SYRIZA’s Thessaloniki Programme vs. Euro-Troika Austerity
Hours before the second austerity bill is expected to pass in Greek Parliament, Dimitri Lascaris interviews Dr. Stathis Kouvelakis, leading member of the Left Platform of SYRIZA, who defends the original mandate for national reconstruction given to SYRIZA
Hours before the second austerity bill is expected to pass in Greek Parliament, Dimitri Lascaris interviews Dr. Stathis Kouvelakis, leading member of the Left Platform of SYRIZA, who defends the original mandate for national reconstruction given to SYRIZA
DIMITRI LASCARIS, TRNN: This is Dimitri Lascaris with the Real News.
The Real News has sent a team to Athens to explore the aftermath of the controversial bailout agreement struck on July 13 with Greece’s creditors. And here today to discuss this with me is Stathis Kouvelakis, who is a [reader] at King’s College in London and a member of Syriza’s Central Committee, Syriza being the dominant party in the governing coalition, and also a member, and a rather outspoken one, of the Left Platform of Syriza. Thank you very much for joining us, Stathis.
STATHIS KOUVELAKIS: Thank you.
LASCARIS: I wanted to start by talking to you about the platform on which Syriza ran in the election in January of this year, the so-called Thessaloniki platform. Can you perhaps take a moment and summarize for us the principal components of that platform?
KOUVELAKIS: Yes. What we call the Thessaloniki program, or platform if you like, is a set of commitments which aimed at dismantling the core of the austerity policies as they have been applied to Greece since five years now. So at the core of that were immediate measures, very simple measures in a way, that would reverse everything that has been done since the first memorandum of agreement between Greece and its creditors in 2010.
So let me list very quickly those measures. I think that first of all, there were measures about dealing with the humanitarian crisis. So emergency measures on that level. Then it was about reversing the devaluation of wages by raising the minimum wage to its pre-2010 level. Then it was about reestablishing the labor legislation that has been slashed these last five years. Then it was about also getting rid of all this overtaxation that has been endured by modest households in Greece these five last years. Then there were measures about creating jobs, essentially, in the public sector in order to tackle the unemployment, which is absolutely dramatic in Greece, over 25 percent according to official figures.
And it was also about reestablishing democratic functioning that has been very significantly outed since the start of this period.
LASCARIS: And here, I want to ask you this question, just like you to draw a distinction between the political philosophy of the members of Syriza and the platform of the Thessaloniki program itself. Do you think one could fairly describe the Thessaloniki program as being radically left?
KOUVELAKIS: It was a radically left program in the current circumstances. I think that you can’t judge programs in some kind of abstract situation. Programs have to be assessed according to the specific context in which they happen and they want to intervene. Given the kind of extreme austerity that has been applying to this country since five years, the Thessaloniki program, which in other circumstances could be considered as a very moderate social democratic program, well now it was very radical, actually. Because it is really about drawing a line of demarcation with austerity.
And this is where the real line of demarcation is now. And it’s no accident if our political adversaries, expressed by the European Union, did everything they could in order this program, this specific program, supposedly moderate, not to be applied. And they succeeded, because the agreement that has been signed clearly means the total [constellation] of everything that was included in this platform.
LASCARIS: So from your perspective there’s no significant component of the Thessaloniki program that survives, or will survive, the implementation of the bailout agreement, the third bailout agreement.
KOUVELAKIS: Absolutely nothing. Absolutely nothing. The agreement that has been signed amounts to keeping everything that has been done during those five last years and actually deteriorating much further the situation in all kinds of ways. Just to mention some examples. The very limited legislation that has been passed by the Syriza government in those six months will be repealed, with the exception of the bill on the humanitarian crisis which itself was a very, very reduced version of what was included in the Thessaloniki program, about a sixth of the overall budget that was planned.
Then there is, strictly speaking, a prohibition of doing anything that was included in this platform, either explicitly as in the case of the labor legislation, which has to be maintained as it is. There is even a mention of a law which will deal with labor conflict, so we have to expect a further limitation of union rights, actually, in the forthcoming period. Absolutely no question about raising the minimum wage. And also every law that will be passed in the future will have to be submitted to the Troika, which is now called the institutions, before being submitted in the Greek parliament. I mean, such a denial of Greek sovereignty. Such a devaluation of any even parliamentary procedure hasn’t happened, even before. I mean, even during the previous governments.
LASCARIS: Are you referring to any laws that have a fiscal impact? Or even those that have no fiscal impact?
KOUVELAKIS: The agreement is quite clear, this is about any law. This is about any law. But everyone suspects that it will be even clearer for those who have a fiscal agreement. But it seems that even the [inaud.] higher education is targeted by the Troika. So it’s really a total negation of Greek sovereignty.
And let me add to this one more thing. One of the main lines of demarcation, and I forgot to mention that in the list, was of course the question of privatization. The Thessaloniki program was about preventing any further privatization among the country, guaranteeing that the basic infrastructure of the country, including some that had been privatized, would return in public hands. Now we know that the list of privatization was scaled up to an incredible amount, 50 billion euros. No one knows how this target can be achieved. Probably the Acropolis will have to be sold, or Greek [inaud.] as well, because everyone knows that the public assets in Greece do not make up for that amount.
But what is most important is that the agency that will deal with those privatization will be totally controlled by the Troika. Initially they wanted even for it to be based in Luxembourg. It will be finally based in Athens, but not controlled by the Greek government, but directly by the European institutions. So it means that Greece, and I think that this is not a polemical word, this is not something that I use for rhetorical purposes. It’s really a recolonization of Greece that is happening, and that is very systematically and consciously planned with this signed agreement.
LASCARIS: Now, we’ve had the opportunity during our visit in Athens to speak to Costas Lapavitsas, another member of the Left Platform and a sitting member of Parliament, as you know. We also heard him speak with great conviction about Greece’s place within the monetary union at the Democracy Rising conference. And he’s quite clearly expressed the view that so long as Greece remains within this monetary union, the re-adoption or implementation of progressive policies is simply impossible. What is your view on the possibility of achieving progressive change within the monetary union?
KOUVELAKIS: Well, unsurprisingly I totally agree with Costas on this. This is actually the position of the Left Platform as such, and this has been the position of the Left Platform since the start of the crisis and of that period. So that was the main line of confrontation within Syriza. And I think that it’s quite rare actually in politics, perhaps even in history, to be vindicated so clearly, so quickly, and so blatantly, I would say. And now many people inside the party who didn’t agree with us until quite recently very openly and very frankly admit that they were wrong on this and that the recent events proved that it was indeed totally impossible to think that via negotiations and all this kind of bargaining you could get something better, and possibly even a break with austerity politics within that framework.
This framework is in its genetic code a hard version of neoliberalism. Perhaps even harder than the one dominating U.S. politics with Barack Obama, for instance. I mean, we have a complete reversal of situation. Now the real laboratory of the hardest version of neoliberalism, perhaps globally, is Europe, not the anglophone world or the U.S.
LASCARIS: Nonetheless, there are people both within Syriza and its leadership and outside of the party who respond that even if that’s the case, even if implementation of the party’s platform, any progressive policies is impossible within the eurozone, the party has no mandate to take Greece outside of the monetary union. How do you respond to that?
KOUVELAKIS: Well it’s quite clear. I mean, it’s true that the position with which Syriza won the elections was to break with the euro–pardon me, to break with austerity but remain within the eurozone. But these two levels do not have the same value, you see. Because if it is about staying in the euro at any cost, then Syriza is just totally irrelevant. The electorate would have voted for [Mr. Samaras] or the other pro-austerity parties, because that was their line. We should stay in the euro at any cost.
And so the essential point of Syriza’s mandate was about breaking with austerity. And then of course–and in the recent months, various high-ranked people in the government, not members of the Left Platform, had admitted that if things go wrong with the negotiations, if they didn’t listen to us and do not accept our fundamental demands, then we would ask the people to give their opinion. And in a way this is how, this is what happened with the referendum. The referendum was about rejecting the set of proposals submitted by Mr. Juncker, who it has to be said are a much milder version of the agreement that has been signed. And they were rejected by the Greek electorate.
So I think that the mandate of the referendum was a step forward compared to the mandate of January 25. People said we don’t want austerity, whatever it takes. Because the utmost fear of the referendum was extremely conflictual. Everyone was aware then with the banks being closed, with capital controls, with cash withdrawals capped to 60 euros, we were in an open confrontation with the entire European Union. And the Greek people in an overwhelming majority of 62 percent said, go ahead. Don’t give up.
And this government succeeded in doing something, I think, totally unique in recent or perhaps even in world political history. Days, or even hours, after the result of such a tremendous event as the Greek referendum, they did exactly the contrary than the popular mandate was about. They said, yes, the message of this referendum is that we shouldn’t break with the eurozone, and we should remain in the euro at any cost. This is totally insane, and this led of course to the capitulation of July 13 with the agreement.
LASCARIS: I think you would nonetheless agree with the proposition that withdrawing from the monetary union is something that would require quite careful preparation and planning, and a great deal of technical sophistication. Is that a view that you would share?
KOUVELAKIS: A responsible political party should–such as Syriza, should have prepared itself for that. It’s totally insane that there was no plan B. There was no plan B–we have to understand that it was a political decision not to have a plan B. Because there were plenty of people, including Varoufakis as it appears, that were preparing for the plan B, at least as an option. That’s the very sense of plan B. If in a negotiation things cannot go ahead, well, then you need a plan B.
And it was totally irresponsible not to say, to use even tougher words, for the Syriza leadership and for Tsipras not to have such a plan B. It means that when they were faced with open warfare and when the real tough phase started they had deprived themselves from any means of self-defense. This is pure political madness of a kind we have rarely seen, I think, in politics in the last decades.
LASCARIS: In a recent interview that you did for Jacobin magazine, you talk about that. You talk about the absence of a plan B. And one could interpret your comments as an assertion that this was a conscious bridge-burning strategy on the part of certain persons within the leadership of Syriza, and most notably the deputy prime minister, Yanis Dragasakis. Is that in fact your view? Do you think that that was a conscious decision made in order to cut off even the possibility of a Grexit?
KOUVELAKIS: I think there are two factors that have to be considered here. I think that one part of the leadership actually never believed in the possibility of breaking with austerity within the eurozone. So in a way they agreed with us but drew the opposite conclusions, that we should just manage austerity. And actually, for those who could read carefully what Yanis Dragasakis has been saying since years, actually, it was quite clear that this guy didn’t want a policy of the rupture with austerity. He had admitted that within that framework the only thing you can do is a marginally softer version of austerity. So that’s one thing. On the one hand it was, on this side it was a very conscious decision.
LASCARIS: If I may interrupt. You’re saying that it wasn’t simply an opposition to Grexit, but at a certain philosophical level, an ideological level, Dragasakis agreed with the notion that austerity was in the national interest or was warranted in the–.
KOUVELAKIS: Well, I–yes. I mean, Dragasakis comes from a Communist Party background, but he’s very representative of that part of the left that has more or less admitted that you can’t reverse neoliberalism, actually. That’s the frame within which you have to move, actually. That any other option doesn’t really exist, doesn’t have any concrete meaning, as it were. They never believed in that.
But there was another side of people who out of ideological, essentially, reasons, didn’t want the plan B because of this ideology I call Left Europeanism, which is the belief that between Europeans it is possible to fight a good deal. Because we will discuss between responsible people, and that we are somehow sharing some kind of common objective even if we disagree on certain policies. And that at the end of the day we would reach an acceptable compromise for both parties. And that proved a complete illusion, actually.
Even the word negotiation actually is improper. What happened during those six months wasn’t any negotiation. What is a negotiation in which the final point is much worse than the starting point, actually? It was a pure brutalization of the Greek government by the European institutions, and I think that the expression used by the Guardian correspondent in Brussels, an exercise in mental waterboarding, is quite adequate to describe what has been happening not only during those last days, which were very dramatic, but during that whole period, actually.
LASCARIS: And those who, like Mr. Dragasakis, who favored this approach of engagement with the political elite, austerity-oriented political elite of the eurozone, remain within the inner circle of Prime Minister Tsipras. But as the result of a cabinet shuffle that occurred within the last couple of days, prominent members of the Left Platform, most notably the energy minister Lavazanis and others, have been removed. And therefore it appears that the members of the leadership who have, one could say, are most responsible for Greece finding itself in this current set of circumstances, have consolidated their power. And in the Jacobin interview, you state quite clearly that the process towards the disintegration of Syriza has begun. Where do you see this process leading in the months ahead?
KOUVELAKIS: Well, let me first emphasize this point. I mean, because many people think that what happens inside Syriza now is just a confrontation between the Left Platform and the leadership. Actually things are quite different. Even dramatically different. I mean, the government and Tsipras have absolutely no political legitimacy for doing what they have done. They have–they are violating the popular mandate. They are violating the mandate of the referendum of July 15 the most blatant way. The no has become a yes. The 62 percent has submitted to the 32 percent.
There is a lot of talk about a European coup, actually. Which is, you know, partly true if you consider indeed the way the liquidity weapon has been used against the country. However, it is a coup in which the Greek government is part of. Or has become, rather, part of now. And so it violates the popular mandate. It has no legitimacy inside the party. The majority of the members of the Central Committee, so far beyond the ranks of the Left Platform, have signed a common statement saying that we reject this agreement, that this agreement is unacceptable, that it is a complete reversal of all our commitments, of all our program and of all our values. They have asked for the Central Committee, which is the only elected instance of the party to be convened, and Tsipras refuses to do that. So he has no legitimacy inside his own party.
The only thing he has succeeded in doing is getting the approval of the majority of the parliamentary group by openly blackmailing it, right. Nevertheless, even in the parliamentary group, 39 out of the 149 Syriza MPs have rejected the agreement in various ways. And 32 of them voted no in parliament. So all of them have been, now, sidelined. And those who were in government, so the four ministers of the Left Platform, indeed as you said have been removed.
So the process of disintegration of Syriza has started since Syriza or Tsipras or the government signed, accepted, and then ratified in parliament that absolutely awful and unacceptable agreement.
LASCARIS: So if Prime Minister Tsipras maintains his refusal to convene a meeting of the Central Committee, what is your view as to how the Left Platform, and any persons whether they’re members of the Left Platform or not, within Syriza, any members of the Central Committee who are opposed, who share your view about the lack of legitimacy of these decisions, what is your view as to how they should react to that, to that refusal to convene a meeting of the Central Committee?
KOUVELAKIS: Well, you might know that the great German philosopher Hegel said that people never draw lessons from history. But in the case of the Syriza leadership and from the government it seems that even their memory, actually, is very short. They should remember that the memoranda somehow destroyed governments and even prime ministers. They have destroyed three so far that are now political corpses. George Papandreou, Lucas Papademos or Antonis Samaras are completely dead, politically speaking. And their parties have been by and large, and more particularly PASOK, have been destroyed by the memoranda.
So even if a kind of very mild and actually quite corrupt social democratic party as, such as PASOK, has been destroyed by the memorandum, can you imagine the extent to which a party of the radical left such as Syriza will be completely disintegrated by those policies? This is where the heart of the question lies, actually. And not in what this or that faction inside the party will do.
LASCARIS: One could interpret what you’ve just said as the view that the salvation of Syriza depends upon the replacement of the current leadership. Is that your view?
KOUVELAKIS: I think that there is obviously an issue of leadership. Obviously. But first and foremost there is the issue of the political line. The battle inside Syriza has only started, and I have once again to emphasize the fact that the legitimacy of the party is on the side of those who reject the agreement. And the real coup is the one engineered by the government against the will of the party itself, and against of course the popular mandate. They are trying to manipulate now public opinion in all kinds of ways to present this agreement as something that is not desirable, that they don’t even want it.
I mean, we heard incredible things. The prime minister said that he disagreed with the agreement. He didn’t believe in the agreement. But nevertheless he asked the Greek parliament to approve an agreement in which he doesn’t believe. I mean, this is completely irresponsible. This is the destruction even of any notion of politics and of any notion of political responsibility. So Syriza has to be saved from this type of decisions that I think that, you know, the members of the Central Committee and tens of thousands of Syriza activists and members will do everything they can, actually, in order to save the party.
LASCARIS: Now, this request that the prime minister made to approve these prior actions occurred within an extraordinarily short period of time following his return from Brussels on July 13. And Mr. Lapavitsas expressed the view, others probably share this view, that there was no meaningful debate about the prior actions. Do you think that the Greek people, that the electorate understands the practical implications of the implementation of this bailout agreement? That they really appreciate the extent to which this is going to affect them and the manner in which this is going to affect them?
KOUVELAKIS: Not yet. Because obviously the hysteria of the media is turning the attention of the broader public to completely either secondary or totally imaginary issues. For instance, now what dominates the media is the fact that there was a plot for the drachma. And people like Varoufakis or Lafazanis or the Left Platform are presented as devils that wanted somehow to engineer some kind of coup in order to install a new national currency, actually. And so they are really demonized by the media.
But this is just to divert attention from the real issue. And the real issue is that pensions will be reduced, wages will be even further reduced, that people will receive absolutely absurd taxes to pay, that the Greek debt will become even more unsustainable that it is currently. These are the real issues, that what’s left of the democratic functioning in this country will be destroyed for the whole years to come.
But all this will come to the surface very, very quickly. And the effect of that will be absolutely devastating. People who think that, you know, this is calm and that things will happen very softly, and now the government controls the situation and you just have some kind of angry leftists inside the party protesting have understood nothing about the Greek situation. What we are entering is a period of deep political destabilization, of deep political turmoil out of which it will be, I would say, either a radical left option or a radical right-wing option that will emerge.
LASCARIS: Let’s suppose that a radical left-wing option emerges. Or some option. radical left or otherwise, that does decide to pursue a Grexit. How do you think that the military will react to that? Do you think that they will allow a government that explicitly pursues the Grexit option to go down that path?
KOUVELAKIS: Well, I don’t know. This is a question you should ask my comrade Costas Isihos, who until yesterday was the [inaud.] minister of defense. And he was there somehow to control Panos Kammenos and to act as a counterweight to his very–.
LASCARIS: Kammenos would be the leader of ANEL–.
KOUVELAKIS: Exactly. The independent, yeah, the independent Greek–so, right-wing party but supposedly defending Greek sovereignty. Nevertheless they have accepted the agreement, of course.
I mean, I expect large parts of the Greek state to resist ferociously that option, because they understand that it will lead to social destabilization. However, it’s not unlikely that part of the military are open to the argument that we should defend national sovereignty, and that’s the only way to do that, provided of course that it doesn’t go too far in terms of social–change of social relations, let’s say. So I–.
LASCARIS: Could you elaborate a little on that? What do you mean by change in social relations?
KOUVELAKIS: You know, attacking private property or overthrowing capitalism as such. But our immediate objectives are not overthrowing capitalism in Greece, it is about breaking with austerity, I would say.
What seems to be much more dangerous than the army are nevertheless core, hardcore within the police, the judiciary, that are connected with what we can call the deep state, that are very hostile to any kind of left-wing government. Even to a left-wing government signing these type of agreements. That have very strong connections with Golden Dawn, so the neo-Nazi party, which is the third force in Greek parliament. And I think that this might become the point of a possible destabilization in the future, and of possible [inaud.] of attempt in Greece.
LASCARIS: And one last question I wanted to ask you was, the leadership of the eurozone appears to have dropped the pretense that the democratic will of the Greek people is being respected. They are now saying in response to the allegation that they’ve undermined the democratic choice of Greece that there are 18 other democracies within the eurozone, and the wills of those democracies, of the peoples within those democracies, must also be respected. How do you respond to that?
KOUVELAKIS: I think that this argument is totally ridiculous. These governments have been elected to decide about the policies in their own countries, not about the policies that the Greek people should follow. If they think these plans and these recipes are great, they have to apply them to their own people and see what the response will be.
LASCARIS: Thank you very much for joining us, Mr. Kouvelakis.
KOUVELAKIS: Thank you.
LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris for the Real News.
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