Putin Tsipras Meeting Shows Greece Will Pursue Independent Foreign Policy
Dimitri Lascaris says that Greece is opposed to sanctions against Russia and will not follow lock-step a Western led approach, but as long as it remains in the Eurozone, there are limits to what it can do to break with the sanction policy
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
Yesterday in Moscow, Greek Prime Minister Tsipras met President Putin to discuss — what? Well, there was lots of speculation about what they would discuss. Would Greece ask for some financial help, perhaps loans to deal with the crisis? Would Putin ask for some kind of change in Greek policy on the European sanctions?
Well, what really happened? Well, maybe not so much. Now joining us to talk about all of this is Dimitri Lascaris. Dimitri is a partner with the Canadian law firm of Siskinds, where he heads the firm’s securities class action practice. He’s also been covering the Greek story for us, and he’s a board member of the Real News.
Thanks very much, Dimitri.
DIMITRI LASCARIS, SECURITIES CLASS ACTIONS LAWYER IN CANADA: Thanks for having me back, Paul.
JAY: So what, if anything, came out of these meetings?
LASCARIS: Well, a lot of symbolism came out of the meetings. First of all Tsipras, he laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He spoke of the joint struggle against fascism, the joint struggle of Greece and Russia. He talked about the sanctions that are due to expire — the EU sanctions on Russia, in June of this year unless the EU states unanimously agree to roll them over. He talked about —
JAY: Let me jump in there, because if it has to be unanimous, and as I understand it does — so Greece could actually force a dropping of the sanctions.
LASCARIS: It could. And undoubtedly Mr. Tsipras understands that there would be repercussions if he did that. Martin Schulz, the President of the European Parliament, was virtually demanding days before Tsipras visited Moscow that Greece fall into line in terms of the EU’s dealings with Russia. He didn’t explicitly threaten Greece, but I think everybody understands that there would be a penalty of some kind to be paid, and a quite severe one, were Greece to bring down the entire sanctions regime.
JAY: And the Greek-Russian trading partnership before the sanctions was actually quite significant. If I understand correctly, Russia was one of its major trading partners in the energy sector and also a major market for Greek fruit and vegetables, which are now affected by the counter-sanctions. Because when Europe put their sanctions on Russia, Russia put some sanctions on European goods that were supposed to be exported, and amongst that was Greek fruits. And that’s still in place.
LASCARIS: That is true. And I think that at the end of the day when you see what was achieved, from a concrete perspective, it was really as I said at the outset, in the nature of symbolism.
Mr. Tsipras, I think, wants to send a message at a key point in his discussions with the Eurogroup, that if there isn’t a degree of reasonableness forthcoming from the Eurogroup, there will be a price to be paid on their part. Not only in terms of Greece’s potential default from the eurozone, but also in regard to European foreign policy. And Mr. Putin obviously has an interest in sticking his eye in the — sticking his finger in the eye of the European Union, because of the sanctions that have been imposed, from his perspective wrongly, on Russia.
And so at the end of the day it was symbolism. It was politics. There was a mutual benefit, I think, to this type of an exercise, but substantively not much appears to have changed.
In particular, there was some speculation that Mr. Tsipras might ask for money. Russia’s in no position to alleviate the Greek debt crisis through low-interest loans because of the sharp decline in the price of oil, and to a lesser extent the sanctions regime. And Greece needs far more money than Russia is able to provide in order to have meaningful, long-lasting relief from the debt crisis.
JAY: I suppose some of what might have been discussed might also not be public. One speculates they did talk about what would happen if, in fact, Greece leaves the eurozone. Might there be some kind of special relationship then between Greece and Russia, and so on. But we don’t know that, and I guess it’s not in their interest to even have that kind of a public conversation.
LASCARIS: No. And as I say, there’s going to be a price to be paid to the extent Greece is viewed as departing materially from the foreign policy line of the European Union.
But what strikes me as surreal about all of this —
JAY: Let me just interrupt for one second. A price to be paid. I mean, what more can — what more can they do to Greece?
LASCARIS: Well, they could completely cut off the little drip-feeding of funding that they’ve been providing to the Greek banking system and cause the entire financial system to crash, which is not an insignificant penalty to be [inaud.] with.
JAY: In other words, force Greece out of the eurozone.
LASCARIS: Well certainly, yes. Force the financial system to collapse, force Greece to impose capital controls, which would undoubtedly be followed by some degree of rationing. So there is no doubt that the European Union does continue to exercise some degree of leverage over Greece, notwithstanding the pain that it’s inflicted on the country.
But you know, something I want to get out there because it’s lurking in the background and the press. The financial press doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in talking about it, is whether the approach of Greece — the ostensibly conciliatory, or relatively conciliatory approach of the Greek government to Russia, makes any sense at all from a foreign policy perspective.
And I think it makes eminently good sense. And that’s something that isn’t discussed, because at the end of the day, the regime that is now in power in the Ukraine was one that came to power through a violent coup d’etat. The leadership that was displaced by the current government, however unsavory it may have been, was democratically elected. There were elections that were going to be held, and there’s no reason to believe that they weren’t going to proceed. And that leadership could have been removed by peaceful means.
But there’s good reason to believe that Victoria Nuland, a foreign, a diplomat in the EU of the United States and others, including German leaders, helped to orchestrate the removal of a democratically elected government from the Ukraine. And now what you have in place is a far-right government that has been accused by Human Rights Watch of war crimes, of having used cluster bombs in a large city, Donetsk, in the East of Ukraine. You have this regime appointing a neo-Nazi, a leader of a neo-Nazi party, as an advisor to the Ukrainian military.
So there are some very significant, unsavory aspects to all of this. And the situation has resulted in violence. There are people dying. There is no immediate prospect of a peaceful resolution. And one could very legitimately argue that Mr. Tsipras’s relatively conciliatory approach, trying to engage Russia — which obviously has a very significant degree of influence in the East of Ukraine, and a constructive dialog, is a sensible, rational approach to trying to resolve the conflict.
That’s just not even discussed. You know, one might argue that the EU should be emulating the approach of Mr. Tsipras rather than trying to bring him into line and force him to follow the extremely unproductive approach the EU has taken so far in trying to resolve the crisis in the Ukraine.
JAY: Putin said he does not want to use Greece as a wedge with the EU. And there may even be some truth to it in a sense that Greece on its own, not voting for sanctions and creating that crisis, probably wouldn’t change things so dramatically in terms of Europe’s foreign policy.
On the other hand, the way things are going, it could be some major countries in Europe get fed up with these sanctions and don’t think they’re really going anywhere.
LASCARIS: Well, I think the German economy has paid a price for all of this. I don’t think there’s a tremendous amount of enthusiasm within the German business community for the sanctions regime. The leadership of Hungary is strongly opposed to the sanctions regime. I think that’s become increasingly clear. And at the end of the day, there is good reason to believe that this accomplishes nothing more than serving the interests of an agenda of certain neo-conservative elements within the U.S. government who are trying to reign Putin in because he has not been, from their perspective, sufficiently obedient to the U.S. agenda.
And I think there are people within Europe, within the leadership of Europe, who realize that that’s probably what’s going on, and that it doesn’t serve Europe’s long-term interest to engage in this kind of belligerence towards Russia.
JAY: Okay. Just finally, Greece announced that — they say Germany owes war reparations from World War II, something like about $300 billion U.S. dollars. I mean, how serious — I’m sure they’re serious about they think they should be owed that. But is there any mechanism to recoup it? And two, what’s the basis of the claim?
LASCARIS: Well, there are two bases. The most, the strongest basis of all for a claim — it’s not really in the nature of war reparations, just a straight debt that was incurred by the Nazi government when it forced the Central Bank of Greece to loan the Nazi government, I think it was hundreds of millions of dollars. The equivalent back in, during the Second World War — that amount has never been repaid. And with the accumulation of interest, it’s currently valued conservatively at 11 billion Euros.
And there really isn’t any serious argument being articulated by the German government as to why that money shouldn’t be paid back. So that seems to be something that actually is on the table, at least implicitly.
More controversially, there are reparations that are being sought by Greece for the murder of civilians, reprisals that were taken by the Nazi forces against civilians for acts of the Resistance. The destruction of infrastructure. The starvation of thousands of Athenians. Really some quite horrific atrocities. Greece was one of the countries that suffered the worst under Nazi occupation during the Second World War. That, the German government says, has been closed. Any claims relating to that have been closed, as a result of treaties that were struck by major powers without the participation of Greece.
That’s a highly dubious legal claim. I think there are people within the German establishment who understand that that is far from an airtight argument. Der Spiegel recently published an article which expressed some sympathy with the Greek position. I think you can certainly anticipate that the German government would never accept the magnitude of reparations being sought by the current Greek government. But there does seem to be some recognition within the German establishment that these are claims that are not entirely without merit, particularly the loan of the Greek Central Bank to the Nazi regime.
JAY: All right, very interesting. Thanks very much for joining us, Dimitri.
LASCARIS: Thank you, Paul.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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