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Greece’s Syriza Government: Meet the New Sheriff – Same as the Old Sheriff

Syriza was elected on the hope that it would represent a break from Greece’s old politics, austerity and neoliberal doctrine. Not so.

Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras speaks in Palai de sport, Thessaloniki, Greece, a few days before the national elections, January 21. (Photo: Ververidis Vasilis /

Let’s go back in time. The year is 2012, and Syriza had just emerged upon the Greek political scene as Greece’s new main opposition party. Greece, already battered by two years of economic depression and severe austerity measures, was in need of a “savior,” and for a growing number of Greeks, Syriza represented the antidote to the poisonous policies of New Democracy and Pasok, the two parties that had interchangeably governed the country since the fall of the military junta in 1974.

It was at this time that Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras was making fiery declarations against austerity. In one famous tweet from 2012, Tsipras wrote that the only way Greece could overcome its economic crisis would be for a single law to be drafted that would immediately abolish all of the memorandum and austerity agreements.

Syriza’s rank-and-file followed suit, repeatedly stating their opposition to the austerity imposed upon the country by the “troika” – the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Frequently throughout the past two-plus years, numerous Syriza representatives have said that the loan agreements that Greece has signed with the troika are one and the same as the memorandum agreements, and must be immediately abolished for Greece to have any hope of recovery.

That was then. Reality today is markedly different. Over the past several months, dating back to the presentation of Syriza’s Thessaloniki program in September, there were signs that the party was beginning to dilute its previously “radical” rhetoric. These signs became more apparent after snap parliamentary elections were declared in late December. There was the statement by the then-“shadow” finance minister, Giorgos Stathakis, that only 5 percent of Greece’s national debt is odious.

Varoufakis repeatedly made statements referring to the “hard-working European taxpayers” who were “bailing out” Greece.

There was Syriza’s retreat from its position in favor of the nationalization of Greece’s banks. Syriza also backed away from supporting any unilateral actions, such as a write-down or write-off of Greece’s debt. And at every opportunity, particularly amidst accusations that they would lead the country out of the euro and into “chaos,” Alexis Tsipras and other Syriza personnel reiterated their commitment to keeping Greece within the eurozone. Nevertheless, for many, Syriza represented the best hope for change. Even if voters were not necessarily swayed by its rhetoric, they strategically voted for Syriza to oust the “establishment” parties that had previously governed Greece.

Syriza’s victory was met with huge celebrations throughout Greece and among many constituencies across Europe and the world, who saw in Syriza the latest hope to put an end to neoliberal doctrine. Lost within the celebrations, however, were further indications of a Syriza backslide. Tsipras, in his victory speech, pledged that Greece would continue to meet the eurozone’s convergence criteria, including maintenance of a deficit below 3 percent of GDP.

The economist Yanis Varoufakis, who rose from self-described “obscurity” (despite his frequent media appearances) to the position of finance minister, made waves when he said that the ministry’s advisers would be fired and the money saved would be used to rehire the ministry’s laid-off cleaning women. That same week though, Varoufakis announced that Wall Street financial advisory firm Lazard would be retained by the ministry, supposedly gratis, to advise it in the negotiations with the Eurogroup. Lazard is the same firm that advised the then-Pasok government in 2010 on its negotiations for a “bailout” from the IMF, the unelected government of technocrat Loukas Papadimos in 2012, and, in 2014, the previous New Democracy-Pasok government on how to proceed with privatizations.

Also lost in the shuffle during the honeymoon period were Varoufakis’ statements that economic growth does not mean driving around with Porsche Cayennes, referring to a debunked but remarkably persistent myth that Greece had more Porsche Cayennes than taxpayers who could afford them. Furthermore, Varoufakis repeatedly made statements referring to the “hard-working European taxpayers” who were “bailing out” Greece, neglecting to mention the fact that Germany and other countries have profited handsomely from the interest paid on the loans issued to Greece, and that almost all of the “bailout” funds went directly toward the repayment of the German and other European banks that held Greek debt.

Indeed, while the left was celebrating, Varoufakis’ January book presentation, hosted by a right-wing television personality who had previously suggested that the conservative New Democracy party should not discount a possible governing coalition with a “serious” Golden Dawn, Greece’s far-right party, went seemingly unnoticed. Ominous political statements, such as that of deputy finance minister Nantia Valavani, who urged Greek citizens to pay the regressive unified property tax (ENFIA) as a “patriotic duty,” also flew under the radar, despite Syriza’s pre-election promises to abolish this “unconstitutional” tax.

The signs were there, for all who wished to see them. Prior to Syriza’s electoral victory, rumors had already begun to swirl that it would strongly consider a conservative nominee for the national presidency, supposedly as a “compromise,” despite the fact that, according to the Greek constitution, Syriza could elect a president with a simple 151-vote parliamentary majority in the second round of voting, or with a majority of those MPs present for a third round of voting.

There was no need for Syriza to compromise, nor was there any shortage of qualified and well-respected candidates from the left, or from nonpolitical backgrounds, who could have been proposed. Instead, Syriza nominated and then elected the right-wing Prokopis Pavlopoulos, a former government minister with New Democracy who was notorious for his many thousands of patronage hires into the civil service, who since 2011 had voted in favor of austerity bills brought before parliament and who, as interior minister in 2008, had protected the police officers who murdered an unarmed teenager in Athens, leading to major riots.

Pavlopoulos received votes from the entire Syriza and Independent Greeks parliamentary caucus, as well as from most New Democracy MPs. Even members of Syriza’s so-called “Left Platform,” including the “Stalinist” Panagiotis Lafazanis and economist Costas Lapavitsas, who had once spoken of the necessity of a Greek exit of the eurozone and a unilateral stoppage of payments, expressed reservations but ultimately voted for Pavlopoulos.

While these parliamentary theatrics were taking place, the new government was busy preparing for its confrontation with the Eurogroup. Varoufakis, having already secured the services of Lazard, proceeded to bring in another figure from the not-so-distant past, hiring former Pasok MP and former World Bank institutional economist Elena Panaritis as an advisor.

It was austerity all the way or bust as far as Schäuble was concerned, and Varoufakis capitulated.

Panaritis, in her tenure at the World Bank, became best known for her endorsement of extreme neoliberal economic policies, which became known as “Fujishock” in Peru, named after then-president Alberto Fujimori, who was later imprisoned on charges of human rights violations during his tenure. Panaritis is famous for stating “I’m not Greek, I’m American” in an interview with The Guardian, and for her long parliamentary speech in 2012 outlining the terribly adverse impact of austerity measures on the Greek people, before proceeding to vote in favor of the second memorandum agreement.

Ultimately though, it was Varoufakis who set the tone for the “negotiations” with the Eurogroup. His initial proposal called for the continuation of 70 percent of the previously-existing austerity measures and “equivalent measures” to replace the remaining 30 percent. He ruled out any possibility of unilateral actions, such as a write-down or write-off of any portion of Greece’s debt and eliminated any possibility of a renegotiation or audit of the debt. He refused to raise even the possibility of a “grexit” as part of the negotiations and indeed, stated that Greece had “no Plan B,” essentially folding his hand before negotiations even began. Varoufakis had the full backing of Tsipras, who in late January stated that Greece would honor its debt obligations to the IMF and the ECB in full.

Despite this, even a 70 percent continuation of the memorandum agreements was not enough for the Eurogroup, led by German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble. It was austerity all the way or bust as far as Schäuble was concerned, and Varoufakis capitulated. His second proposal called for a six-month extension of the existing memorandum agreements and austerity policies, as well as the maintenance of a primary budget surplus of 1.5 percent, smaller than the 4.5 percent being proposed by the Eurogroup but still harsh for a battered economy whose GDP continues to decline after an unprecedented 25 percent drop over the past six years.

While the gullible and the party faithful back in Greece celebrated Greece’s “strong” negotiations, Germany still wasn’t satisfied. Six months was too long; they instead proposed a four-month extension. Why four months instead of six? The answer is simple: Two Greek bond issues, totaling €6.7 billion, will mature in July and August, immediately after the four-month period. By forcing Greece back to the table prior to the scheduled repayment of those bond issues, it will afford the Eurogroup another opportunity to again blackmail the Greek government into compliance with its austerity diktats. In the end, the “heroic” Varoufakis caved, agreeing to Germany’s demands.

Syriza, the Greek media, and the party faithful rushed to celebrate Greece’s big victory at the Eurogroup summit. One “anti-austerity” newspaper in Greece wrote, as its front-page headline, that Syriza’s victory was so decisive that Greece even “came away with Schäuble’s underpants.” Comments in the media and among Syriza supporters claimed that Greece, at last, displayed a “backbone” and a “presence” in Europe, negotiating for the first time instead of caving.

Just what did this “victory” consist of, however? A bit of wordplay and semantics, for starters, as the “troika” has been renamed the “institutions,” allowing the Greek government to claim domestically that the troika was out of the Greek people’s lives, even though the “institutions” include the same three actors as before – the EU, the ECB, and the IMF.

The previous “Master Financial Assistance Agreement” (second memorandum) continues in full, including a Greek government promise that it will not undertake any unilateral actions, that is, any actions without the agreement of the “institutions,” and that it will maintain a yet-to-be-determined primary budget surplus based on Greece’s economic performance. This latter point was especially touted as a major win for Greece, even though the previous memoranda also included language to the effect that measures would be imposed based on economic performance.

Following this agreement, Greece was given the weekend to draft a list of specific reforms that it would pledge to undertake. The seven-page document emailed by Varoufakis to the Eurogroup, touted as yet another major victory for Greece, paid lip service to the same “reforms” concerning the combating of tax evasion and public sector corruption promised by every government that has been elected in Greece since the fall of the military junta in 1974 and perhaps earlier.

The proposals also included a reiteration of the government’s Thessaloniki proposal concerning the provision of assistance to the economically worse-off in Greece, such as free electricity for the 300,000 households who have had their service cut due to an inability to pay. While this sounds good and like a fulfillment of one of Syriza’s campaign promises, the underlying issues that have caused this pain and hardship were not addressed; the austerity policies that created such crippling poverty will continue; and Greece will continue to work with the same European and international institutions that imposed these policies in the first place.

Indeed, the devil is in the details, and the details of Varoufakis’ proposals, which were approved by the “institutions,” are telling: They encompass a pledge by the Greek government to continue the privatization programs that have already been completed, or which are in progress, and to simply “reevaluate” new proposed privatizations that have not yet made it to the bidding process. The proposal also forewarns of possible increases in the value-added tax and a pledge that no increases to the minimum wage or government spending will take place without the approval of the “institutions.”

A “reevaluation” of spending on education, defense, transport, local governance and social welfare was also promised. Greek labor policies would also be adjusted to be in harmony with “EU best practices” – that is, a further watering down of labor rights – with the input of institutions such as the OECD.

The aftermath of this agreement, as stated by Bloomberg’s Mark Gilbert, is that Greece did not receive an extension of its debt repayment timetable; it remains a “ward of the troika”; the previous government’s economic reforms remain in full effect; cash earmarked for Greece’s domestic banking system will not be reallocated to alleviate economic hardship and Greece will maintain a “sensible” budget surplus – in essence, the continuation of the same policies that Tsipras and his government had promised to “tear up” or to “abolish” with a single law. And this was touted by Syriza and the Greek media as a major victory.

Not everyone bought in to the hype, though. Greek national hero Manolis Glezos, who is a member of the European parliament with Syriza, apologized to the Greek public on behalf of Syriza for its total reversal of its pre-election promises, claiming that you can’t “baptize meat as fish.”

These statements led to vociferous criticism of Glezos from Syriza’s party core. Ironically though, there was no response from Syriza when Greece’s pro-austerity parties hailed the agreement. New Democracy, in a statement, said that Greece “avoided the worst, that the agreement is positive.”

Far from constituting a flip-flop, except from their pre-election rhetoric and promises, all of these policy stances are par for the course for Syriza and its governing partners, the Independent Greeks.

Pasok’s statement claimed that “it was positive for Greece that it will remain in the euro and that it avoided . . . dangerous irresponsibilities,” while “The River” stated that “Tsipras chose the logical route, avoiding a nightmarish scenario.” Even the far-right former New Democracy health minister Adonis Georgiadis chimed in, stating, with a strong dose of irony, that he “would have never expected to vote for a memorandum introduced by Lafazanis and Stratoulis,” referring to two members of Syriza’s “Left Platform.” And while, as of this writing, this agreement has already been ratified by several other eurozone parliaments, a debate is now raging within Syriza as to whether the agreement should be brought before parliament as “fast-track” legislation – which would mean limited parliamentary debate – or whether it should be ratified by presidential decree, a favored practice of the previous government.

Indeed, the nomination and election of a conservative, pro-austerity president (Pavlopoulos) instead of a truly leftist figure, ensures the issuance of such decrees whenever it is deemed politically expedient by the new “leftist” government.

Leaving no doubt regarding his true objectives, Varoufakis stated his intention to perform future budget planning with the IMF, “which holds views that I personally agree with,” rather than with Greece’s creditors – even though the IMF itself is one of those creditors. This was followed by an interview with the Associated Press where Varoufakis (inaccurately) stated that “[t]he IMF repayments . . . we are going to prioritize, we are not going to be the first country not to meet our obligations to the IMF. . . . [W]e shall squeeze blood out of stone if we need to do this on our own, and we shall do it.”

Varoufakis has reiterated the government’s newly-adopted position that the repayment of regressive taxes, previously considered unconstitutional by Syriza, is a “patriotic duty,” while not ruling out the imposition of new “extraordinary” taxes to achieve a primary budget surplus and the maintenance of such surpluses for the next decade. Varoufakis has also openly courted closer ties with Cosco, the Chinese owner of the privatized Piraeus container port, which has made headlines for imposing Chinese-style labor conditions at the Greek port.

Far from constituting a flip-flop, except from their pre-election rhetoric and promises, all of these policy stances are par for the course for Syriza and its governing partners, the Independent Greeks.

Syriza has also backtracked on previous promises to reform Greece’s violent police force and riot police and to cease the usage of tear gas against protesters.

Economy Minister Giorgos Stathakis has come out in favor of the sell-off of the site of Athens’ former international airport, which was previously earmarked to become Europe’s largest urban park. Stathakis has also supported the sale of 14 airports throughout Greece, a privatization that had been agreed upon by the previous government and which will not be reversed, as per Greece’s new agreement with the “institutions.”

Another major foreign “investment” in Greece, the environmentally hazardous and economically dubious gold mining operations at Skouries, are slated to continue according to deputy environment minister Giannis Tsironis, who claimed that existing contracts could not be rescinded. The cancellation of this contract and immediate cessation of these mining activities represent another Syriza campaign promise.

Another promise, the reopening of shuttered public broadcaster ERT, is slated to be fulfilled – via an unpopular higher license fee to be levied upon Greek households. Restoration of the minimum wage to pre-crisis levels, a central campaign pledge of Syriza, has now been pushed back to “at least” 2016, and only after the approval of the “institutions.”

Syriza has also backtracked on previous promises to reform Greece’s violent police force and riot police and to cease the usage of tear gas against protesters, as evidenced by the heavy riot police presence and use of tear gas against protesters at the Amygdaleza immigrant detention camp in late February. The status quo seems set to remain even in Greece’s tourism policy, with deputy tourism minister Elena Kountoura recently stating that unpopular all-inclusive package resorts, which have often been accused of hurting local businesses by keeping tourists confined within these resorts, will not be affected by government policies.

In a reflection of the petty bourgeoisie nature of Syriza, several members of its parliamentary caucus have expressed disapproval of plans to reduce the taxpayer-funded fleet of luxury automobiles that are available to members of parliament.

Meanwhile, Syriza’s favors towards the opposition parties have continued: While a small number of investigations against former New Democracy and Pasok ministers for various scandals will continue, all but one of Syriza’s members voted against the stripping of parliamentary immunity against former New Democracy minister Adonis Georgiadis on charges of tax evasion, while Syriza has not moved forward with pledges to strip immunity from other embattled former politicians, such as former finance minister Giannis Stournaras. Similarly, Syriza has taken no action against the president of the Hellenic Statistical Authority (ELSTAT) and former IMF representative Andreas Georgiou, who remains in his position two years after criminal charges were filed against him for allegedly falsifying Greece’s financial data to appear worse than they were in reality, to provide the political impetus to bring Greece under IMF and troika supervision.

There are historical parallels to both Syriza’s victory and the immediate reversal of its “leftist” positions. Those who rushed to celebrate the “first-ever” victory of the left in Greece seem to have forgotten the decisive victory of Andreas Papandreou and Pasok in 1981, which was then also described as a historic victory of the left. Papandreou’s fiery rhetoric promised to sever ties with the then-EEC and NATO, but once in power, he did the opposite, bringing Greece ever-closer to both institutions and creating an economic structure that became increasingly dependent on EEC, and later EU, funding.

Agriculture and industrial productivity were decimated, and Papandreou’s successor at the helm of Pasok, Costas Simitis, sealed Greece’s total subjugation to Brussels by bringing Greece into the eurozone, setting the stage for the crisis which was to follow. As stated by James Petras in an excellent piece describing Syriza’s parallels with Pasok, “[T]he Brussels elite allowed the Greek middle class to live their illusions of being ‘prosperous Europeans’ because they retained decisive leverage through loans and accumulating debts.”

Undeterred, Syriza’s apologists, both within and outside of Greece, refer to the same absurd excuses to justify the government’s actions. Five-plus years of learned helplessness in Greece have led to creative justifications for the same actions that Syriza supposedly campaigned against, such as claims that Syriza did not have time to prepare for its negotiations with the Eurogroup, that it is a new government that “should be given time” to fulfill its promises, that Syriza shouldn’t be judged until it has taken concrete actions upon which it can be evaluated.

This is nonsense. Syriza has had since 2012, if not earlier, to prepare for the moment that it would assume power, and the tough stance of the troika and Germany should have come as a surprise to nobody. Their Eurogroup agreement represents a concrete action, as does the election of a corrupt conservative as president of the Hellenic Republic.

Syriza’s apologists further refer to the “mandate” that the party received in the January elections to legitimize its actions and justify its positions on issues such as a possible “grexit.” But which mandate are they speaking of? Syriza received 36 percent of the vote, while 34 percent of registered voters – over a million more people than those who voted for Syriza – abstained from voting. These same apologists then point to opinion polls that purport to show Syriza with a growing margin over New Democracy and with an 80 percent approval rating, while claiming that support among Greeks for remaining in the eurozone at all costs ranges between 70-80 percent.

What they don’t mention is that these polls are, without exception, conducted on behalf of Greece’s corrupt, pro-austerity media or on behalf of Syriza party organs such as the Avgi newspaper. In other words, these are not independently conducted surveys. Furthermore, these polls are conducted by the same discredited and politically motivated polling firms which, until recently, showed New Democracy in a statistical tie with Syriza, claimed that a plurality of Greeks believed that Antonis Samaras was the “most capable” individual to be prime minister, and whose predictions for the 2012 and 2015 parliamentary elections and 2014 European elections were embarrassingly inaccurate.

These polls lack any credibility and it is laughable that the same Syriza supporters who were so critical of the polling firms prior to the elections now constantly refer to the numbers produced by those same pollsters. Meanwhile, any semblance of independent media in Greece has disappeared: Greece’s major media outlets have not questioned the new government’s actions and fully support the continuation of the austerity measures and Greece’s membership in the eurozone, while previously “anti-austerity” publications have mostly transformed into loyal Syriza mouthpieces.

Ultimately, Syriza and its apologists are attempting to justify the increasingly unjustifiable: membership in an autocratic, undemocratic, neocolonial set of institutions such as the EU and the eurozone, which have brought nothing but harm to the economies and peoples of countries such as Greece and which are accountable to nobody.

Indeed, the Nobel Prize-winning EU’s thoughts on democracy were on full display recently when the unelected head of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, stated that “there can be no democratic choice against the European treaties,” sentiments mirrored by Schäuble when he said “[e]lections change nothing. There are rules.” Perhaps unintentionally though, Schäuble had a point: Elections have changed nothing in Greece; it remains an austerity-ridden vassal state of the EU, with the blessings of its “radical” new government, which, as Schäuble recently stated, “will have a difficult time explaining [the new agreement] to voters.”