Greece's finance minister, the power behind the throne

Tue Sep 20, 2011 9:31am EDT
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By Dina Kyriakidou

ATHENS (Reuters) - When Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou canceled an official trip to the United States and flew back to Athens at the weekend, he looked the epitome of a leader taking charge of a crisis.

In fact, it was his finance minister who called him home, showing once again that Evangelos Venizelos is the protagonist of the Greek debt crisis and the man calling the shots.

In the three months since Papandreou appointed his Socialist party arch-rival as his number two, Venizelos has strayed far beyond the normal realm of a finance minister -- pushing ministries to enforce policies and keeping rogue MPs in line.

"Papandreou's position has been eroded," said Diego Iscaro of IHS Global Insight. "Venizelos was brought in to build consensus. Rather than having the economic credentials, he was a political figure," Iscaro said of the former law professor.

It was Venizelos, a former defense minister known for his eloquence and razor intellect, who stepped forward after an emergency cabinet meeting on Sunday to tell Greeks their country was at the most critical point in its recent history.

"I promise you sweat, blood and tears," he said, in a nod to British wartime leader Winston Churchill.

Making Venizelos, 54, the bearer of bad news may be a tactic to protect Papandreou from public discontent as pressure from the conservative opposition grows, Iscaro said.

But analysts say if Greece collapses, the two will sink together. So far, the duo has been unsuccessful in forcing ministers to impose unpopular measures on a public angry with two years of austerity, risking crucial EU/IMF funding.   Continued...