The Guest Blog

Guest blog post by Thimios Tzallas, a writer and specialises in British and Greek politcs.

A week before the nerve-agent attack in Salisbury, the University of Peloponnesus, in the presence of the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs George Katroungalos, declared Vladimir Putin Professor Emeritus, because of his “contributions to culture and democracy”.

In the person of the Russian president there converge, in a unique, explosive way, the two main anti-western currents in Greece. The right-wing nationalists hope to see Russia playing once again its historical role as the eastern “protector of Orthodoxy” and a natural enemy of Turkey. Now, with the left-wing SYRIZA in power, traditional Greek nationalism meets the classical, mainly economic, anti-European stance of the radical left. In the first months of 2015, the new government formally hailed Russia as the alternative to the “neo-liberal directorate in Brussels”.

Russian fairy-tales

A few days after Putin was proclaimed Professor Emeritus, Ivan Savidis, a Greek-Russian businessman and formerly a member of the Duma, invaded the pitch during a football game in Thessaloniki, to remonstrate with the referee about a goal of his team that had been disallowed. He had a revolver tugged prominently in his waistband.

Since 2012, Savidis has been the owner of the PAOK Thessaloniki club the most popular football team in northern Greece. The urban legend that grew around Savidis in 2010 was one cultivated by the man himself, who promised to the then Prime Minister George Papandreou an interest-free loan of 25 billion euro from the Russian government.

As Savidis was stoking the myth of Greece escaping European supervision with the help of Russia, Putin was mobilised by the nationalist press to serve the narrative of a territorially expanded Greece. In one of the more amusing episodes of Greek public life, fake news assumed the form of a prophecy. The Greek media were certain that Putin would destroy Erdogan after a Russian aircraft was brought down near Turkey’s border with Syria in 2015. They invoked the prophecy about a great Russo-Turkish war of the venerable Paisios, who had recently been elevated to a Saint by the Orthodox Church.

What in fact happened, was that Savidis brought and invested in Greece very considerable amounts of money, of doubtful derivation. All Greek parties without exception welcomed him, unconcerned about the origins of this financing: it was a time of crisis, and this businessman was creating jobs.

As of 2015, Savidis has identified himself with SYRIZA. He purchased a historical left-wing newspaper, the Co-operative Tobacco Industry of Northern Greece (on very favourable terms), and of course the PAOK football club, of which the matches he watched from his personal stand in the stadium, together with the Finance Minister.

In 2017, after a parliamentary duel between the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition, Savidis said that Tsipras reminds him of Vladimir Putin. With this statement, the businessman came close to the rhetoric of philosopher Christos Yannaras, the most prominent representative of neo-orthodox nationalism. In a messianic article in 2008, Yannaras asked for the advent in Greece of a “Dreamlike Greek Putin”, who would bring the country out of the disrepute of the last two centuries, exactly as the Russian president was doing with the “dead Russian society”.

Yannaras’ view is not a heretical one. On the contrary, it is in line with popular sentiment in Greece. Greeks have always placed Putin high-up among their favourite statesmen. His popularity rating stands at 67%, while it is 57% for Angela Merkel and 73% for Donald Trump. Indeed, 39% of Greeks consider Russia an allied nation, as compared to 16% for the USA.

During its first days in power SYRIZA believed in the fairy-tale of the 25 billion-loan and a Greek delegation travelled to Moscow. Putin never gave the money. Nor did the second prophecy prove any closer to reality. The policies of Russia and Turkey in Syria eventually converged.

Things have now become even more complicated with the issue of Macedonia. The EU is in a hurry to advance the accession into its ranks of the countries of the Western Balkans, so as to check Russian influence in the region. Resolving the issue of Macedonia’s name is a prerequisite for that country’s accession, and the Greek side is now trying to reach a solution.

At the end of 2017 the Tsipras-Putin flirt was under huge pressure, proving the error of reasoning along the lines of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. In a deeply symbolical gesture, when the Russian president visited the monastic community at Mt. Athos, in northern Greece, one of Orthodox Christianity’s holiest sites, he did not allow the representatives of the Greek government to come aboard his yacht. The Messiah had appeared at the right place and at the right time, but he was not interested in tending his self-appointed flock.

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