Athens may have heart in Moscow but head is in Europe: analysts

[ATHENS] With pro-Russians and ex-Communists in the cabinet, Greece's new hard-left government has sparked concern about a strategic shift in direction towards Moscow - but Athens has its eyes firmly on Europe, experts say.

The main governing Syriza party no longer advocates Greece leaving NATO, but Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias has highlighted the country's historic ties with Russia and condemned the EU's "spasmodic" approach to Moscow.

Defence Minister Panos Kammenos, leader of the nationalist junior coalition partners Independent Greeks, makes no secret of his belief that Russia is Greece's natural ally and visited Moscow only a few weeks ago.

So when the government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, a former Communist, last week protested against an EU statement threatening further sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, many saw the influence of the Kremlin.

But Tsipras has sought to calm speculation over a shift towards Moscow, just as he has moved to ease tensions with Greece's international creditors.

Visiting Cyprus on Monday, he repeated his desire to help form a "bridge" between Europe and Russia - but dismissed any speculation that his government might turn to Moscow for financial aid.

Constantinos Filis, research director at the Institute of International Relations in Athens, said he did not anticipate any strategic change in Russia's direction.

"Greece will change its rhetoric, try to improve its ties and try to ask for a more balanced Western policy towards Russia. But I do not see any U-turn in the coming weeks and months," he told AFP.

Fyodor Lukyanov, the Kremlin-linked chairman of the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, said Greece was focusing all its attention on negotiating a way out of its painful bailout programme.

"Whatever their sympathies with some people here, Tsipras will try to position himself as a responsible Greek leader which will mean solving problems and not creating new ones," Lukyanov told AFP.

Syriza's victory in January 25 elections sparked fears of fresh turmoil in the eurozone, but when Russia's ambassador to Athens became the first to meet Tsipras, alarm bells also rang over the foreign policy implications.

Tsipras visited Moscow to meet Russian officials in May 2014, two months after Russia annexed Crimea, and spoke against the eastward expansion of the NATO military alliance.

Kotzias has also been photographed with Russian nationalist Alexander Dugin, an anti-western writer accused of strong fascist views who is said to be the go-between of Moscow and Europe's radical parties.

The Financial Times reported the two men had met several times in Moscow and that Kotzias invited Dugin to lecture at the University of Piraeus in 2013.

Kotzias condemned the FT report as "groundless", while a spokeswoman for Dugin refused to comment, telling AFP that he speaks to foreign media "only for a fee." Daniela Schwarzer, Europe programme director of the German Marshall Fund think tank, said Russia had been trying to extend its influence in southeast Europe through "propaganda, party financing and Moscow-paid NGOs".

Greece and Russia have cultural and historical ties, including through the Orthodox Church, although Tsipras showed his secular instincts by taking a civil rather than a religious oath of office.

Analysts say Greece's objection to the EU statement on Russian sanctions was largely a way of making its voice heard, and note that its perceived closeness to Russia is a useful bargaining chip in its economic negotiations.

Greece claimed credit for watering down EU threats against Russia at a ministerial meeting in Brussels last week, but Filis does not expect a Greek veto at the EU summit on February 12.

"The Greek government will not risk isolating itself from the rest of Europe for the sake of Russia," he said.

US President Barack Obama's surprise support for Greece's anti-austerity cause last weekend may also encourage Athens to toe the line.

Theodore Couloumbis, professor emeritus of international relations at Athens University, said the new government had so far shown that its priority was courting European allies.

As Tsipras and Varoufakis toured Paris, London, and Rome this week, he noted: "If you look at the body language, the visits and the contacts of the Greek government - to where are they going? To other EU countries."



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