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New Greek Government Could Lead the Charge against Russia Sanctions

New Greek government will be more pro-Russian than its predecessor but is unlikely to sacrifice prospect of a debt write-off to get sanctions lifted

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This post first appeared on Russia Insider


Syriza’s victory in the Greek parliamentary elections on January 25 raises the question of the new Greek government’s policy towards Russia.

The previous New Democracy-led conservative Greek government was unswervingly loyal to the EU’s policy of sanctioning Russia.  Will the new government follow suit or will it change the policy?

<figcaption>Tsipras meeting with Matviyenko, the head of Russia's Federation Council, in Moscow</figcaption>
Tsipras meeting with Matviyenko, the head of Russia's Federation Council, in Moscow

In contrast to some other EU states, Greece is traditionally strongly pro-Russian (63% of Greeks have a favourable view of Russia according to a Pew poll).  The EU’s anti-Russian sanctions policy has never been popular in Greece.

Mostly this is due to religion and history.  Greeks share with Russians an affiliation to the Orthodox Church.  Greeks also remember Russia's role in liberating Greece from the Ottoman Turks.  Many Greeks also recall Russia's role in the Second World War.

Greeks also have a completely different take on the Ukrainian conflict than do other Europeans.  

To some extent this is due to greater familiarity.  There is an old and well-established Greek community in Ukraine, whose centre is Mariupol.  

Ukrainian Greeks overwhelmingly oppose the Maidan movement and are pro-Russian.  Many have friends and relatives in Greece.  This means many Greeks in Greece get their information about Ukraine not from the international western media but from their friends and relatives who live in Ukraine.

Another factor consolidating Greek hostility to the Maidan movement is that support in Greece for the Maidan movement tends to be strongest amongst supporters of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, some of whose members have actually volunteered to fight on the Ukrainian side in the war.  This has the effect within Greece of conflating opposition to Maidan in Ukraine with opposition to fascism in Greece itself.  In a country like Greece,  where memories of the German occupation in the Second World War remain vivid and where a fascist military dictatorship was in power as recently as 1974, this is not a factor to be underestimated. 

The election was not however fought on the issue of relations with Russia.  In fact this issue went unmentioned throughout the election campaign. 

This is because for Greeks relations with Russia and the conflict in Ukraine are very much secondary issues.  The subject of overwhelming concern for most Greeks is  to the country’s economic crisis.  The success or failure of the Syriza government depends not on how it handles relations with Russia.  It depends on whether or not it succeeds in solving the economic crisis. 

That does not mean that the question of Greece’s relations with Russia is of no importance.  

A Syriza led government is more likely to seek good relations with Russia than the strongly pro-EU government it has replaced. It will also be more difficult for a Syriza led government to agree to an extension of the EU’s anti-Russian sanctions - which come up for renewal in March and July - than it was for the outgoing pro-EU government.   

Syriza has been elected because it is seen as the party most willing to stand up to Berlin and Brussels.  Agreeing to extend the sanctions will provoke questions about whether this is really so.  Syriza’s powerful left wing would be especially unhappy.

Given the overriding need to solve the economic crisis, Syriza may however be unwilling to oppose a policy - even one it strongly disagrees with - if it feels that would place in jeopardy its prospects of getting Berlin and Brussels to agree a write-off of Greece’s debt.  Given that for Syriza progress on the debt write-off is a make or break issue, the pressure on Syriza to go along with the sanctions policy if that is the price that must be paid to secure a debt write-off, may in the end be too strong to resist.

It is not a foregone conclusion this will happen.  When the EU imposed sectoral sanctions on Russia in July, Syriza condemned them saying they were “catastrophic for Greek agriculture”.  The very first foreign dignitary Tsipras (Syriza’s leader and Greece’s new Prime Minister) met was reportedly the ambassador of Russia. 

Syriza’s choice of coalition partner is the party of the Independent Greeks led by George Kammenos.  Its platform closely resembles that of Marine Le Pen and of the French National Front.  The Independent Greeks are an outspokenly anti-bailout party, opposing what they say is the rule of Greece’s "by email from Berlin".   They may be even less willing to compromise on the sanctions issue than Syriza itself.

Much will probably depend on what happens next and how Berlin and Brussels react to the new government.  If Berlin and Brussels take a hard line Syriza may be less willing or able to compromise on the sanctions issue.  If instead they are willing to negotiate with Syriza then a trade-off that sacrifices Syriza’s stance on sanctions in return for concessions on Greece’s debt is a possibility that cannot be excluded.  

What suggests that such a trade-off is what Syriza actually has in mind is that Syriza has up to now spoken only of "working to persuade" other EU states that the sanctions against Russia are wrong.  Syriza has not categorically committed itself to vote against the sanctions. Since the issue was never brought up during the election campaign, Syriza has never been put under pressure to make its stance on this issue clear.

If the new Syriza led Greek government does nonetheless vote against the sanctions when they come up for renewal in March and July - a possibility that cannot be entirely excluded - then short of expelling Greece from the EU the sanctions will end.   The legal position is clear.  Without the unanimous agreement of all EU member states including Greece the sanctions cannot be extended. 

Should Syriza screw up the courage to take this step then it is unlikely to find itself alone. It would have at least the tacit support of several EU states such as Austria, Slovakia, Italy and Hungary that are known to be unhappy with the sanctions.

The end of the sanctions may not make an immediate difference to Russia’s financial situation. If Germany remains hostile, it is unlikely western bank lending to Russia would resume on any significant scale.

The end of the sanctions would however be a humiliating blow to Angela Merkel, providing conclusive proof that her hitherto unchallenged leadership of the EU was slipping away from her.  

We have already discussed the mounting opposition to her anti-Russian policy within Germany itself.  

The extent of this opposition became even more clear at the World Economic Forum in Davos. The German business community has enthusiastically embraced the Russian proposal for a free trade zone between the Russian led Eurasian Economic Community and the EU.  

Merkel’s response shows the pressure she is now under. She could not reject the idea outright.  Instead she tried at Davos to hold the line by passing the idea off as her own whilst trying simultaneously to link progress on the idea to Russian concessions in the Ukrainian conflict. 

On top of her problems in Germany Merkel now faces rebellion in Europe.  

More and more European countries disagree with her sanctions policy. The European Central Bank has begun quantitative easing against her wishes. Greece now has a far left government elected on a platform opposing the whole range of her policies, including her policy towards Russia. If the Podemos party - with a programme very similar to Syriza’s - comes to power in Spain, the rebellion will have spread beyond her ability to control.

At the G20 summit in Brisbane Merkel complained about the emergence of a pro-Russian block of states within the EU. She has repeatedly returned to this theme in speeches since then. 

In reality there is no “pro-Russian block” of states within the EU, nor is there ever likely to be. What there is, is growing opposition to Merkel’s policies. 

With Syriza’s victory that opposition is certain to grow. That is the most important consequence of Syriza's victory.


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