Saturday, July 14, 2018

Russia meddles in Greek town to push back the west

by Kerin Hope

Financial Times

July 14, 2018

The sleepy Aegean port of Alexandroupolis in northern Greece has become a new focus for Russian efforts to extend its influence in south-eastern Europe and thwart the enlargement of Nato and the EU.

The town is home to a small community of Russian citizens with Greek connections. Two Russian diplomats, expelled this week for activities that allegedly violated Greek law, were well known in the port, according to two people with knowledge of their activities.

The diplomats were accused of working with businesspeople to bribe local government officials, Orthodox clergymen, and members of cultural associations and far-right groups across the north of the country in order to fan a popular backlash against the naming agreement signed last month between the leaders of Greece and Macedonia.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Greece to expel 2 Russian diplomats

by Kerin Hope

Financial Times

July 11, 2018

Greece has decided to expel two Russian diplomats and block two others from entering the country in a spat prompted by last month’s deal on a new name for Macedonia, according to two people briefed on the issue.

Zoran Zaev, the Macedonian prime minister, expects to receive a formal invitation to join Nato at the alliance summit opening today in Brussels after agreeing with his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras to change the country’s official name to North Macedonia. Moscow is strongly opposed to Nato expanding further in the Balkans, warning that Macedonian membership of the alliance “might have negative consequences for regional security and bilateral relations.”

The Russian diplomats are suspected of bribing Greek officials — including a member of the armed forces — as part of an attempt to undermine negotiations on the name earlier this year. The deal triggered a fierce backlash, including dozens of street protests organised by nationalist Greeks.

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Saturday, June 30, 2018

Greece offers a glimpse of life after populism

by Anne Applebaum

Washington Post

June 29, 2018

There was a moment, at the height of the Greek debt crisis in July 2015, when many Athenians went to sleep expecting to wake up in a different country. One Greek academic told me he feared Greece would crash out of the euro currency overnight, that there would be no money in the banks in the morning, that there would be food shortages and then riots: “Greece is a middle-class country,” he told me. “I didn’t think we would be able to cope with the shock.” Several others told me that they had genuinely expected the arrival of a Venezuelan-style dictatorship, perhaps with tanks on the street.

These fears were not far-fetched. Greece was governed then — as it still is now — by a strange coalition of far-left and far-right extreme populists. At the time it was formed, this coalition seemed just as weird and jarring as the new Italian far-left and far-right government does today. Syriza, the larger party, had originated as a faction of the Greek Communist Party. The junior partner, the “Independent Greeks,” believes that Greece’s massive debt is the result of an international conspiracy. Both parties have at times voiced disdain for the institutions of what Lenin dismissively referred to as “bourgeois democracy.”

But the Venezuela-style dictatorship never emerged. Depending on who tells the story, Syriza’s leader, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, was scared off by fear of a military counter-coup; feared the economic consequences of crashing out of the euro zone; or never really meant all that stuff anyway. Although he had stoked up his followers with angry, anti-European rhetoric and promises to enrich “the people” at the expense of the elites, the banks and the Germans, he wound up following the rules set by the international institutions who had taken charge of Greece’s finances. Greece remained inside the euro and inside the international financial and legal systems its leaders claimed to abhor.

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Friday, June 29, 2018

Thessaloniki’s ‘pirate’ mayor shares spoils of Macedonian history

by Kerin Hope

Financial Times

June 29, 2018

Framed by two tall windows that dominate the living space in Yiannis Boutaris’ eighth-floor apartment, the Aegean Sea glitters in midday tones of indigo and silver. Boutaris, who is the mayor of the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki (known to its residents as Salonika), points towards a landmark on the horizon: Mount Olympus, the mythical home of the Greek gods where Alexander the Great offered sacrifices before setting out to conquer Asia.

“I couldn’t get away from this view even if I wanted to,” he says. “I see it every day from my office, too, but I haven’t got tired of it. Even though I come from a mountain town I like to live as close as possible to the sea.”

We sit down at a black-lacquered dining table, where Boutaris serves mugs of strong black coffee and a plate of miniature cheese pies, a Salonikan speciality, under the gaze of a female mannequin dating from the 1970s. The near-life-size figure is part of his collection of kitsch, which amounts, he thinks, to almost 6,000 pieces. “I started collecting it because I saw beauty in its ugliness,” he says. “I got into the habit of picking up small items from souvenir shops everywhere I travelled to. The larger pieces come from Greek junk shops and flea markets.”

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Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Greece ready to sign deal with Merkel to take back asylum seekers

by Jim Brunsden, Michael Peel & Guy Chazan

Financial Times

June 27, 2018

Greece’s prime minister is ready to strike a deal with Angela Merkel to make it easier for Germany to send asylum seekers back to other European countries, giving the embattled chancellor an important boost before a crucial EU summit.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Alexis Tsipras said he was open to a special agreement with Berlin to curtail the “secondary movement” of refugees that arrive at the EU’s southern border but then journey north to Germany.

Ms Merkel is under intense pressure from her Bavarian conservative coalition partners to convince governments to speed up return procedures for asylum seekers already registered in other EU countries. They are threatening to break up the coalition if she fails to get results at the end of this month.

“We don’t care about the fact that maybe we’ll have some returns from Germany if this will help, in order to give the signal to the smugglers [that Europe is tackling illegal migration flows],” said Mr Tsipras. He added the EU’s existing rule book for allocating responsibility for asylum-seekers, known as the Dublin regulation, was “out of life”.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2018

How Alexis Tsipras went from being the Greek Corbyn to the EU's poster boy

by Denis MacShane

Independent

June 26, 2018

At a time when it is fashionable to assert the European right and extreme right are on an unstoppable ascension to power it is useful to look at Greece where a socialist government, headed by a populist ex-firebrand, now turned well, almost a statesman, has just put on a tie.

Alexis Tsipras doesn’t do ties but he put a red one on to celebrate the end of Greece leaving the EU’s supervision programme, after €274bn (£241bn) of European taxpayer’s money had been poured into Greece to keep the country partnered with the rest of Europe. This week he is in London promoting Greece as an investment opportunity and embracing market economics with gusto.

It is quite a turnaround from three years ago as every commentator rushed to Athens to proclaim Grexit would soon happen.

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Monday, June 25, 2018

The European Union Must Defend a Persecuted Greek Statistician

by Nicolas Véron

Peterson Institute for International Economics

June 25, 2018

Relentless prosecutions in Greece against Andreas Georgiou, the highly respected former head of the country’s national statistical institute ELSTAT, are more than a matter of shameful harassment by Greece. His case raises disturbing questions about the integrity of European statistical processes. Forceful action by EU authorities on Georgiou’s case is long overdue. The European Union also needs to consider reforming its statistical framework to ensure a similar scandal cannot recur.

Georgiou’s legal ordeal began in 2011 and has included accusations of inflating Greece’s 2009 budget deficit, a key figure in the context of the country’s loss of financial market access and request for financial assistance in 2010, and of “violating his duty” by not respecting ELSTAT procedures. The sequence of legal developments, interwoven with Georgiou’s scapegoating by several Greek political leaders, is too long to be summarized here. (It is documented on the website of the Friends of Greece, a dedicated advocacy group.)

A new low was recently reached when Greece’s Supreme Court irrevocably rejected Georgiou’s request for annulment of his Appeals Court conviction for having refused to submit Greece’s 2009 government deficit and debt numbers for prior approval to ELSTAT’s politically appointed board. He was also given a two-year suspended prison sentence. But Georgiou was merely following the European Statistics Code of Practice, which assigns “sole responsibility” to heads of national statistical institutes (NSIs), such as ELSTAT, and had been endorsed under Greek law prior to these events. Furthermore, the same figures and methodologies used by Georgiou’s ELSTAT to produce them have been subsequently used by the Greek government, including as the basis for European and international financial assistance and debt relief.

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Friday, June 22, 2018

An agreement on Greek debt that satisfies both sides

by Tony Barber

Financial Times

June 22, 2018

There was an unmistakable note of triumph in the words with which Mário Centeno, the Portuguese head of the eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers, announced the agreement that concludes eight years of emergency bailouts for Greece. “Greece joins Ireland, Spain, Cyprus and my own country Portugal in the ranks of euro area countries that turned around their economies and once again stand on their own feet,” Mr Centeno said.

It is certainly a cleverly crafted deal, and each side — Greece and its eurozone creditors — gets enough from it to hail it as a success. For Germany and its allies, there is no explicit write-off of Greek debt, which should ease domestic political pressure on chancellor Angela Merkel’s government from critics suspicious that Berlin too often picks up the tab for the eurozone.

At the same time, the provision of a €24.1bn cash buffer for Greece after its third bailout officially ends in August removes most doubts that Athens might fall into another sovereign debt crisis over the next two and a half years, or even longer. Moreover, the creditors have extracted a commitment from Greece to run large fiscal surpluses for many years to come — a promise that will ease the concerns of those who always identified fiscal irresponsibility as the root cause of the Greek crisis.

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Debt relief deal gives Greece hope after years of austerity

by Mehreen Khan, Jim Brunsden & Kerin Hope

Financial Times

June 22, 2018

It was 2am on Friday in Luxembourg — and Greece’s finance minister could finally hail the delivery of a debt relief deal to help his country “turn a page” on eight years of bailouts, austerity and unprecedented economic tutelage.

“I think this is the end of the Greek crisis,” said Euclid Tsakalotos after fellow eurozone ministers signed off on the sought-after measures, which had been two years in the making.

The agreement paves the way for Greece to end a series of highly contentious bailouts that took the country to the brink of crashing out of the eurozone and poisoned relations with Germany.

But the stark reality of Greece’s €200bn stockpile of loans borrowed from eurozone governments means it will live with the legacy of the crisis for decades to come.

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Greece's Creditors Agree to Landmark Debt Deal as Bailout Saga Ends

by Viktoria Dendrinou & Nikos Chrysoloras

Bloomberg

June 22, 2018

Greece’s euro-area creditors struck a landmark deal to ease repayment terms on some of the nation’s mountain of debt, clearing the way for the country to exit the lifeline that’s kept it afloat since 2010.

The debt compromise reached in Luxembourg by the bloc’s finance ministers comes after months of acrimonious talks and just as the Mediterranean nation is set to leave its bailout program in August. A deal to ease Greek debt has long been seen as a key ingredient in the country’s successful return to economic health and foray back into financial markets.

An accord was reached in the early hours of the morning as attempts to find a compromise repeatedly hit a wall. The biggest holdout was Germany, which resisted granting Athens more money. In the final compromise, Berlin signed off on a longer maturity extension but managed to limit the tranche of bailout money.

“The deal is good news for Greece and on the optimistic side of what was expected,” said Athanasios Vamvakidis, a strategist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in London. “Greece buys more time and the debt becomes sustainable, at least on paper. The deal also includes a clear post-program monitoring framework to make sure Greece sticks to the targets. Markets are reassured for now. But it is up to Greece to succeed. Growth is the key.”

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Eurozone creditors reach ‘historic’ deal on Greek debt relief

by Mehreen Khan & Jim Brunsden

Financial Times

June 22, 2018

Eurozone governments have brokered a long-awaited debt relief deal for Greece, pushing back repayment deadlines on almost €100bn of bailout loans as the country prepares to exit its era of financial rescue programmes.

Finance ministers hammered out the final points of an agreement in more than six hours of talks that stretched into the night in Luxembourg on Thursday. The deal was immediately hailed by governments as a “historic” step after eight years in which Greece has undergone three bailout programmes and suffered the worst depression of any European economy in modern times.

“It is an exceptional moment,” Pierre Moscovici, the EU’s economy commissioner, said after the meeting. “The Greek crisis ends here tonight in Luxembourg.”

The agreement means the repayment of €96bn of bailout loans, about 40 per cent of the total Greece needs to repay the eurozone over the coming decades, will be pushed back 10 years. The earliest repayment deadlines shift from 2023 to 2033.

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Monday, June 18, 2018

Athens, Rising

by Charly Wilder

New York Times

June 18, 2018

It was Saturday night in Athens, and I was surrounded by dozens of young Greeks on the packed veranda of Six d.o.g.s., a cafe-bar and arts space that runs the length of an alleyway in the Monastiraki neighborhood. It was the 10-year anniversary party for Laternative, a local radio show launched in the wake of the country’s debt crisis, and people spilled into the gallery space, gathered under light-strung trees in the back garden and in the club area where the first of several bands was about to play.

Most of the partygoers looked to be in their early and mid 20s, just like I was the first time I came to this exact spot nearly 12 years ago, back when it was a tiny indie rock bar called Kinky. Standing here now, I could almost see myself as I was then: a 24-year-old backpacker sitting alone in the corner, smoking cheap Greek cigarettes and nursing a raki, unaware that my life had come to a crossroads.

There are places we live and places we visit, and then there are the other places. Places we return to, where we put down roots, but not strong enough roots to hold us — places that change us, that we haunt and are haunted by. Nowhere embodies this for me more than Athens, a city I’ve watched shift and evolve, endure crisis and chaos and economic collapse, and yet emerge from the wreckage as one of the continent’s most vibrant and significant cultural capitals, more popular than ever as a tourist destination. (Last year Athens welcomed a record 5 million visitors, double the 2012 figure.)

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Sunday, June 17, 2018

Greece and Macedonia sign landmark deal over disputed name

by Kerin Hope

Financial Times

June 17, 2018

Greece and Macedonia signed a landmark agreement modifying the name of Macedonia, as police used tear gas to disperse hundreds of nationalist protesters gathered on the Greek side.

Speaking on Sunday during a ceremony at the border between the countries, Alexis Tsipras, Greek prime minister, said the two nations had achieved “ a historic agreement . . . to lay the foundations of a new epoch in the region.”

Zoran Zaev, prime minister of the newly named North Macedonia, said: “We have put an end to longstanding problems that worsened our relations. The past 30 years have taught us important lessons . . . and now that we are building a friendship between our two countries, we will become allies and partners.”

Mr Tsipras, however, warned that the two countries “would face a challenge to complete the deal” in a reference to a forthcoming referendum in Macedonia to approve the new name, and constitutional changes for which Mr Zaev’s coalition government currently lacks a majority.

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Friday, June 15, 2018

Alexis Tsipras Deserves the Nobel Peace Prize

by Edward P. Joseph

Foreign Policy

June 15, 2018

The two leaders who deserve the Nobel Peace Prize did not meet this week in Singapore. Instead, they will meet Sunday on the banks of a clear, freshwater lake that borders Greece, Macedonia, and Albania. Prime Ministers Alexis Tsipras of Greece and Zoran Zaev of Macedonia — a country on track to be known formally as North Macedonia — will sign an agreement to resolve the bitter decades-long conflict over Macedonia’s name.

In fact, the deal does much more than that. It creates a model for addressing identity clashes that drive conflict not only in the Balkans but across the globe. A stinging rebuke to Russia and to its populist cronies in Europe, the agreement injects a timely boost of confidence in the European Union and the entire Western project for the Balkans. The agreement still faces stiff opposition from nationalists in both countries who have assailed their respective leader as a traitor. To avoid that outcome, it’s urgent that Tsipras and Zaev gain not just support, but worldwide acclaim.

Long mocked by diplomats as ridiculous, the Greek objection to Macedonia’s name — and the prideful Macedonian response — are rooted in the most basic questions of identity. Nowhere is the question posed more acutely than in the Balkans, where adding as little as a vowel to a word or an extra kiss to the cheek can immediately signal disrespect. Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks, and Albanians and Serbs, all fought bitter wars over territory claimed as national patrimony. The struggle over national identity continues to infuse politics throughout the region as parties vie to ensure that “we,” as opposed to “the other,” get our due, speak our language, fly our flag, dominate our economy.

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Greek government faces confidence vote after Macedonia name deal

by Kerin Hope

Financial Times

June 15, 2018

Greek MPs will debate a motion of no-confidence in the leftwing Syriza-led government on Friday after Alexis Tsipras, prime minister, agreed a deal to rename the country’s neighbour as North Macedonia to try to end a decades-old dispute.

The move, triggered by the conservative New Democracy opposition party, is part of a growing backlash against the accord announced on Tuesday by Mr Tsipras and Zoran Zaev, his Macedonian counterpart.

The announcement followed five months of negotiations assisted by a UN special mediator but feeling is strong in both Greece and Macedonia over the issue. Resentment is especially strong in the northern city of Thessaloniki, capital of Greece’s own region of Macedonia and a stronghold of nationalist sentiment over the name.

Some Thessalonikans claim that their Slavic neighbours should be punished for “usurping” the name and heritage of the ancient Macedonian kingdom based in northern Greece and its warrior king, Alexander the Great, even though the region benefits from trade and tourism with Skopje.

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Thursday, June 14, 2018

The hounding of Greece’s former statistics chief is disturbing

Economist
June 14, 2018

Imagine the tale of Sisyphus, the mythical king doomed to spend eternity pushing a boulder up a hill only for it to roll back down, retold by Kafka. The result would be very like the tortuous story of Andreas Georgiou, Greece’s former statistics chief.

Since 2011 Mr Georgiou has faced several criminal charges. One is that he inflated budget-deficit figures, forcing Greece to seek a bail-out and resulting in alleged damages of €171bn ($190bn). Another is that he violated his duty by failing to seek approval from the statistical agency’s board before sending the figures to the European authorities.

Although Mr Georgiou was acquitted several times on both charges, the acquittals were annulled and he was retried. In 2017 he was found guilty of a violation of duty. He has now learnt that the Supreme Court had rejected his appeal, rendering the conviction final. It carries a two-year suspended sentence. In May prosecutors said they were refiling the charges that he inflated the figures and thus injured Greece. He will now be tried for a third time in the court of appeals. If found guilty, he could face life in prison.

Yet both Mr Georgiou’s numbers and his methodology were verified by Europe’s statistical agency. The method is still accepted by Greece’s creditors and its government. The chief statistician is also legally required to be independent: statistics tend not to be decided by committee.

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Greek parliament approves bailout reform package, moves to no confidence debate

by Kerin Hope

Financial Times

June 14, 2018

Greek lawmakers have approved a wide-ranging package of economic reforms, clearing the way for euro-area finance ministers to finalise the terms of the country’s planned exit in August from its current bailout programme.

With the legislation in place, the leftwing Syriza government expects the EU ministers to agree on a medium-term debt relief plan at a meeting in Brussels on June 21. They would also unlock a final €12bn tranche of bailout aid for Greece.

As soon as the vote was completed, however, the conservative opposition New Democracy party filed a motion of no-confidence in the leftwing Syriza-led government on a separate issue: the agreement announced on Tuesday on a new name — North Macedonia — for Greece’s northern neighbour.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Diplomacy triumphs: Greece and Macedonia resolve name dispute

by Amanda Sloat

Brookings Institution

June 12, 2018

As the world focuses on U.S.-North Korea negotiations, today’s announcement of a resolution to the long-standing disagreement between Greece and Macedonia over the latter’s name is testament to the triumph of patient diplomacy. While successive U.S. administrations have actively supported this effort, the Trump administration deserves kudos for quiet engagement that helped push it over the line.

The name dispute dates to the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1991, when the country declared independence as the Republic of Macedonia. Athens objected to international recognition of the new country’s name, which it shared with a region in northern Greece, given concerns it could imply territorial claims. As a compromise, the country joined the United Nations in 1993 under a provisional name (the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). Following a 19-month Greek trade embargo, Macedonia amended its constitution and changed its flag in 1995. However, Greece blocked it from joining NATO or beginning accession talks with the European Union (EU) until the name issue was definitively resolved.

After years of failed efforts, the politics were ripe in both countries for a deal. In Macedonia, the lack of progress on Euro-Atlantic integration contributed to democratic backsliding over the last decade. The government of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski took actions that provoked its southern neighbor. In 2006 it named Skopje airport after Alexander the Great (the ancient Greek king who controlled territory that included the Greek region of Macedonia), and in 2011 it erected a 72-foot statue of him in the capital. Following a two-year political crisis dominated by a corruption scandal and violence in parliament, the election of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev last summer marked the first change of power in 11 years. His center-left government faced a weak economy, tense ethnic relations, and deteriorating political institutions. Motivated to resolve the name issue, he undid the airport and statue irritants as goodwill gestures.

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Greece agrees to recognise neighbour as North Macedonia

by Kerin Hope

Financial Times

June 13, 2018

Greece has agreed to recognise its northern neighbour under a new name, the Republic of North Macedonia, ending a long-running dispute over rival claims to the name Macedonia that has fostered nationalist feeling and undermined political stability in the region.

The two prime ministers, Alexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev, sealed the agreement in an hour-long telephone call on Tuesday, their second in two days.

The name deal is expected to accelerate North Macedonia’s entry to the Nato alliance, which may be approved at an alliance summit in Brussels in July where Greece plans to lift a decade-long veto on the country’s membership.

Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary-general, welcomed the agreement. “I now call on both countries to finalise the agreement reached by the two leaders. This will set Skopje on its path to Nato membership. And it will help to consolidate peace and stability across the wider western Balkans,” he said.

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Sunday, June 10, 2018

Greek supreme court rejects statistics chief’s appeal

by Kerin Hope

Financial Times

June 10, 2018

Greece’s supreme court has rejected an appeal by the country’s former statistics chief to quash his conviction in 2017 on charges of violation of duty.

According to people with knowledge of the decision, which has not yet been officially made public, the supreme court upheld the ruling against Andreas Georgiou, the former president of the statistical agency Elstat, even after the court’s own prosecutor asked for the conviction to be annulled.

The supreme court decision will bring to an end a long-running case against Mr Georgiou filed by two political appointees to the Elstat board of directors, as the two-year suspended sentence he received cannot be reversed. The case is one of several brought against the former statistics chief since 2013 which have raised questions about commitment to the rule of law in Greece, and is the first to have reached a conclusion.

The leftwing Syriza government has faced criticism for not addressing the issue of political interference in the judicial system in the case of Mr Georgiou. A Syriza official said on Sunday the independence of the judiciary was not in doubt.

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