While much of the world's attention has been focused on the wider economic ramifications of the new Syriza-led government in Athens, the election win by Greece's far-left Syriza party raises an important question over the trajectory of Greek foreign policy and its impact on European relations, especially between the EU and Russia.
A quick glance at how Syriza members in the European Parliament have voted on foreign-policy resolutions related to Russia's involvement in the Ukrainian crisis and the Eastern Partnership countries in recent months gives us an indication of the potential direction the Greek foreign minister might take. Syriza members of the European Parliament voted against the Association Agreement with Ukraine in the autumn of 2014, which was supported by the majority of the Strasbourg chamber. They also abstained in the vote on Association Agreements for Georgia and Moldova, as well as in supporting a resolution condemning the closing of the Russian human rights NGO Memorial. Other legislation Syriza deputies opposed includes two recent resolutions drafted by the European Parliament that called for more sanctions on Moscow, condemning Russia's actions in Ukraine such as the annexation of Crimea and Moscow's support for separatists in the eastern part of the country.
The big question now is how a Syriza-led Greece will respond to the sanctions the EU has already imposed on Moscow. Visa bans and asset freezes on Ukrainian separatists and Russian politicians must be renewed in March and the broader economic sanctions targeting the Russian finance and oil sectors are up for extension in June and July. Given all that, the eyes of many observers and politicians were pointed in the direction of Brussels, where an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers took place on Thursday, 29 January 2015. All 28 EU member states had to agree if the restrictive measures targeting persons and entities for threatening or undermining Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, adopted in March 2014 were to be renewed. An unanimous consensus was reached, and the sanctions were extended until September 2015.
However, some controversy arose when, before the foreign ministers’ meeting, the 28 EU ambassadors in Brussels met to draft the decisions to be discussed by the ministers. The Greek ambassador refused to agree to the key passage on sanctions – prolonging the blacklisting of 132 individuals and 28 “entities”, mainly in eastern Ukraine and Crimea. Nikos Kotzias, the new Greek foreign minister, said that Greece wanted to “prevent a rift” between Russia and the EU, although both sides have been in acute conflict for the past 10 months over Moscow’s assault on Ukraine. The foreign ministers’ statement on Thursday is not conclusive, but it brings fear that Alexis Tsipras, the freshly elected Greek Prime Minister, will use his first appearance at an EU summit to veto an agreement between the 28 countries.
Tsipras has said that sanctions on Russia harm Europe, but he might primarily think about Greece where a two-way trade between Russia and Greece was worth 7 billion euros ($7.9 billion) in 2013 and a plummeting ruble is very likely to prevent many Russians in choosing Greece as their holiday destination, where tourism funds 16% of the country’s GDP.
Tsipras seems to be Vladimir Putin's ideological soul mate, and the question is if he will risk worsening his relations with other EU leaders, while trying to keep good relation with Kremlin. Indisputably Moscow can offer Greece some financial help and investments. However, given the imposed sanctions and the decreasing economy, Russia on its own will not be able to recover Greece from crisis. In order to fulfill his election promises, Tsipras should think twice before vetoing the extension of sanctions imposed on Russia. Using the Russia issue as a bargaining chip in the fight over debt relief seems a very risky move which might upset many EU leaders.
Edited by Catalina Ghelan