While watching the Greek parliament in session at the end of last week, I discovered a number of familiar themes. The country is faced with a situation in which the sword of Damocles is just about to open Pandora’s box, so that the entire Sisyphean task will spill through the barrels of the Danaids. Meanwhile, the Syriza members of Greek parliament are discussing essential questions of the true meaning of democracy, how it differs from popular rule and what are European values. It conjured up the images of Mao or the Bolsheviks: the country is starving, women are plowing, and the children are sowing the fields as Communist Party congresses and the press hold the most important discussions about how to correctly understand historical materialism and debate calling trade unions “communist prep school” rather than “the socialist school for people’s self-education.” Yes, these Syriza Greeks are true revolutionaries indeed.

Danko’s Burning Heart

When I first started frequenting Greece in the mid-1990s, I came across two common sentiments. The first one was quite expected: Eastern Europe, which had just recently sheds its communist past, was in dire economic straits at that time. That prompted the Greeks to express sentiments that the Germans now often express toward the Greeks themselves: they considered themselves an affluent country that is being asked to support God knows who, perhaps sometimes even those who don’t deserve it. Of course sometimes they were genuinely sympathetic or helpful. The first Albanians that sneaked in from behind the rusty Iron Curtain were received with enthusiasm and generosity, just as their Russian and Ukrainian counterparts were. But once these Albanians, Russians and Ukrainians started arriving in droves, many Greeks began doubting the need for helping such wayward strangers— will our money go to waste? Anyone would have felt the same in their place, including us.

Alexander Baunov
Baunov is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an editor in chief.
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The second attitude I encountered was also quite common, but less expected. It was a sort of schadenfreude: Greeks thought these countries had gotten what they deserved by rejecting socialism. You had abandoned your post as the second pole in a bipolar world. You were no longer a challenger to the United States, and so America was now free to do as its pleased—and that meant that we in the post-Soviet Union deserved suffering, as we had brought upon ourselves.

Now that the socialists are running Greece, the Greeks— or at least their current government—are spearheading their own challenge against global injustice, acting as a beacon for all other European nations. According to Louka Katseli, the head of Greece’s National Bank, the over two billion Euros in cash reserves that the country had a week ago have dwindled to just one billion, while Greek citizens still have 120 billion Euros in bank deposits to their names. Banks will have no liquidity this week unless they get emergency relief from the European Central Bank. Greek former Finance Minister and motorcycle lover Yanis Varoufakis reassured Greeks that their pensions were transferred to the banks on time, it’s simply that the banks lack the actual cash to pay them out. No money, no honey. No meat, butter, dairy products, weekends away, island vacations, kids' birthday presents, all that jazz.

Last week, Greeks of all ages and fortunes collectively spent millions of hours in lines waiting to buy bare essentials. It would have seemed that a week of being a true challenger to the global order would have been enough to secure a resounding Yes vote at the referendum on European bailout terms on Sunday. Instead, a resounding No prevailed, sweeping up 60% of the vote rather than the slim majority that polls had predicted. The people had heard Tsipras’s call to say No to a capitalist ultimatum, and heeded the finance minister’s words about how European institutions are terrorizing Greece. The people and Syriza stood united in their resolve not to pay.

It takes a genuine left-wing ideologue to label the U.S., EU, IMF, banks and stocks exchanges “terrorists.” One shouldn’t dismiss Tsipras as a cynical opportunist: he’s never been one. We have already seen that he did not sign everything the EU offered him, as many people predicted he would when he came to power, but rather stood his ground even with a possible default clearly in sight. And Varoufakis, who once wrote of the need to change the unfair global financial system by imploding it from within, seems to be doing just that. What about the country’s population, which is suffering from it all? Well, that’s exactly what happens when countries are run by those fighting against global injustice.

Apart from the tedious task of governing their countries to benefit the people living in them, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Tsipras are alike in their global mission to correct global imbalances and injustices. The world is at an impasse, but one that we can fix. “Why did I live, for what purpose was I born?… And that purpose must have existed, and my destination must have been a lofty one, for I feel, in my soul, boundless strength,” to quote Mikhail Lermontov’s character. It’s not such a surprise that some rulers subscribe to this view of themselves— the better question is why such a large percentage of Greeks share it.

What Was the Question?

It was the strangest referendum Europe had ever seen.The Greeks didn’t just give different answers to the question, “Should the agreement plan submitted by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund to the Eurogroup of 25 June 2015, and comprised of two parts which make up their joint proposal, be accepted?” They actually answered it as if there were really two different questions.

Interestingly, pre-ballot polls revealed that those voting or lobbying for a Yes answer believed that the vote was actually a referendum on the question of whether or not Greece should stay in the Euro zone. Thus to those people, a negative answer to those people would mean adopting an independent Greek currency. Those voting or lobbying for a No answer were confident and convinced each other that this was a vote about the June 25 bailout proposal. They believed that if it were rejected, Europe would have no other choice but to propose another agreement in no time (Tsipras and his ministers claimed it would happen “within 48 hours”). For them, rejecting the ultimatum by the European authorities, who were “terrorizing the Greek people,” was a matter of dignity.

It isn't entirely clear why Tsipras got it into his head that if he doesn’t yield, Europe will surrender and offer his country a new and better agreement. Perhaps he was guided by basic protest logic: “They won’t let us starve to death right under their noses.” However, both of these takes on the referendum have some rationale behind them. A number of European politicians have stated with varying degrees of candor that a No answer is tantamount to rejection of the Euro by the Greeks. Their ranks include German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the President of European Parliament Martin Schulz, his deputy Valdis Dombrovskis, and the head of Eurogroup (Council of Finance Ministers of the Eurozone) Jeroen Dijsselbloem. Even the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said it would be hard for him to explain to his people why Italians have to suffer for the Euro while Greeks don’t. In short, if you answer No, that will mean no to the Euro.

At the same time, there were some more generous opinions in Europe on the eve of the Greek vote. The French president Francois Hollande said that he believes Greece should stay in the Eurozone regardless of the outcome of the referendum. The French finance minister echoed those words. European financial institutions are also discussing the possibility of supplying Greece with cash so that the country’s citizens can be paid somehow. Even those Europeans ready to support Greece complain that they are unable to speak to its leadership in the same language. Europeans essentially face the same problem in talking with Tsipras that the Kremlin accuses Europe of: they want to talk to him about repaying the Greek debt, while he answers with slogans of democracy and justice.

Why did the Greeks—at least slightly more than half of them— vote the way Tsipras wanted them to? Clearly because they are reacting negatively to a perceived offense. The idea that the West wants to bring Greece to its knees with ultimatums and deprive it of choice has long been a part of the national psyche. The Greeks have long believed that this already happened to them in the past. Greece is a mirror image of of Eastern Europe: Soviet-style socialism was forced on Eastern Europe by the victorious Red Army, while the Greek communists were stripped of a likely victory by English and American military interference. And the Greeks remember that: the West took away their right to choose and imposed rules on them back then, just as it would like to do now. The memory of being deprived of the freedom of choice has been haunting the Greek intelligentsia and even average citizens given to reflecting on the injustice of capitalism.

Your Dignity vs. Ours

The rest of Europe is now facing a difficult choice.  They can’t show that the strategy of Occupy Europe is working. The Greeks would then say, “See, that’s what we’ve been telling you. What else can they do? We’ll just be sitting here, and they’ll give in and write off our debts.” After all, they chose to take on the debt and then chose not to return it. They did it democratically, and democracy is the highest value of all. But have European post-war efforts to build a humane society, a philanthropic civilization, and European unity all been in vain? The countries that joined the EU and the Economic and Monetary Union surrendered some of their sovereignty, including financial sovereignty: they can’t devalue their currency or just print more money and give it away. Perhaps Greece was allowed to join the Eurozone prematurely, but no one forced the Europeans to let them in. While Greece is an independent country, in a way it is also a region subsidized by United Europe, just as the U.S. is propping up Detroit or Moscow is doling out federal funds to poorer regions. In addition, there is Putin with his unrealistic but troublesome project of splitting the EU and challenging the West, for which he has enlisted the help of traditionalists and leftists from around the world. Because Greeks are Orthodox Christians just like Russia they can be dubbed traditionalists, and they have a leftist government to boot.

Merkel met with Hollande on Monday (this is her loss as well, as she failed to convince an entire European nation that Europe cares about its best interests). On Tuesday, Eurozone leaders held an emergency meeting on Greece. Tsipras announced that the people’s authoritative No at the referendum actually meant Yes to Euro and the Eurozone (that’s always how these revolutionaries operate). He called for a summit of all the major political leaders in the country to secure their support. Meanwhile, the former Finance Minister Varoufakis began talking about switching to an electronic currency in the form of California-style IOUs (you get paid with IOUs and then go shopping with them, since there is no liquidity to repay them), and then he resigned.

While observing the behavior of the current Greek leadership, we notice a trait inherent in the old Soviet bureaucracy, current Russian politicians, Chavez, Maduro, Mugabe, and other warriors against global injustice. The main word in Syriza’s propaganda lexicon is dignity. We are for dignity and against ultimatums made by the European terrorists. For some reason, the negotiating process compromises dignity, whereas storming banks from early morning to withdraw 50 Euros or standing in line in the scorching sun for a whole day to get as much boosts dignity. They always interpret dignity as something collective and communal, public and national, rather than something personal. The second familiar trait is that Greece’s leaders do not believe they are responsible for what is happening. The world is unjust and the system is to blame, but they have nothing to do with it. While workers were putting in their night shifts by ATM machines and retirees were resigned to the blazing sun, Tsipras didn’t criticize himself once. He didn’t attempt to shoulder even a part of the responsibility, or to apologize for the costs that come with his policy. There was no attempt to say, we are definitely in the right, but forgive us for the hassle, the lines, the lack of liquidity, the default, for the fact that we have temporarily ended up in the company of countries like Sudan and Somalia. He said none of that. Instead, we spent the entire week listening to something we regularly hear from Russian politicians: we are doing everything right; blame the West, the capitalists, the Brussels bureaucracy, the global cabal. We, on the other hand, represent the good—liberty, equality, and fraternity.

We shouldn’t expect that hardships will force anyone to snap back to reality. The Greek vote clearly demonstrates their intoxicating effect. We also know firsthand that a person who can apologize and take responsibility is at a loss when confronted by an individual who is only capable of blaming others. But in the end, the Europe that has learned to take responsibility rather than blaming others has won. It is Europe that is thinking about saving Greece, not the other way around. It’s not worth losing one’s ability to respond because someone else is reckless. At the same time, the bloc’s leaders should be ensuring that the Europe of personal dignity triumphs over a Europe that prizes communal dignity above all else.

  • Alexander Baunov