For five years now Europe has been troubled by the problem of the Greek debt. It all began with a relatively modest sum estimated at 15-20 billion euros, though at the time coping even with this debt seemed beyond the country’s capacity. Instead of simply writing off the debt, the “Troika” consisting of the European Commission, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) offered Greece a program of economic assistance in exchange for carrying out “urgent reforms”.
The results of this program, and of the help it provided, speak for themselves. Greece’s economy contracted by 27 per cent, and the debt rose to 320 billion, despite a partial write-off. From an original 60 per cent of GDP, the debt thus reached 175 per cent. Meanwhile, neither the Troika nor the previous Greek government acknowledged the obvious failure. The Troika not only insisted on continuing and even radicalising its clearly pointless actions, but also proposed treating the economic ills of other eurozone countries (Italy, Spain and Portugal) on the basis of the Greek model.
The actions of the Troika seem far less absurd if we reflect that the billions of euros intended to “save Greece” never reached that ill-fated country but were deposited immediately in German and French banks. Under the pretext of servicing the Greek debt a huge financial pyramid was created, analogous to a Ponzi scheme or to the MMM and GKO pyramids in 1990s Russia, but on a much greater scale. Meanwhile, part of the money that finished up in the banks was sucked directly out of Greece, while a further part came from the pockets of West European taxpayers. For decisions made effectively in Berlin and Brussels, with the approval of Paris, the citizens of other Eurozone countries were forced to pay. The victims included even the inhabitants of Spain and Italy, as well as of countries such as Austria and Finland that had no relation whatever to the events concerned. A sort of all-European pipeline was constructed, and used to siphon off state funds for the benefit of German and French financial capital.
With the coming to power of the left-wing government formed by the SYRIZA party and headed by Alexis Tsipras, hopes arose in Greece that the endless series of large and small economic, social and moral catastrophes which the country had suffered since 2008 would finally come to an end. Even if the situation did not improve, things would at least proceed differently. SYRIZA had been elected with a clear mandate to end the policies of economic austerity, to put a stop to the privatisation and commercialisation of the public sector, and above all, to give Greeks back their self-respect by conducting tough, principled negotiations with the creditors who in recent years had behaved toward the country as though they were an occupation administration. SYRIZA, moreover, was considered in Europe to be pro-Russian; during the election campaign representatives of the party had repeatedly voiced disagreement with EU policy toward Russia, criticising the imposition of sanctions and condemning the new political order imposed in Ukraine following the political overturn of February 2014.
The first agreements concluded by the new Greek government with its creditors showed, however, that in practice everything was turning out quite differently. The representatives of Athens made heated declarations, and then, after securing only minimal amendments, proceeded to sign the next agreement dictated by the creditors. In part, this inconsistency resulted from the contradictions of the mandate obtained by Tsipras and his colleagues. They had promised to put an end to the economic austerity that was killing demand and production. But they also pledged to keep the country within the Eurozone and the EU, stressing that a default on foreign debts had to be avoided. This way of formulating the question handed Greeks over to the mercy of their creditors.
To pay off the debts is simply impossible.
Moreover, a re-launching of the economy is technically inconceivable unless the harsh rules imposed by the ECB are rejected, along with its insistence on a dramatic increase in competitiveness unaided by a lowering of the exchange rate. Since it has been understood from the outset that the ECB will not agree to sharply lower the euro exchange rate solely in order to save Greece, it is clear that in technical terms there is not the slightest chance of a successful exit from the dilemma without Greece quitting the Eurozone and returning to the drachma. The only real question has been whether this exit will be planned, organised and prepared in advance, or whether it will be chaotic and disastrous. The situation is very similar to the one in Argentina in 2001, when after a default the peso had to be decoupled from the dollar if economic growth was to resume.
Nevertheless, even discussing this sole realistic scenario, let alone making preparations to carry it out, has been banned; if such a course were followed, the German and French banks would stand to suffer, along with the reputations of the EU leaders. So long as the Greek government accepts these conditions, it is in the situation of a doctor who undertakes to treat a cancer sufferer without infringing on the “lawful interests” of the tumour and without placing obstacles in the way of its growth. Or, it is like a person who negotiates with vampires on how much of his or her blood they will drink. In each case, the prior interests recognised are those of the vampires.
For the sake of fairness, it should be acknowledged that to a certain degree the contradictions of SYRIZA’s position reflect those of Greek society itself. On the one hand, many Greeks are outraged and want changes, while on the other, people are afraid to risk their middle-class comforts, even though these comforts are diminishing by the day. So long as substantial numbers of the population still have savings in euros, these people are paralysed by fear that their money will be lost or devalued. It is one thing to attend demonstrations demanding that the creditors “respect the country”, and quite another to be ready, right now, to accept particular sacrifices and risks for the sake of one’s own future. It is true that there is no other way out, but both the authorities and society need to think and talk about this openly. Through making statements that try to satisfy everyone, the Tsipras government has instead driven itself into a trap.
The problem is not so much that drastic and humiliating conditions have repeatedly been imposed on Greece by its creditors, as that these agreements are not solving the dilemma but exacerbating it. The debt crisis is worsening, and the sum owed is increasing – both in absolute terms and in relation to the size of the economy as the latter shrinks under the impact of the crisis. Consequently, any new agreement simply assumes that a new crisis will arise after a few months. Each time, this new crisis is more destructive.
While lacking the resolve to answer the EU leaders with an emphatic “no”, Alexis Tsipras and his finance minister, the economist Giannis Varoufakis (an import from the University of Texas), cannot fail to understand that agreeing with the Troika will also turn out disastrously for them. Before their eyes, just such a capitulation only two years ago transformed the powerful social democratic party PASOK from the country’s leading political force into an outsider.
Tsipras has sought to manoeuvre, doing his best to please everyone. He has reassured the creditors, indulged the petty-bourgeois illusions of voters, and delivered radical speeches to meetings of left activists. While promising everyone the maximum possible, his government in practice has tried to sabotage some of the agreements signed with the Troika, particularly in cases where the signatures were affixed by earlier administrations. But the ministers have lacked the courage even to suggest that these agreements might be abrogated, or that the government might openly refuse to carry out their stipulations. A notable example of the Greek government’s diplomatic approach is the position it has taken on the question of sanctions against Russia. Under the rules of the EU, Greece could simply block these sanctions in the summer of 2015. This demand was raised by members of the SYRIZA party itself, when they voted en bloc in the European Parliament against anti-Russian resolutions. But in the heat of the next round of negotiations between the Troika and the Greeks, at a time when Tsipras himself was in St Petersburg explaining to Russian colleagues the prospects for the development of special relations with Athens, his representatives in the EU gave their backing to the sanctions. Addressing the public, Greek diplomats then stated that they had fought like lions on behalf of Russian interests, and that it was only because of their persistence and principled character that the sanctions had been extended for a mere six months, instead of twelve months as the Germans had demanded.
Tsipras’s policy of compromise can be explained in part by a desire to win time in expectation of the elections in Spain, where the left coalition headed by the Podemos party had a serious chance of success. Spain is a far more influential country than Greece, with a far stronger economy, but is suffering from a very similar if less severe crisis. If Podemos were to come to power, Athens would be able to escape from its international isolation. In addition, the Left Bloc in Portugal has a definite chance of success. In other words, an opportunity has appeared to establish an international coalition of Mediterranean countries opposing Berlin and Brussels. But among the public in Spain and Portugal, Tsipras’s own actions and his evident weakness have raised questions about the advisability of placing trust in the left alternative, thus weakening the hopes of the left in those countries.
Within the European left milieu, sympathy nevertheless remains for SYRIZA as a party that finds itself in extremely difficult circumstances. Against the background of many years of setbacks for the European left, Tsipras’s initial successes inspired hopes which people are reluctant to abandon. The SYRIZA leader’s principle, of first making radical speeches and then of giving way to the superior forces of his opponents, seemed to be justified. Not only in other parts of Europe but in Greece as well, the popularity of Tsipras’s government increased. People not only refrained from condemning him, but pitied him as the hostage of vampires against which he was time and again proving powerless.
To fool pseudo-lefts and provincial petty bourgeois is not particularly difficult, but financial vampires do not fall for such tricks. The sabotage aroused righteous indignation in the creditors, who steadily increased the pressure. The agreements which the Greeks signed with the creditors after SYRIZA came to office were no better than those endorsed by the previous government, and had the same results.
In June, when the next round of payments fell due, there turned out to be no money in the budget.
A further restructuring of the debt was essential. In exchange, the Troika demanded the acceptance of a new “reform package”, by comparison with which all the preceding austerity measures seemed mere warm-up exercises. At one and the same time wages and pensions would have to be cut, taxes would need to be raised, and all concessions would have to be stripped from tourism, which amid the destruction of industry and the decline of agriculture remained the only relatively stable sector of the economy. The country would sink inevitably into a new spiral of recession. For SYRIZA, this would mean not only abandoning all its election promises, but also submitting to public humiliation, with the obvious prospect of defeat at the next elections. This, indeed, was what the creditors were seeking.
On June 22 Greece effectively capitulated. The government agreed to extract more revenue from the Value Added Tax, raising it to 0.93 per cent of GDP, and to increase taxes on shipping companies (in other words, to make trips between Greek islands and the mainland more expensive). A cut to pensions was also promised, though the Athens authorities asked to be allowed to introduce the changes involved over time rather than immediately.
The only point on which the Greek negotiators demurred, in order to save face, was a demand that the Value Added Tax be raised to 1 per cent of GDP. In other words, the extent of their resistance was a whole 0.07 per cent. The Greek side meanwhile agreed that company tax should be levied at the rate of 28 per cent, instead of 29 per cent as it had initially suggested to the Troika. The Greeks also asked to be allowed to keep defence spending at its former level; this matched the general requirements of the NATO bloc, of which Greece is part.
The game, it might have seemed, was over. The world financial press celebrated, and prices rose on the share markets. In Athens, there was even a demonstration by members of right-wing parties supporting the creditors. Well-dressed citizens gathered in the central Syntagma Square, calling for pensions to be reduced. True, there were not many of these demonstrators, only about 1500, but the television managed to make the picture so impressive that even the well-known American commentator Paul Craig Roberts, a sharp critic of the policy of the financial institutions, expressed puzzlement at the way Greeks had apparently been brainwashed to the point of agreeing to their own country’s humiliation.
Then the unexpected happened. German representatives declared their dissatisfaction at the speed with which the European Commission welcomed the new offers from Athens. Under pressure from Berlin, Tsipras’s offers were rejected. The Greeks had surrendered, but as it turned out, the Germans were not taking prisoners.
The Eurocrats not only refused to agree to the symbolic concessions needed by Tsipras and Varoufakis if they were to save face, but like gangsters with a client who is behind in paying protection money, began making new demands. With its back to the wall, the Greek government suddenly displayed a courage born of despair. Tsipras delivered a fiery speech to the people, and called a referendum. Greeks would decide for themselves whether to agree to the demands of the creditors. The last PASOK prime minister, George Papandreou, had planned to do something generally similar, but the creditors applied pressure to him, and he renounced his attempt. The upshot was that Papandreou lost his reputation, his job as premier, and even his position at the head of his own party. Knowing the fate of his predecessor, Tsipras showed more consistency. A further inducement for him was the fact that even before the eurocrats had rejected the “compromise” he had offered, a revolt had broken out in the SYRIZA ranks, and it was clear that if the agreement with the Troika was to get through parliament, it would only be with the votes of the rightists.
This time, the deputies of the conservative New Democracy party tried to block the vote on the referendum. But eventually they returned to the chamber, and the resolution was adopted. On July 5 Greeks are to decide on whether or not to agree to the conditions of the financial vampires.
It is significant that the Troika characterised the use by the Greeks of this democratic procedure as a rejection of the agreement. Troika representatives then called off the talks and declared that “aid” to Greece would cease from June 30. This means that regardless of the outcome of the referendum, a technical default from July 1 is inevitable, and this in turn will lead almost automatically to Greece’s exit from the eurozone and return to the drachma.
The chance that the supporters of austerity would win the referendum, illusory in any case, has now vanished completely.
What was bound to occur has now actually happened, just as in Argentina in 2001, where all political forces tried desperately to avoid a default and exit from the dollar zone (the Argentinian peso was tied to the US dollar), but where this occurred anyway. In both Argentina and Russia, financial collapse was followed by a few dramatic and chaotic months, after which an economic recovery began. The situation in Greece is somewhat more complex, but in Greece as well the shift to an inevitably devalued drachma opens a range of possibilities. Cheap resorts will attract the tourists who are now in critically short supply (Russian tourism alone in Greece has shrunk this year by 70 per cent). New prospects will open up for tourism and shipbuilding. Relations with Russia could also be placed on a more solid footing.
The situation has turned out to the benefit of Greece, but despite the actions of the country’s present leaders rather than because of them. It should, though, be recognised that Tsipras, even if he dragged out his decision until the very last moment, has nevertheless shown that he has a better claim to the role of national leader than his predecessors. The Greeks were forced to bend, but they were not broken.
What, though, can have motivated the Berlin leaders, when they refused to accept the Greek capitulation? It is possible, of course, that the German leaders simply made a mistake. The situation ran out of control because each side failed to anticipate the reaction of the other. The Greeks overestimated the rationalism of the Germans, and the Germans, the opportunism of the Greeks. The more acute a crisis becomes, the more mistakes are made; this is the general logic of the historical process. It is not excluded that the leaders in Berlin misjudged the likely results of the talks between Russia and Greece, and hoped that the Russians would supply Tsipras with money that the Greeks could use to pay off the creditors. But Tsipras left St Petersburg without having received any money, though with an agreement to build a gas pipeline that for technical reasons will be impossible to implement before 2018 (it should be noted that the Russian gas corporation Gazprom then and there announced that gas transit through Ukraine would continue after 2019, placing the profitability of the highly expensive Greco-Turkish pipeline in question).
Nor can the possibility be excluded that Berlin consciously provoked the crisis.
German analysts may have calculated that the debt bubble would burst in any case, and have decided to deflate it themselves, without waiting for events to develop spontaneously. Even if agreement had been reached on the conditions set down by the Troika, new crises would not only be “predictable with mathematical certainty” (as Varoufakis stated), but much more importantly, the proportion of the funds pumped by the German banks out of Greece would diminish with every new cycle, while the share coming from the German taxpayer would increase. In other words, political risk would be added to the risk that the debt pyramid would crumble. Members of the public in northern Europe are beginning to grasp that under the pretext of “saving Greece”, they themselves are being robbed by “their own” side. Even if northern Europeans fail to understand this, they will still mount resistance, out of reluctance to part with their money. It is also worth noting the publication of the sadly notorious Charlie Hebdo issue that came out with the headline “Drown the Greek to save Europe”.
So – was it evil intent, or a collective miscalculation?
These two explanations, though logically counterposed, may in reality serve to reinforce one another. There was a degree of ill-intent, but there were also miscalculations on both sides. We may recall that it was in precisely this fashion that war broke out in 1914. All the various parties had prepared for a war, had planned it and wanted it, but events nevertheless unfolded in a fashion completely different from what they had counted on. Control over the situation had been lost.
It appears that the same happened this time. Even if the Troika intended something along the lines of “drowning the Greek”, things will now proceed in a way distinctly different from what they anticipated. The referendum called by Tsipras is sharply altering the psychological landscape not just in Athens, but throughout Europe. Willingly or otherwise, SYRIZA has raised the banner of resistance. For the other crisis-wracked countries of the eurozone, this will provide a signal that the financial vampires of the EU are not all-powerful. The vampires themselves will be forced to undertake even harsher measures, in an effort to halt the growing collapse of the neoliberal regime installed in the EU by the Maastricht and Lisbon talks. As history teaches us, such measures ultimately serve only to exacerbate a crisis, provoking more and more active resistance. This is now occurring in the countries of the European “centre” – Italy, France, and even Austria and Germany. In the present situation, however, no other road remains open to the ruling groups in Berlin and Brussels. And before the light appears at the end of the tunnel, we are bound to plunge still further into the depths of the crisis.
All of our countries will feel the direct effects, including Russia.
Translation: Renfrey Clarke.
Boris Kagarlitsky is the director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.