Defiance and Charm: A Measured First Week for New Greek Leader
Syriza's victory in the recent Greek elections set off a wave of concern in Europe. But even as the new prime minister tries to woo other leaders, his left-wing government is already busy getting down to work. Many of its first moves have been the right ones.
Minister of Administrative Reform Georgios Katrougalos sits cheerfully in his new office and rejoices about his little revolution. He has just announced that soon the first 3,500 public-sector employees can return to work, including the famous cleaning ladies who led the protest against job cuts. With their rubber-glove-clad clenched fists, they embodied a feeling shared by many Greeks -- that they had been mistreated by Europe. Now the cleaning ladies were becoming the symbol of the new beginning.
According to the administrative reform minister, these aren't new hires -- they are the reversal of unfair layoffs. "The cleaning ladies were the weakest, and the troika needed numbers." He claims this is primarily a redress for the absurdity of the austerity measures. After they were let go, the financial authority's 595 cleaning ladies -- who had to be fired in September 2013 in order to fulfill the requirements of the savings plan -- continued to receive 75 percent of their earnings. Their work was then done by private cleaning companies -- in the end, the whole thing was more expensive than it had been before. It was these kinds of decisions by the previous government that had made the Greeks furious -- and led them to vote for Syriza.
The administrative reform minister is a counterpoint to Athens' new culture of laxity, characterized by Alexis Tsipras and Finance Minister Giannis Varoufakis, who like to appear tie-less in public. Katrougalos wears a suit and a tie. He has given up his role in the European Parliament and joined the government in order to reform the administration -- a thankless task. He is a gambler, he says with a laugh. He loves calculated risk. All of his friends had advised him against it. "But I want to help shape the new beginning," he says, "and only a left-wing party can tackle this kind of reform."
Katrougalos says he wants to "break the system of patronage and clientilism." The minister, who isn't affiliated with any political party, is well-qualified for the job: He wrote his PhD about administrative reform in Greece. He comes across as open, non-ideological and competent -- and he makes an effort to show that this new beginning will be different than the previous ones, that he too wants to save money, but on the backs of the politicians instead of the citizens. He wants to get rid of about 70 percent of the official cars used by top officials. He has removed the police surveillance in front of his ministry, because it sends a "bad signal" and is unnecessary in any case. And he has cut advisor positions -- which had previously often been granted as favors -- in half.
A People Back in Movement
Something has happened in Greece that has not happened like this anywhere else in Europe: A handful of neophyte politicians, intellectuals and university professors have taken over the government. It feels like a small revolution instead of a handover of duties. And that's not only because many members of the previous administration deleted their hard drives and took their documents with them, or that there initially wasn't even any soap in the government headquarters. No, the new government has upended the rules of the Greek political system -- and spurred into action a Europe that is still unsure how it should react to the rebels.
In Athens you can also see the euphoria reflected in the city's traffic, which is a yardstick for the crisis. The streets had often been half empty, because fewer people were traveling to work, the gasoline was expensive, the mood gloomy. But now the city center is just as clogged as before. The people are once again in motion.
Even though only 36 percent of voters chose Syriza, 60 percent of Greeks are happy with new government's first few days. If there were new elections, support for the party could grow and Tsipras could renounce his coalition partner. Although he may be entertaining that scenario privately, members of the government deny that it is in the cards. But to maintain this enthusiasm, Tsipras now needs to show a real accomplishment: an end of the German "austerity mandate." Which means that he doesn't merely need to convince the Greeks, he needs to conquer Europe.
For this reason, Alexis Tsipras and his finance minister Giannis Varoufakis have embarked on a roadshow -- Nicosia, London, Paris, Rome, Brussels and, finally, Berlin. The trip will be a balance between defiance and charm, and along the way he will be confronted with fears and a ticking clock. The current aid program for Greece runs out at the end of February, and on top of that, Greeks have withdrawn billions of euros from their private savings accounts in the past several weeks.
Strong Words, Awkward Welcomes
At first there was escalation. "Our country refuses to cooperate with the troika," Varoufakis said last Friday to the head of the Euro Group, Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem. Varoufakis smiled as a waxy-seeming Dijsselbloem struggled to keep his composure. But the Greek politician went on. The troika, he said, was a seedy, anti-European construct. Dijsselbloem wanted to leave so quickly afterwards that he almost forgot to shake Varoufakis' hand.
It's a tone that Varoufakis has struck many times before. The economics professor came up with the term "fiscal waterboarding" -- which he is now using to hold austerity policies hostage. He sees himself as part of a political avant-garde. He once described himself on his blog as something like an "an atheist theologian ensconced in a Middle Ages monastery."
Then on Sunday, Varoufakis flew to Paris in order to meet his French counterpart, Michel Sapin. Sapin greeted him warmly, but stayed firm. "A debt cut is out of the question," he said. But it is, of course, he said, in the common interest to structure the servicing of the debt in a way that allows for growth. For the French, Syriza is a trial balloon -- for whether deviations from the strict austerity measures will be tolerated in the future.
The two Greeks were greeted with many hugs and embraces during their European tour, but it seemed more like a form of apology for the fact that nobody wanted to back them up publically. After all, France and Italy have paid for a large part of the aid money for Greece -- and have little interest in cutting the country's debts. After the meeting, President Francois Hollande sounded like the couple's therapist for the Euro Zone: "I have received Tsipras, but I told him that he should visit the chancellor. And she will receive him."
Tsipras was also warmly received in Rome by his counterpart, Matteo Renzi, who is the same age as the incoming Greek prime minister. He didn't hold back in his praise for "Alexis" and his "message of hope." He claimed that they share the belief that they can "change something" in politics. But then Tsipras received a lecture in Realpolitik, carefully delivered in plural: "We all together want to respect the rules." Things aren't decided "between two premiers," he said -- they are decided in Brussels. "Strong ties to European institutions," he claimed, are important.
At each ensuing stop, the trip seemed less like a victory tour and more like a visit to one's bourgeois relatives, where one can sleep in the guest room, but must obey the house rules. The two Greeks' statements became more moderate -- instead of a debt cut, they spoke about coupling the service of the debt with growth. That way, Greece would presumably never pay off its debts. But debt restructuring sounds more dependable. It would be a face-saving compromise.
Work Begins Back Home
As the austerity rebels traveled through Europe, their ministers settled down to work in Athens. There were none of the signs of chaos and collapse that the previous government had warned of. The new prime minister was well prepared for the transition in power. On the day of his election, he had already picked his cabinet -- pared down to just 10 ministers and 30 deputy ministers, including a few dozen independents or members of other parties. Tsipras focused on expertise in assembling his cabinet --largely relegating leftist ideologues to insignificant positions.
Tspiras hopes these steps can help him mobilize a broad majority in parliament if, for example, there are problems with Anel, his right-wing coalition partner. He is applying the same strategy to the election of the country's president. Tsipras would like to see EU Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos win. Greece's official on the EU executive has been a confidant for years to Antonis Samaras -- the man Tsipras unseated as prime minister. Avramopoulos wouldn't merely command respect in Europe, he would also force Nea Dimokratia, the largest opposition party, to put its votes behind a Syriza candidate.
"But we have a lot of work ahead of us to get organized -- we still need time," says Minister of State Alekos Flambouraris, whose position is comparable to that of Merkel's chief of staff in Berlin. Filing shelves and cabinets had been cleared out, he says, and, with the exception of a few advertising brochures, there was nothing left in them. "Many computers disappeared, data was deleted and offices were left empty and deserted."
He says the entire machinery of power had disappeared, because many who worked here were fellow members of Samaras' party. Flambouraris doesn't sound too sad about it either. He says he doesn't want to denounce the old government, he just wants to do things differently. "It is not our policy to dismiss staff and replace them with our own people the way others have done," he says. "We no longer want a party state."
Flambouraris is a pleasant man in his late sixties. Rather atypically for a Greek politician, he's not a man of big words. He sits down wearing a polo shirt and corduroy pants, with his blazer lying on a chair. His sparse office is located directly next to Tsipras'. He comes across as relaxed, even though he is running late. He says he had to tend to the needs to some citizens. "If we are going to be the government that brings salvation to the social system, then we need to talk to the people," he says.
The minister of state is a civil engineer by profession and a friend of the Tsipras family. He was friends with Alexis Tsipras' father, and now is also friends with his son. The prime minister's children call Flambouraris "grandpa." Flambouraris is the most important person at the government headquarters after Tsipras and he's also the prime minister's closest confidant. Tsipras makes few decisions that haven't been coordinated with him.
The most important job that lies ahead is a complete restructuring of agricultural production, says Flambouraris. As for the tourism sector, he says the country needs to attract more individual travelers and visitors to conferences. It all sounds very factual and conciliatory -- certainly not the words of a man who wants to turn the country on its head. "We can't disappoint our voters," Flambouraris says in an almost apologetic manner. "We ask the German people to understand these needs and to see just how badly the Greek people have it," he says. Flambouraris says the government needs support and that he is also hoping to get some from Germany.
'I Will Not Tolerate Anti-Democratic Forces'
But what kind of support would that be in concrete terms? Giannis Panousis, 65, the new citizen protection minister already has an idea. "It would be great if the German government, for example, could give us 50 police cars." Then he laughs -- of course it was a joke, but he wouldn't have anything against getting 50 police cars either.
Panousis used to be a professor of criminology at the University of Athens. Most recently, he served in parliament as a member of the Democratic Left party. He's sitting in his wood-paneled office. There's a wall filled with historical books behind him. Although Syriza is calling for rules that would prohibit police from carrying weapons during operations involving the public, Panousis still thinks they should be armed. And whereas Syriza supports dismantling the fortress-like border fence along the Evros River, which forms the natural border between Greece and Turkey, Panousis opposes the move. "Many of my proposals are not identical to those in the party platforms," the professor says. "I hope I am able to convince the government," he says.
And if not? "I'm not a career politician," he says. "After 30 years in academics, it's not a question of how long I can stay on as minister; it's how I can put years of research into practice."
For him, that means taking action to ensure that the police force, which has been far too close to the neofascists of the Golden Dawn party, gets back on track. And Panousis is uniquely situated to tackle the problem. "All the police leaders were students of mine," he says. He even threatened to take another, closer look at the final examination of one police officer, he says, laughing. The issue, he argues, isn't about censoring his police officers' private political opinions. But "within democratic institutions, I will not tolerate anti-democratic forces."
His first act was to remove the barriers in front of parliament and the police vans in front of the ministries. He says the move marked the start of the "reconciliation of the people with the police and the police with the people." He adds that improved democratic monitoring of the police is needed, better training and neighborhood police forces that are closer to the people. Many of these measures, don't cost anything -- they just require a willingness to change something, he says.
Many of the things the government announced during the first days were symbolic acts. The increase to the minimum wage, the cleaning ladies, Christmas bonuses for pensioners and food aid. In their first moves, Tsipras and his ministers focused on their main priorities: new negotiations over the country's austerity policy and the battle against the "humanitarian crisis." Ultimately, though, the question of whether the rich are taxed more heavily will be decisive for any success. It will depend on whether the government in Athens finally takes action on a spreadsheet provided by then French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde in 2010 that includes over 2,000 Greek accounts at Swiss banks that potentially belong to tax evaders. Previous governments had delayed such action. There are also lists of doctors who have declared annual earnings of just a few thousand euros.
Labor Minister Panos Skourletis, an economist and until now the spokesman for Syriza, says he can sense a "feeling of emotion and pride about the collective success." He says he still has vivid memories of when the party captured only 4.6 percent of votes in the 2009 election. He served as the party's speaker at the time. Back then, he says, he wouldn't even have dared to think the party could secure 36 percent of votes.
Skourletis acted modestly during his first days in office. He wants to strengthen collective bargaining agreements and bolster protections against dismissal. It's a kind of political pragmatism reminiscent of the first steps taken by Germany's Green Party when it became part of the government in 1998. Back then, the party's more centrist elements -- and not its fundamentalist ones -- were also in control. This isn't a surprise -- Tsipras needs an early success in his negotiations with the EU, and for that to happen, his government has to seem predictable.
That's why Skourletis now says, "We never said tomorrow," of the increase in the minimum wage from 586 to 751, which actually should have taken place "immediately." "We said we need a comprehensive package, so that companies aren't forced to carry the costs on their own."
When asked when the increase in the minimum wage will now come, he says, "We'll see."
Is an incremental increase conceivable, step by step?
The minister grins. "We'll see."
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