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The Greek Prime Minister’s Meeting With Putin Sent a Message to the EU

Alexis Tsipras traveled to Moscow to meet with the Russian leader and deliver a message to the European Union, which has refused to renegotiate the bailout loans that continue to weigh on the struggling Greek economy.

by Alec Luhn
Apr 8 2015, 8:55pm

Photo by Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool/AP

The statements about economic cooperation made by Alexis Tsipras and Vladimir Putin were vague, but the symbolism of their meeting in Moscow was clear.

With a European Union flag placed carefully between the Russian and Greek ones behind the two leaders, Greece's prime minister spoke at length about the Orthodox Christian faith shared by the two countries, their "struggle against fascism and totalitarianism," and the ways they could cooperate on the trade and energy.

His message seemed directed straight at the European Union, which has refused to renegotiate the bailout loans that continue to weigh on the struggling Greek economy. If you don't help us with our debt, Tsipras intimated, we can always find other partners.

"I've heard a lot of comments in recent days from European politicians about Greece renewing relations with Russia," Tsipras said. "I want to say that Greece is a sovereign country with right to conduct multifaceted foreign policy."

Tsipras also complained that European leaders "talk about us as if we're debt colony." "We are not a debt colony, we are country with financial problems that we are trying to solve within Europe, but we have the same rights as other countries to move toward cooperation in the interest of our people," he said.

Greece has been searching for ways to pressure the European Union — and Germany, its most influential member — to renegotiate a 240 billion euro loan program administered by the EU and the International Monetary Fund. The lenders haven't given Greece any money since last August because Athens has been dragging its heels on painful economic reforms. Athens is due to make a 458 million euro loan repayment on Thursday.

On Tuesday, the Greek Ministry of Finance formally requested that Germany pay 278.7 billion euros ($303 billion) in war reparations for the Nazi occupation of the country.

Related: Athens wants Germany to cough up $300 billion — as repayment for the Nazi occupation of Greece  

The trip to Moscow is the latest attempt by Athens to pressure the EU and NATO, according to Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs. "Tsipras is playing his own game, primarily with EU," Lukyanov told VICE News. "He's trying to give signal that if you won't trust us and work with us, we will find other patrons, and it's also a signal to NATO."

The Greek prime minister has already succeeded in shifting the debate about Greece's debt to include regional security, Lukyanov said. Now, if Greece defaults on its debt and leaves the EU, it will raise doubts about the future of both the eurozone and NATO.

'You can't give Greece money now, because that's the same as throwing that money in a black hole.'

Speaking with Putin on Wednesday, Tsipras said Greece had "lost lot of its economic power but it hasn't lost its geopolitical dynamic," arguing that Greece's stability was a key part of the "security of Europe as a whole."

"They're trying to find more arguments, and in this sense the visit to Moscow is useful," Lukyanov said. "It's a reminder that Greece occupies an important geopolitical position in Europe, and you can't forget about this. It's not just economic problem."

Russia has faced sanctions and harsh criticism from the West due to its support of separatists in eastern Ukraine, and the visit by Tsipras caused some to wonder if he would seek a big loan from Moscow in exchange for working to undermine the economic restrictions.

One Greek journalist even asked Putin on Wednesday if he was trying to use Greece as a "Trojan horse" against the EU. The president responded that the Greek leader came to Russia — not the other way around.

Related: Greece is playing economic chicken with the rest of Europe

Greece has also been trying to lift the Russian embargo on meat, fish, dairy products, and fruits and vegetables from Europe, which was adopted in response to the Western sanctions. Before the embargo, more than 40 percent of Greek exports went to Russia, making the country Greece's number one trading partner.

Russia, meanwhile, has been working to replace the South Stream, a natural gas pipeline project blocked by the EU, with a new Turkish Stream pipeline that would flow in part through Greece. But despite their mutual interests, Putin and Tsipras didn't achieve any breakthroughs. Greece didn't ask for a loan, Putin said after the negotiations, and there was nothing concrete to announce on the Turkish Stream or Russia's food embargo.

"If we realize some sort of large project that will bring income to Greece, then that money can be used to pay off the debts that we've been talking about today," Putin said, not committing to anything in particular.

Judy Dempsey, a Carnegie Europe analyst, argued Wednesday that, although Tsipras would like cheap energy, loans, and access to the Russian food market, he "can hardly afford to break ranks" with the EU.

"The EU is Greece's largest trading partner," Dempsey wrote. "And for the period from 2014 to 2020, the EU allocated a total of up to 20 billion euros ($22 billion) in structural and investment funds to Greece. Can Russia match that?"

Related: How Greece could change the future of Europe 

Vasily Koltashov, a Moscow-based leftist economist who previously lived in Greece, told VICE News that Putin has decided to "pay [Tsipras] exactly for those services he has provided, which are not many." Moscow could have helped Greece by letting it import olive oil to replace the contraband Spanish olive oil that is flooding the Russian market, Koltashov argued, but both sides are loyal to the IMF-dominated financial system.

"After [the Ukraine crisis], Moscow can't offer Greece a radical scenario, and Greece can't accept it," Koltashov said. "Both are afraid of worsening their relations with EU."

Lukyanov said Putin's hesitation to commit to deals with Athens was simply good sense, even if it leaves Greece's financial future up in the air.

"[Greece] can either get a better deal with creditors and get room for growth, or the negotiations will fail and it will leave the eurozone, but either one will give clarity about the future," Lukyanov said. "When this clarity appears, then you can make plans for development with Greece, but now you can't. You can't give Greece money now, because that's the same as throwing that money in a black hole."

Follow Alec Luhn on Twitter: @ASLuhn

european union
Vladimir Putin
Alexis Tsipras
greek debt crisis
International Monetary Fund
Russia sanctions
greek bailout
south stream pipeline
turkish stream pipeline