The visit to Moscow by Greece’s Marxist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras sent waves through an already stormy sea and left the world waiting, breath bated, for answers to two questions: First, will Russia be able to split the European Union by breaking a weak link? Second, can Greece be saved from default without Western involvement? These are interrelated questions: It’s clear, isn’t it, that if Russia rescues Greece without the West, it will want a European split as payback? That’s what the EU has feared most from the day the left-wing Syriza party came to power. European politicians warned Tsipras from the start against making anti-Russian sanctions a bargaining chip in Greece’s debt negotiations.

But is Russia actually willing or able to save Greece? And is the Greek government actually so supportive of Russia that it is prepared to trade in Europe for Putin? The answer to both questions is likely to be “no.”

Light from the East in Exchange for Property

This is not the first time a Greek leader has gone to Russia to be rescued. Prime Minister George Papandreou showed up in Moscow 10 days after addressing his nation on its dire economic straits in February 2010. Moreover, he turned to Russia before going to his native U.S. (If Tsipras pulled a move like that it’d be seen as an anarchistic-communist uprising in the EU.) Back then, Greece had pretty much the same trade-off in mind as now: It wanted, where possible, to be Russia’s political ally in Europe. Putin could have asked Russian banks to purchase large quantities of Greek government bonds, but he did nothing of the kind. Instead, he simply reiterated Russia’s interest in some important Greek assets. And that happened back in the day when oil prices were high, Russia could get foreign loans and Europe wasn’t as critical of close ties with Moscow.

Alexander Baunov
Baunov is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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Times are even tougher now. The only way Putin can help the Greeks financially is by buying something Russia needs. And Russia’s always wanted to get something Greek. In the early 2000s, when I was a member of the Russian diplomatic corps in Athens, Russian oil companies were interested in a refinery near Thessaloniki. But they wanted to both invest in the business and run it. The Greeks, for their part, just wanted investments, preferring to manage the business themselves. More or less the same thing happened with another long-time interest of Russia’s, the Greek gas monopoly DEPA: You invest, we’ll stay in charge. Besides, the sale of DEPA would have contradicted EU regulations under which a single company can’t be both gas supplier and distributor inside a country. But that’s exactly where Gazprom’s interests lay: By acquiring the DEPA distribution system, it sought to gain direct access to the Greek consumer.

Since then, the Russian wish list of potential Greek assets has grown. For instance, the state-run Russian Railways monopoly has shown some interest in its Greek counterpart, the OSE. Greece’s railroads are clearly a money-losing venture; they have few routes that transport few passengers. But the Orthodox Christian businessman and “culturologist” Vladimir Yakunin, who heads the Russian company, has long been keen on all things Hellenic and Palestinian. Business plans aside, it seems he’d simply like to own some roads in the cradle of Orthodox Christianity. Call it a religiously motivated investment, akin to his Easter charter flights that bring the Holy Fire from Jerusalem to Moscow.

Greek participation in the relatively new Turkish Stream gas pipeline project is a different matter altogether. Turkish Stream is the same basic idea as the aborted South Stream: a massive Russian pipeline to Europe running through the Balkans, along the Black Sea floor, bypassing Ukraine. The “bypassing” part is exactly what Western governments and the EU don’t want, which is why talks with Bulgaria on South Stream ultimately flopped. Russia has substituted Turkey for Bulgaria as the spot where the Gazprom pipeline will emerge from the sea to boil and bubble, toil and trouble. But now Russia needs Greece so that the pipeline gets to Europe. On the day Tsipras arrived in Moscow, news broke that Greece, Hungary, Serbia, Macedonia and Turkey had confirmed their intentions to participate in Turkish Stream at the first round of “substantive talks” in Budapest. Tsipras, meanwhile, renamed the project Greek Stream during his Moscow visit—the same trick the Greeks pulled once before with Turkish coffee.

This news alone would suffice to justify Tsipras’ visit. Add Moscow’s nebulous promise to some day take Greek peaches off the Russian countersanctions list and the Greek prime minister can go home tired but happy.

Still Not Enough

Tsipras can indeed be happy with his visit, but it didn’t make him the savior of his country. Putin basically repeated what he told Papandreou five years ago: “If we implement projects that generate revenue for Greece, that revenue can be used to repay Greek debts. … There is interest in infrastructure projects—ports, airports, pipelines—and a readiness [among Russian companies] to work in the industrial sphere. We hope that they will enjoy the same conditions as their Western counterparts.

However, nothing Russia can offer—not its involvement in Greek privatization, not clemency for Greece’s fallen fruit, not Gazprom’s pipeline on Greek shores—will absolve Greece of its €350 billion in debt, plus interest. Even the most generous Russian investments would total hundreds of millions of euros at most, while the Greeks struggled to get €450 million by April 9 to make another scheduled IMF debt payment. The country’s total debt has grown since the days of Papandreou’s visit to Moscow and now amounts to €350 billion or 175 percent of GDP. This year alone Greece has to repay €2 billion to €3 billion a month.

There is no way Russia can solve Greece’s problem. But the numbers explain why Greek voters abandoned their traditional, respectable parties and flocked to a new political force. After all, this debt was accumulated over the 35 years those parties took turns at the helm. And it has only gone up in the five years they have been trying, with the EU’s help, to save the country from its financial woes. Anyone else in the Greeks’ shoes would have tried to get rid of them as well.

A Key to Russia’s Heart

There is nothing particularly Marxist about Tsipras’ dream of becoming the energy hub for Russia and Eastern Europe. Previous Greek governments had the same dream and cooperated actively on the issue with Russia, Iran and even Qaddafi’s Libya during Andreas Papandreou’s tenure. For 20 years, Greece and Russia had been cajoling Bulgaria into building a relatively small-scale Burgas—Alexandroupolis pipeline (Bulgaria let them down here as well); Greece has also tried its best to be involved in the South Stream project and its competitor Nabucco. All these efforts had been made under different governments—from the moderate right to the moderate left—and continue now under the far left.

Are Syriza and the Tsipras government really as supportive of Russia as they are made out to be? After Tsipras came to power there was a fair bit of speculation that his victory had been financed by Russia, and even that he and his cabinet members are pretty much working for the FSB. Anti-Western and anti-American statements made by Tsipras and his associates were offered up as evidence. Another ostensible piece of proof was the story of the current Greek foreign minister and Syriza member, former Communist Nikos Kotzias, coming to Moscow after the annexation of Crimea while still a member of the opposition to meet the head of the Federation Council, Valentina Matviyenko, who used to be Russia’s ambassador to Greece and still has an interest in the country. Kotzias also met with Leonid Reshetnikov, who worked in the Russian Embassy in Athens in the early 2000s and now heads the Kremlin-leaning Institute of Strategic Research. Another news item that came up was the fall 2014 meeting between current Defense Minister Panos Kammenos and Russian businessman Konstantin Malofeyev, who is known for sponsoring Russian volunteer battalions in eastern Ukraine.

All in all, Greece understands that finding a key to the heart of the current Russian leadership entails combining the old mantra of “traditional spiritual ties between Orthodox Christian nations” with nostalgia for a multipolar world and criticism of the United States and the European bureaucracy. But these in fact reflect commonplace beliefs held by Greeks, so there’s no need for Russian intelligence services to “recruit” anyone. No one is surprised, after all, by anti-communist sentiment among Poles or anti-Russian attitudes in the Baltics. They had no choice: Russia forced the communist regime on them. In this context, Greece is the mirror image of Eastern Europe. Greeks, especially the intelligentsia, feel that the West forced capitalism on them: Western meddling was behind the Communists’ loss in the civil war, which continued for four years after the German withdrawal in 1944. Besides, every schoolchild in Greece knows that the Greeks brought Christianity to Russia, which later fought against the Turks so that Greece could become independent, and Turkish coffee could become Greek.

Age-old Traditions

The unprecedented pro-Russian slant of the current Greek government is largely an exaggeration. All of Greece’s post-1974 governments also proudly touted the special relations between Orthodox Christian peoples and maintained that Greece can rely on Russia’s protection. Both the heir to the Greek left-centrist dynasty, George Papandreou, and the successor of the Greek right-wing leaders, Kostas Karamanlis, never missed a chance to emphasize their special relations with Russia. Perhaps the most pro-European and least pro-Russian Greek leader was Costas Simitis, prime minister from 1996 to 2004, under whose watch the country became one of the first to enter the euro zone.

But even he, a former leftist political emigrant persecuted by the military junta that took power in 1967, sympathized with Russia and held a dissenting view on NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia and Western intervention in Kosovo, which he expressed in terms as harsh as Tsipras now voices his views on Ukraine. His Defense Minister Akis Tsochatzopoulos, currently serving a jail sentence for corruption, had incredibly close ties with Russian defense officials, making Greece the only NATO country that bought arms from Moscow. (The deals totaled €1 billion.) The guest of honor, to standing ovations, at the ruling Socialist Party’s congress was Yasser Arafat.

And we haven’t even gotten to Simitis’ predecessor, the mighty Andreas Papandreou, founder of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), who was prime minister from 1981 to 1989 and 1993 to 1996. His rise to power at the height of the Cold War genuinely frightened the United States and Europe. The elder Papandreou embarked on a path of socialist reforms, some of which contributed to the current Greek debt. He was warmly welcomed at Soviet Communist Party congresses and regularly threatened the West with rapprochement with socialist-bloc countries. To spite Brussels, his government seriously discussed forming a Mediterranean alliance of Greece, Syria and Libya, ousting the U.S. naval base from Crete and putting a Soviet one in its place, and withdrawing from NATO and the Common Market. Ultimately, though, it was under his watch that Greece became a firm fixture in both NATO and the EU, the American base on Crete stayed put, and no Soviet one ever cropped up alongside or instead of. Empires collapsed, military and political blocs fell apart, but Greek policy remained unchanged. One could say that under Tsipras it’s coming back to its roots.

“A visit by the Greek head of state to Russia is seen as an extraordinary event—I can’t grasp why,” Vladimir Putin quipped at his joint press conference with Tsipras. I’m inclined to agree with the Russian president on this. Russia cannot and will not shower Greece with cash, and the current Greek government—reputation for radicalism notwithstanding—is hardly more pro-Russian than its predecessors, with whom the West managed to coexist even during the Cold War.

Both then and now, Russia’s reputation is such that anyone who forges closer ties with Moscow automatically begins to be viewed as a would-be member of the club of tyrants and oppressors of freedom, even if he or she was elected in a flawless election with perfectly democratic procedures, like Hungary’s Prime Minister Orban, Czech President Zeman, or Alexis Tsipras. Whence this fear of Tsipras and his visit to Moscow? Why does he have to be Russia’s Trojan horse in the EU? Why are the Europeans so unsure of their own strength? In fact, Tsipras is much more dependent on Merkel than he is on Putin. Why not make him the EU Trojan horse in Russia? Or just a mediator, as he himself proposes?

This publication originally appeared in Russian.

  • Alexander Baunov