A defense move that’s hard to defend


The much-anticipated cabinet reshuffle has taken place. There were no major surprises, save the replacement of Alternate Defense Minister Dimitris Vitsas with Fotis Kouvelis. 

I can’t claim to know Vitsas. I met him twice during visits he made to Washington, while we were also both at a discussion hosted by the American Hellenic Institute on Greece’s role in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Nevertheless, I have the sense that he is among a handful of people about whom almost everyone, including political rivals, speaks with respect.

His manner is always affable and low-key – a real virtue when it comes to this particular ministry, especially given its leadership and current conditions.

He recently stated that Greece needs to keep a cool head over developments in the Aegean and in Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone, adding that it is not helpful to cultivate a climate that pushes an already anxious public’s buttons.

However, he is also able to send a terse message when necessary, most recently with his observation that anyone acting with undue bravado in the Aegean should think twice before doing so. His statement carried weight because it did not come from a politician known for theatrical antics. 

Defense is a very sensitive area, and especially in a country like Greece, which constantly faces a state of tension.

Turkey is an unpredictable neighbor with territorial ambitions and Greece is trying hard to manage a difficult environment.

A close aide of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently described Greece as a “fly” facing a “giant.” There are many, and not just Greeks, who do not believe that the balance of power is so heavily tilted in Turkey’s favor. The latter may have a larger army, but it is definitely not a giant looking at a fly. 

The situation is volatile and given certain very unhelpful attitudes we have seen from others, Vitsas’s presence in the Defense Ministry was quite positive.

Moreover, as former secretary of SYRIZA’s central committee, he had influence inside the leftist ruling party, while he also kept the channels of communication open with the opposition, which is always useful in the area of defense.

His transfer to the equally sensitive Migration Ministry is a promotion – he has been made minister – and a recognition of his work.

I am not sure Kouvelis is the right person to take over his role.

The new alternate defense minister has, unfortunately, never made much of an impression, he has absolutely no influence in SYRIZA, a liability that may affect his working relationship with nationalist Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, and the opposition is most probably skeptical about him – none of which is of any help to the country.