Putin’s Athens visit has messages for everybody

Putin’s Athens visit has messages for everybody

In his first visit in almost ten years and his first visit to a European country in one year, Russian President Vladimir Putin chose Greece as his new platform to criticize the West for its policies against Russia and to open a small window of reconciliation with Turkey. Within a 24-hour stint Putin also visited the monastic state of Mount Athos in northern Greece, including the Russian Monastery Saint Panteleimon, accompanied by the Russian Patriarch Cyril to mark 1,000 years of a Russian presence there. 

The Russian leader also underlined his intention to increase business with Greece, a country beleaguered by its Western creditors.

The visit was quite timely, as 2016 has been declared a “Greece-Russia” year according to a bilateral agreement including 170 headings signed last February between the Syriza-led Greek government and Russia. The agreement was followed by two visits by the Greek prime minister to Moscow and St. Petersburg last April and June. And now the Russian leader was returning those visits.

At the end of July, the EU economic sanctions against Russia will end. The visit to Athens was an opportunity for the Russian leader to voice his strong opposition to those measures. Greece was an appropriate platform as it has already stood against EU policies on Russia, although it never actively exercised its veto in their application.

During a joint press conference, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras talked about it openly: 

“I want to assure you that Greece is a country that keeps its commitments to international organizations where it belongs. Greece is a member of the EU and NATO, but because of its traditional historical bonds with Russia, it is extremely useful both for the EU and Russia… Why are we so useful? Because everybody recognizes that there can be no future for the European continent with EU and Russia opposing each other… Greece can become a bridge of friendship and cooperation,” he said.

The presence of Putin in Athens was useful for Greece, too. Only five days ago the country’s international creditors in a “breakthrough” meeting in Brussels accepted a new austerity package proposed by the Tsipras government in return for releasing a further 10.3 billion euros in loans. The agreement was conditional among others, to a drastic privatization program where Russia could be a willing bidder. Putin in an article published in Greek daily Kathimerini on the eve of his visit stated that Russia would be interested in taking part in tenders for Greek State Railways as well as the state port of Thessaloniki. The Russians are also interested in deals with oil and gas companies. They are interested in boosting agricultural trade, tourism and culture between the two countries. Greece and Tsipras’ government desperately need all these to kick-start the economy.

The decision on whether to renew sanctions against Russia is of vital importance for both countries. And that is why the coming two months will be crucial.  

Putin did not miss the opportunity to talk about Russia’s sour relations with Turkey in Athens. Again calling the downing of the Russian fighter jet and the killing of the pilot last year “a war crime,” Putin, nevertheless opened a small window of reconciliation if Turkey provided “solid explanations and compensation instead of vague and general statements.” “We want practical proofs,” he declared, a statement quite open to interpretation.

Regarding the possibility of the creation of a Kurdish state, he said, “We are not interested in that. This is not our business. It is the business of the Kurdish people and the governments of those countries where Kurds live.”