I admit it, I’ve been slow to write about Greece again. There is news on the Greek crisis every day that is worth writing about, and yet somehow it all seems the same as two years ago.
But then along came Alexis Tsipras, who at 37 is likely to be the next leader in this odyssey of debt. Outside of Greece he and his “Coalition of the Radical Left” are not well known, which is only reasonable. They aren’t that well known in Greece, either. What matters is that he is playing his hand perfectly and may well stand up to the big banks of Europe after June 17th.
Will this former youth organizer for the Communist Party be successful, not just in winning power but leading his nation away from disaster? It seems unlikely, but if it happens it will be one Hell of a story.
Tsipras has always been a very practical leftist, an organizer who got things done. He rose to power in the coalition of Communists and more democratically minded Socialists that split off into a harder-line Communist Party and a leftist minded uniquely Greek “Green” party of ecology and social harmony called “Synaspismós” (the coalition) in 2004. He stayed with the coalition and has never looked back, rising quickly to lead the group as its charismatic leader and taking it to a position of real power.
Sound scary? Then try this quote from Tsipras: “Yes, we do want Europe’s support and funding, but we don’t want the money of European taxpayers to be wasted. Two bailouts in a row went into the dustbin, into a bottomless barrel. If this continues we would need a third package in six months. Europeans and their leaders must realize this.”
If that sounds reasonable, he continues on: “We want to make use of Europe’s solidarity and funding to create the basis for our long-term reforms. But we need to know that in two-three years we’ll have escaped this downward vortex, we will have growth, and we’ll be able to pay back the money they gave us. There is no way we could pay them off if we continued this program.”
The problem the press has outside of Greece is explaining how bizarre the situation has become and how someone “radical” is exactly what’s needed – assuming they are radical in just the right way. This is how generational change occurs.
For example, as part of the austerity package pushed through last Fall the Greek Parliament was a property tax. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Greeks responded to this new tax in a particularly Greek way, which is by simply not paying it. So the government got the bright idea of putting the property tax bill on people’s electric bills. When people stopped paying their electric bills, a court ruled that no, you couldn’t cut off power because people didn’t pay their taxes – and the electric company, ticked at being turned into tax collectors, stopped shutting off power to anyone who didn’t pay their electric bill, either.
So now the government and the power company have no money.
What has been pushed together so far is a series of gimmicks masquerading as “reforms” – little bits here and there to raise enough revenue to keep the Germans quiet and the money coming in. A wholesale reform that would transform the economy is eluding the government – but not necessarily the next generation of Greeks who want to make this work.
That’s where Tsipras comes in. Can this young man succeed where older, wiser men have failed? If you look at his political skill, you have to be impressed. The Coalition came in a surprise second place on the strength of this call for major reform and a new generation of leadership. By deftly not playing along with the process, they forced a new election which will give them a chance to emerge on top – and probably form a government.
Much of what’s happening is obscure, and the situation in Greece is far more confusing and dire than we can understand. It may just be a situation for a young man with new ideas. Or, these inexperienced lefties might bring down the Euro and threaten the developed world. You can read whatever narrative you want at this stage.
Because this could be a great story, one way or the other, it’s best to keep an open mind and just watch what happens. And make popcorn.