Power play: Why is Greece flirting with the Russians?

Fear is running amok yet again that the cash-strapped Greek government will default on its loans to its European partners and the International Monetary Fund. While its fate is still unknown, one thing has become clear this week: Greeks are scrambling to find assistance from wherever they can find it—its own government’s coffers, and even with overtures to Washington and Moscow.

A signal of how dire the situation is: The far-left government passed an edict Monday requiring public agencies to turn over idle reserves to the Greek central bank to help plug fiscal gaps. In addition, come Friday, the euro zone’s finance ministers are likely to throw a tantrum once again when they meet in Riga, as Greece has yet to come up with a list of acceptable economic reforms.

In the midst of this financial cobweb, the Greeks are playing proverbial footsie with the Russians. On the heels of a much ballyhooed meeting in Moscow between Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and the Greek Prime Minister Alexi Tsipras two weeks ago, the chief executive of Russia’s gas giant, Gazprom, Alexei Miller, traveled to Athens on Tuesday to discuss, as the Greek energy minister’s office put it, matters of “energy cooperation.”

At the same time, Greece’s Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias traveled to Washington to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday, a meeting that both sides characterized as friendly. A coincidence? Maybe. But it’s hardly unlikely that the meeting was pure happenstance.

Thanks to press reports in Greece and Germany, rumors are abuzz that Russia is going to extend a helping hand to Greece by offering up a $5-billion-dollar advance payment of a pipeline project, called the Turkish Stream, that would carry Russian gas from the Black Sea to Europe via Greece, Turkey, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary.

Russia’s Trojan Horse

The presumed Russian cash advance, of course, would give Greece a much-needed cash infusion. If only a handout were that easy—and news of it were true. The Russians have denied that any deal has been reached—and even the Greek energy minister would not comment on the subject of advance payments when asked to do so by the Greek press. No details about the pipeline deal have been forthcoming. As of yet, nothing has been signed.

“Putin is certainly trying to cultivate the impression that Greece is one of the countries that might be friendly to the Russians,” said political science professor Alexander Cooley of Barnard College.

Tsipras is playing up his Russian ties, too, especially to his constituents, who voted him in on campaign pledges that he would stand up to the European austerity measures. Many analysts argue that Tsipras visited the Kremlin for domestic consumption to demonstrate that Greece does not have to rely only on its European partners. “By showing that the government has other options, Tsipras is playing to his base,” said professor Cooley.

The leftist prime minister’s perceived tilt toward Russia is not that surprising. For starters, Tsipras and many in his far-left party have roots in the Greek communist party, the KKE, which has traditionally strong ties with the Kremlin. Secondly, Russia is Greece’s largest trading partner.

But some analysts think it’s a doomed strategy. “It is the wrong time for the Greek government to believe, with all the problems that it has, that it could be a catalyst in the formation of a new EU-Russia relationship,” said Nikos Meletis, diplomatic correspondent for Ethnos, an Athenian newspaper. “The government has miscalculated and overestimated its role at a moment when everyone sees Greece, because it has run out of money, as a kind of Trojan horse for Putin.”

Full article: Power play: Why is Greece flirting with the Russians? (CNBC)

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