The new reality of Greek acquiescence to EU policy hides deep ideological differences.
Since January 2015, when the leftist SYRIZA party first came to power, relations between Greece and Russia have been marked by high expectations and necessary adjustments. The initial hope of the Greek government in early 2015 to find alternative financing in Moscow in order to improve its negotiating position with EU and IMF creditors was dashed by July of that year. SYRIZA’s decision to sign the third Greek rescue package demonstrated not only the failure of its negotiating tactics with the country’s creditors but also the limits of the Greek-Russian bilateral relationship.
Since the signing of the so-called ‘Agreekment’ the government has shown a remarkable degree of alignment with EU policies. This can be expected to continue, with Greece unlikely to oppose the consensus of other member states in the upcoming European Council discussion on Russia. The period when Athens contemplated imposing a veto in order to exert pressure on its partners is now over.
But the new reality of Greek acquiescence to EU policy hides deep ideological differences between Athens and the majority of its fellow member states. EU sanctions against the Kremlin, for example, run counter to Greek interests. Russisan counter-sanctions have hit Greek agricultural companies hard, and the current economic confrontation prevents Russian companies from actively participating in Greek privatisations, depriving Greece of much needed investment.
On the whole, SYRIZA does not see Moscow as ‘the problem’ in EU-Russia relations and is advocating for a more constructive approach. Accordingly, it takes a positive view of the suggestion of ‘selective engagement’. On occasion the Greek government has been vocal in its support for Russia more broadly, such as during the Warsaw . NATO Summit in July. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was reported as causing some frustration to the US by calling upon the Alliance to end the stand-off with Russia.
The possibility of a better understanding with Russia is also significant for another reason: the potential for energy cooperation schemes. The normalization of ties between Russia and Turkey has led Presidents Putin and Erdogan to revitalize their December 2014 project and finally decide to build the ‘Turkish Stream’ pipeline. The bilateral deal signed in Istanbul this month revives Greek hopes to construct the ‘Greek Stream’ as a continuation of the Russia-Turkey pipeline, an idea agreed in principle between Premier Tsipras and President Putin in June 2015. Greek foreign policy actors will also be mindful of the need to not derail an agreement signed in February of this year by Russia’s Gazprom, Greece’s DEPA and Italy’s Edison on deliveries of Russian natural gas through third countries to Greece, and from Greece to Italy via an undersea pipeline in the Black Sea.
The positive state of Greek-Russian relations was confirmed during the official visit of President Vladimir Putin to Greece this May - his first trip to Europe in 2016. Putin enjoys a high popularity in Greece, with an approval rating of 74% according to a June survey. Premier Tsipras is encouraged to foster closer relations with Moscow not only by his ideology and public opinion numbers but also by the stance of the main opposition in the country. Although the conservative New Democracy party and its new leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis do not trust SYRIZA and the Prime Minister personally, they favour closer ties with Moscow as long as these ties respect the EU framework.
2016 is the year of ‘Greece in Russia, Russia in Greece’ cultural celebrations. A number of events held in both countries are highlighting the historical relationship and helping to bring the two countries closer together. But, at least at the upcoming European Council discussion, it is unlikely that culture will extend to politics.