who believe fiscal rectitude is the only way forward for Europe’s most indebted state.
Fears of Greek isolation were highlighted on Tuesday when the chairman of the euro group of finance ministers warned that capital controls, or even a Cyprus-style bailin of banks, was not beyond the realms of probability if progress was not made. Unable to tap international markets, the cash-strapped Greek state has reached breaking point.
Amid the shrillness and shouting, Washington worries Europe may be losing the wood for the trees. Diplomats hate unpredictability. But against a backdrop of growing speculation over Athens’ ability to remain in the euro, there are rising fears that Moscow has identified Greece as a potential Trojan horse.
“Russia has a great interest in seeing the Greek crisis turn for the worse,” said Dimitris Keridis, a professor of political science at Athens’ Panteion University. “It is very supportive of the drachma lobby precisely because a Greek exit from the euro [Grexit] would hurt the eurozone, weaken Europe and de-link Greece from the west. Russia does not want a united, strong Europe because it sees it as a potential geopolitical threat.”
US diplomats fear that the hard line creditors are taking could backfire. Too much attention, they say, is being paid to the pressure of bailout concerns at the expense of geopolitical power and the influence that Greece exerts at the crossroads of east and west. Regionally, few places are as important as the southern island of Crete, home to facilities that provide command control and logistics support to US and Nato operating forces.
If Athens were to turn its back on the west, Turkey could be next. “Greece is much more important than people think,” the former US ambassador to Greece, Daniel Speckhard, told a recent edition of Fortune magazine. “The conventional wisdom is now that we can allow a Grexit and just cauterise the wound, but it’s not that simple.”