Since 2016, a Czech-based think tank European Values has been keeping a close eye on Russian influence in its own country. Through its aptly named “Kremlin Watch” program, reports have been published documenting the actions of any political or media agents that seem to align themselves with President Vladimir Putin’s narratives. Their latest one, “The Prague Manual”, released just a few days ago, managed to stir some local controversy when a map of national sentiments towards Russia was pre-published in the Spanish newspaper El Pais. Painted in a deep red, a Cold-War signifier of danger but also, according to the map’s legend, of being a “Kremlin collaborator”, were not the Visegrad members – or any of the countries run by the right-wing populists who have expressed their admiration for Vladimir Putin – but, in fact, Greece and Cyprus.
As it turns out, the report’s assessment was not based on any of the countries’ actions in international institutions, but on domestic policies – or rather, the lack of them. The authors of the report consider disinformation to be the battering ram of Putin’s influence in Europe and since there are no institutions explicitly devoted to fighting Russian deception, it makes sense Greece and Cyprus must be aligned with the Kremlin’s point of view. It might have made for a compelling argument, had the authors not failed to ask if there is any Russian misinformation in Greece and Cyprus in the first place.
Even more unfortunate is the fact that the publication of the report coincided almost perfectly with a wave of congratulations from the US, the EU and NATO officials towards the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, as well as a possible Nobel Peace Prize nomination for his apparent success in striking a deal with his Macedonian counterpart Zoran Zaev, over the name dispute the two countries have engaged in for the last three decades. Zaev came to power after his predecessor, Nikola Gruevski, was forced to resign following an intense period of popular disapproval against his government. Gruevski’s supporters have demonstrated on his behalf, wearing Putin t-shirts and shouting pro-Russian slogans, while his party, the conservative VMRO, has opposed the solution to the name dispute that the EU and NATO support.
The next step after the dispute is officially resolved, will be for the Republic of North Macedonia, which has officially begun its membership talks with NATO. It seems strange that Greece as“a Kremlin Collaborator”could enforce and mediate such a deal. A more thorough examination of Greece’s foreign policy, though, would reveal that, without a doubt, the country’s allegiance is to the Western bloc. This doesn’t’ mean that its diplomatic relations with Russia are hostile or non-existent – or even that amidst such great turmoil in the Western Balkan region and Europe in general, this allegiance will be permanent.
Greece, in particular, would have provided far better reasons than the absence of an anti-Russian propaganda office to raise suspicion of a friendly attitude towards the Kremlin. Back in 2015, when Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras had spent a mere two days in office, with his government not yet in place, when he opposed the EU’s plan for broader sanctions against Russia over the crisis in Ukraine.
Less than three months later, Tsipras made an official visit to Moscow, where he spoke of a “spring of Greek-Russian relations”. International media hinted at the possibility that the reason for his visit was to ask for financial support in order to leave the Eurozone, after failed negotiations with the European Commission, the ECB, and the IMF to end the austerity policies that have been imposed on Greece for the last 8 years, as a pre-condition for a series of bailouts.
Vladimir Putin himself came to Greece in 2016 and diplomatic ties have been ongoing ever since. Even on June 13, when the Greek government was announcing its success in paving the way for the annexation of the Republic of Macedonia to NATO, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Nikos Kotzias, was visiting Sergey Lavrov in Russia to discuss a variety of subjects, among which the “increased activity of NATO and the US on the Russian border”. According to Lavrov, he and Kotzias share common views on the crises in the Middle East, North Africa, and Syria and also agree on the necessity of improving the dialogue between Europe and Russia.
A lot of suspicion around Greece as a possible “Trojan horse” for the Russian agenda has focused on Kotzias. A former high-ranking member of the Greek Communist Party (KKE) in the ‘80s, Kotzias was the first confirmed member of the government to have met a far-right Eurasianist ideologue and Putin’s strategist Aleksandr Dugin before taking his office. It’s a fact he denies, despite the existence of photos that prove otherwise. His overall stance, a peculiar brand of “patriotic leftism” that he described in a 2014 book, could probably find some common ground with Dugin’s Eurasianism, despite their different origins. Also, Kotzias’ tendency for what his opponents have named “secret diplomacy” does not leave much room to gain knowledge of such relations. The press release at his latest visit to Russia, for instance, said that apart from Lavrov and other Russian officials, he would also meet with representatives of various think tanks. His Ministry did not provide any further information on these think tanks, or even that such meetings even took place. One can not help but suspect that Dugin’s “Katehon” think tank might have been one of them.
Around the same time that Tsipras first took office, German newspaper Die Zeit ran a story on the leaked e-mails of a Russian Embassy employee. The e-mails showed that various members of government both in Alexis Tsipras’ SYRIZA party, while in opposition, had been approached by members of Dugin’s circle, and were invited to be potential promoters of Putin’s agenda in the EU. Alexis Tsipras himself was considered a probable influencer, while then-members of his party seem to have met with Dugin to exchange their views with one another.
The e-mails also showed that Panos Kammenos, leader of SYRIZA’s then-future coalition partner, ANEL, also had ties with influential figures in Russia. The intermediate for these relations seemed to include a shipping magnate Yiannis Karagiorgis, a close friend of Russian oligarch and Putin supporter, Konstantin Malofeev. Karagiorgis is now facing charges for fraud regarding his business activities. Before that, just prior to the SYRIZA-ANEL government’s first failed attempt to restructure national television, Karagiorgis put forth a Berlusconi-like plan of buying local TV-stations and networking them into a semi-national channel. His team featured prominent journalists affiliated with SYRIZA and was substantially assisted by a new law that increased syndicated content limits from three to five hours per day.
Despite his sympathy to Alexis Tsipras’ government, Karagiorgis’ business has been small-time. The strongest sign of Russian involvement would be the close relations between Tsipras’ government and Ivan Savvidis, a Greek-Georgian entrepreneur and former member of the Russian Duma with Putin’s party. Among his many activities, Savvidis has also brokered for the acquisition of the privatized port of Thessaloniki by a consortium led by Russian interests and has acquired a newspaper “Ethnos”, and a national TV station “Epsilon TV”. But none of these outlets has actively promoted fake news, put forth a radical agenda of condemning Europe or carried campaigns actively promoting Russian interests in the style of the media that “Kremlin propaganda” is usually associated with. They both adhere to a soft pro-government agenda and do not stray far from the mainstream journalistic standards of Greece – whose overall declining press is a painful, albeit a separate story.
It is a strange contradiction: despite a fairly sized sympathetic outlook by many of the Greek people towards the Russian President, estimated at 50% in a global survey and at 67% in a national one, no mainstream outlet has expressed this sentiment. This task is only performed by small media on a fringe far-right spectrum. But this may be about to change. On June 4th, Russian news agency Sputnik officially announced the opening of a Greek branch. According to Sputnik’s international editor-in-chief, “there was no full-time media outlet [in Greece] covering international events and offering opinions and facts different from the European mainstream media. We fixed that”. This doesn’t validate the findings of the “Prague Manual”. At best, it makes it prophetic.
Putin in Greece!Like&Share ! I want to everybody see it.
Even so, the reasoning behind European Values’ assessment remains questionable. After all, a state-sponsored campaign against fake news in Greece is already in the works for almost a year and since it voluntarily follows an EU initiative, it hardly seems like the kind of policy that someone tolerant or permissive against Russian fake news would actively promote.
In fact, all the signs that point towards a Greek attachment to the Kremlin have a flip side that practically negates them. The Greek government’s initial refusal to agree to the sanctions on Russia turned out to be an empty gesture since, in the end, Alexis Tsipras backed out and adhered to the official EU line. The majority of his party’s members that held a positive view of Vladimir Putin and a leftist dismissive view of the EU -Dugin’s apparent contact among them- have split and formed their own party since his capitulation to the EU’s harsh austerity demands following the referendum of 2015. Emmanuel Macron’s decision to pick Athens as the place for his speech on the future of Europe does not emanate only from its integral significance, but also from the close alliance between Tsipras and the French President. Last but not least, despite the effects of the prolonged financial crisis on the state budget, Greece remains at the top of the percentage of its GDP in contributions to NATO, second only to the US, while Tsipras’ government willingly made a controversial decision to accept NATO’s patrols in the Aegean when the influx of refugees was at its maximum.
His continually tightening allegiance to the Western bloc makes his eager friendship with Russia seem almost paradoxical. This particular brand of diplomacy, though, can be easily explained by three factors.
First, Alexis Tsipras and Nikos Kotzias have said without a doubt that their aim for Greece is to act as a mediator of conflict in the region or, as they prefer to call it, “a pillar of stability”. In the past, Kotzias has advocated for a deepening of Trans-Atlantic relations and has carefully maintained a balanced and friendly attitude towards the EU, the US and also China, who has actively entered the Greek market, mainly through its energy and shipping sectors. Alexis Tsipras’ last promotional video juxtaposes stills from his meetings with Barrack Obama and Vladimir Putin under the headline “Greece: A Global Interlocutor”. This momentum explains Kotzias’ somewhat arrogant declaration after striking a deal with his Macedonian counterpart that he “will have solved the issue of Albania too, before leaving for summer holidays”.
Second, the collaboration between Greece and Russia began even before the financial crisis that has dazed the country for the last 8 years, and thus long before the two sides constituting the “New Cold War” had taken shape.
Especially after 2000, just after the violent collapse of Yugoslavia and the popular dismay in both countries over NATO’s actions, Putin’s Russia and Greece strengthened their diplomatic relations. The outcome of this approach was that, in the first decade of the 21st century, Russia officially recognized Greece as a mediator with the US, the EU, and NATO, and also put forth proposed plans of cooperation in natural gas and oil pipelines that would traverse the North of Greece. This convergence came to a halt, despite the then Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis’ support, when it was contested even by the members of his own party who managed to return to the unilaterally Western doctrine that has been a mainstay of Greek foreign policy since the Second World War. That’s until Alexis Tsipras’ government renewed Karamanlis’ agenda of Greece acting as a mediator between Russia and the West.
Third, bluffing with Russia is almost a tradition in Greece’s post-war foreign policy. That was in a sense Karamanlis’ strategy over Greek-Russian relations: they wouldn’t mark a geopolitical shift, but rather a kind of leverage against American and European mandates. Before him, in 1987, Andreas Papandreou, Third-way socialist Prime Minister of Greece in the 80’s and early 90’s, infamously used the threat of turning for help to the Warsaw Pact, in order to convince NATO to intervene in a dispute between Greece and Turkey, from which it had initially chosen to keep its distance. Even Karamanlis’ uncle, Konstantinos Karamanlis, conservative Prime Minister for much of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s is suspected of using this tactic. In 1979 he became the first Greek PM to visit the Soviet Union in very friendly terms. Before that, he had temporarily paused Greece’s involvement in NATO. Both actions were expressions of dismay over the support the US provided to the military junta of 1967-1974. Such a tradition could partly explain Tsipras’ initial friendly approach with Russia when he was driving a hard bargain with the EU and the IMF over austerity measures.
From a distance, Greece might look like a hot candidate for breaking off from the West and shifting towards the Kremlin’s agenda. There is Greece’s harsh treatment by the EU during the crisis, its religious affinity with Russia over Orthodox Christianity, the open wound of Yugoslavia, prospects of collaborating in big-time energy projects, plus a “minor history” of the country which is supposed to have lost two historical chances for a shift away from the West towards Russia. The first was the failed Russian-backed Orlov Revolt against the Ottoman Empire in 1770 that preceded the Greek War of Independence, which led to the formation of Modern Greece. The second was in the late 1940’s, when the USSR abandoned the Greek Communist Party which, left to its own devices, was defeated by the end of the Civil War in 1949, leading to decades of vindictive prosecution, exile, imprisonment, torture and killings for its members – handled by a state mostly run by former collaborators of the Nazi occupation in Greece.
None of these factors has proved strong enough to support a shift towards Russia. Quite the opposite: Athens’ friendship with Moscow has proved to be extremely frail. On July 11, the same day that The Republic of Macedonia received an invitation to join NATO, Greece expelled two Russian diplomats on charges of attempted bribery towards clerics and municipal officials in the north of Greece. Ever since Kotzias’ and Lavrov’s ministries have publicly condemned each other’s stance on the matter. Yesterday, Sergey Lavrov canceled his official visit to Athens in September. That also sparked another round of public statements from the two ministries who disagree on whether Lavrov had proposed the visit in the first place or whether he just accepted Kotzias’ invitation.
There is no question, that despite their “mediator” strategy, Tsipras’ government’s allegiances lie first and foremost with the West. It takes the New-Cold-War-scare worldview to see pro-NATO Greece as a “Kremlin collaborator”, while Viktor Orban’s Hungary gets away simply as “a country in denial”.