Greece: "A promise from the army has been obtained to not intervene against a civil uprising"

Explosive revelations from a former Greek diplomat.

It is always enlightening to hear the frank assessment of a diplomat upon leaving the service, once unshackled from "the patriotic art of lying for one's country", as 19th Century American journalist Ambrose Bierce described the craft.

Leonidas Chrysanthopoulos was a career diplomat with the Greek foreign ministry. As a junior officer with the service in the 1970s, he helped assure the then freshly democratic nation's accession to the European Union (at the time the EEC). He was at different times Athens' ambassador to Poland, Albania and Canada, and finally the director general of EU Affairs in the ministry.

Last year, he finally resigned as secretary general of the Black Sea Cooperation organisation, and entered the private sector, and now feels free to speak openly about his fury at what he says Europe and international lenders are doing to his country.

“At a certain moment, quite soon, there will be an explosion of social unrest. It will be very unpleasant,” he says, referring to 15 armed incidents in the previous ten days. In the past few weeks, offices of the governing parties have been firebombed as well as the homes of pro-government journalists. The headquarters of the prime minister's conservative New Democracy party was machine-gunned, and days later a bomb exploded at a shopping mall belonging to the country's second wealthiest citizen, although no one has been badly injured by the attacks.

“It is an escalation of activities,” he worries, adding that he expects the "explosion" to occur sooner rather than later. He predicts the spark will be when new, retroactive and sizeable tax bills come due in the coming months that people simply cannot pay. “There will be further increases in armed actions. There will be bloody demonstrations.”

“These actions are condemnable, of course, but I feel that this sort of armed activity will increase as long as the government continues to impose oppressive measures against the Greek people.”

Belgian Prime Minister Elio di Rupo in Davos said that Europe should change course from austerity within six months if there is no sign of recovery. These are hopeful words to Chrysanthopoulos, but he fears it would still be too late for his country.

“We do not have six months. If the EU is going to change something, they need to change it yesterday. We even have problems burying the dead because people cannot afford the funeral expenses.” Refrigerators in the morgue were filling up with bodies until the church said that it would offer free burial for some families.

“We are heading down the road of destruction.”

Last summer, the social-democrat-conservative coalition led by Antonis Samaras launched a major crackdown on irregular migrants, rounding up 60,000 individuals out of which just 4,200 were arrested for infractions – a move that has been criticised by Amnesty International and other human rights groups.

Chrysanthopoulos says that the government has hired Blackwater, the American private military firm infamous for its activities in Iraq, which now goes by the name "Academi", along with five other international for-profit security outfits. Explaining why this has happened, he says bluntly: “The Greek government does not trust the police whose salaries have also been cut.”

There is some good news however that he hears from the contacts he maintains amongst his former colleagues and politicians. He is confident that there will be no military coup, as there was in 1967.

“There are contacts by certain politicians with elements in the armed forces to guarantee that in the event of major social unrest, the army will not intervene.”

“I don't want to go into too much detail here though as it is a delicate issue,” he continues. “But as a result of these contacts, I think this is going to be successful.”

He laments what has happened to the EU in which he spent so much of his career: “I was part of the negotiating team as a junior diplomat that brought Greece into the EU. The EU that we joined in 1981 doesn't exist any more.”

“We need a change of plan.”

UPDATE: Academi have rejected Mr Chrysanthopoulos's claim. According to a spokesperson for Academi, the firm "does not now, nor have we ever, provided security services to any entity of the Greek government."

Demonstrators throw fire bombs at riot police during violent protests in central Athens on 12 February, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images
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Emmanuel Macron's power struggle with the military

Reminding your subordinates that you are "their boss" doesn't go as far as listening to their problems, it may seem.

This is the sixth in a series looking at why Emmanuel Macron isn't the liberal hero he has been painted as. Each week, I examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

It had started well between Macron and the army. He was the first president to chose a military vehicle to parade with troops on the Champs-Élysées at his inauguration, had made his first official visit a trip to Mali to meet French soldiers in the field, and had pulled a James Bond while visiting a submarine off the Brittany coast.

It’s all fun and games in submarines, until they ask you to pay to maintain the fleet.

“Macron wanted to appear as the head of armed forces, he was reaffirming the president’s link with the military after the François Hollande years, during which the defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had a lot of power,” Elie Tenenbaum, a defence research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations, told the New Statesman. The new president was originally viewed with distrust by the troops because he is a liberal, he says, but “surprised them positively” in his first weeks. Olivier de France, the research director at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, agrees: “He sent good signals at first, gathering sympathy.” 

But the honeymoon ended in July, with what Tenenbaum describes as Macron’s first “real test” on defence: the announced cut of €850m from the army’s budget, despite Macron’s (very ambitious) campaign pledge to rise the defence budget to 2 per cent of the country’s GDP by 2025. A row ensued between the president and the French army’s chief of staff, general Pierre de Villiers, when the general complained publicly that the defence budget was “unbearable”. He told MPs: “I won’t let him [Macron] fuck me up like that!”

Macron replied in a speech he gave to military troops the day before Bastille Day, in which he called soldiers to honour their “sense of duty and discretion” and told them: “I have taken responsibilities. I am your boss.” After the general threatened to quit and wrote at length about “trust” in leadership, Macron added a few days later that “If something brings into conflict the army’s chief of staff and the president of the Republic, the chief of staff changes.” That, Tenenbaum says, was the real error: “On the content, he was cutting the budget, and on the form, he was straightening out a general in front of his troops”. This is the complete opposite of the military ethos, he says: “It showed a lack of tact.”

This brutal demonstration of power led to de Villiers’ resignation on 19 July – a first in modern French politics. (de Villiers had already protested over budget cuts and threatened to quit in 2014, but Hollande’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had backed down.)

Macron did his best to own up to his mistake, assuring the military that, although this year’s cuts were necessary to meet targets, the budget would be rised in 2018. “I want you to have the means to achieve your mission,” he said.

But the harm was done. “He should have introduced a long-term budget plan with a rise in the coming years right away,” says de France. “It was clumsy – of course he is the boss, everyone knows that. If he needs to say it, something is off.” The €850m will be taken out of the army’s “already suffering” equipment budget, says Tenenbaum. “There are pressures everywhere. Soldiers use equipment that is twice their age, they feel no one has their back." The 2 per cent GDP target Macron set himself during the campaign – a “precise” and “ambitious” one – would mean reaching a €50bn army budget by 2025, from this year’s €34m, he explains. “That’s €2bn added per year. It’s enormous.”

Read more: #5: On immigration, Macron's words draw borders

Macron has two choices ahead, De France explains: “Either France remains a big power and adapts its means to its ambitions” – which means honouring the 2 per cent by 2025 pledge – “or wants to be a medium power and adapts its ambitions to its means”, by reducing its army’s budget and, for instance, reinvesting more in European defence.

The military has good reason to doubt Macron will keep his promise: all recent presidents have set objectives that outlast their mandates, meaning the actual rise happens under someone else’s supervision. In short, the set goals aren’t always met. Hollande’s law on military programming planned a budget rise for the period 2018-19, which Macron has now inherited. “The question is whether Macron will give the army the means to maintain these ambitions, otherwise the forces’ capacities will crumble,” says Tenenbaum. “These €850m of cuts are a sign than he may not fulfill his commitments.”

If so, Macron’s row with the general may only be the beginning.  It didn’t help Macron’s popularity, which has been plummeting all summer. And the already distrustful troops may not forgive him: more than half of France’s forces of order may support Marine Le Pen’s Front national, according to one poll. “It’s hardly quantifiable and includes police officers,” Tenenbaum cautions. All the same, the army probably supports right-wing and hard-right politicians in higher numbers than the general population, he suggests.

James Bond would probably have known better than to irritate an entire army – but then again, Bond never was “their boss.”