Following a fiery summer in Greece, during which the Syriza-led coalition government turned its back on the majority of the electorate, which delivered a resounding “no” to austerity in Greece’s referendum, the country is preparing for snap parliamentary elections on September 20, in which it is far from clear whether Syriza will be able to win and form a new coalition government.
Truthout asked scholar and analyst James Petras, one of the few voices who expressed doubts initially about Syriza’s desire and ability to deliver on its promises, to offer his thoughts on the upcoming election.
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Petras was an adviser to the Pasok government of Andreas Papandreou in Greece in the early 1980s, another “left-wing” regime elected on promises of radical change that were swiftly broken. He has also served as an adviser to leaders such as Hugo Chávez and Salvador Allende and has written extensively about politics in Greece. In this interview, Petras discusses Syriza’s collapse, how Syriza turned its back on the result of the July 5 referendum, and his thoughts on Popular Unity, the party that broke off from Syriza and that now promises to lead the anti-austerity front in Greece.
Michael Nevradakis: Many in Greece, and outside of Greece, were surprised (some would say shocked) at Syriza’s about-face in the space of just a few months – at how it essentially turned its back on those who overwhelmingly voted “no” toward more austerity in the July 5 referendum and at the very harsh memorandum agreement it signed with the troika. You, however, were not surprised at Syriza’s capitulation. What is your reaction to what happened?
James Petras: Well, it’s very clear that Syriza’s capitulation and subordination to the European Union struck a very powerful blow against the demands of the great majority of the people who voted for them, and disillusioned an enormous sector of the population. I think it wasn’t surprising because Syriza had within it many former leaders and people from Pasok, which had a notorious trajectory of not fulfilling programs and submitting to the European Union.
I think the fundamental problem was in the fact that Syriza never spoke out about an alternative to the European Union. Syriza’s members accepted the European Union as the framework; they accepted paying the debt as a framework, and they never formulated an independent policy. They overestimated their capacity to negotiate a progressive solution within the European Union, and absolutely nothing suggested that.
Their agreement to pay the debt was another fallacy: There was no way in the world that Greece would find the resources to maintain its debt. I think these three things – the composition of Syriza, the framework in which they agreed to orient, and the fact that they continued to channel resources to their creditors – undermined any possibility of a repudiation of the program of austerity and regression.
This debt was also found to be, in large part, odious and illegitimate.
Yes. That was decisively determined by a commission formed by the head of the Greek parliament, who was a leading member of Syriza, but this was completely rejected. [Former Greek Prime Minister Alexis] Tsipras acted as if the commission and the decisions on the debt meant nothing, and I think it was emblematic of his whole attitude towards any dissent. He acted like a Napoleon; he had a Napoleonic complex, in which anything which didn’t correspond to his notion of complying with the debt, complying with the EU, was out the window. It’s a very dictatorial and arbitrary organization, and the membership, the central committee and even some of his cabinet ministers didn’t mount a serious challenge to his dictatorial rule.
What do you believe was the actual message of the Greek electorate in their overwhelming vote of “no” in the referendum, and how do you believe this sentiment might be expressed in the upcoming parliamentary elections?
Well, I think the vote was clearly a rejection of more punishment, more regressive measures. It was a rejection of the dictatorship of the EU. It was an attempt to recover lost income, an attempt to recover sovereignty. It was a way of affirming Greek independence, Greek popular sovereignty, and a desire for Greek priorities to be given a greater importance over the creditors and debt payments and the privatizations and the firings. I think it was a very decisive “no” to everything that preceded it and everything that Syriza and Tsipras subsequently agreed to. So here you have this episode of the “no” in the referendum, sandwiched in-between the Syriza leadership’s compliance and subordination to the EU and continuation of regressive policies.
There are many now in Greece and outside of Greece who have their hopes set on the new political party, Popular Unity, which formed from the members of Syriza’s “Left Platform,” which broke off of Syriza a few weeks ago, with optimism that the likes of former Greek Parliament speaker Zoe Konstantopoulou, who will run in an alignment with Popular Unity, or Popular Unity party leader Panagiotis Lafazanis will stand up for those who voted “no.” Do you believe that this will actually be the case, or do you believe that Popular Unity, like Syriza, is insincere in its rhetoric?
Well, let’s look at the larger picture. Going in to these elections, Syriza is clearly going to decline. The political spectrum is going to become even more fragmented. The voters, going into the election, are highly disillusioned. Whatever they vote for and whoever they vote for, it’s basically a vote of fear rather than hope. It’s a vote that says, “Where can we find our new clients?” Not the instruments of structural change – “Who is the lesser evil?” I think that the hopes and aspirations and the radicalism that went into the January election is absent. I think Popular Unity will do poorly. It stayed in Syriza too long; it didn’t grow a mass organization outside of Syriza; it has very little insertion in any mass movement. Its struggle in the end with Syriza was essentially a parliamentary struggle. They didn’t put people in the streets, and I think people are disenchanted in general with anything associated with Syriza, and I think the level of trust for a second try is very low, especially as they saw many of the Popular Unity people sitting in the cabinet while all the damage was being done, all the capitulations were done.
“As people realize that Syriza and the right wing have nothing to offer, I think there will be a return to street demonstrations.”
I think that Popular Unity will be lucky to get representation in parliament. I think voters will hold their noses and maybe a quarter of the electorate will vote for Syriza. Popular Unity will probably get around 5 percent of the vote, and I think that the right-wing parties – New Democracy, Pasok, Potami – probably are going to put together a ramshackle kind of coalition. I don’t think they have objections to bringing Syriza in on a coalition, since they all agree on the latest memorandum. I think politically there is very little reason for them not to form a broad, right-wing regime.
What do you believe such a coalition will mean for Greece?
I think they would implement the very harmful and regressive policies that Syriza has signed off on. I think they will privatize most of the major lucrative resources in the Greek economy. I think there will be massive layoffs in the process of privatization. I think pensions will be cut, wages will be cut, salaries and public sector employment will be cut. I think this will send Greece into a continuing depression, and I don’t think any new investment in new enterprises will take place. The money that will be gained through privatization will simply be recycled to the outside bankers.
I think Greece faces a prolonged depression, prolonged regression and stagnation as a result of this, and hopefully, as people come to realize that Syriza and the right wing have nothing to offer them, I think there will be a return to street demonstrations and perhaps a radicalization of those demonstrations. There will be an increase in popular exodus, capital exodus; I think Greece will become a one-crop economy, essentially a tourist economy, largely controlled by foreign capital. I think the decline of public ownership is simply the increase of foreign ownership.
Popular Unity is said to be running in these elections on the Thessaloniki policy platform, which had originally been proposed by Syriza prior to the January elections, and which Syriza quickly abandoned. Do you believe that the Thessaloniki policy platform, with its ambivalence toward issues such as a “Grexit” and a write-down of Greece’s debt, is even enough for Greece at this time?
I don’t think that the Thessaloniki policy program represents a serious break. First of all because it is very ambiguous on Greece’s exit from the European Union and the eurozone, and that undermines any possibility of developing an alternative policy. Secondly, it doesn’t say anything about a moratorium on the foreign debt, which is necessary to channel new resources into revitalizing and developing an alternative economic strategy. So, whatever reforms the Thessaloniki program proposes are undercut by the framework and the resources which will be available. Whatever the attraction of the Thessaloniki program might have in terms of social reforms, are not viable within the framework, which it refuses to break with.
Furthermore, I think that Popular Unity did not fight on these issues when they were dealt with them. I think that they didn’t make a plausible case that they are willing to break with the renunciation Tsipras made very early on the Thessaloniki program. They mumbled and criticized, but all of it in Parliament. There was no convocation of mass movement, so one wonders whether Popular Unity leaders have that capacity, to put people in the streets, to build up that pressure, to create social consciousness, to sustain an alternative at this point. So, I think Popular Unity is largely a parliamentary tempest in the teapot.
Let’s talk for a moment about the European Union and its behavior in recent months. How would you characterize its stance toward Greece, with the new memorandum and harsh austerity it forced upon the country, and how would you gauge its stance toward the worsening refugee crisis from Syria and the Middle East, which has also greatly impacted Greece?
Well, the European Union was, is and will continue to be an oligarchical organization controlled by Germany, England, France, perhaps the Netherlands, in association with its subordinates in Eastern Europe. I don’t think it has any representation of anything progressive in Europe. I think it’s a very rigid, hierarchical, top-down organization that basically is organized around the idea that any members must accept the fiscal dictates, the economic and income policies dictated by, especially, Germany. And so, I think that the EU functioned as a debt collector for Greece. It took positions of intransigence, no recognition that they had a sovereign government that was democratically elected. They didn’t care. The main thing was to force Greece to meet its external obligations to the debt collectors, even after five years of failed policies – failed from the point of view of Greece getting out from under the depression. So, the question that they raised was, first debt payments and then we’ll talk about growth, and if you don’t meet your debt obligations, there was destabilization and every effort made to precipitate a capital flight and disinvestment in Greece.
I think you can say the European Union is an oligarchical organization that is essentially designed to favor German, English and French bankers, over and above the national interests of the majority of the citizens in Europe, especially those that are under the tutelage of the European Union. I think the European Union bears a great deal of responsibility for the refugees, because the refugees are coming from countries where the EU joined with the United States in wars, in destructive wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya and sub-Saharan Africa. They destroyed economies and fostered mercenaries and terrorist groups, sectarian conflicts, and now they’re reaping the consequences: People that have been uprooted by the wars are now going to Europe because Europe destroyed their households, and they’re saying now, “You created our situation, and now you must deal with it.” I think Europe uprooted the people, and now Europeans want to avoid and evade the consequences, which is essentially resettling these uprooted people, who are products of Euro-US wars.
What do you believe would be the best policy solutions for Greece at this time? Do you believe that a “Grexit” or a departure from the European Union is in Greece’s best interest?
I think the only policy is to break with the European Union oligarchy and to assume an independent state, an independent policy. It’s necessary to get out of NATO and to deepen and develop alternative trade ties and to reverse the privatizations, to set a moratorium on the debt, impose capital controls and expropriate the banks. In other words, to mobilize and concentrate as many national resources and to develop trade with Europe, but on the basis of equality and outside of the European Union. To have their own fiscal policy, their own currency, in order to use their monetary policies if they need to devalue, in order to foster trade, if they need to develop a new development strategy, they need to control their national economy.
There are opportunities to trade and develop ties with Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela and even countries with the European Union, on a different basis. I think that the continuation of the European Union is a total and unmitigated disaster, and it’s demonstrated that it is a very arbitrary and dictatorial group that doesn’t take account of the interests and circumstances of its subordinate members.