Days of Decision. While the Greek drama moved towards a decision, I travelled into the interior of the new Greece. Meetings with Alexis Tsipras, his closest aids, local activists, young businessmen, working-class militants and people, who just manage to survive.
“To our government,” Nikos shouts, slightly sarcastically. While we are lifting our beers, Katerina adds with an additional pinch of irony and a touch of bitterness, “It’s high time that we actually start to govern.” We’re sitting at the Café Stretto in Thessaloniki and the Greece Emergency crisis summit with EU Zone leaders had just finished. The latest news is coming in. There are indications that Alexis Tsipras has in fact moved his position in the direction the creditors want and that an agreement isn’t far away. Details are still lacking at this point.
The next morning laughter was replaced by shock. Katerina Notopoulous’s mobile rings every minute. The 27 year old is a member of the central committee of the governing Syriza party. We actually wanted to take the day off and drive to the coast. „Thank you Merkel and Alexis. You’ve screwed up my day,“ she says, between two telephone calls, with a strained grin and a sour face. The calls are from two outraged party members who can’t believe that the Tsipras government could agree to a new and fatal austerity program of over eight billion euros. I’m tearing along the bumpy streets to Chalkidiki in our little Fiat.
An austerity program which only prolongs fears and makes everything worse? A more of the same, more harsh medicine? Hardly anybody can imagine at the moment how Tsipras is going to get the agreement past his party or his group in parliament. It seems to the Syriza functionaries that they have the choice of two nightmare scenarios, either supporting an agreement that is almost criminally irresponsible or voting against it and bringing down the government.
“I’m scared,” whispers Nikos, the local party secretary. “We can’t defend this agreement, it’s impossible,” says Katerina and shrugs. There are a lot of rumours: Tsipras wants to agree because he doesn’t want to be the one who leads Greece out of the Eurozone. Yanis Varoufakis the finance minister and Euclid Tsakalotos the chief economic spokesman are said to be strictly against the agreement.
Athens, a few days beforehand. The sun is beating down on Maximos Mansion. The official residence of the Greek prime minister looks a little like a shrunken version of the White House. Left and right, palm trees are shimmering in the heat. Here too, on a Saturday morning, the revolution is very slowly progressing. It’s a revolution of its own particular kind but what does it want? Stop the austerity trend in Europe? Save Greece? Or even try a contemporary form of socialism?
I’m walking through the side entrance and through the entrance control upstairs into the domain of Alexis Tsipras. The young woman in the hallway is smiling. In Austria you would call her a secretary or receptionist, but in a socialist party like Syriza, whose activists are all used to opposition but who have suddenly ended up in government, it would be a little inappropriate. In the language of the left, she would more likely be called a comrade who organises the office. Here German is the second lingua franca. Many people have studied in Germany, quite a few have grown up in Germany and speak with a Berlin or a north German accent. “We talk in German when we speak about secret issues so that the civil servants can’t understand us,” a Syriza worker told me and laughed.
Naturally, Dimitris Tzanakopoulos also speaks German. His official job title is “general secretary of the prime minister” which is something like the chief of the chancellery, Tsipras‘ right hand. If the threads of the new power around the modern, smart and young group of men around Tsipras, Tzanakopoulos and state minister Nikos Pappas connect anywhere, they connect here. “We practically had to negotiate the most difficult issues from day one, with our back to the wall and it’s the very first time for us that we’ve been part of a government,” he says, remembering the days when Alexis Tsipras moved into government headquarters in January. “We had no experience whatsoever. They were difficult times.”
“We on the left are always in opposition,” I’m thinking aloud. “Yes that’s in our DNA,” Tzanakopoulos laughs. “People on the left have a kind of opposition gene and in particular an anti-establishment alliance like Syriza is. Eight years ago they were down at eight percent. To actually govern and be in power is something else,” says Tzanakopoulos. “Actual power is more like a labyrinth than a hierarchy.“ Ironic look, shirt, jeans, stubble, the Syriza strategist wouldn’t be noticed in a trendy hipster bar. Syriza holds undisputed power in Greece but, as the party of the left, it still feels like it’s in opposition to the “current ascendancy of neoliberal thought” however you want to term it and, with the Europeans acting in concert, the Greek government is in opposition to the group of countries who are in the driving seat. They are the governing opposition or the opposition in government. This characterises their identity and their style. Tzanakopoulos, Pappas, Tsipras are the pragmatists amongst this governing opposition. Without a certain feeling for what is possible and some special skills, for example being able to communicate with the Greek public, they wouldn’t have come this far and the last five months were a crash course in “European reality” which means that they’ve also learned to judge the limits of their opponents, whether somebody is perhaps a potential ally or absolutely opposed to them. Or you could say that they’ve gotten a bit better at it.
Sometimes I also wonder if they have the wrong impression of the hairline political cracks within Europe. Did this government of the left, who only really wanted to run a text-book, socialist, Keynesian economic policy, have to isolate themselves like this? Maybe more would have been possible. “The neoliberals have had the upper hand in Europe for thirty years and we want to move away from that, in form as well as substance,” Tzanakopoulos replies. Which means away from not only the chronic redistribution of all resources and opportunities from the underprivileged to the already privileged, but also a style of government that is fixated on attacking democracy, pacification of the public and the redistribution of all power upwards. In other words more justice and more democracy. If you want that, says Tzanakopoulos, you can’t expect, within neoliberal technocratic Europe, that the potential allies will come running to you. “These are political mechanisms that, in the end, disenfranchise whole nations, and you can’t change them all within four months.”
Tzakanopoulos is one of these smart people on the left who know what they want but also know that in reality you can’t get it by banging your head against the wall. I’m still not fully convinced by his reasons. Of course it was difficult for the Syriza party members to find allies in the European establishment but couldn’t they get at least a bit more support? Is it a little bit their own fault that they are facing a hard front of the diametrically opposed in Brussels? I think the closest circle around Tsipras has got a pretty good idea of the possible cracks within this front but most people in the party view anything beyond the Greek world and the world of the friends on the left as only enemies and opponents, which makes them a little insensitive when it comes to finding the right partner.
The fact that there is a general feeling in Greece that they are being forced to endure an almost neocolonial arrogance from the other European states, a feeling which isn’t just imaginary but which can sometimes provoke reciprocal antagonism, just for the sake of it. This even happens with the small things. “They are so complicated,” a staff member of a West European chancellery told me and said that the Greek government pays too much attention to the agenda, as if we still lived in the times of the Viennese congress, while nowadays most chancelleries take it pretty easy. I explained to him that it’s because they constantly sense arrogance and therefore make sure that they are treated formally, as equals. He got it then, but up to that point he had not understood.
Later we’re walking through the labyrinthine office on the upper floor of Maximos Mansion and I nearly don’t see Tsipras. A young woman sits in front of the computer and a young guy in a chequered shirt is reading some documents opposite her. He looks up, laughs and jumps up. “Ha, your chancellor is visiting this week,” he says. “He’s the only one who’s on our side and who supports me within Europe.” I haven’t seen as many Werner Faymann fans in all of Austria as in the Greek parliament.
Tsipras is a friendly person but also a bit shy in reality. But the Tsipras of today is different to the one who I talked to two years ago at the Viennese Kreisky Forum. His voice is two octaves lower and gravely. He’s relaxed on this Saturday morning but unmistakeably tired, very very tired. You can sense that this man is under tremendous pressure, he’s being put through the mill and is completely exhausted. After a while he suddenly says: “It’s all very quiet here.” He probably means astoundingly quiet. No hysteria. No mass demonstrations. No burning barricades. What I hadn’t realised yet was the fact that the prime minister knew that behind the relaxed facade, the level of anxiety was increasing day by day. The Greeks will panic and take out about a billion euros by the end of this week. It’s a quiet run on the banks while the Greek economy is practically standing still, waiting for it to become clear how the current confrontation between creditors and debtors will end and, at the same time, Tsipras is being squeezed between the threats of the Euro group and his own people, some of who won’t continence even the smallest of compromises.
Yes everything is peaceful and hardly anybody is in Maximos Mansion but metaphorically this morning Alexis Tsipras is something like besieged, a situation similar to Salvador Allende in Chile forty years ago. The only difference is that nowadays you don’t need tanks and generals to cut off the air of an unwanted prime minister. The central bank mangers from Frankfurt are enough for that. “There’s enormous pressure, and we are facing dilemmas, which we never imagined to meet in our political lives,” says somebody from the inner circle of the prime minister.
But the tense anxiety is only one of the realities of this city. Athens is humming and people don’t look very pessimistic. “People are patient with the government because they tell themselves, better inexperienced young people than the corrupt old ones,” says Konstantina Zöhrer, an Austrian-Greek political scientist.
“Tsipras has got the chance to dominate Greece for the next 20 years if he manages to keep to the political middle,” says Maria Eleni, who is not a friend of exaggerated political radicalism and who used to sit for seven years in the European Parliament for the socialist party Pasok, which was pretty much destroyed by Syriza. “Young liberal people voted for Syriza along with former Pasok voters and former voters of the Conservative party,” my friend Yannis says. The young freelancer works part time for the media and part time for an agricultural business. We are walking up Kominion street, near the famously anarchist Exarchia district. Of course, he tells me that these voters aren’t hard left. “They don’t want a confrontational government. They want one that also has a feel for consensus and compromise.” This sounds a little like criticism of Tsipras and his people, and it is, but it is as far as anyone in Athens will go in their criticism, a sort of solidarity in criticism, made with a friendly gesture for the Syriza government.
This can be simply put down to the fact that people, even if they aren’t natural sympathisers with the left, know that modern thinking people surrounding Tsipras and Co. are the best thing that could have happened to Greece, that they are the only ones who can destroy corrupt and obsolete structures, and that they are the only ones who can replace the old aggressive partisan style of Greek politics, where parties are more like feuding families, with their own professional style. It is, in a nutshell, the criticism of people who want their choice to try even harder, and is far from absolute refusal. Tsipras has approval ratings of a remarkable 74%, and this isn’t for nothing. And so there is something unusual hanging over the city – something that we Europeans further north haven’t seen in a long time with our constant, vague suspicions about the performance of our grey political elites – almost like revolution is coming. The feeling is so strong that it is too easy to forget the other Greece, the country on the brink. These are the days when talks with Europe are reaching a head and nobody knows if Greece will be bankrupt or not next week. Will there be a deal that will give the country another chance? Or will there be some other outcome?
Panepistimiou Street is one of the biggest boulevards of Athens, just a stone’s throw from the central Syntagma Square and from Parliament. In this district, Athens looks as stylish and tidy as any other historic, international city, like Paris, Rome or Vienna. In front of the Numismatic Museum, the midday sun is burning, but behind, the museum café is under the trees in the park. Theodoros Paraskevopoulous takes a drag on his unfiltered cigarette with the appearance of being calm. There are still a few days of brouhaha to come but he’s sure that a compromise will be found in the end. Paraskevopoulus is one of the Syriza old guard. Today his official job in parliament is to coordinate party and government. But he is much more than that: he is Tsipras’ closest confidant, a fatherly friend of the prime minister, who can cry on his shoulder when he needs to.
Paraskevopoulos has the task of taming the bedlam, gently, by talking and acting as a go-between, not through threats or the party whip. Syriza is an alliance of left and radical left parties, and there isn’t even a unified “majority block”. The different organised movements meet up before every party meeting. Most of them have three or four policies that encapsulate their identity, but these policies are not particularly important in the new world of government, which means that quite a few of them now belong to the movement just out of habit. Syriza is a party where there is a lot of discussion and there is a lot of dissent. In a party like this, the prime minister can’t take it for granted that he will be able to assert himself. But how can you govern this way? Paraskevopoulos doesn’t understand the question, “It is absurd that people from the old parties, like Pasok, that have disappeared because they stopped discussing issues are now advising us that we should be like them,” he says.
Paraskevopoulos thinks the solution to Greece’s problems could be so easy, and he starts to explain the numbers. Primary surplus of 0.75% to 1% in the Greek budget, and in return no further pension cuts and no further deregulation of the labour market. Transferring the majority of Greek debts to the ESM, the European safety net, including the debts on the books of the IMF and ECB. Then Greece would have until 2022 to get back on its feet without having to pay huge interest and repayments. The country could catch its breath and could then start to slowly repay its debts. In fact, it wouldn’t just be the most sensible solution, but also the only one that could work economically. But being sensible has gone out of fashion in Brussels.
There are a thousand things to do, all at the same time. On the one hand, the young government has to negotiate with the creditors, which takes up a lot of their energy. On top of that, the chronic insecurity stops the Greek economy from recovering because nobody, unless they are completely crazy, wants to invest with the threat of Grexit hanging over them, and the government should have started modernising the country and infrastructure by now. Here everybody knows that, as Tsipras‘ chief of staff, Tzanakopoulos, ironically said, “Greek public administration is not an example of best practice. And on top of that normal government has to happen, which means that the social minister has to ready the social systems, the health minster the health system, and for all of that there are hardly any plans, not enough time and even less money.
Haris Triandafilidou is another of the “Germans” in the prime minister’s office. She’s the type of person who is unhappy that there are only 24 hours in a day. She’s always highly stressed, wears her hair up, she’s thin and when she talks in her slightly argumentative way, she reminds me a little of Sahra Wagenknecht, but only for a second. Then she makes a joke and her seriousness dissolves into laughter. Of course, the tax dodgers and cheats haven’t had their collars felt yet. First, we are collecting the data, then trials will start, and parliament has allowed the authorities access to private accounts. “The Greek professionals classes, who aren’t used to having to pay tax, are feeling anxious for the first time.” Like all Syriza people you meet these days, she’s rally proud of two policies which have just passed the parliament. The law about same sex partnerships and the new citizenship law, which guarantees children of immigrants automatic citizenship from the day they start school. “We won the majority in Greece because of our economic and social demands,” she says, “but the people’s trust has spilled over into other issues.” Because the left is the dominant power, it can also appeal to people on issues of the liberalisation of society.
Haris checks her phone every few minutes, just to see if the world has ended yet. Then we have to go to an event thrown by the left NGO network, Solidarity4all, which is close to Syriza. The news is on in the taxi, and I make out the words „Merkel“ and „Apocalypse“. An activist from Ecuador talks under the oleander about “economic solidarity”, cooperatives and worker participation in management. Everyone listens with interest to what he has to say about plans for the collective economy to be included in the constitution.
“Tell me, are you trying to bring in socialism here?” I ask Haris. “Yes,” she says, in a tone that implies I would have to be crazy to doubt it. I’d already asked Dimitris Tzanakopoulos, the chief of staff, the same question. He had answered, somewhat more diplomatically, that “it was a tricky question,” and that it wasn’t about terms like “socialism,” or “whateverism.” “First, we want to break the neoliberal, conservative hegemony in Europe.” Then he impishly says something that was to stay with me, “the sky’s the limit!”
These are the moments where I catch myself wondering if they have gone nuts. They live in a country that has been devastated by the crisis, in which hardship and poverty have become endemic, standing on the edge of bankruptcy in the Europe of Merkel and Schäuble, and they think that socialism is just around the corner? But before I can ask this question, another question immediately springs to mind. What if we are really the ones who have gone nuts? We, meaning the ones who are happy at having avoided the worst, we who panic at the smallest changes, at even the hint of a bold idea. Suddenly I’m not sure anymore if it is them who are crazy, or maybe us.
Syriza is an open-ended project. But the party today is more than that: it has become a role model of a successful party of the left within twentyfirst century Europe, and it has done this by learning a
Robert Misik is a writer and essayist in Vienna. His latest book is Politik von unten: Gelingt das Comeback der Sozialdemokratie? (Picus Verlag). He publishes in many outlets, including Die Zeit and Die Tageszeitung. Awards include the John Maynard Keynes Society prize for economic journalism.