quarta-feira, 22 de julho de 2015

Greece is more useful to Russia inside the EU than out

We learned on Monday that Yuri Milner, the billionaire Russian entrepreneur, is to spend $100m of his own money over the next 10 years to fund a project searching for alien civilisations beyond our solar system.

According to my calculations, that is $100m more than the Russian government has offered in financial aid to Greece since the radical leftist Syriza party, often presumed to be close to Moscow, came to power in January.

During Syriza’s chaotic six months in office, the notion has cropped up time and again that Alexis Tsipras, the prime minister and party leader, would like to play a ‘Russian card’ to ward off pressure from Greece’s eurozone creditors.

There is something to this, but the picture is more subtly textured than first impressions might suggest. Let’s look below the surface and find out what’s going on.

Firstly, the contacts between the Greek government and the Kremlin have been almost entirely empty of practical results. Not a cent has found its way from Russia to Greece, and there is scant evidence that it ever will. To put it bluntly, Moscow sees the eurozone’s woes, including Greece’s debt crisis, as a European problem that Europe should pay for and solve by itself.

The Kremlin has not even exempted Greek agricultural products from the counter-sanctions imposed on the EU in retaliation for European sanctions that followed Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine.

True, during a visit last month to St Petersburg, Mr Tsipras clinched a deal under which Russia promised to extend a gas pipeline project, known as Turkish Stream, from Turkey across Greek territory towards mainland Europe. But this project is still a long way from taking concrete form. All in all, you would have to say that Russia exerts more influence in certain former communist allies in the Balkans than it does in Greece.

Secondly, it is clear that Russian policymakers such as Anton Siluanov, finance minister, oppose Grexit – Greece’s exit from the eurozone – and want the country to stay in Europe’s currency union and the EU. For Grexit might trigger financial market turmoil that would be highly unwelcome for Russia, which is battling an economic downturn exacerbated by low world energy prices and western sanctions.

From a diplomatic point of view, a friendly Greece is more useful to Russia inside the EU, where it can put forward arguments that chime with Moscow’s interests, than outside.

Thirdly, whatever Mr Tsipras and his Syriza colleagues imagined in their naïveté six months ago, I suspect it has dawned on them by now that Russia is not going to be their financial or diplomatic saviour. To be clear, this has not stopped Mr Tsipras from playing the ‘Russian card’ – but he has done so in a way that resembles a conjuring trick more than a genuine ace in the deck.

The best example came immediately after Greece’s July 5 referendum, in which voters backed Mr Tsipras’s opposition to rescue conditions laid out by the creditors. From the prime minister’s office in Athens emerged smoke signals that he was in touch with the Kremlin, seeking support from President Vladimir Putin to help him in his resistance to other eurozone governments.

The central point here is that he wasn’t trying to wangle money out of Mr Putin, let alone planning to abandon the west for Russia. Instead, he was attempting to create an illusion that he was up to something unsettling for Greece’s western allies.

At one level, he was trying to prompt the Obama administration, which was already nervous about the geopolitical implications of the mishandling of the Greek problem, into putting more pressure on the Europeans not to let Greece drop out of the eurozone.

At another level, his supposed courtship of Russia was an attempt to win the attention of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is widely viewed as more alert than Wolfgang Schäuble, her finance minister, to the geopolitical risks of Grexit.

In a limited sense, Mr Tsipras’s gambit worked, but at a very high price. The US did indeed exert pressure to prevent Grexit, and Germany decided to give Greece another chance in the eurozone. But Mr Tsipras has been compelled to embrace an exceptionally tough aid-for-reform programme that goes against everything he and his party stand for.

What started as playing a Russian card has ended up as Russian roulette.

Tony Barber

Fonte: FT