Greece-EU clash spreads to Russia sanctions
Greece has created a new headache for the EU by questioning sanctions against Russia over Ukraine but is unlikely to block them for fear of harming its own debt negotiations, analysts and sources say.
New anti-austerity Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras added a foreign policy row to the economic stand-off with Brussels on Tuesday when he complained that Greece had not been consulted about an EU leaders’ statement on sanctions.
The comment set off alarm bells in Europe as Tsipras’s radical left Syriza party has been seen as pro-Russian, and Russia’s ambassador to Athens was the first to meet him after his election victory.
“Syriza have positioned themselves so far out of the mainstream it’s a possibility they could take that position on Russia” and oppose sanctions, Jan Techau, director of the Carnegie Europe think-tank, told AFP.
But Athens is unlikely to cause trouble when EU foreign ministers meet to discuss the sanctions on Thursday, as its priority is renegotiating its 240 billion euro ($269 billion) EU-IMF bailout.
Techau said the EU would likely treat Greece’s position on sanctions with “respect and accommodation, “but I think they will need all of their political capital to get a better deal on the economic situation and will not waste it on Russia.”
The Brussels meeting will be the first for new Greek foreign minister Nikos Kotzias, who could theoretically block any move towards sanctions over the Ukraine crisis which require approval by all 28 EU states.
Kotzias echoed Tsipras’s complaints about the EU statement as he took office Wednesday, adding that the “signs given by certain partners are not good… they tried to present us with a fait accompli and we have clearly said that will not do.”
Tsipras Tuesday accused EU leaders of “bypassing the normal procedure” and voiced his “dissatisfaction” in a call with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, his office said.
– ‘Stay united’ –
European sources said they expected Greece to play ball on sanctions and avoid showing public divisions on the conflict in Ukraine, which has plunged relations with Europe to their lowest ebb since the Cold War.
“Everyone’s concern is to stay united,” a European source told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“It’s not in Greece’s interest to open too many fronts at the same time. They will certainly take a soft line (on Russia) but they won’t block.”
But the row has revived concerns in Brussels about Syriza’s closeness to Russia.
In May 2014, two months after Russia annexed Crimea, Tsipras travelled to Moscow to meet government officials including Russian senate speaker Valentina Matviyenko, who is now on the EU sanctions list.
Tsipras “spoke against NATO’s further expansion to the East and for a constructive policy by the EU toward Ukraine and Russia”, according to a statement from one meeting, and discussed the “neo-fascism” of the new Kiev government.
Russia’s main pro-Kremlin channels have hailed Greece’s political changes, with NTV headlining its coverage of Syriza’s win: “Greece for Russians”.
Daniela Schwarzer, Europe programme director of the German Marshall Fund think-tank, said Syriza was probably talking big on Russia to gain leverage on other issues.
“Syriza’s criticism of the EU decision to step up sanctions shows the Greek government’s interest to straight away make its voice heard on the EU level, which probably also serves domestic political purposes,” she told AFP.
But she added that Greece and Russia had “some cultural proximity and enjoy historical ties, for instance through the Orthodox church”.
“Moreover, Russia has been trying to extend its influence in southeast Europe very actively, through propaganda, party financing, Moscow-paid NGOs and other means of soft power,” she said.
Greece would not be the only EU state to worry about the Russia sanctions, with even Germany and Italy fretting over the effect on wide-ranging economic and political ties with Moscow.
The divisions appear to go to the top with Mogherini last week suggesting that the EU could take a softer stance, even as EU President Donald Tusk, a former Polish premier, spoke out against “appeasement” of Moscow.