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22 July 2015updated 02 Sep 2021 4:59pm

A view from Athens: Greece’s shell-shocked left

Taking stock of Syriza’s capitulation.

By Evel Economakis

A few weeks ago, I wagered a souvlaki with a fellow teacher at the school in Athens where I teach history that Greece’s Syriza government would sell out and that there would be no Grexit. I’ve still yet to enjoy what most people here consider to be the healthiest and most delicious fast food on the planet.

And in all honestly, I hope I lose. It’s still possible – until the new memorandum is actually signed, a faint hope remains that things will sour between the Greek government and its EU-ECB-IMF creditors. Indeed, I hope Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s iron Minister of Finance, gets his way and my country is led out of the eurozone. All I can add is this: if and when I do eat my souvlaki, I hope I don’t choke on it.

The aim of the powers that be in Brussels, Berlin, Frankfurt, and New York wasn’t necessarily to overthrow Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Syriza. Their objective was for the “radical left” government in Athens to stop serving the interests of its people – something that has apparently been achieved. Indeed, isn’t it more convenient for the Troika (and humiliating for leftists) to have a premier in Greece, who, though an avowed leftist, is acting exactly as his predecessors on the right did?

The anger here among the 62 per cent who voted No in the referendum of 5 July can only be described as molten. Characteristically, Danae, a 40-something kindergarten teacher, said this to me as we stood in line at an ATM on 16 July: “What happened wasn’t a coup by the Troika – it was total and unconditional surrender by Syriza.”

Aptly capturing the mood here, the joke circulating in Athens these days concerns the meaning of ATM: that in Greek the acronym really stands for Aristero Trito Mnimonio, or “Left-wing Third Memorandum”.

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Tsipras’ own mother is kinder to the PM than most. Ms Aristi sleeps little, worrying about her son, who, “doesn’t have time to see his little children . . . and has the weight of the country on his shoulders”. She says her boy’s greatest achievement is that, “he’s managed to get people to call him by his first name”.

Less generous souls have pointed out that George Papandreou, the American-educated prime minister who supervised the implementation of the Troika’s first memorandum, was also called by his first name. Though it’s hardly a flattering comparison.

Stelios, a 69-year-old pensioner, doesn’t blame Tsipras. “It wasn’t his fault he entered the Colosseum and was torn apart by the lions,” he thinks, adding, “But it was his fault – and all of ours – that for so many months we didn’t see Brussels was an arena, and we tried to convice the beasts with arguments.”

Nikos, an unemployed electrician who voted for Syriza, tells me: “In the last six months, I’ve lived multiple deaths. Hope came, hope saw, and now hope’s gone.” 

The impression among most on the left is that Tsipras tried to fight, but proved too small. He could not rise to the magnitude of responsibility and unprecedented support he received.

Great leaders stand out for their ability to discern the historical moment when bold decisions must be taken quickly and decisively. They realise which dilemmas are fundamental, and which are fake and trivial. Tsipras failed this test.

“You are now an enemy, Mr Tsipras,” wrote an anonymous left-wing blogger. “Bring out the riot police and the iron police rails – you’ll need them.” Another blogger, whose Facebook avatar is “Maria Magdalena”, reminded the prime minister that, “no Caesar died peacefully in bed.”

Tsipras’ nickname among the hard left is now Tsiprakoglou, an oblique reference to Georgios Tsolakoglou, the military officer who became the first prime minister of the Greek collaborationist government during the Axis occupation.

Embittered leftists say that history will write the name Alexis Tsipras next to the other leaders who oversaw the previous austerity packages: George Papandreou of PASOK, MIT-trained Lucas Papademos, and far-right Antonis Samaras. Another blogger posted: “Don’t become a Tsipras – that’s what we’ll say to each other for years to come!” 

Anastasia, an erstwhile Syriza militant, has relegated the party to, “the catalogue of traitorous social democratic parties or socialists who are really bourgeois capitalist parties”, including, as she writes, “Holland’s Party of Labour, Germany’s SPD, Britain’s Labour Party, France’s Socialist Party, Spain’s Socialist Workers Party, Greece’s PASOK (now there are two!), Italy’s PSI, Australia’s Labour Party, Bulgaria’s Socialist Party, and Hungary’s MSZP”.

The anathema heaped upon Greece’s young leader hasn’t gone unanswered. In a non-paper issued by his office on 16 July, PM Tsipras berated the 32 deputies who voted against Syriza’s approval of the memorandum the day before.  He criticised these “comrades” for going against the “socialist tradition of comradeship”, and complained his government has now lost its majority.

Greece’s “Che Guevara” looks today more like Judas Iscariot to many of those who voted him into power on 25 January. Instead of interpreting the referendum’s massive No vote as a green light to stand up to the Troika, Tsipras read it – as did the “enemy”, that is, all pro-austerity parties – as an “order” for Greece not to leave the eurozone.

Some even believe there is a chance that Tsipras’ partner of 20 years will leave him. Betty Batziana, an electrical engineer, is known to be dynamic and strong-willed. She’s apparently gone on-record to say she’d leave Tsipras if he crossed any of Syriza’s red lines – and he’s crossed them all! Given the fact that she took on one of her college professors by suing him for undermining her work on a doctoral thesis, the chances of this happening appear sporting to some.

Is “Sexi Alexi” (so monikered because of his good looks) returning to type? Like so many others in Syriza, he is the scion of a bourgeois family. His father, Pavlos, was a civil engineer who landed highly lucrative government contracts during the military dictatorship of George Papadopoulos (1967-1973). Tsipras’ father also reportedly donated generous sums to the Church. Some disgruntled Syriza voters have suggested in the media that this might explain why the government hasn’t targeted an institution with billions of euros in real estate and other assets  one, moreover, which has traditionally enjoyed preferential tax treatment.

Maria, a firefighter based in Rafina, a small port town outside of Athens, heaped abuse on all politicians without exception. “Right or left, they’re all the same,” she says. “From now on, I’m only going to trust poor people to lead us!  The only possible exceptions are rich people who’ve suffered for their ideas and spent time in prison!” 

Many are describing Syriza’s recent capitulation to the Troika as an “anti-austerity Varkiza”, a reference to the Varkiza Treaty of 12 February, 1945. On that day, and against strong protest (even bitter tears) from the party base, the Secretary of the KKE, or Communist Party of Greece, signed an agreement with the British-supported Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs that forced the communist-led EAM-ELAS resistance fighters – who controlled most of Greece – to surrender their weapons and give up the fight.

When Tsipras appeared on television on July 15, shortly after Parliament voted in favour of the new memorandum, his speech was highly contradictory. While he kept repeating that this was “terrible blackmail”, he tried to argue its positive sides. And while he spoke of the mistakes made during the negotiations, he defended the final result.

Greece’s young prime minister expressed the slavish mentality of the lesser evil, the path of least resistance. Tsipras adopted the basic tenet of the shock doctrine: there is no alternative! During the television interview, he made numerous phrasal mistakes, probably the sign of inner turmoil and uncertainty.

Tsipras interpreted the choice he had to make as one between sudden death and slow death. He chose the latter. Yet this was a false dilemma, say many. The “Troika banksters”, I heard an old man muse angrily at an ATM queue, “wanted us to choose between our lives or our money – and Syriza chose the former”.

The signs were there all along. Blogger Ilias A mocks Syriza’s friends and voters who “are bitching like cheated spouses”. Indeed, who’s ever heard of a bona fide left-wing government that goes out of its way to stifle a vigilant popular movement?

Wasn’t it Syriza, back in 2012, which pulled the people off the streets to serve the logic of legal, respectable opposition? Wasn’t it Syriza that put a dampener on the struggle of the fired ERT workers (the country’s state-run television station that was shut down on 11 June, 2013)? And who can forget the trips and meetings Tsipras had in the United States, where he repeatedly stated he was against confrontation with the European powers? His meetings at Lake Como with the wolves of the European economic and political status quo. The people were neither informed nor consulted, not even Syriza’s organised supporters.

From the get-go, Syriza carried the seed of today’s failure. According to Vangelis, who works in a pizzeria near Omonia Square, “the sperm of the betrayal of our popular struggles was embedded in Syriza’s strategy and its naïve view that they could change Europe at the bargaining table – this Europe that equates itself with the Eurozone and its leaders who represent the oligarchs and bankers against the interests of the people”.

Many on the left are now heaping abuse on Yanis Varoufakis. “The superstar of popular seduction misled us,” wrote Eleni in her blog. “The former minister of finance hadn’t shown up for as little as ten minutes at any demonstration. Does this surprise anyone? Whom do Tsipras, Varoufakis, Stathakis, Tsakalotos or Papadimoulis express, after all – the factory workers of Piraeus who earn 600 euros a month?”

Stratis, an unemployed construction worker, says: “When your enemy praises you, stop and look back and see what you’ve done wrong!” He was referring to Tsipras.

Many fear that the u-turn of this “first time left” government will become the tombstone of the Greek people. Myrto, a single mother of two who never graduated from high school, works the night shift at a bread factory on Marathon Avenue outside Athens. She bowled me over the other day with this thunderbolt: “We’re all every word of this country’s epitaph.”

The irony in this story is that most of the pro-austerity crowd, people who voted Yes in the referendum, are now backing the government. Not so long ago, these folks were full of fire and brimstone about the “communist-Bolshevik” threat. Niki, a young lawyer, says she’s “very impressed” with Tsipras. While she feared the prime minister would put his party above his country, he did the opposite – “and that takes guts!” she adds. 

Shortly before Syriza’s backflip, prescient voices suggested there may be a silver lining in the mess – and that the best thing for the country would be Syriza’s failure. I share this perspective. Only this way will most Greeks wake up and grasp their fate in their own hands instead of following the existing parties.

More and more people are realising that there are no political parties that can make a real difference. What about the The KKE, or Communist Party, which abstained from the referendum?  The KKE’s sectarian nature has isolated it more than ever, with the polls giving it around 3 per cent. That represents a 2-point drop from its pre-Syriza performance levels. Plamen, a good-natured Bulgarian gas station attendant I know, puts  it to me this way: “The communists said no to No, and Yes to austerity.” Indeed, it would come as no surprise to most if the KKE never rose again. The Communists certainly risk not making the parliament’s 5 per cent cut-off limit.

On 15 January, anarchists and members of far-left Antarsia (Anti-Capitalist Left Cooperation for Overthrowing the System) engaged the MAT, or riot police, outside the parliament building. Anastas, an Albanian construction worker and KKE-sympathizer, complains to me that because of these “young hotheads”, he and other communists, who were marching peacefully in the area, were caught in a crosswind of tear-gas. I mean, really, comrades!

As for Antarsia, what can one say about this hotchpotch of radical parties that include Trotskyits, Maoists, Guevarists, and goodness knows who else? Well-intentioned and (mostly) young, they are so far out in left field, it is highly unlikely they will attract support or stand the test of time as a unified group.

So where’s the silver lining? Could it be the very absence of a genuine left-wing party with the ability not only to attract a mass following but also effect real change? I hear this perspective from Christoph, a young German I meet in Syntagma Square a few weeks ago. In the dark, dank vacuum – Greece’s political wasteland – there is indeed room for something new and different.

Rumour has it those members of the government who resigned or sent clear signals they wouldn’t toe Tsipras’ line, may now form a new party. People like the sharp-tongued human rights lawyer and current Speaker of the House, Zoi Konstantopoulou, Yanis Varoufakis, Panagiotis Lafazanis, who heads Syriza’s hardline Left Platform wing, and Costas Lapavitsas, an economist and Guardian columnist. We shall see.

On 17 July, a meeting dedicated to finding “the truth about the public debt” was held at Athens’s University of Economics and Business. In an asphyxiatingly crowded amphitheatre, Konstantopoulou spoke alongside Éric Toussaint, spokesman for the Committee for the Abolition of Third World Debt. The audience gave the Speaker of Parliament a five-minute standing ovation. Clearly moved, she developed the legal arguments about the non-sustainability of Greece’s debt and explained why it is “ignominious and illegal”.

Toussaint then cleverly outlined how this debt was created and how to avoid paying it. The gallery was so touched; many wept openly. When it was all over, everyone rose and applauded Konstantopoulou, rhythmically chanting “OXI, OXI!” Blogger Pericles D wrote poetically: “We’ve returned from the exile of fear and inactivity.  We are the first and thousands of resurrected dead follow behind – see, the day is breaking anew, see the fire, see life.”

But doesn’t all this beg a simple question? Can Toussaint and Konstantopoulou save Greece with debt relief? This stuff may appeal to many here, but is it realistic to expect that the system can be transformed with a bit of canny tinkering?  

Some have expressed the hope that Syriza’s capitulation may turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory for Germany and the Troika. They are sanguine that this “agreekment” has torn the veil from Germany, exposing the European elites (and their Greek collaborators) for what they truly are: vicious egotistical cynics who fought tooth and nail against Greece’s left-wing government, and finally annihilated it by transforming it.

“Europe is changing,” Antonis, a pro-euro taxi-driver, tells me. “It would be a shame if we were outside the union the day after.” Rather impenetrably, he adds: “Greece shouldn’t have entered the euro, but we should never leave the euro either.”

There were two strategies Syriza could have followed. One was to try and change Europe from within. The other: save Greece via a well-formulated Plan B, or Grexit. It did neither.

By Varoufakis’ own admission, Athens made no serious effort to enlist the support of sympathetic masses in Europe, not even those of Spanish populist party Podemos. On the other hand, Podemos’ pony-tailed leader and founder, Pablo Iglesias Turrión, recently came out with support for Syriza’s capitulation to the Troika as “realistic”. His party’s popularity immediately dropped in the polls. Who needs losers?

As Katerina, a cashier at a local Lidl supermarket, tells me: “Those Spaniards seem to be made of the same paste as our ‘leftists’ – they see the dilemma through the same glasses. It’s either servile submission to the Troika or exit from the eurozone!”

The 76-year-old Stelios, a widower whose pension is so small he has to go to soup kitchens, volunteers his views to me. “Shame on Syriza,” he splutters animatedly. “They had no Plan B – and went to war unprepared. The government never enlisted us in the fight. It never prepared the people for the tough battles. If this isn’t criminal incompetence, I don’t know what is!”

There was always a self-impossed fear, a ceiling to the Syriza government’s actions. Varoufakis has recently talked about his “battle” to save the country, one that centred on an “energetic” policy to do three things if the ECB shut down liquidity to Greek banks: issue our own IOUs or some euro-denominated liquidity, haircut the Greek 2012 bonds held by the ECB, and take control of the Bank of Greece.

These measures, though far bolder than Tsipras’ cave-in, do not constitute a “battle”. 

The concensus among the now Syriza-hating left, is that after the referendum – and the tremendous moral boost the government received – Greece ought to have acted very differently. To wit, the moment the ECB shut down liquidity to Greek banks, Syriza should have used this incredibly aggressive and hostile move to nationalize all Greek banks and proceed with the immediate nationalization of major corporations, particularly those owned by German interests and their Greek allies. This wouldn’t have been easy, but it certainly would have relegated the “first time left” government to the pantheon of left-wing history. 

As the French revolutionary Louis Antoine de Saint-Just once said that “those who make half a revolution dig their own graves”. What an apt description of Syriza, which didn’t even make one twentieth of a revolution.

Evel Masten Economakis has been living in a town 25km east of Athens since 2005. He teaches history, and also works in construction to supplement his family’s income. Follow his “View from Athens” series here.

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