Allusions to migrants, Lausanne cause apprehension in Greece

Allusions to migrants, Lausanne cause apprehension in Greece

It was one year ago – November 2015 – when Alexis Tsipras, freshly re-elected as prime minister, paid a two-day official visit to Istanbul and Ankara.  Perhaps many of us remember the pictures of a Greek prime minister sitting next to the then-prime minister of Turkey, Ahmet Davutoğlu. Both had open shirts and were wearing red and blue scarves specially made for the friendly football match of their national teams at the Başakşehir Fatih Terim Stadium. They were looking relaxed and smiling, enjoying the match which – predictably – ended in a draw. Nobody had to be a winner. 

The timing of the visit was particularly important. It was days after the massacre in Paris and President François Hollande had declared “war” against the jihadists. The media in Greece were stressing the importance of the visit not only as a chance for a “re-set” of the bilateral relations but also as a gauge on the intentions of Ankara in its relations with the EU, especially around the pressing issue of migrants and refugees who were knocking at the gates of Europe via Greece in their thousands. 

As has been the custom for every Greek official who comes to Turkey, the re-elected prime minister paid a visit first to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. It was my first opportunity to meet Tsipras in person and noticed his natural ability to appear easy-going and comfortable with any kind of audience. But I had, also, the chance to talk to one of his closest advisers whom I had known for years. He was fully devoted to his leader but he had complaints that Tsipras did not always listen to his advice. “I advise him all the time. That he should leave his office in Athens and go around the country, to talk to people face-to-face, he can use his charisma. He has not listened to me.”

One year later, an avalanche of local, regional and global developments has turned last November’s picture upside down. An agreement between Turkey and EU at the beginning of 2016 eased the refugee flow toward Europe, and somewhat dispelled the extreme stress felt so much among the inhabitants of the Aegean islands. But the recently increasing confrontation between Turkey and the EU, the repeated references to the fragility of the Lausanne Treaty, linked directly with Greece, have again raised the feeling of apprehension among Greek people.  

Since last November, the Tsipras government has put most of its emphasis on the pressing domestic economic agenda, struggling to balance a leftist policy with the harsh demands for more austerity from its creditors. If a final review of this policy by Greece’s creditors in December is positive, then the promised funds to Greece will be released. If not? If not “the issue of election may come back on the agenda,” Tsipras told his parliamentary group, while his government’s ratings are crumbling, according to recent opinion polls. 

When I saw pictures of the Greek prime minister touring northern Greece, being photographed with young Muslims in Western Thrace or launching his party’s new offices in Thessaloniki, I remembered the conversation I had with Tsipras’s adviser last November in Istanbul. He is finally out of his office. Which means that things are at a critical moment.

I do not know whether this expedition was timely or too late. His main rival, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has already been touring Greece on the ticket that “the government will collapse at any moment.”

But I think the Greeks will not easily be charmed by any politician this time. Deeply disillusioned, having to live with less money, even insecure over their country’s borders and having lost their trust in their European allies, it is a lot harder to believe in even the most charismatic.