Russia and Greece The Caviar Connection

Russia may be positioning itself as a friend of the new Greek government to stir up discord and pursue its own agenda against the European Union.
Greek foreign minister, Nikos Kotzias (l) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (r) in Moscow last week.

 

The new Greek defense minister was happy to see German journalists. “Germans are writing all kinds of things about me, they think that I’m the devil,” said Panos Kammenos. He said he needed to clarify some things.

What has been written about Mr. Kammenos, founder of the right-wing nationalist party, the Independent Greeks, is that he thinks Europe is being steered by German neo-Nazis. And that he maintains close connections to Moscow.

The 49-year-old doesn’t deny that.

What he wants to clarify is this: “We’re starting a fresh chapter in Greece right now. The elected government will, first of all, make decisions in the Greek people’s best interest, then in the European people’s best interest after that. It’s unacceptable that another government is undermining our people’s sovereignty.”

Part of this sovereignty, according to Mr. Kammenos, is that the new government will take its time to consider whether “it will agree to further E.U. sanctions against Russia.” Russia and Greece have been allies for a long time, he added, and they would stay allied in the future as well.

Asked what he means by “close allies,” he only said, “wait and see.”

This is the beginning of the Greek rebellion against Brussels’ oligarchic-bureaucratic dictatorship. Sergei Markov, Kremlin-friendly analyst

But the new government of the leftist Syriza and the rightist Independent Greeks will not wait and see. One of the first visitors to congratulate the new prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, was the Russian ambassador.

As soon as Mr. Tsipras formed his government, he let it be known in Brussels that Greece wasn’t willing to support an E.U. statement that accused Russia of causing the latest escalation of violence in eastern Ukraine.

In the end, the new foreign minister, Nikos Kotzias, agreed to a renewal of sanctions against Russia two days later. But after these statements, not only E.U. governments, but even some Greeks are wondering who will shape the new coalition government – the leftists or the rightist nationalists.

Their relations to Putin’s Russia are the litmus test.

Mr. Kammenos already visited Moscow early this year, shortly before the Greek elections on January 25. There, he met with the head of the foreign affairs committee of the Duma, Aleksei Pushkov.

Prime Minister Mr. Tsipras’ last visit to Moscow was back in May, two months after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. He met Valentina Matviyenko, a confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the nation’s most powerful female politician, who has been banned from traveling to the West for the role she played in the incorporation of the Crimean peninsula.

Back then, Mr. Tsipras almost sounded like Mr. Putin when he said that it is a “regression” that “fascists and neo-Nazis” are in power in Ukraine and “the E.U. just accepts that.”

Greece’s foreign minister, Nikos Kotzias, accompanied Mr. Tsipras back then. Recently published photos show him meeting an old acquaintance on the trip, the radical Russian philosopher Aleksandr Dugin.

During a trip to Greece in 2013, Mr. Dugin promoted a “Byzantine-orthodox Europe” and cautioned against the “liberal, pro-American Europe” where the Greeks’ true identity was being suppressed.

 

Economic Relations between Greece and Russia-01

 

Is this where rightist Eurasia phantasies meet leftist E.U. critics? The new government in Athens plays down the issue, saying “Nikos Kotzias in his new role as foreign minister follows the government’s guidelines.”

But closing in on those guidelines might be tough. That’s the impression one gets when Stathis Leoutsakos, former communist and now Syriza chair, talks about the war in eastern Ukraine. In Ukraine, he said, the “big European players” had interfered in as provocative a manner as they had in Syria, with methods that led to violence. “Russia therefore was obligated to invade Ukraine.”

About 2,200 kilometers (1,350 miles) from Athens, these words are well received. Three days after Syriza’s success at the polls, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, hosted a New Year’s reception. “We are looking forward to cooperating with the new Greek government,” he said over caviar and wild salmon.

And in a Russian newspaper, Kremlin-friendly analyst Sergei Markov wrote “This is the beginning of the Greek rebellion against Brussels’ oligarchic-bureaucratic dictatorship.”

The leaders in Moscow regard the new Greek government first and foremost as a way to stir up discord within the E.U. That was Finance Minister Anton Siluanov’s goal when he announced that Russia might consider providing financial aid to Greece. No one had asked for money – Mr. Siluanov basically forced himself on the Greeks, explicitly doing so while speaking on a Western TV channel.

Russia has maintained excellent relations with extremist parties such as Hungary’s Jobbik and the French Front National, both of which are opposition parties. Russian leaders are now pinning their hopes on winning over the first fully fledged E.U. government with the new Greek coalition.

To underline this, Russia’s ambassador in Athens likes to talk of the “excellent historic relations” between the two countries.

Map Greece-Russia-01

But have they really been this excellent, or is this just a myth?

The Russian alphabet developed from the Greek one, and the majorities of both Greeks and Russians are Orthodox Christians. The first Greek president of 1828 used to be an ambassador to Russia. During the Greek civil war between 1944 and 1949, tens of thousands of Greek communists fled to the then Soviet Union.

But it’s also possible to tell a different story, one of rivalry. The Greek Orthodox church and its ecumenical patriarch have always been in strong competition with the Russian Orthodox church. During both world wars and especially during the Cold War, Greece was an ally of the British and Americans. In 1952 it joined NATO.

That’s why many Russians don’t consider the Greeks to be old friends, unlike the Serbs.

The most important economic connection between the two countries are gas pipelines.

The myth is mostly cultivated in Greece. Some philosophers and journalists like to call Russia an ally. Previous Greek governments used to bet on close relations with Moscow as well, especially Kostas Karamanlis who headed the country until 2009.

In the 1990s, Greece used to buy arms in Russia, especially short-range missiles and landing crafts. But Greece’s biggest export markets are Turkey, Italy and Germany. Russia only ranks 16th on this list. Since the nosedive of the ruble, Russian tourists have stayed away as well.

The most important economic connection between the two countries are gas pipelines. Greece receives 60 percent of all of its natural gas from Russia. A planned gas pipeline from Russia to western Europe might run through Greek territory in the future. It’s one of the things Moscow wants to talk about with Mr. Tsipras.

The real problem of the potential new bond between Russians and Greeks might be Moscow’s temptation to try and permanently pit Europeans against each other. The new Greek government is strengthening the alliance of those E.U. states that would like to cancel sanctions against Russia as soon as possible.

A Russian diplomat in Athens put it like this: “The Greek government is basically expressing the collective subconscious of Europe.”

 

This article originally was published in Die Zeit weekly newspaper. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected].