Where does Athens’ optimism come from?

Where does Athens’ optimism come from?

The new leftist government in Greece will have to face another week of tough negotiations with its creditors. But sounds coming Washington have definitely contributed to the optimism in Athens.

Eurozone finance ministers will meet again today with new Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis to discuss how to deal with Greece’s economic problems. Their meeting last week failed to produce a result. 

Alexis Tsipras’ government was elected last month on a ticket of “new negotiations, new bailout agreement.” During an extraordinary meeting, the representatives of the new Greek government came face to face for the first time with the eurozone’s finance ministers but failed to convince them to change their stance. The meeting was followed by the leaders of the eurozone refusing to give the Greeks encouraging signs either.

Despite the failure to reach an agreement, Varoufakis indicated that they might achieve “a convergence of opinion in the last five seconds.”

At any rate, eurozone leaders decided last Friday in Brussels that working groups on both sides should be set up to study each other’s position to find possible common ground. A new bailout plan is badly needed for the Tsipras government both for its political credibility at home and for the survival of millions of Greeks whose state of destitution is becoming unbearable.

The majority of eurozone leaders seem to oppose a review of the bailout terms that previous Greek governments signed. The most vocal among them, Germany, is demanding strict adherence to austerity measures and structural reforms. Characteristically, German officials were pointing out over the weekend that “they should not give in to the ultra-leftists and ultra-rightists in Athens that would split Europe,” referring to the Greek government coalition of the leftist Syriza and the small conservative-nationalist party of Independent Greeks.

Some are even more open about their deeper fears should Greece become an “exception” to the prescribed recipe of austerity and reforms. Kurt Lauk, president of the Economic Council of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and one of Angela Merkel’s close advisers, said there should be no step back in the face of Greece’s demands, as such a move “would encourage Beppe Grillo in Italy, Marie Le Pen in France and the German euroskeptics.” 

And all that against the sound of a ticking clock which is reminding everybody that if there is not an agreement within two weeks to extend the current bailout, Greece will not receive a 7 billion-euro loan and will simply run out of money. And if the ECB blocks further financing of the Greek banks, then bankruptcy may come in weeks.

Yet, back in Athens, things look normal. The ministers of the new government have moved into their new offices, sold off a fleet of costly official cars and a crowd of special advisers and announced their first decisions: closing down an infamous immigrant’s camp after the suicide of a detainee and rehiring thousands of civil servants laid off by the Samaras government. And leading members of Tsipras government are expressing publicly their conviction that a “new agreement will come out in Brussels this week along the lines of the Greek proposals.” Where does this optimism come from?

Against the Greek drama whose second act we are about to watch this week in Brussels, we should not miss certain interesting developments that have been taking place behind the scenes which may link Brussels with Minsk. According to reports from Washington, high-ranking American officials are putting pressure on the Europeans for a “realistic” approach toward an agreement with Greece as for them, a failure in Brussels may foment geopolitical instability in the region at a time when the problems of Ukraine and the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL) problems are haunting American politics. John Kerry is said to have had two telephone conversations with the new Greek foreign minister last week on the economic situation in Greece and on energy policies in the region. FM Nikos Kotzias, fresh from a trip to Moscow, already had a productive meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, where both expressed a special interest in the Turkish Stream project. Closer energy cooperation between Greece and Russia would not sound like a good idea for the Americans, who seem determined to increase the pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

So, does the optimism in Athens indicate a different kind of ball game, a diplomatic one, being played at the same time in this region, away from the economic wrangles of Brussels? And will regional geostrategic considerations eventually weigh in favor of saving Greece from an exit from euro? Look out for the signs this week.