Victory in Defeat? Alexis Tsipras Has Shown Greeks He Can Save Them
He'll have to implement tougher savings measures than any of his predecessors, despite his fight to end them. But Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras could still come out of the euro crisis as the victor, leading his country for years to come.
At times it feels like Alexis Tsipras is battling against himself. Tsipras the pragmatist seems to be wrestling with Tsipras the ideologist. And Tsipras the nice son-in-law struggles against Tspiras the demagogue. It's not only his opponents who consider him to be unpredictable -- his closest advisors also describe him as a chameleon. Perhaps Tsipras himself doesn't even know which role he is playing.
The question of who and what Alexis Tsipras really wants to be is one consuming all of Europe right now. Tsipras, who just turned 40 and has been in office as the Greek prime minister for just under six months, remains an enigma. He leaves people wondering what or how he will say things and whether he will actually do what he says in the end.
On Tuesday night, at 10 p.m. in Athens, Tspiras came across as a statesmen on television. It was a brilliant appearance, perhaps even one of his best -- and also one of his most honest. Wearing a dark suit and a white shirt, he sat at the desk in his wood-paneled office in Villa Maximos, the Greek answer to the White House. An odd rust-brown painting was hanging on the wall behind him. For what feels like the first time, the wear caused by months of marathon negotiations had become visible. He appeared pale and fatigued, but also created the impression of having mellowed a bit -- as if he had aged a few years overnight. But there was no sign of resignation in his face. He looked determined.
He said he had negotiated an agreement, the best he could possibly secure for Greece and its people. He said he had signed "a text I do not believe in, but which I signed to avoid disaster for my country, the collapse of the banks." Tsipras stared directly into the camera as he explained that he had fought until the very last minute and that he only stopped when he realized there was no other choice. He spoke calmly and level-headedly and not like some newbie on the international stage -- and this despite the fact that he was forced to announce a complete U-turn of the policies he had pursued up to that point. It's a change of course that is turning both members of his party and voters against him.
'I Assume Resonsibility'
Tsipras also warned of the disastrous consequences that would follow if Greece were to leave the euro zone. There would be mass poverty, banks would go bust and chaos would ensue. He said he never wanted a "Grexit," but that he had no choice but to threaten to leave the common currency as a negotiating pawn. "I assume responsibility for all mistakes I may have made," he added.
Addressing opponents within his own party who had threatened to reject a third bailout program for Greece, he said there could be no "ideological purity" in times of crisis. This time, it was Tsipras the pragmatist speaking. And the words coming out of his mouth were exactly the opposite of what Tspiras the ideologist had promised in recent years: an end to the austerity diktat and the bailout program with its harsh conditions. But now everything had been turned on its head. Suddenly he was defending laws he had railed against in each of his appearances until very recently.
Kolotoumba is the word Greeks use to describe when a person has taken back everything they previously said and turns around and does the opposite. The word translates roughly as somersault. In Tsipras' case, though, it's more like a triple flip -- backwards, of course.
Two days after the Tuesday night interview, 229 of 300 members of parliament voted in favor of the new program -- the one Tsipras never wanted but now so urgently needs. The opposition parties -- Nea Dimokratia, PASOK and To Potami -- voted in favor, with 38 members of Tsipras' Syriza party voting against it or abstaining. Tsipras first entered parliament hours after the debate had begun. Once again, he explained why his government had no other choice but to accept the offer made by creditors.
By then, the president of the parliament, also a member of Syriza, had left the hall in protest. And Yanis Varoufakis, until recently finance minister, would vote a short time later in protest against the deal his prime minister had signed. Protests were held outside on Syntagma Square, where stun grenades and stones were thrown. They were familiar scenes that keep playing on what seems like an endless loop. The only thing new here is that the anger was now being directed at Tspiras himself.
Demonstrators protest against new austerity measures in Athens' Syntagma Square on Wednesday.
During this time, the country will be kept afloat with money from the bailout fund. Athens' European partners in Brussels have pledged more than 80 billion in loans over the next three years if Greece adheres to the loan conditions. But with the number seeming to grow by the day, there are already estimates circulating that the bailout might ultimately be worth 100 billion.
'Putting His Country Before His Party'
At the moment it appears that Tsipras the pragmatist has knocked out Tsipras the ideologue. "He's finally putting his country before his party," one opposition politician said on Wednesday, expressing relief.
But Tsipras didn't have any other choice. If Tsipras hadn't reached an agreement in Brussels, Greece would have collapsed. The banks would have collapsed; even more businesses would have gone under. And Tsipras would have been the one responsible for it all. But with his U-turn, he also showed that he is ultimately a politician and not a gambler.
The latest summit in Brussels lasted 17 hours, during which Tsipras abandoned one position after the other. He repeatedly left the room, where he was negotiating with Angela Merkel, François Hollande and European Council President Donald Tusk. Outside, he telephoned with his people back in Athens.
In the end, he did succeed in keeping the fund for privatizing state-owned assets -- that was to be based in Luxembourg and used as collateral for the loans -- under Athens' control. The fact that the fund is unlikely to ever bring in the 50 billion expected hardly mattered. Tsipras needed the victory.
Greece Will Be Unable to Repay Debt
It is virtually a certainty that this won't be the only element in the new bailout deal that will not get implemented. Tsipras knows that and so do Greece's international creditors. Greece will never be able to pay back its debts -- the International Monetary Fund isn't the only party to have come to this conclusion.
Despite all the broken promises, despite the "no" vote on the austerity diktat that Tsipras would transform into a "yes" vote only a few days later, like some magician pulling a rabbit out of the hat, surveys showed 70 percent of Greeks supporting the deal, which they consider to be "necessary and without alternative." Sixty-eight percent say they would vote for Tsipras again if there were new elections. Polls also suggest he would be able to govern without a coalition partner.
Those are astonishing figures for a prime minister under whose watch the banks had to be shuttered because they were threatened with collapse. Under whom capital controls had to be introduced, limiting daily withdrawals by Greeks to 60. Furthermore, the Greek economy hasn't been in this bad a shape at any other point since the start of the crisis five years ago. After one and a half years of consolidation, the economy has fallen back into recession and is shrinking rapidly.
The fact that he isn't being loudly criticized and that he managed to get 61 percent of Greeks to back him in the July 5 referendum is Tsipras' political masterpiece. He had pitted "democracy against the Troika" as he often stated. It was a demonstration of power and at the same time a slap in the face of the Europeans. It's possible they underestimated Tsipras because he had always come across as being so polite and reserved. But Tsipras also tested the limits and had no qualms about crossing the line.
"The Greek people will defend themselves against an ultimatum with a big no," he announced prior to the referendum. At the same time, he said, this no would also be a "big yes to European solidarity." These kinds of dialectics might be difficult for officials in Brussels to understand, but the Greeks clearly comprehend them. In any case, Tsipras was able to take the defiant no of his compatriots to increased austerity and, despite this breathtaking turn-around, turn it into a yes within a week without being written off as traitor.
This is also a product of the fact that many Greeks have internalized Tsipras' motto -- that others are to blame. The creditors, Europe or, more simply, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. "They are blackmailing us with their loans," Tsipras has stated repeatedly. Varoufakis also described the pressure put on Greece to close its banks as "blackmail" and called creditors "terrorists." The idea that others were guilty is also what brought Tsipras' Syriza party into power in the first place.
When Tsipras asked Vladimir Putin for money a few weeks back, the Russian president refused. At a press conference with business leaders, Putin joked that he finally understood Tsipras' version of things. "When Mr. Tsipras spoke, he said the problem of Greece was not a Greek problem but a European one," Putin said. "Well, that's right. If you owe someone a lot, then it is already not your problem but the problem of the one you owe." It was intended as a joke, but it came pretty close to hitting the nail on the head. In Tsipras' view, the country's plight can be blamed on "international capital" and the "false Protestant principles of Angela Merkel" -- at least that's whathe told SPIEGEL in early 2012. At the time, his recipe for fixing the problem called for more loans to stimulate growth. To a large degree, that remains his position today.
But Tsipras is no hostage. In fact he too has used the prospect of a Greek bankruptcy as a weapon. During the same interview in 2012, he said he wanted "Greece to remain a systemic problem for Europe." He argued it would be the only way to ensure the billions from the bailout packages would actually be disbursed and the only way the Europeans would defer or forgive Greece's debts -- out of fear of the risk of contagion that would emanate from a Greek bankruptcy.
Pragmatist, Demagogue and Ideologist
This remains Tsipras' strategy today, and it is also an effective one. Things may be extremely strained at the moment, but he has succeeded in keeping Greece in the euro and he has ended discussion of a Grexit -- at least for the time being. If he succeeds in staying in power -- and at the moment it looks as though he will -- he could end up steering his country's destiny for some time to come. For Tsipras has no real opponents in Greek politics. At most he has a few rivals. He has stripped his own party of power and he has forced the opposition to share responsibility for austerity policies by getting them to approve those rules. He has also proven to the Greek people that he can rescue them.
It's possible that Tsipras achieved this precisely because he is equal parts pragmatist, demagogue and ideologue. That might even be a requirement just to survive in his party -- one in which there are still neo-Stalinists who, even today, can be moved to tears when they enter the Kremlin during government visits.
This recently happened with Panagiotis Lafazanis, who was energy minister until Friday afternoon, when Tsipras announced a cabinet reshuffle. Even though Lafazanis voted against Tsipras' reform bill, he still plans to back the government. In that sense, he's a total communist -- ready to toe the party line. If Lafazanis had his way, the drachma would soon be reintroduced. Lafazanis and his colleagues in the left wing of Syriza, the Aristera Platforma, would like to see Greece leave the EU. Members of Aristera Platforma seldom say this out loud, because most Greeks want to remain in the euro, but that is their goal. And Lafazanis is among those who would like to make life difficult for a more pragmatic Tsipras. The left wing of the party criticized Tsipras each time he said in recent months he believed he could reach a deal with creditors. The fact that the IMF kept demanding more measures on Greece's part didn't make life any easier for Tsipras.
Nerves of Steel
Dimitrios Papadimoulis, a member of the European Parliament with Syriza, groans loudly when he thinks about it. "With so much pressure coming from all sides, Tsipras must have nerves of steel," he says. He says he doesn't envy the prime minister or his position, but that he admires his charisma and his perception. "We need to quickly grow up as a party, and of course mistakes are unavoidable." He won't say which mistakes those are. He only says that it wasn't easy to transform a collective movement of scattered leftist intellectuals and ideologists into a mainstream party and the country's biggest political force within just five years.
Greeces Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras delivers a speech in parliament: The euro crisis sparked his meteoric political rise in Athens.
A 'Spark in a Peaceful Revolution'
Tsipras studied civil engineering at college, but he remained a political activist throughout. At the age of 33, he became head of the collective movement Synaspismos that served as the precursor to Syriza. At the time, a poll appeared in a newsmagazine showing Tsipras in which every second person polled said he was their favorite politician in Greece.
Since that time, he has lived together with his wife Betty Batziana in Kypseli, a primarily lower middle class Athens neighborhood. They named their first son Orpheus Ernesto. During the years of his political rise, Tsipras kept a poster of Che Ernesto Guevara, a man he revered, hanging behind his desk. Even in interviews today, he is fond of talking about his childhood desire to change the world. He smiles when he describes himself as a "spark in a peaceful revolution."
It's a spark he still has in him. He entered office as prime minister with the intention of changing Europe and of replacing cold neo-liberals with more solidarity-minded leftists. The incendiary speeches he often gives against the "barbarism of austerity" aimed exclusively at protecting banks and old debts touch the soul of Greeks who have seen their standard of living radically decline in an extremely short period of time. His rise to the top of Greek politics was meteoric and nothing did more to promote his ascent than the crisis.
Tsipras often appeals to Greeks to be proud of their country. In his speeches he calls for an "end to the humiliation of the Greek people" and for the "restoration of peoples' dignity." His concept of the nation is that of a pluralis majestatis in which the people are sovereign and cannot be denied -- not their dignity and also not the euro.
After coming close to winning the 2012 election, but losing by a hair to the conservative Antonis Samaras, Tsipras toured Europe. He began searching for potential allies, but he also wanted to make it a learning trip. In January 2013, he came to Berlin, where he met with members of the Left Party, the successors to East Germany's communists. At the London School of Economics, he gave a speech on why neoliberal policies don't lead to solutions. In interviews, he declared that Angela Merkel intends to erect special economic zones in Southern Europe, with Greece as a debt colony.
'We Will Find a Way'
Following his lecture in London, a young Greek man asked him what would happen if the Europeans didn't want to negotiate? "What will you do if they don't give us any more money?"
"We will find a way," Tsipras answered vaguely, at the same time smiling.
"But what will happen to my dad's pension?"
"If you always have fear about what might happen, then your father's pension will be even lower in 2020," Tsipras countered. He left the question about what would happen if the Europeans stopped paying unanswered.
In Paris, Tsipras met with Étienne Balibar, a well-known Marxist. In the event he should meet Merkel, Balibar advised him, he should flatter her, literally "envelop" her. Others put it similarly: "Be tough, talk nice." And that's what he did.
'Soon We Will Win the War'
In May 2014, Syriza won the European elections in Greece. Varoufakis, who was just one of Tsipras' many economic advisors at the time, visited him in his office after the election victory. Their conversation was filmed. "Now we have won the elections, soon we will also win the war," Tsipras told him. He was referring to the war on austerity.
On Jan. 25, 2015, a radiant and singing Tsipras stood as the election victor on a stage in front of the University of Athens. "He was so proud, so happy. He wanted to give Europe a new face," recalls the European Parliamentarian Papadimoulis.
Once again, Tsipras traveled through Europe, this time as head of the Greek government with his finance minister, Varoufakis, at his side. But giving Europe a new face didn't prove to be a simple task. The other heads of government didn't like how the two new leaders of an effectively insolvent Greece behaved. Their surfeit of self-confidence made European leaders mistrustful.
The result was a series of misunderstandings that led distrust to grow on both sides. At some point, a Grexit became a serious option.
With his stubbornness, Tsipras even managed to anger European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker for a time, a man who saw himself as "Greece's last friend." What annoyed Juncker was likely that Tsipras always withdrew after hours of negotiations to consult with his advisors -- only to return to the table and go back on agreements or reopen points for discussion. "A negotiation never only belongs to one person," Tsipras allegedly said about the practice.
Brussels officials retaliated, calling him a liar and an amateur. Of course, neither is completely inaccurate. Tsipras was a beginner. Perhaps he really did think that he could give Europe a "new face" and dictate conditions to the Troika. He is extremely self-confident, which is easy to overlook because he never seems arrogant.
Some in Athens believe that for a time it wasn't totally clear to Syriza leaders that every word, every speech and every appearance would be attentively followed. They believe that Tsipras and Varoufakis long thought that at home they could say the opposite of what they said in Brussels and that nobody would notice.
Dimitrious Papadimoulis, the MEP, is right. Tsipras and his party were forced to grow up quickly. It only took six months.