Friday, July 24, 2015


In the early hours of 16 July, the Greek parliament voted overwhelmingly to give up its sovereignty and become a semi-colonial appendage of the EU. A majority of the Syriza Central Committee had already come out against the capitulation. There had been a partial general strike. Tsipras had threatened to resign if fifty of his MPs voted against him. In the event six abstained and 32 voted against him, including Yanis Varoufakis, who had resigned as finance minister after the referendum, because, he said, ‘some Eurogroup participants’ had expressed a desire for his ‘“absence” from its meetings’. Now parliament had effectively declared the result of the referendum null and void. Outside in Syntagma Square thousands of young Syriza activists demonstrated against their government. Then the anarchists arrived with Molotov cocktails and the riot police responded with tear-gas grenades. Everyone else left the square and by midnight it was silent again. It’s difficult not to feel depressed by all this. Greece has been betrayed by a government that when elected only six months ago offered hope. As I walked away from the empty square the EU’s coup brought back memories of another.

I first went to Greece at Easter 1967. The occasion was a peace conference in Athens honouring the left-wing Greek deputy, Grigoris Lambrakis, murdered by fascists in Salonika in 1963 as the police looked on, and later immortalised in Costa-Gavras’s movie Z. Half a million people attended his funeral in Athens. During the conference wild rumours began to spread around the hall. On the podium, a Buddhist monk from Vietnam couldn’t understand why people had stopped listening to him. Someone with family connections in the military had reported that the Greek military, backed by Washington, was about to launch a coup to pre-empt elections in which they feared the left might do a bit too well. The foreign delegates were advised to leave the country straightaway. I caught an early-morning flight back to London. That afternoon tanks occupied the streets. Greece remained under the Colonels for the next seven years.

I went to Athens this month for the same reason: to speak at a conference, this one ironically entitled ‘Rising Democracy’. Waiting for a friend in a café in Exarchia, I heard people discussing when the government would collapse. Tsipras still has supporters convinced that he will triumph whenever the next election is held. I’m not so sure. It has been an inglorious six months. The young people who voted for Syriza in large numbers and who went out and campaigned enthusiastically for a ‘No’ vote in the referendum are trying to come to grips with what’s happened. The café was packed with them, arguing furiously. At the beginning of the month they were celebrating the ‘No’ vote. They were prepared to make more sacrifices, to risk life outside the Eurozone. Syriza turned its back on them. The date 12 July 2015, when Tsipras agreed to the EU’s terms, will become as infamous as 21 April 1967. The tanks have been replaced by banks, as Varoufakis put it after he was made finance minister.

Greece, in fact, has a lot of tanks, because the German and French arms industries, eager to get rid of surplus hardware in a world where wars are fought by bombers and drones, bribed the politicians. During the first decade of this century Greece was among the top five importers of weapons, mainly from the German companies Ferrostaal, Rheinmetall and Daimler-Benz. In 2009, the year after the crash, Greece spent €8 billion – 3.5 per cent of GDP – on defence. The then Greek defence minister, Akis Tsochatzopoulos, who accepted huge bribes from these companies, was convicted of corruption by a Greek court in 2013. Prison for the Greek; small fines for the German bosses. None of this has been mentioned by the financial press in recent weeks. It didn’t quite tally with the need to portray Greece as the sole transgressor. Yet a Greek court has been provided with conclusive evidence that the largest tax avoider in the country is Hochtief, the giant German construction company that runs Athens airport. It has not paid VAT for twenty years, and owes 500 million euros in VAT arrears alone. Nor has it paid the contributions due to social security. Estimates suggest that Hochtief’s total debt to the exchequer could top one billion euros.

It is often in times of crisis that radical politicians discover how useless they are. Paralysed by the discovery that those they thought were friends are not their friends at all, they worry about outrunning their voters and lose their nerve. When their enemies, surprised that they have agreed to more than the pound of flesh demanded, demand more still, the trapped politicians finally turn to their supporters, only to discover that the people are way ahead of them: 61 per cent of Greeks voted to reject the bailout offer.

It’s no longer a secret here that Tsipras and his inner circle were expecting a ‘Yes’ or a very narrow ‘No’. Taken by surprise, they panicked. An emergency cabinet meeting showed them in full retreat. They refused to get rid of the ECB placeman in charge of the Greek State Bank, and rejected the idea of nationalising the banks. Instead of embracing the referendum results, Tsipras capitulated. Varoufakis was sacrificed. The EU ministers loathed him because he spoke to them as an equal and his ego was a match for Schäuble’s.

Why did Tsipras hold a referendum at all? ‘He’s so hard and ideological,’ Merkel complained to her advisers. If only. It was a calculated risk. He thought the ‘Yes’ camp would win, and planned to resign and let EU stooges run the government. The EU leaders launched a propaganda blitz and pressured the Greek banks to restrict access to deposits, warning that a ‘No’ vote meant Grexit. Tsipras’s acceptance of Varoufakis’s resignation was an early signal to the EU that he was about to cave in. Euclid Tsakalotos, his mild-mannered successor, won the rapid approval of Schäuble: here was someone he could do business with. Syriza accepted everything, but when more was demanded, more was given. This had nothing to do with the economy, and everything to do with politics. ‘They crucified Tsipras,’ an EU official told the FT. Greece had sold its sovereignty for a third bailout and an IMF promise to help reduce its debt burden – Syriza had begun to resemble the worm-ridden cadaver of the discredited Pasok.

by Tariq Ali, LRB |  Read more:
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