Greek tip-toeing on WWII reparations claims

Nearly 70 years since the end of World War II, a Greek government has decided to revive the issue of Germany’s war reparations stemming from the Nazi occupation. The conservative-led administration will have to carefully map out its next steps to avoid political damage from this initiative.

Officials at the Maximos Mansion have shied from comments that could be seen as linking the reparation claims to Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s efforts to reform the nation’s debt-wracked economy.

When German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble rejected the prospect of WWII reparations earlier this month, the response did not come from his Greek counterpart, Yannis Stournaras, but from Dimitris Avramopoulos, Greece’s foreign minister. After all, no one would like to see yet another problem being added to the long list of outstanding issues between Schaeuble and Stournaras. The government’s recent decision to have a team of Finance Ministry experts draft a report on German reparations was aimed at audiences at home as well as abroad. Domestically, the initiative was designed to pre-empt criticism from the leftist SYRIZA party and the nationalist Independent Greeks. Samaras’s aides can now claim that this is the first government to have raised the issue.

On an international level the government appears to be treating the loan that the Nazi occupation forces obliged Greece to take in order to pay Berlin during the war – which experts reckon is Greece’s strongest claim legally – as a bargaining chip that can be used in negotiations with lenders. Nevertheless, administration officials appear divided on what should be done from now on.

One problem for Athens is that it risks creating the impression among German and other lenders that it is looking for away to elude its obligations. Similarly, Greek voters might be tempted to view the prospect of billions of euros in compensation as an instant remedy to the austerity of the past three years.

Government officials say that the German loan has nothing to do with Greece’s reform obligations and much-needed fiscal reforms, adding that even if Greece were to receive full compensation today, it would still be faced with a deadlock tomorrow unless it changes its production base and eliminates its budget deficits. Similarly, the prime minister’s office insists that the two issues must be kept separate.

However, flashing the reparations card remains a very complex issue. “The legal grounds are a fundamental condition while the political handling of the issue remains a totally different matter,” a close aide to Samaras who wished to remain unnamed told Kathimerini. He said he believes Greece should take a step in that direction sooner rather than later. Other officials are more skeptical, deeming that given the timing any move would have a small chance of success. In fact, they add, Greece would be better off holding onto the card rather than using it now.

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