Europe, Greece

Greece’s Wrong Messiah

Published: Euractiv

Greece expressed reservations about the involvement of Russia in the Salisbury attack. This is not the first time that Greece adopts a different position than EU. The Tsipras government is negatively disposed towards any attempt to impose sanctions on the Putin regime.

A week before the nerve-agent attack in Salisbury, the University of Peloponnesus, in the presence of the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs George Katroungalos, declared Vladimir Putin Professor Emeritus, because of his “contributions to culture and democracy“.

In the person of the Russian president there converge, in a unique, explosive way, the two main anti-western currents in Greece. The right-wing nationalists hope to see Russia playing once again its historical role as the eastern protector of Orthodoxy” and a natural enemy of Turkey. Now, with the left-wing SYRIZA in power, traditional Greek nationalism meets the classical, mainly economic, anti-European stance of the radical left. In the first months of 2015, the new government formally hailed Russia as the alternative to the “neo-liberal directorate in Brussels”.

The two schools of thought are on opposite camps ideologically. On the one side, are the right-wing supporters of the Great Idea of Five Continents and Two Seas, who consider the Aegean Sea that lies between Greece and Turkey a Greek lake. On the other, the internationalist leftists, who are still haunted by the decision of the Greek Communist Party after World War II to support the creation of an independent state called Macedonia, that would include the Greek and Bulgarian regions that also bore that name.

The issue of the name of neighbouring Macedonia is still a very sensitive one for the Greeks. It is not coincidental therefore, that SYRIZA’s efforts to resolve the long-standing problem has caused the first cracks in the government coalition of the radical left with the far-right party of the “Independent Hellenes”.

Russian fairy-tales

A few days after Putin was proclaimed Professor Emeritus, Ivan Savidis, a Greek-Russian businessman and formerly a member of the Duma, invaded the pitch during a football game in Thessaloniki, to remonstrate with the referee about a goal of his team that had been disallowed. He had a revolver tugged prominently in his waistband

Since 2012, Savidis has been the owner of the PAOK Thessaloniki club. The initials of the team stand for Pan-Thessalonikian Athletic Club of Constantinopolitans – it must surely be one of the most nationally-charged football club names in Europe. The club’s symbol is the two-headed eagle of the Byzantine Empire. The urban legend that grew around Savidis in 2010 was one cultivated by the man himself, who promised to the then Prime Minister George Papandreou an interest-free loan of 25 billion euro from the Russian government.

As Savidis was stoking the myth of Greece escaping European supervision with the help of Russia, Putin was mobilised by the nationalist press to serve the narrative of a territorially expanded Greece. In one of the more amusing episodes of Greek public life, fake news assumed the form of a prophecy. The Greek media were certain that Putin would destroy Erdogan after a Russian aircraft was brought down near Turkey’s border with Syria in 2015. They invoked the prophecy about a great Russo-Turkish war of the venerable Paisios, who had recently been elevated to a Saint by the Orthodox Church.

What in fact happened, was that Savidis brought and invested in Greece very considerable amounts of money, of doubtful derivation. All Greek parties without exception welcomed him, unconcerned about the origins of this financing: it was a time of crisis, and this businessman was creating jobs.

As of 2015, Savidis has identified himself with SYRIZA. He purchased a historical left-wing newspaper, the Co-operative Tobacco Industry of Northern Greece (on very favourable terms), and of course the PAOK football club, of which the matches he watched from his personal stand in the stadium, together with the Finance Minister.

In a surrealistic tender procedure for Greek TV licences (the contestants were locked in a hotel, as in the Big Brother show, so that the offers would not be leaked), Savidis bid so as to raise the price as high as it would go. He was not interested in purchasing a TV channel. He merely wanted, as he himself admitted publicly, to help the government obtain more money from the other participants in the tender.

In 2017, after a parliamentary duel between the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition, Savidis said that Tsipras reminds him of VladimirPutin. With this statement, the businessman came close to the rhetoric of philosopher Christos Yannaras, the most prominent representative of neo-orthodox nationalism. In a messianic article in 2008, Yannaras asked for the advent in Greece of a Dreamlike Greek Putin, who would bring the country out of the disrepute of the last two centuries, exactly as the Russian president was doing with the “dead Russian society”.

Yannaras’ view is not a heretical one. On the contrary, it is in line with popular sentiment in Greece. Greeks have always placed Putin high-up among their favourite statesmen. His popularity rating stands at 67%, while it is 57% for Angela Merkel and 73% for Donald Trump. Indeed, 39% of Greeks consider Russia an allied nation, as compared to 16% for the USA.

Yannaras wrote that article in 2008. A year later the financial crisis had engulfed the country. In 2015, the first public appearance of Tsipras as Prime Minister was at the National Resistance Memorial in Kaisariani, to honour the communist soldiers of the civil war and remind the electorate that SYRIZA’s victory had redeemed the unjust end of the civil conflict in 1949. Immediately thereafter, the first foreign official he met was the Russian ambassador in Greece. The Greek government believed in the fairy-tale of the 25 billion-loan and a Greek delegation travelled to Moscow. Putin never gave the money. On the contrary, slowly but steadily his attitude turned against the Greek government, as it approached the west for a deal on the debt. Nor did the second prophecy prove any closer to reality. The policies of Russia and Turkey in Syria eventually converged.

Things have now become even more complicated with the issue of Macedonia. The EU is in a hurry to advance the accession into its ranks of the countries of the Western Balkans, so as to check Russian influence in the region. Resolving the issue of Macedonia’s name is a prerequisite for that country’s accession, and the Greek side is now trying to reach a solution.

At the end of 2017 the Tsipras-Putin flirt was under huge pressure, proving the error of reasoning along the lines of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. In a deeply symbolical gesture, when the Russian president visited the monastic community at Mt. Athos, in northern Greece, one of Orthodox Christianity’s holiest sites, he did not allow the representatives of the Greek government to come aboard his yacht. The Messiah had appeared at the right place and at the right time, but he was not interested in tending his self-appointed flock.

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