Syriza-led Greece marks out a new tilt to the East

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Nationalist foreign minister’s warning to EU over ‘jihadist flood’ is part of a strategic realignment to the Middle East and the BRICS

Was it a bombastic threat or a plaintive warning? Either way, the speech by Greece’s foreign minister Nikos Kotzias to a gathering of European counterparts in Riga last week certainly provided an arresting new angle on the ongoing drama of Athens’ battle with Berlin to keep the euro but end the country’s peonage to the troika of international lenders.

“There will be millions of migrants and thousands of jihadists flocking in Europe if the Greek economy crumbles,” he said. “There is no stability in the western Balkans and then we have problems in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq and North Africa.”

Awkwardly avoiding the word “crescent” and its Islamic connotations - as in the alleged Shia crescent arcing from Beirut to Tehran - he concluded: “There is a scythe formed.”

In a post-Charlie Hebdo Europe, the intervention that was carefully planned according to Kotzias’s team, was guaranteed to press the buttons of both the continent’s securocrats and tabloid media.

It wrong-footed also much of the foreign policy commentariat, which since the formation of the Syriza-led government in Athens seven weeks ago has fixated on the ideological roots of the radical left party in Greek communism.

The Russophilia of both Syriza and its junior coalition partner ANEL - the sovereigntist Independent Greeks - has been the analytical prism through which Greece’s developing foreign policy has tended to be projected.

Kotzias’s speech, however, does not naturally fit into or flow from the commonplace assumption that Greek foreign policy now hinges on a pro-Moscow orientation, whether by dint of communist ostalgia or presumed Orthodox Christian solidarity.

But it is congruent with a more realist and political reading of the emergent Greek foreign policy doctrine, particularly regarding the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean.

Kotzias, like the main component of Syriza, Synaspismos, hails from the Greek Communist tradition. He was a member of the Communist Party’s youth wing and was responsible in the late 1980s for the party’s ideological instruction.

Though he was part of the split to the left when the party suffered its “Berlin wall” moment in the early 1990s, neither his nor the current government’s foreign policy can be read off from a simplistic Greek “anti-Americanism,” which successive US secretaries of state have bemoaned since John Foster Dulles.

Following the 9/11 attacks there were only two cities in the world where demonstrations took place targeting the US embassy: Jakarta and Athens.

As a diplomat and then international relations academic, Kotzias worked closely with Pasok foreign minister, latterly prime minister, George Papandreou, at the turn of the millennium.

He pragmatically adapted to the changed international architecture brought about by “globalisation” and the deeper integration of Europe through the euro single currency, which Greece joined in 2001.

In addition to the foreign policy of Greece, his academic work specialised in the changed international relations wrought by the emergence of the BRICS countries, particularly Brazil, Russia and India.

And it is there, rather than in the ideological tilting against Washington and NATO, which animated both the Greek Communist Party and Andreas Papandreou’s Pasok - at least rhetorically - in the 1970s, that the current orientation on a “more multi-dimensional” foreign policy rests.

Kotzias has outlined it in a number of works, including his major study of Greek foreign policy in the 21st century.

In arguing for rebalancing policy to put distinctively Greek interests more firmly centre stage, while in no sense mooting a rupture with NATO, the EU and existing alliances, it bears a striking similarity to both the policy and academic work of another professor of international relations in high office in the region: Turkey’s Ahmet Davutoglu.

As AKP foreign minister under the prime ministership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Davutoglu provided the intellectual resource for Ankara’s “neo-Ottoman” turn. The doctrine was expounded in his weighty but popular work Strategic Depth (2001), which was translated into Greek.

Just as with Syriza’s “Russophilia,” overly ideological and somewhat culturally determinist analyses of the neo-Islamist government of Turkey fretted over whether Erdogan, rebuffed from EU accession, would break from NATO and plot an anti-Washington course.

Davutoglu, however, neatly summed up the aim of drawing upon Turkey’s “soft power” in the region to enhance its standing in the NATO/European pecking order rather than break from it.

“The more the bow is drawn to the East,” he said, “The further the arrow will fly to the West.”

The greater Turkey’s regional role - in the Levant, among Muslim Brotherhood oriented Islamists and into Turkic central Asia - the more enhanced its status within the system of Western alliances.

The new doctrine in Athens is a Greek mirror image of that. Though it has been overshadowed by the immense economic crisis, which threatens continued membership of the euro, Kotzias has in a few weeks energetically propounded where Greek policy is headed should its membership of the Eurozone survive the confrontation with Berlin and the troika.

The après nous, les Jihadis warning which had a whiff of the late Colonel Gaddafi about it, didn’t come out of the blue. The Greek foreign ministry has been extremely active over the last month and a half in articulating policy over the Eastern Mediterranean, despite the existential battle to stay within “Western” Europe.

So Kotzias has proposed that European foreign ministers develop a task force and policy to protect “Christian minorities” in the MENA region. With Greece as a leading force, he also invoked Cyprus and General Sisi’s Egypt as key projected partners.

Throughout last month Kotzias and his junior ministers energetically intervened over the abduction of Assyrian Christians in Syria, the murder of 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya and the threat to the monastery of St Catherine in the Sinai.

Heading for defeat at the polls in January, the outgoing New Democracy Prime Minister Antonis Samaras seized on the Charlie Hebdo killings to declare that nihilist jihadism in Europe was a result of Muslim migration into the continent.

It was a barely coded Islamophobic and anti-migrant dog-whistle which did not save his national chauvinist administration from defeat.

Kotzias’s interventions are not the articulation of an ideological animus to migrants or Muslims. Indeed, Syriza - not least in the make-up of its ministers with responsibility for justice and immigration - has a strong anti-xenophobic pole.

They flow instead from the realpolitik of an extended region in which Athens sees an opportunity to draw on its own “strategic depth”.

So we can expect often theatrical pro-Russian rhetoric - Tsipras, with his justified call to reopen the issue of German reparations for the Nazi occupation of Greece, will be afforded A-list status at the VE Day commemoration in Moscow on 9 May, which Angela Merkel will not attend.

At the same time, the Greek orientation finds a meeting of minds with the US administration, as it seeks to concert conflicting regional powers - Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and, in part, Iran - into a new concordat to deal with IS and the perennial Middle Eastern fault lines.

Athens is offering itself as fifth wheel, if it can survive the immediate fiscal crisis.

 - Kevin Ovenden is a long-standing journalist who has reported on the Middle East and European politics, particularly on Greece where he covered the recent three week election campaign.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Greece's Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias laughs as he addresses a press conference with his German counterpart following talks at the foreign ministry in Berlin on 10 February (AFP)