Having it both ways: Greece’s doublespeak to Brussels and voters

Gingerly treading between its anti-austerity promises to voters and its pledges to skeptical international creditors, Greece’s new radical government is resorting to doublespeak to keep everyone happy, analysts say.

After persuading Brussels this week to chew on its reform proposals over the next two months, the SYRIZA-led government has touted the agreement to its weary domestic audience as one that ends painful austerity.

“Greece and Europe have both turned a page,” Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis said on Tuesday in announcing the agreement.

After two abortive eurozone finance minister meetings, Greece on February 20 pledged to work “in close agreement” with its European partners and the International Monetary Fund to “strengthen fiscal sustainability, guarantee financial stability and promote economic recovery.”

To secure bargaining room until June to work out a new four-year reform plan, Athens’ new radical team had to pledge to respect privatizations completed by the previous government, and refrain from one-sided reform rollbacks.

At a closed-door meeting of SYRIZA lawmakers called to evaluate the deal, hardline Energy Minister Panayiotis Lafazanis complained that the government was “adopting language reminiscent of its creditors,” media reports said.

Other Greek government officials have argued that there is “constructive ambiguity” in the agreement which leaves Athens room for manoeuvre.

One notable example is the rehiring of laid-off civil servants, a key SYRIZA campaign promise which the government still intends to carry out.

This measure was left out of the agreement after the Greek government argued that it constituted internal policy and was non-negotiable.

Another example is the government’s pledge to raise the minimum wage.

The deal agreed with Brussels said wages will be raised “in a manner that safeguards competitiveness and employment prospects.”

This reference was conspicuously absent from the government translation released to Greek media.

“The Tsipras government is trying to bridge an incredibly perilous divide,” said Susanna Vogt, a political analyst and director of the Greek branch of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a think tank close to the ruling German conservatives.

“By playing with words, it is trying to satisfy the expectations it raised during the electoral campaign and following its arrival to power,” she told AFP.

Greek government spokesman Gabriel Sakellaridis said Wednesday the deal “left room” for Athens to apply its own policy.

But privately, some government officials are less sanguine.

“Clearly we will be under supervision,” one senior official conceded this week, adding that the government now had to “outdo” itself to fulfill pledges to combat corruption and tax evasion.

The Greek official added that the instructions from Athens for the third and final Eurogroup meeting were to “negotiate with an agreement in mind, not a rupture. Clearly this making a compromise.”

“At the end of the day, most people understand that it’s all they could do at the moment,” said Manolis Spourdalakis, a political scientist at Athens University.

“SYRIZA was elected on a program whose prelude was to negotiate a better deal … a good part of it was accepted. Even accepting the notion (of humanitarian crisis) is a change,” he said.

According to a poll in leftist daily Avgi, conducted before Tuesday’s agreement, 80 percent of respondents applauded the government’s handling of the talks.

But one of SYRIZA’s best-known activists, 92-year-old wartime resistance hero Manolis Glezos, was not one of them.

In a scathing blog entry, Glezos called the deal an “illusion” and apologized to the party’s voters for being part of it.

“There can be no compromise… between a slave and a conqueror, the only solution is freedom,” Glezos said.

Vogt noted that in last month’s elections, 36 percent of Greeks voted for SYRIZA “because they wanted real change.”

But Athens’ EU peers are now waiting for concrete results and in this respect “doublespeak is not going to be very helpful,” she noted.