Tsipras a year ago and now

Tsipras a year ago and now

“I have the tendency to talk too much. So you can edit out as much as you wish if you do not find it necessary.” This is what Alexis Tsipras said just after giving us a statement on camera one day in January of last year in the “Throne Room” of the Ecumenical Greek-Orthodox Patriarchate at Fener, Istanbul. I was there to cover his official visit to Patriarch Bartholomew, much to the frustration of my TV editor in Greece. “If it was not for the TV appearance quotas agreed among the parties, I could not care less what Tsipras says in Istanbul,” he had told me earlier on the phone, asking me to “leave everything and rush to Fener.” 

I was frustrated too, having to rush to Fener at such short notice. But this half-admission by a political leader – albeit of a small party – that some of the things he said were less important and that a journalist could edit his speech at will took me by surprise. Usually, politicians are vehemently protective of every one of their words and we journalists often get into trouble as we are accused of prejudiced editing. He was calm, polite and displayed a very good use of language, the kind of which you can still observe among the graduates of Athens Polytechnic.

His visit to Fener was the second leg of his visit to Turkey. The day before he was in Ankara as the keynote speaker for the 15th anniversary of the Turkish Freedom and Solidarity Party (ÖDP).

I do not remember exactly what we edited out from his statement at Fener. But I remember that we kept his expression of respect for the institution of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and his appeal that the Halki Seminary be reopened. I also think that we kept his wish for the continuation of peaceful Greek-Turkish dialogue and his expectations for the improvement of human rights in Turkey.

I wish I had kept the full copy. It would have been useful both for me to decode the Tsipras enigma but more for my editor who, like most editors in Greece and the rest of Europe, are now after every statement by the young leader of SYRIZA who has shaken up the already collapsing political structure of his country.

Still, I tried to find what he had said during his speech in Ankara. 

“We are constructing a new left, that is, we are shaping its identity by combining the values of the labor movement with those of ecology, feminism and other contemporary social movements,” he had declared to “comrades” in Ankara. And referring to the economic crisis – not taken seriously then by either the people or the parties in Greece – he had said that it is “not only economic but multidimensional and has to do with capitalism and the international system.” 

Before an ÖDP audience, Tsipras had announced that “peace is the only choice between the Greek and the Turkish people, that bilateral problems can only be solved peacefully and through dialogue on the basis of international law and mutual arms reduction. As for Cyprus, he had asked for an island that was bi-zonal and bi-communal and free of arms and foreign bases.

I am sure none of us who were present at the Throne Room on that cold January morning, just 17 months ago, would have thought that the political climate in Greece would have gone through such a dramatic change. So much as to sweep away the then-government, get rid of the then-prime minister, bring in a temporary appointed administration under an appointed prime minister, go through a first round of general elections, give a Nazi-like party enough votes to enter Parliament… And all that against a quickly deteriorating economy and a deepening social crisis. 

But it was all these developments that made Tsipras’ star rise so rapidly and brought a new political dynamics centered around his party’s leftist but vague message. But in a highly polarized political setting, with one step out of the eurozone and with a society enraged at the old political corruption, none of the existing political parties seems capable of producing a coherent program. Will the Greeks vote out of rage or out of fear in the coming elections on June 17? 

Tsipras’s party program, which was released last week, did not do much to clarify his position. The source of finance for applying measures “generous to the poor and scathing to the rich” remains undefined. Nor has he specified the legalities and consequences of canceling the bailout agreement with Greece’s creditors. But the intensified bombardment of warnings from Europe against any “unwise” choice may move destitute Greeks toward Tsipras rather than push them away from him.