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Syriza: Lies, Broken Promises and Prolonged Austerity

Three months after its election, the Syriza-led coalition government in Greece has diffused any of the optimism surrounding its ascendance to power.

A protester climbs behind riot police to display a Greek flag bearing a populist message, in October 2011. (Photo: Eric Vernier)

Three months into the new Syriza-led coalition government in Greece, political figures such as Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and, especially, Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis remain media darlings, and darlings of much of the global left. From glowing coverage and interviews in outlets ranging from Democracy Now! to RT to Prospect magazine, which absurdly named Varoufakis the world’s No. 2 thinker for 2015, the international community has repeatedly been told what a great job the “heroic” Syriza-led government has been doing and how it is simply the intransigence of institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Union that are preventing Syriza from implementing its “radical, anti-austerity” platform.

Spare me the enthusiasm.

The past three months have seen, in Greece, a continuation of the same exact policies of austerity and privatization and the continued decimation of Greece’s battered social state. Moreover, we have seen most of Syriza’s pre-election promises and rhetoric reneged upon, via the continuation of the same sorts of policies as before. Varoufakis himself has admitted as much, stating in March that “if necessary, we might postpone some of our pre-election pledges.” Defense Minister Panos Kammenos was more direct, writing in an apparently now-deleted tweet that Greece’s red lines, in terms of its negotiations with Europe, have not changed, but that they have been postponed “temporarily.”

As a popular saying goes in Greece, nothing is more permanent than the temporary.

We have seen the continuation of many of the same policies enforced by the previous pro-austerity regimes in Greece.

We have seen the continuation of many of the same policies enforced by the previous pro-austerity regimes in Greece. The reality, however, is far more dire than even these statements suggest. The text of Greece’s “heroic” agreement with the “institutions” at the Eurogroup meeting of February 20 and 21 states that it shall be governed by and construed in accordance with English law, and that any disputes pertaining to the agreement fall under the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of Luxembourg, while Greece “irrevocably and unconditionally” waived its sovereign immunity. This agreement maintains, in full, the “second memorandum” signed by the unelected Greek government of that time, and all of the austerity policies that it foresees.

Since then, we have seen the continuation of many of the same policies enforced by the previous pro-austerity regimes in Greece, policies which Syriza, up until prior to the elections, denounced in many instances as being illegitimate and unconstitutional. This was especially evident with the passage, on April 24, of an immensely unpopular presidential decree, issued by Prokopis Pavlopoulos, the conservative president of the Hellenic Republic who was elected by the Syriza-led coalition in February, which forces all state bodies, ranging from local governments and municipalities to universities, to transfer their cash reserves to the Bank of Greece. In doing so, Prime Minister Tsipras has promised that the decree will only remain in force “temporarily,” until June.

There’s that word again: “temporary.” The fact of the matter is that the issuance of such decrees was a favored practice of the previous, New Democracy- and Pasok-led pro-austerity governments, a practice that was repeatedly denounced by Syriza leaders during that period. Moreover, one of Syriza’s many pre-election pledges was that it would discontinue this practice of ruling by decree, a pledge that has now been added to the growing list of broken promises and reversals by the new government.

Instead, this decree is now described as “voluntary lending” by Greece’s Minister of State Nikos Pappas, though as recently as March 17, the deputy minister of social insurance, Dimitris Stratoulis, publicly pledged that the cash reserves of state bodies would not be touched. Stratoulis now describes the decree as “patriotic,” which also happens to be the same language used by former finance minister (and current president of the Bank of Greece) Yiannis Stournaras in November 2012 to justify Greece’s PSI agreement. Indeed, the new government has kept Stournaras in his current position, declining to launch a criminal investigation against him for his actions as finance minister under Greece’s previous government.

Varoufakis stated that Greece “shall squeeze blood out of a stone” in order to repay the IMF.

Varoufakis stated that Greece “shall squeeze blood out of a stone” in order to repay the IMF. Syriza’s about-face does not stop here. Numerous Syriza figures, ranging from Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias and government spokesperson Gabriel Sakellaridis to Alexis Tsipras have made repeated statements, over the past three months, promising that Greece’s lenders will be repaid in full. Kotzias stated in early April that the EU will not lose “even one cent” from its loans toward Greece, while Sakellaridis stated that the IMF will be paid fully and on time, statements previously mirrored by Tsipras himself when he pledged that the loans to the IMF and European Central Bank will be repaid. More recently still, President Pavlopoulos also reaffirmed Greece’s commitment to repay its debts “to the last cent.”

Indisputably though, the master of governmental doublespeak is finance minister and celebrity economist Yanis Varoufakis, who excels in making “radical”-sounding statements regarding the horrors of austerity, and then doing the opposite in practice while contradicting his rhetoric with further statements to the contrary. In an interview with the BBC, for instance, Varoufakis stated that Greece “shall squeeze blood out of a stone” in order to repay the IMF, “which holds views” that he “personally agrees with.” He has further stated that Greece will continue making its debt repayments “in perpetuity,” claimed that “Europe” is his “homeland,” and that Europe can only be saved through the formation of a United States of Europe. And at the same time that the Greek parliament, perhaps merely for public consumption, has formed a parliamentary commission to audit Greece’s public debt, Varoufakis has stated that Greece’s debt is “legal but unsustainable.”

These statements are not just mere talk to appease Greece’s lenders. In early April, the Greek government went ahead with a 448 million euro loan repayment to the IMF, and has shown no signs of second-guessing any scheduled payments that are approaching, even as the newly formed debt audit commission is supposedly investigating the legality and legitimacy of this very same debt. And after five years of cuts to salaries, pensions and social services, celebrations over Syriza’s hollow promises of “no more cuts” are grossly inappropriate, especially while Greece’s questionable loans from the IMF are being repaid without question.

Indeed, according to the Jubilee Debt Campaign, the IMF has earned more than 2.5 billion euros in profit from its loans to Greece since 2010, with an effective interest rate of 3.6 percent on these loans, far more than the 0.9 percent required for the IMF to meet all of its costs. Meanwhile, despite all of the sacrifices that the Greek people are still being expected to shoulder, the country’s public debt has shown no sign of letting up, increasing by 42 billion euros just in the first two months of the Syriza-led coalition government, according to figures from the Bank of Greece.

Perhaps most jarring of all though was the admission, by Syriza legal adviser Petros Miliarakis in a televised interview, that the new government quietly went ahead with a 49.4 billion euro debt swap, essentially receiving a significantly smaller amount of immediate cash in exchange for mortgaging future government revenues, such as admission fees to Greece’s historical monuments and museums. Indeed, an increase in such admission fees was included in the government’s proposals toward the Eurogroup.

Mining has resulted in significant environmental damage while bringing in dubious economic benefits for Greece.

Mining has resulted in significant environmental damage while bringing in dubious economic benefits for Greece. As if this wasn’t enough, though, Tsipras, in a letter sent to German Chancellor Angela Merkel on March 15, proposed a so-called “contract for the recovery and growth of Greece,” a “contract” which will essentially call into question Greece’s national sovereignty, as it would be governed under private international law and would recognize the so-called “institutions” as a legitimate source of justice and governance in Greece. This proposal has been accompanied by discussions at the government level regarding the possible introduction of a dual currency system, in which Greece’s external debts would continue to be paid in euros, while domestic accounts, salaries and pensions would essentially be paid in IOUs. Far from an outright departure from the eurozone and a return to a domestic currency, which Syriza still adamantly refuses to even consider, this would decimate pensioners and public employees while keeping Greece very much locked into the eurozone system.

In the meantime, Syriza has proceeded with the shattering of several more of its major pre-election pledges. Despite promises to the contrary, the government is now moving forward with the privatization of a majority stake of one of Europe’s largest ports, the port of Piraeus, whose container port was already sold off to Chinese-owned Cosco in 2009, an act of “foreign investment” that has also brought Chinese-style labor conditions to Greece. Recently though, Yannis Dragasakis, on a visit to China, described the impending privatization as a “mutually beneficial” and “highly competitive” deal, while Varoufakis called for a broader relationship with Cosco. The government has also green-lighted the privatization of 14 regional airports of economic and strategic significance, while the selloff of the site of Athens’ former international airport, once slated to become Europe’s largest urban park, was also included in Varoufakis’ proposals toward the “institutions.”

As this has been taking place, Greece’s defense minister, Panos Kammenos, traveled recently to the United States, where he relayed a proposal to Washington for the joint, 70-30 exploitation of hydrocarbons in the Aegean Sea. This is a proposal that was never discussed or debated publicly or in parliament. Similarly, Tsipras, on his much-lauded early April visit to Moscow, was accompanied by selected and unnamed businessmen (rather than, say, leaders of labor unions or industry groups) and Russian participation in Greek privatizations were discussed. Statements made by Kammenos in March tied these privatization possibilities together, claiming that the port of Piraeus could serve as China’s “gateway into Europe,” and that a privately owned railway could transport these Chinese imports out of the country, while adding the government’s willingness to create “special economic zones” where lowered tax rates (and perhaps more “flexible” labor regulations) would apply. Summarizing the government’s position on the issue, Varoufakis, at a recent speech given at the Brookings Institute, stated that the government is willing to move ahead with privatizations even if they brought in very low revenue, as long as buyers would commit to a “minimum level” of investment in the country.

Such “foreign investment” is on display in Skouries, in northern Greece, where the gold mining operations of Canadian firm Eldorado Gold have met fierce local opposition, which has frequently been met with police violence, including very recently. The mining activities have resulted in significant environmental damage while bringing in dubious economic benefits for the Greek state. The domestic minority owner of the mine, powerful construction firm Aktor, is owned by influential Greek businessman Giorgos Bobolas, who also owns several of Greece’s largest and most powerful media outlets. Bobolas’ son Leonidas was recently freed and avoided criminal investigation after paying 1.8 million euros in back taxes. In the meantime, while Varoufakis and the so-called European “institutions” talk about combating tax evasion in Greece, it was revealed that Eldorado Gold has avoided the payment of at least 1.7 million euros in taxes to the Greek state by funneling income to subsidiary shell corporations based in Holland, the same country where the finance minister, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, never misses an opportunity to lecture the Greek people about evading taxes.

While “foreign investors” like Eldorado Gold take advantage of loopholes to avoid paying their taxes, the Greek people, whose incomes have been crushed after six years of austerity, are repeatedly lectured by Varoufakis and other government ministers that payment of the unified property tax (which Syriza, prior to the elections, labeled “unconstitutional”) is a “patriotic duty.” And while foreign “investment” in Greece is thriving, one of the last vestiges of Greece’s industrial past, the Halivourgiki steel producer, announced recently that another one of its plants will be shut down, leaving just one that is still in operation. Notably, the president of Halivourgiki is Giorgos Varoufakis, the father of Greece’s celebrity finance minister.

Cosmetic changes within Syriza, such as the replacement of Varoufakis as Greece’s lead negotiator, will serve as window dressing.

Cosmetic changes within Syriza, such as the replacement of Varoufakis as Greece’s lead negotiator, will serve as window dressing. In the meantime, state-run day care centers have had their budgets for the next fiscal year slashed in half, resulting in a reduction of 40,000 seats and the loss of 10,000 jobs in 2015-16. Promises to ban the foreclosure of primary residences and to roll back tax increases have not been fulfilled. Furthermore, instead of fulfilling its promise to reform the country’s police force and disband its violent riot police, the government has now announced the planned formation of a new, fully armed secondary riot police squad that will work alongside existing forces. And while the government recently made a big show of announcing that national television stations will be obliged to pay for their use of the public airwaves, Deputy Minister for Administrative Reform George Katrougalos was reportedly ready to introduce legislation that would have unconstitutionally extended the long-expired terms of the president and other members of Greece’s corrupt broadcast regulator, the National Council for Radio-Television, for six additional months, prior to the sudden resignation of the individuals in question. And in light of the endless inflow of migrants and refugees from war-torn areas in the Middle East and Africa (with thousands more tragically never reaching their destination), Kammenos, who prior to the elections spoke out against the Dublin II regulation, which forces the member state where migrants first entered the EU to process their asylum requests (placing an undue burden on countries like Greece and Italy), has now reversed course, saying that Greece will respect EU migration regulations while calling upon the EU to ask that Turkey, which is not an EU member state, enforce the Dublin II regulation.

As all of this has occurred, the prime minister and key government ministers have also found a way to provide patronage jobs for family members, partners and spouses. This includes the hiring of Giorgos Tsipras, cousin of the prime minister, to a consulting position, and subsequently to the post of general secretary, at Greece’s Foreign Ministry. Giorgos Tsipras, it should be noted, is a columnist with the newspaper Avgi, which is a Syriza party organ. Family members and partners of such Syriza figures as Attica Gov. Rena Dourou, Justice Minister Nikos Paraskevopoulos, Interior Minister Nikos Voutsis, Deputy Minister of Tourism Elena Kountoura and General Secretary of Transparency and Justice Kostas Papaioannou, among others, have all been granted lofty patronage positions within the state apparatus. None of this should come as a shock though, when considering that figures like Varoufakis, Paraskevopoulos, Kotzias, Katrougalos and several other high-ranking Syriza government ministers were all formerly part of Pasok, a party renowned for its corruption, patronage and nepotism.

Despite trying to paint a picture of a government under attack by a hostile media and by opposing political forces in Greece and Europe, the Syriza-led coalition has enjoyed virtually no opposition in its three months in office, particularly on key issues such as the Eurogroup agreement of February 20 and 21 and its insistence on not even considering a “Grexit.” Their broken promises and evident lies, however, are largely being met by a brainwashed, terrified populace and a complacent global left, which together have maintained a pathetic level of political discourse, essentially serving as apologists for Syriza’s actions.

Claims that Syriza “hasn’t been given enough time” or that anyone who questions their actions is a “fascist” or “prefers the return of the previous regime” are commonplace, while, as predicted prior to the elections, Syriza representatives are now terrorizing the public (and excusing their actions) by claiming that “if Syriza falls, the neo-Nazis will take over,” ignoring, of course, the many other smaller alternative parties that exist, ranging from the United People’s Front (EPAM) to Antarsya to the “I Don’t Pay” Movement, which have maintained much stronger and more consistent anti-austerity rhetoric and been active on the ground as part of the social struggles. Cosmetic changes within Syriza, such as the replacement, in late April, of Varoufakis as Greece’s lead negotiator, will merely serve as window dressing. His replacement, Euclid Tsakalatos, has been described as a “classic Marxist” who has “learned to make compromises with capitalist reality” and who does not support a Grexit on the grounds that “national economic programs do not work.”

Three months has been plenty of time for the Syriza-led coalition to abandon most of its promises and to continue the same neoliberal policies of austerity and repression as its predecessors. The sooner the Greek people and the global left figure this out, the better.

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