SYRIZA massages foreign policy goals as it smells power

As it comes closer to gaining power in Greece, the anti-establishment SYRIZA party that once advocated a pullout from NATO and expulsion of the US Navy from a base in Crete is moving toward the foreign-policy mainstream.

SYRIZA is sacrificing its more revolutionary ambitions to the overriding goal of getting better terms for Greece’s economic aid package. With the party holding a slim lead in the polls for the Jan. 25 election, even SYRIZA’s commitment to rolling back European sanctions on Russia is in question.

“The flagship of their policy is debt relief, and their main preoccupation will be domestic,” said Eirini Karamouzi, a lecturer in contemporary history at the University of Sheffield. “There’s no bargaining chip for Greece right now to lead on the main foreign-policy fronts.”

A party wishlist from mid-2013 rails at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Israel, promises to yank Greek troops from overseas missions and align more closely with Russia and China — all to strike a blow at the “neoliberal” European Union and “imperialist” US.

Now the insurgent party’s leaders are retreating from the rhetorical barricades. It’s a shift witnessed already in the economic sphere as SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras stresses a commitment to fiscal prudence. Greek government bond yields that soared last year at the prospect of a SYRIZA government have since declined as the threat of exit from the euro was seen to recede.

Green Porsches

“A breach with NATO is not in the interest of the country,” Tsipras said on Twitter last night. Greece is bound by and will comply with international agreements with the European Union and NATO, he said.

Protest parties often go mainstream once in power. Germany’s Greens arrived on the scene as an environmental and anti-war, anti-NATO force in the early 1980s, only to back the bombing of Serbia — Germany’s first military venture since World War II — after becoming the junior partner in the government in 1998. A Green now runs Baden-Wuerttemberg, the home state of Porsche and Mercedes-Benz maker Daimler AG.

The first test for SYRIZA would be its stance toward European sanctions on Russia. EU measures including curbs on financing for Russian state-owned banks and a ban on the export of sophisticated energy-exploration equipment will lapse in July unless renewed unanimously by the 28 EU governments.

Sanctions ‘bulimia’

As Greece struggles to get over six years of economic contraction, its interest in business with Russia is undeniable. Russia is Greece’s main commercial partner, with two-way trade of 7 billion euros ($8 billion) in 2013, according to EU data. Sanctions and the decline of the ruble have cut back Russian travel, denting Greece’s biggest moneymaker, tourism.

The tension between campaigning and governing was captured by SYRIZA’s foreign affairs spokesman, Costas Isychos. In a Sept. 1 statement, Isychos called the ratcheting up of sanctions an example of the EU’s “neo-colonial bulimia” and saluted the “impressive counter-attacks” of Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine. He accused the pro-EU Ukrainian government of tolerating “neo-Nazi abominations.”

Asked in a Jan. 7 telephone interview whether a SYRIZA-led government would go it alone in blocking an extension of the penalties, Isychos said it’s “very premature to say something like that.” What is beyond dispute, he said, is that Greece, “in a deep economic and humanitarian crisis and with extremely high unemployment, suffered another blow from these sanctions.”

Immigration rights

Support for sanctions varies across Europe. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has allowed them to go ahead despite speaking reverently of Russian President Vladimir Putin. More than Hungary, Greece is reliant on EU money. One school of thought has it that, if elected prime minister, Tsipras wouldn’t veer from the consensus, at least not right away. Another has it that, with France and Austria already eager to make amends with Putin, the presence of a Greek leader uncomfortable with the restrictions would be the final blow.

In the wake of the rampage by radical Islamists in France that killed 17, SYRIZA would also maneuver within EU norms. Like the current Athens government, it would promote a “common European immigration policy with obligations and rights” and seek more EU financial help to manage Greece’s porous borders, Dimitrios Papadimoulis, a SYRIZA member of the European Parliament, said in a Jan. 13 interview. SYRIZA’s approach to anti-terrorism would “combine the right to security with the right to freedom.”

Reality check

SYRIZA is in the same bind as Spain’s Podemos and Italy’s Five Star Movement, two other southern European parties founded during the debt crisis as catch basins for economic grievances. Podemos, leading in Spanish polls before an election in late 2015, has wedded its appeals for social justice at home to pacifism abroad. Five Star’s inchoate strategy centers on opposition to Italian military interventions. Polls show its appeal has waned since it entered parliament in 2013.

Faced with a similar reality check, a SYRIZA-led coalition would at least bide its time. While NATO “has no reason to exist,” foreign affairs spokesman Isychos said in last week’s interview, “it’s not part of SYRIZA’s priorities as a government to raise the issue of a possible NATO exit at this time.” Nor is kicking the US military out of Crete “part of our immediate priorities,” he said.

Doubts about SYRIZA’s conversion are likely to linger, however. The party sees itself as the trigger for a southern European uprising against the German-dominated management of the euro economy. And the early bombast, echoing the fashionable Marxism of Europe’s postwar intellectual left, will continue to resonate beyond Greece.

“This is much more about a crisis of European politics now and whether particularly the southern European publics are willing to stay with this project if it means almost endless austerity,” said Ian Kearns, director of the European Leadership Network, a London-based policy group. “This all potentially contributes to a less cohesive Europe, to a weaker Europe.”