Defiance and Charm: A Measured First Week for New Greek Leader

tsipras January 2015 electionDer Spiegel shows why it can be a serious voice in world affairs. The first week of the SYRIZA government. A responsible, balanced and informative article going straight to the German public. A must read.

Excerpts below. Full article here

Syriza’s victory in the recent Greek elections set off a wave of concern in Europe. But even as the new prime minister tries to woo other leaders, his left-wing government is already busy getting down to work. Many of its first moves have been the right ones.

Minister of Administrative Reform Georgios Katrougalos sits cheerfully in his new office and rejoices about his little revolution. He has just announced that soon the first 3,500 public-sector employees can return to work, including the famous cleaning ladies who led the protest against job cuts. With their rubber-glove-clad clenched fists, they embodied a feeling shared by many Greeks — that they had been mistreated by Europe. Now the cleaning ladies were becoming the symbol of the new beginning.

According to the administrative reform minister, these aren’t new hires — they are the reversal of unfair layoffs. “The cleaning ladies were the weakest, and the troika needed numbers.” He claims this is primarily a redress for the absurdity of the austerity measures. After they were let go, the financial authority’s 595 cleaning ladies — who had to be fired in September 2013 in order to fulfill the requirements of the savings plan — continued to receive 75 percent of their earnings. Their work was then done by private cleaning companies — in the end, the whole thing was more expensive than it had been before. It was these kinds of decisions by the previous government that had made the Greeks furious — and led them to vote for Syriza…

Katrougalos says he wants to “break the system of patronage and clientilism.” The minister, who isn’t affiliated with any political party, is well-qualified for the job: He wrote his PhD about administrative reform in Greece. He comes across as open, non-ideological and competent — and he makes an effort to show that this new beginning will be different than the previous ones, that he too wants to save money, but on the backs of the politicians instead of the citizens. He wants to get rid of about 70 percent of the official cars used by top officials. He has removed the police surveillance in front of his ministry, because it sends a “bad signal” and is unnecessary in any case. And he has cut advisor positions — which had previously often been granted as favors — in half.

A People Back in Movement

Something has happened in Greece that has not happened like this anywhere else in Europe: A handful of neophyte politicians, intellectuals and university professors have taken over the government. It feels like a small revolution instead of a handover of duties. And that’s not only because many members of the previous administration deleted their hard drives and took their documents with them, or that there initially wasn’t even any soap in the government headquarters. No, the new government has upended the rules of the Greek political system — and spurred into action a Europe that is still unsure how it should react to the rebels.

In Athens you can also see the euphoria reflected in the city’s traffic, which is a yardstick for the crisis. The streets had often been half empty, because fewer people were traveling to work, the gasoline was expensive, the mood gloomy. But now the city center is just as clogged as before. The people are once again in motion.

Even though only 36 percent of voters chose Syriza, 60 percent of Greeks are happy with new government’s first few days. If there were new elections, support for the party could grow and Tsipras could renounce his coalition partner. Although he may be entertaining that scenario privately, members of the government deny that it is in the cards. But to maintain this enthusiasm, Tsipras now needs to show a real accomplishment: an end of the German “austerity mandate.” Which means that he doesn’t merely need to convince the Greeks, he needs to conquer Europe…

Strong Words, Awkward Welcomes

The two Greeks were greeted with many hugs and embraces during their European tour, but it seemed more like a form of apology for the fact that nobody wanted to back them up publically. After all, France and Italy have paid for a large part of the aid money for Greece — and have little interest in cutting the country’s debts. After the meeting, President Francois Hollande sounded like the couple’s therapist for the Euro Zone: “I have received Tsipras, but I told him that he should visit the chancellor. And she will receive him.”

Tsipras was also warmly received in Rome by his counterpart, Matteo Renzi, who is the same age as the incoming Greek prime minister. He didn’t hold back in his praise for “Alexis” and his “message of hope.” He claimed that they share the belief that they can “change something” in politics. But then Tsipras received a lecture in Realpolitik, carefully delivered in plural: “We all together want to respect the rules.” Things aren’t decided “between two premiers,” he said — they are decided in Brussels. “Strong ties to European institutions,” he claimed, are important.

At each ensuing stop, the trip seemed less like a victory tour and more like a visit to one’s bourgeois relatives, where one can sleep in the guest room, but must obey the house rules. The two Greeks’ statements became more moderate — instead of a debt cut, they spoke about coupling the service of the debt with growth. That way, Greece would presumably never pay off its debts. But debt restructuring sounds more dependable. It would be a face-saving compromise.

Work Begins Back Home

As the austerity rebels traveled through Europe, their ministers settled down to work in Athens. There were none of the signs of chaos and collapse that the previous government had warned of. The new prime minister was well prepared for the transition in power. On the day of his election, he had already picked his cabinet — pared down to just 10 ministers and 30 deputy ministers, including a few dozen independents or members of other parties…

Incremental Changes

Many of the things the government announced during the first days were symbolic acts. The increase to the minimum wage, the cleaning ladies, Christmas bonuses for pensioners and food aid. In their first moves, Tsipras and his ministers focused on their main priorities: new negotiations over the country’s austerity policy and the battle against the “humanitarian crisis.” Ultimately, though, the question of whether the rich are taxed more heavily will be decisive for any success. It will depend on whether the government in Athens finally takes action on a spreadsheet provided by then French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde in 2010 that includes over 2,000 Greek accounts at Swiss banks that potentially belong to tax evaders. Previous governments had delayed such action. There are also lists of doctors who have declared annual earnings of just a few thousand euros…

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