ATHENS (Reuters) - While it sent conflicting messages, Greece’s new left-wing government spent most of its first week signalling determination to take the hard-line, anti-bailout stance that international investors and European leaders had feared.
In fewer than seven days, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s administration in Athens has halted several planned privatisations, started debt relief talks, took European partners to task over Russian sanctions and held a tough line with the first euro zone official to visit the country after last Sunday’s elections.
Athens finally ended the week on a conciliatory note as Tsipras called the European Central Bank chief to assure him that the government wanted an accord with its creditors.
But that message of moderation has been largely drowned out by the blizzard of policy moves over the past week aimed at rolling back the current bailout deal, which helped push stocks in Greek banks down 40 percent in just three days.
A first, more concrete test, of how Greece wants to position itself within the European Union, including the countries that have been paying for its 240 billion euro ($270 billion) bailout, comes in the next few days, however.
Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis travels to Paris later on Sunday then on to London on Monday and Rome on Tuesday. Tsipras will join his finance minister in Rome, and meets French President Francois Hollande on Wednesday.
The reception in other European capitals may end up being cooler than back home where Tsipras’ left-wing party Syriza clocked up a resounding win in a Jan 25 snap election.
In Paris and Rome, in particular, intrigued anticipation for a government that might help push a growth agenda in Europe has over the past few days turned to near indignation.
“It’s okay to talk about Greek debt, to lighten its burden. It is not okay to cancel Greek debt, because that would mean passing on the burden to French taxpayers,” French Finance Minister Michel Sapin, who is due to meet Varoufakis on Sunday, said on Thursday.
Analysts say the government’s hard rhetoric may yet change when the administration is confronted with the country’s financial situation.
Syriza says cash reserves are enough to meet obligations of 3.5 billion euros over the February-March period but a further total of 1.5 billion euros in principal and interest fall due in June with further payments of 4.7 billion euros in July and 3.6 billion in August.
“On whatever incurs a cost to the public finances, I expect to see moderation,” said Dimitri Spiropoulos, associate professor of politics at the University of Athens.
In the past week, Greek cabinet members have promised to reinstate collective bargaining for workers, reverse pension cuts and raise the minimum wage.
Those measures had been taken by the previous government as a way to save money.
The new government said it was also scrapping the privatisation of power grid ADMIE, the country’s largest port Piraeus OLP and planned sale of its stake in the biggest refinery Hellenic Petroleum. [ID:nA8N0UD014].
Yet even the freeze on privatisation may be temporary, said Spiropoulos, who expected Tsipras to “re-examine all the privatisations again with new terms.”
Indeed, despite the bold announcements, there have also been some signs of moderation.
On Friday, for example, Varoufakis batted away Eurogroup head Jeroen Dijsselbloem, saying Athens would not extend its bailout past the planned end date of February 28, and would not cooperate with a mission from the lending “troika” of the EU, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.
Yet in other quarters, Varoufakis has struck a much softer tone, seeking foreign investment and saying Greece will not overspend.
“We favour a frugal life. We don’t believe that growth comes from having so many Porsche Cayennes on our narrow city streets,” said Varoufakis, a Yamaha motorcycle-riding economist who for years wrote prolific blogs against the economic sacrifices Greece has imposed as part of its bailout plan.
In a tweet on Saturday, he urged “journalists scurrilously portraying me as anti-German” to read a 2013 post titled ‘Europe Needs a Hegemonic Germany’ in which he said Germany should play a bigger role in creating demand for other countries’ products.
But there is still room for surprises.
After Syriza had made Greece’s bailout the centre of its campaign, few expected a spat between Athens and its European partners over Russia last week.
One of Tsipras’ first face-to-face meetings after taking office was with Russia’s ambassador to Greece.
Barely 24 hours after the meeting, he complained to the EU’s foreign policy chief about the wording of the European Union’s joint statement on sanctions. Tspiras said Athens had not been consulted.
“Greece has no interest in imposing sanctions on Russia. We have no differences with Russia and the Russian people,” Energy Minister Panagiotis Lafazanis added on Wednesday as Athens appeared to harden its stance against Russian sanctions.
A day later, Tsipras’ government ended up supporting the extension of existing sanctions.
The reason behind the apparent flip-flop remains unclear. Some analysts said Athens may ultimately aim to use Russian sanctions as a bargaining tool in its debt repayment negotiations with other European capitals.
Raoul Ruparel, Head of Economic Research at the London-based think tank Open Europe, said the new Greek government is clearly keen to build closer ties with the Kremlin.
“I do think that is genuinely their belief that Russia is an important partner for them.”
What seems evident from Tspiras’ first week in office is that his party has been thrust onto the international scene with little previous experience.
Syriza’s rise to power has been steep, and has been fuelled by wide popular desperation at six years of recession.
The party has gone from less than five percent of the vote in 2009 elections to more than 35 percent on Sunday, ending 40 years of politics dominated by the two big parties of the centre right and centre left.
Cries of “We love you Alexi” are heard in Athens in front of the prime minister’s residence and change has also come from symbolic steps taken by the new administration.
Metal barriers outside parliament, which had been used to hold back protesters during violent riots over the past six years, have gone.
Additional reporting by Renee Maltezou in Athens and Andreas Rinke in Berlin; editing by Alessandra Galloni, Janet McBride and Anna Willard