DORA BAKOYANNIS

Greeks are ‘largely inoculated against populism’

Greeks are ‘largely inoculated against populism’

In an interview with Kathimerini, New Democracy MP and former foreign minister (2006-09) Dora Bakoyannis says that Europe must use the crisis in Ukraine to build a security system that “must take Russia into account.” She also believes that Europe must look for ways to “mitigate dependency on Russian gas.”

Commenting on the position of the main opposition, left-wing SYRIZA, and its leader, Alexis Tsipras, on these issues, she says the 2015-19 SYRIZA government was “the most pro-American government Greece ever had” and recalls that during that period, Greek-Russian relations reached their nadir.

As for the new phase of tensions with Turkey, Bakoyannis believes that “the competition in inflammatory rhetoric has become part of the electoral game between the [Turkish] government and the opposition and this certainly does not help efforts at [bilateral] dialogue,” adding that communication channels must remain open.

On domestic issues, Bakoyannis estimates that the energy crisis will most likely persist through the summer and says the most vulnerable need support. As for the election law, she insists there is no question of replacing it and makes it clear a parliamentary majority (after a second election) is a realistic goal for her party, governing New Democracy.

Finally, talking about the new Movement for Change (KINAL) leader, Nikos Androulakis, she notes that he has “not provided enough evidence [of leadership], but if his real goal is to achieve glory by hiding, he will not succeed.”

Let’s start with the worrisome crisis in Ukraine. As a former FM, you understand the global dynamics well. How do you see the situation developing? Who is to blame for the crisis? And how can it be de-escalated?

Now is not the time to assign blame. It has certainly been a long-simmering crisis. There have been violent incidents in the Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine that have declared themselves separate from the state that have often remained under the radar of international public opinion. In fact, the region and Russia were not matters of concern for the international community. Europe had focused its attention on the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit, while the United States was preoccupied with China. It was expected that the crisis would reach a climax in the long run. To be honest, I do not think the Russians will invade Ukraine. The great danger is that these isolated incidents in the autonomous areas could develop into a fully fledged war on the excuse that the Minsk accords are not being adhered to and that this is leading to a destabilization in Ukraine, with Russia achieving its aims without a full-scale invasion.

If I read the information and messages emanating correctly, there is an effort to reach a basic agreement, which would mostly concern armaments in the region. In any case, there’s a long way before one can seriously discuss Ukraine’s accession to NATO. I’d like to hope the developing situation will allow Europe to discuss a European security architecture that will not ignore Russia. The so-called European security architecture must take Russia into account.

Do you fear, as a result of the Ukraine issue, an even greater energy crisis that will affect Greece?

I feared this a lot 15 days ago and I still fear it. I hope the danger has been mitigated if not altogether eliminated. What is certain is that Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas, which accounts for 40% of its natural gas requirements, is too great; Europe must soon tackle the issue of its dependence and, to be exact, its partial independence from Russian gas. In the same way, we in Greece must have natural gas reserves, besides the one on the island of Revythousa, which will allow us to be better protected from the next energy crisis. However, the danger of a conflagration in Ukraine, besides energy costs, could lead to a rise in food prices, as Ukraine is one of the biggest exporters of foodstuffs. You understand, then, that the government must be very careful.

Do you see opposition leader Alexis Tsipras reverting to his old positions on foreign policy? I say this because of what he said about the upgrade of the port of Alexandroupoli and his invocation of statements made by Russian officials.

I must admit I had this feeling myself when I heard him speaking in Parliament, the other day, on the bill regarding the strengthening of our country’s defenses. Obviously, Mr Tsipras wants to forget that he has governed, something that Greek society also wants. The SYRIZA-Independent Greeks coalition government was the most pro-American government Greece ever had. His positions on Alexandroupoli and US military bases was a surprise to anyone who knows what he had been negotiating for throughout his term in government. His defense minister and coalition partner Panos Kammenos was proposing that the island of Karpathos should become an alternative Cape Canaveral. I have the feeling, and I said it in Parliament, that Mr Tsipras is trying to go back to 2012 (when he was in the opposition). But he has not understood that 2022 is not 2012. Ten years later Greek society is far more mature and aware, it has suffered and learned and I’m sure that it has been largely inoculated against populism. I should remind you that it was during the Tsipras government that Greek-Russian relations reached their nadir.

How long do you think this wave of inflation could last and how long can the state finances withstand the provision of support measures? Do you consider the support measures thus far have been adequate? Do you consider a new austerity pact with Greece’s creditors impossible?

It is difficult to make accurate predictions at a moment of great upheaval in the markets. I’m afraid the situation will be difficult until the summer. There is no government in the world that is not struggling to reduce costs on the consumers and, especially, the vulnerable groups. We are doing the same. We help households and businesses with significant support and we will continue to do so as long as the crisis lasts. The feelings and reactions of low-income pensioners when they get the electricity or natural gas bill and see that they must use a significant part of their pension are understandable and entirely justified. I’m sure they need more support from the state and they will get it. But it would be disastrous to enter into a game of one-upmanship over handouts for petty political gains, a game the country cannot afford. As for the likelihood of an austerity pact, I can clearly tell you that a Mitsotakis government will not allow this. Our aim is to achieve an investment-grade credit rating in the first half of 2023, which will be like an oxygen infusion for the Greek economy and will put the country onto a different trajectory. We must not lose this wager on stability; the citizens, who have been under great pressure, will not forgive us.

During the past few years, the government has faced many crises: pandemic, tensions with Turkey, natural disasters and now the price increases? How successful was it in dealing with them and where do you think it made mistakes?

First of all, I think we must admit that no government has ever faced so many crises in such a short time. And I believe it has faced them successfully. Those of us who are aware of the scale of the challenges understand that nothing was easy or obvious. It was not obvious, and I am telling you this because I often fought for it, that Europe would finally recognize Greece’s borders as the EU’s borders. Dealing with the migration wave and its weaponization by [Turkish President] Erdogan was not obvious. The readiness and composure with which we faced the crisis with Turkey in the summer of 2020. Managing the pandemic was especially difficult because the National Health System was threadbare after 10 years of austerity and this system was called upon to shoulder the burden of a pandemic. Were mistakes made? Of course they were. But, on balance, the result was positive. Obviously, there were cases where the results were not satisfactory and the prime minister acknowledged the mistakes and lack of coordination. For example, the way we dealt with the recent weather emergency cannot be included among the government’s successes.

Are you worried about the new round of escalation by Turkey and a return to the summer of 2020? Do you think a meeting with Erdogan would be useful right now?

I am worried about Turkey’s internal stability. We do not wish the destabilization of the neighboring country, it is not to our advantage. The competition in inflammatory rhetoric has become part of the electoral competition between the [Turkish] government and the opposition and this certainly does not help attempts at dialogue. I will repeat the prime minister’s statement, that our door is closed to threats but the window always open to dialogue.

There is plenty of talk about elections. Many believe that Prime Minister Mitsotakis must call early elections in 2022, because the extended energy crisis will erode the government’s popularity. Would you like to comment on that?

What we need above all in the coming years is stability and this will decide elections. Stability is the main ingredient for the country’s development. We do not live in splendid isolation, we live in an unstable world and we seek foreign investment that will create jobs. The first question every prospective investor globally asks is what is the political situation in the country and if there is a stable government, because these are the basic facts about the country they plan to invest in that they want to know. Stability, responsibility and credibility are bedrock principles of the prime minister and he will protect them at any cost.

Was it the government’s decision to change the electoral law at the start of its term? [Note: The government changed the previous electoral law of proportional representation voted by SYRIZA, providing a bonus of seats to the winner, although not as large as the one in the past]. Many say this was a self-created trap.

The responsible thing for a leader is to set the rules of the game at the beginning, with [no election on the horizon]. I’m telling you clearly that we have an election law and there is no question of changing it.

How do you assess the new player on the political scene, socialist Nikos Androulakis? As an MP for the Hania constituency, are you worried that the new president of KINAL, a Cretan, will erode New Democracy’s influence on the island?

To be honest, I do not have adequate examples [of leadership], but if his real goal is to achieve glory by hiding, he will not succeed. Citizens want clear positions and realistic solutions to their real problems. Concerning Crete, the facts at our disposal do not show a negative effect on New Democracy. On the contrary, polling shows New Democracy clearly ahead on Crete, with the exception of the regional unit of Iraklio. It is not enough for a leader to be a Cretan; you need much more to convince the people of Crete to trust you.

If New Democracy does not achieve a parliamentary majority in the second of the successive elections [the one that will be contested under the present electoral law], an outcome that appears possible, who will you form a government with? Is KINAL a potential partner? Is a coalition government with Kyriakos Velopoulos (leader of the nationalist Hellenic Solution Party) possible? Do you see the likelihood of a third election?

I believe that when the real issues at stake rise to the fore, a New Democracy parliamentary majority is definitely possible. The Greek people will judge, compare and decide on the leadership that can lead them to the next day with seriousness and stability. As a party, we have always believed that the country needs single-party governments to be governed effectively, governments that will make swift and effective decisions. That’s why, ever since he became New Democracy’s leader [in 2016], Kyriakos Mitsotakis chose to partner with society. He will continue to do that. And since I do not want you to accuse me of evading your question, I do not see cooperation and a coalition government with Mr Velopoulos.

There has been speculation about your own political future, such as that you will be on the all-country party list. Where will you be a candidate in the next election?

I am an MP for Hania and I work for Hania and all Crete. As you can imagine, this is the last thing that concerns me. I am sure that no one is concerned about the issue at the moment.