Greece’s Tsipras Still Has a Shot at Greatness
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Greece’s prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, has survived a confidence vote in parliament and seems likely to obtain legislative approval for his highly controversial deal with neighboring Macedonia. Now he can contemplate his legacy, as he serves out what are likely to be his last months in office.
The vote’s outcome was no surprise. Tsipras likely was certain of victory before the first ballot was cast, and even Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, whose resignation had set off the government crisis, appeared to be sure the prime minister would remain until the next election. This strongly suggests the “crisis” over the Macedonia deal -- in which the former Yugoslav republic renamed itself North Macedonia in exchange for Greek support for its bids to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union -- was engineered by Tsipras and Kammenos.
The prime minister was confident that he’d last until September at the head of a minority government, or at least have enough time to push through a few last measures, including a higher minimum wage and other moves to ease the austerity policies that had been required to get Greece through a series of international bailouts. Kammenos, for his part, needed to preserve his credibility with nationalist voters, who oppose the Macedonia deal because they believe only northern Greece has any right to the Macedonia name.
For the deal itself, which will come before parliament soon, Tsipras has done the same precise vote-counting and targeted canvassing; he again expects to get 151 votes out of 300, as he did with the confidence vote, though surprises are possible. That Tsipras, 44, is capable of such political acrobatics is testament to the skill he has acquired since taking office four years ago as Greece’s youngest prime minister in 150 years. He has gotten through a crippling economic crisis, a snap election, confidence votes and intraparty fighting. Although he is no longer the leftist radical who came to power on promises to end austerity and free Greece from creditors’ diktat, he remains a passionate political risk-taker. Even if he loses the next election, as polls suggest, he’s had a remarkable run.
Tsipras himself has said he considers the Macedonia deal, reached in June, “one of the most important legacies” of his tenure. There have been suggestions that he should get the Nobel Peace Prize, along with his Macedonian counterpart, Zoran Zaev. The agreement resolves one of the most intractable conflicts remaining since the Balkan wars and makes it possible for the EU eventually to encompass the entire Western Balkans. As progress is made toward that goal, Greece, which only survived the debt crisis as the EU’s ward, will have a chance to become an important regional hub, flanked by member states with weaker economies and institutions where it can wield influence. In addition, as an Orthodox Christian country that shares EU values, Greece cam be a counterweight to the Russian pull in the Balkans. The country would gain greater importance within the EU – and perhaps come close to regaining more of the sovereignty it lost to creditor nations as it threatened to fall apart.
Laying the foundation for this success despite strong nationalist opposition could be Tsipras’s biggest achievement. He also would like to be remembered as the leader who averted Greece’s economic collapse. That, however, is far more problematic.
Tsipras’s inflammatory rhetoric at the outset of his tenure, his demands for debt relief and his appointment of compromise-averse Yanis Varoufakis as finance minister so alarmed other European Union leaders that they took an unsparingly tough stance on Greece, refusing to provide debt relief even when many prominent economists and the International Monetary Fund called for it. Tsipras made things worse by calling a pointless referendum on creditors’ demands in 2015 and insisting that Greeks could vote away the need for fiscal common sense. The 288 billion euro ($328 billion) series of bailouts, the biggest in history, might not have been accompanied by de facto external management had it not been for Tsipras’s negotiating errors and his obvious reluctance to work constructively with creditors.
Greece is out of the latest bailout now. But it isn’t out of the woods. Unemployment is still close to 19 percent, the highest rate in the EU, even though Tsipras started out with about 26 percent. Economic growth of about 2 percent isn’t enough to get back to the precrisis level in the foreseeable future. Greeks are the third unhappiest people in the EU, after Bulgarians and Croats, and express their discontent though near-constant protests.
In other words, Greeks won’t recall Tsipras’s tenure as a time of revival. And leftists, in Greece and across Europe, will remember him as a traitor to the cause, who, instead of realizing the promise of his initial victory, embraced austerity policies and undermined the chances of leftist parties everywhere by making them look unserious and unable to put their beliefs into practice. That perception hurts his re-election chances, but it also will detract from his accomplishment as a resolute leader who pulled Greece out of a near-coma.
The country’s economic problems will be up to Tsipras’s more economically aware and skillful successors to fix, using the same methods as centrist governments have done in Spain, Portugal and Ireland. But the prime minister’s political talent, honed by tougher battles than most modern Western leaders have faced, may still make him a historic figure. The vote on the Macedonia deal will decide whether that will happen.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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