Greece’s looming clash in Europe starts with sanctions on Russia

Greece’s new government questioned moves to impose more sanctions on Russia, adding a foreign-policy angle to its challenge to the status quo in Europe.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s SYRIZA-led coalition said it opposed a European Union statement issued in Brussels Tuesday paving the way to additional curbs on the Kremlin over the conflict in Ukraine, and complained it hadn’t been consulted.

“Greece doesn’t consent,” the government said in a statement. It added that the announcement violated “proper procedure” by not first securing Greece’s agreement.

Whether the government in Athens turns that rhetoric into reality will be tested when Greece’s new foreign minister, Nikos Kotzias, has the opportunity to block further sanctions at an EU meeting in Brussels on Thursday.

Sanctions require unanimity among the 28 governments. A Greek veto would shatter the fragile European consensus over dealing with Russia, potentially robbing SYRIZA of early goodwill as it lobbies for easier terms for Greece’s bailout.

It would also deepen a looming stand-off with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has signaled her support to keep up the pressure on Russia amid an escalation in violence in eastern Ukraine.

Former communist

Kotzias, a politics professor and former communist, has advocated closer ties with Russia, spoken out against a German- dominated Europe and, in the 1980s, praised the Polish government’s crackdown on the Solidarity movement.

He said the new government objected to the “rules of operation” within the EU regarding the Russia statement.

“Anyone who thinks that in the name of the debt, Greece will resign its sovereignty and its active counsel in European politics is mistaken,” Kotzias said at the ceremony to take over the Foreign Ministry. “We want to be Greeks, patriots, Europeanists, internationalists.”

He’s part of a cabinet in Greece named on Tuesday by Tsipras after he formed a coalition with Independent Greeks, a more socially conservative party that also opposes austerity. After winning the election two seats short of a majority, SYRIZA decided against seeking a deal with To Potami, a new party whose leader has pledged to steer a “European course.”

The new government also includes Yanis Varoufakis, an economist who has called Greece’s bailout agreement a destructive “trap,” as finance minister. Before his appointment, he has advocated defaulting on the country’s debt while remaining in the euro. He is due to speak later on Wednesday after formally taking over the ministry.

Germany warned about rolling back budget cuts, pressing Tsipras to endorse the fiscal tightening that underpins the 240 billion-euro ($272 billion) aid program for Greece.

No blame

Volker Kauder, the parliamentary caucus leader of Merkel’s Christian Democrats, told reporters in Berlin on Tuesday that Germany “bears no responsibility for what happened in Greece.”

“Tsipras’s initial decisions, especially his coalition with a nationalist-hooligan party, point toward an exit from the euro,” Luis Garicano, an economics professor at the London School of Economics, said on Twitter. “If he wanted to negotiate, he’d have teamed up with To Potami, he wouldn’t have opposed sanctions against Russia.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin is cultivating the new government in Athens as an ally within the EU, wishing Tsipras success in “difficult conditions” in a congratulatory telegram after Sunday’s election.

The sanctions controversy started with EU President Donald Tusk saying he spoke on behalf of all the bloc’s leaders in calling for the Jan. 29 meeting of foreign ministers to consider “further restrictive measures” on Russia.

Solidarity movement

Tusk issued the declaration after no EU government objected, in a “silence procedure” commonly used by international bureaucracies. Tusk’s political apprenticeship came with Solidarity, making him the ideological opposite of many members of the SYRIZA movement.

Foreign ministers will consider widening a blacklist of Russian political and military figures accused of destabilizing Ukraine, while a discussion of further economic sanctions awaits a Feb. 12 summit of EU leaders.

As EU president since December, Tusk has brought to Brussels the uncompromising stance toward the Kremlin which marked his seven years as prime minister of Poland.

Tusk is still working out a division of labor over foreign policy with the EU’s chief diplomat, Federica Mogherini, a former Italian foreign minister. Tusk’s appointment partly reflected a desire to offset what some eastern European governments saw as Mogherini’s softness toward Russia. [Bloomberg]