In the 22 years that the now 69-year-old Vladimir Putin has dominated Russian politics and been playing a leading role in international developments, he has met and to some extent worked with all Greek prime ministers.
I vividly remember his smirk when he heard, in 2003, the harsh admonition over his Chechnya policies from then prime minister of Greece and president of the European Council Kostas Simitis in the city where Putin was born, St Petersburg, and learned – as he has stated – the first lessons of life as a street urchin. I also remember the well-known negative comments about the futility of George Papandreou’s visit and brief discussion with then prime minister Putin in early 2010, shortly before Greece signed the loan agreements with its creditors and the period of close supervision began.
His acquaintance and meetings with Kostas Karamanlis and Alexis Tsipras were much more positive, even though none of the big declared goals was ever achieved. History will retain the Russian leader’s legendary phrase “Have you asked if you are allowed to?” – said, no doubt, with that trademark smirk.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis will attempt to put an end to the tradition, in recent Greek-Russian relations, of grand statements and zero practical results when he meets President Putin at the Kremlin tomorrow. And if it is difficult, under the current circumstances, to agree on a new cooperation deal or to jointly undertake a major project, it seems that at least arrogant and meaningless statements will be avoided.
The 2018 expulsions
Russian officials concede that the Mitsotakis government and, specifically, Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias, largely abide by their stated intention to normalize and then warm up bilateral relations, which were marked in 2018 by the expulsions of Russian diplomats and the unprecedented spiteful anti-Russian statements by Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials. Through successive meetings, Dendias and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov have achieved the normalization of relations, a fact reflected in Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin’s presence in Athens for the March 25 celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Greek Revolution, as well as Mitsotakis’ upcoming visit to Moscow. Actually, if not for the coronavirus pandemic, the visit would have taken place in May 2020, with Mitsotakis attending the May 9 parade in Red Square marking the 75th anniversary of the victory over the Nazis.
In any case, the bicentennial of the start of the 1821-29 War of Independence continued to be celebrated, with special mention being made of Russia, the country that hosted a large Greek community and provided it with the opportunity to accumulate immense wealth, and also the country which played perhaps the most decisive role in the founding of the modern Greek state. Meanwhile Mishustin, with his special ties and his two visits to Mount Athos as prime minister of Russia, has proven a favorable interlocutor for Greece and a good conduit of messages to the top Russian leadership.
But a series of obstacles stand in the way of a real warming of relations between Greece and Russia, the smallest of which is the collapse of the Greek-Russian company Mouzenidis Travel this past summer after the untimely death of its founder, which left debts of tens of millions in both countries. The Russian side demanded, in a more brusque manner than usual, that the Greek state cover part of the debts, to which Athens, predictably, disagreed. Still, debts will be called, because money does not evaporate.
A much more serious problem seems to be what Russia describes as Greece’s “NATO turn.” The expansion of the United States’ military presence on Greek soil and its connection with the declared plans to “contain Russia,” and also the rise of neo-Cold War rhetoric, as, for example, in the recent speech of Minister of National Defense Nikos Panagiotopoulos during his visit to Estonia, have annoyed the Russians.
Athens may insist that its actions are not directed against Russia, but it is doubtful the Kremlin is convinced, because, at the same time, Russophobic articles in Greek media, partly reflecting the Greek elite’s way of thinking, have proliferated in recent years. The articles blame Moscow for its growing cooperation with Turkey and propose a closer Greek cooperation with the US and NATO as the only alternative at a time when Russia’s relations with the “collective West,” as it is now called by Russian officials, are at a historic nadir.
The negative climate has been exacerbated, and continues to be affected, by the so-called autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church, which has split from Moscow. Not only has Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios been involved in a civil war within another Eastern Orthodox church, taking the part of the church’s minority pro-Western wing, but the Greek Orthodox Church, funded by the Greek state, and the other Greek-speaking patriarchates, hastened to break previous promises of neutrality and identify with the same side, whose support has now become one of the central goals of American foreign policy.
Despite the unprecedented tension and rivalry in relations between Russia and the West, with “conciliatory interludes” such as the Biden-Putin meeting, countless opportunities for the development of Greek-Russian cooperation still exist and Moscow, as well as Athens, hopes that Mitsotakis’ first trip to Russia as prime minister will encourage them.
Fires, tourism, vaccines
A positive development, despite the unpleasant occasion that brought it about, was the decisive role of Russian firefighting aircraft in battling the disastrous wildfires this past summer. Everyone, and above all the officials involved, seems to understand that the ecological and social catastrophe would have been so much greater if the Russian aircraft had not been involved from the start and the Russian squad had not been strengthened after Mitsotakis’ call to Putin asking for help. Therefore, it would not be a surprise if one of the five or six cooperation agreements being prepared concerned cooperation in firefighting and, perhaps, the much-debated acquisition of Russian firefighting aircraft.
Despite the ups and downs, Greek tourism remains valued in Russia: Its promotion requires political backup and the improvement of bilateral relations. In that respect, Greece’s wise policy to recognize all existing Covid-19 vaccines, including Russia’s Sputnik, as equivalent, regardless of their country of manufacture, is helping. Almost all Greece’s diplomatic staff in Russia, as well as Greeks working in the country, have taken the Sputnik vaccine.
An important opening for Greek diplomacy is the possibility of exploiting the increasing “points of friction” in the highly publicized Russian-Turkish relations in recent years, although the existence of a personal “chemistry” between Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has allowed the two countries to sidestep important disagreements, such as on Syria, the Caucasus and Ukraine, and focus on mutually beneficial issues. There is also an opportunity for Greece in the increasing “bilateralization” of Russia’s relations with a number of EU and NATO countries, after the rupture in cooperation with the collective organizations; Germany, Hungary and Turkey are the leading examples, but also the US itself, which, although legally prohibiting the import of Russian equipment, does on its own when needed.
So, Athens and Moscow seem to want to improve their cooperation. Thus the main question, whether and to what extent the will is sufficient, needs to be answered.
Thanasis Avgerinos is a correspondent in Moscow.