From Russia with bupkis. After all the speculation about Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week, and what Putin might dangle in front of him to woo him away from Eurozone influence, Tsipras seems to have gotten little from the talks besides talk.
By Vikram Rangala
Thursday, April 9, 2015
No aid package, no trade deals from the country that until recently was Greece’s largest trading partner. The drop in crude oil prices, the EU sanctions following Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, and reduced import demand from Greece have combined to reduce trade between the two countries by 40%.
After Greece’s contrary behavior in recent weeks, like the now-predictable sniping from Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis and Greece’s demand for Nazi-era reparations, many were expecting Putin to get an easy PR victory and perhaps some strong support for ending the sanctions.
A EUROPEAN PROBLEM
Instead, Greece made only a perfunctory call to review sanctions and stated clearly (forcing Russia to agree) that they weren’t asking Russia for anything. In fact, Tsipras went a bit further, even as Putin endorsed Greece’s bid to become the central point for distribution of natural gas to southern Europe. Serving as a hub would mean, as Putin put it, “hundreds of millions of euros every year just for transit, just like that.” It’s a credible and lucrative offer of support (and cost Putin nothing).
Nevertheless, at that same Moscow press conference, Tsipras said of Greece’s debt and recovery, “It’s not a Greek problem, it’s a European problem. To the European problem, a European solution will be found.” That’s a lot of times to repeat the word “European” with Vladimir Putin sitting next to you.
As if to make Putin seem even less pivotal to Greece’s fate, Tsipras found some good news waiting for him on his return. Greek unemployment was down a little and industrial production rose. The ECB has given a much-needed, no-strings cash infusion to Greek banks, and best of all, Greece announced that it had, on time, made its full €450 billion loan repayment to the IMF.Who’s the deadbeat now?
For Vladimir Putin, the idea that Greece may not need him that much may be hard to take. His behavior has often shown that he is almost as happy being the cause of a problem as the solution. The one thing Putin can’t stand is to be irrelevant.
1915 AND 2015
Given all the “Tsar” accusations he gets, it might help to look back to the actual time of the tsars. 2017 will be the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution, and then as now, Russia faced ongoing recessions, rampant inflation in the price of basic foodstuffs, and growing civil unrest.
Security intelligence firm Stratfor reports, “According to the Agriculture Ministry, during the past six months the cost of cabbage in Russia has risen 66 percent, onions rose 40 percent, potatoes 36 percent, carrots 32 percent, and beef 10 percent.”
Nearly one-fourth of medical centers in Moscow have shut down. Teachers in several regions have gone unpaid for months, while state-owned companies have laid off hundreds of thousands in the last two years and may lay off more. These and other problems have sparked small, but repeated protests.
Putin has replaced regional governors who don’t follow his edicts or threaten not to pay the 2/3 of revenue tax which the provinces must send to the central government. While there is no proof to implicate him in the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, the strange way in which the investigation was conducted, the disappearing evidence, and Putin’s reaction all added to his reputation as a strongman willing to do what it takes to maintain power.
While the neo-Tsarist label may apply to Putin somewhat, we should remember that Russia in 1915 played a different role on the world stage than it does now, as did the US. Russia was still a land of peasants, with barely 10% literacy and a mostly agrarian economy. Domestic demand was not enough to power industrial growth, despite Russia’s growing capacity in steel and oil. All of this was made worse by a government chronically in debt to foreign investors who treated Russia like a colony.
Putin’s Russia is much different, and if he does want to be its tsar, he’ll be a 21st century tsar. What is even more different is that unlike in 1905 and 1917, the majority of Russians will probably welcome it. A Lavada poll showed that 71% of Russians said order was more important than democracy. The reason is not that they want to be ruled by a new tsar, but because the alternative, chaos and poverty, is terrifying.
Another country emerging from feudalism in 1915 was Greece, which in those days warred with its neighbors on behalf of ethnic Greeks in Asia Minor and Cyprus. But in 2015, while Putin has been happy to have his own Crimean War 2 and claim Russian-majority parts of Ukraine, no Greek leader seems remotely interested in a Trojan War 2 or anything but democracy and coexistence.
Imagine if the EU had to help bail Russia out right now instead of Greece. It’s hard to say if the EU could manage it, especially with a tsar-in-waiting to deal with. By comparison, Greece’s economic woes are manageable and within the EU’s power to fix. And Angela Merkel and other European leaders would certainly prefer Varoufakis’s occasional leftist tirades to dealing with Putin.
It’s not hard to imagine that Tsipras’s Russian visit made him see his European creditors and their demands in a more favorable light. But it may also be that the Europeans saw Greece in a new light and decided, “Yeah, Greece is a problem. But it’s our problem.”
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