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Sons of Orthodoxy: EU Austerity and a Russian-Greek Orthodox Alliance

Brian Hughes

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The bitter fight that has been raging between the European Union and Greece has now extended for five long months. With the referendum on July 6th it may all be mercifully put to an end.

With strong indications that the public will resoundingly reject another bailout and the crippling austerity that comes with it, Greece will finally be free of the hated ‘institutions’ that, as they repeatedly claimed, paralyzed their economy. However, the path that leads to a once again stable and prosperous economy is likely not to be found quickly. When the vote finally arrives, Greece will most likely revert to the drachma and default, wherein the economy will enter yet another depression. As of now, the EU appears to be washing its hands of Greece. Fascinatingly, Russia may be the only country that has the immense means and political savvy to navigate this break-up to the benefit of Greece and to its own global positioning interests and national security priorities beyond the Caspian.

This was never a two-sided fight. Greece and the EU stared down at each other while forgetting that Russia was patiently waiting on the periphery. The EU adamantly stated that austerity would eventually work, while Greece equally weighed in against the ‘indecency’ that such economic measures were forcing on the Greek people. So much focus has been on rhetoric and horribly complex political posturing inside of the 28-country EU, it quietly missed the fact that Russia could emerge the only real winner, leaving the EU to struggle with the consequences of basically being rejected by a fallen EU member that chose an alternative path.

Russia and Western European powers are in the midst of a tumultuous relationship at the moment diplomatically and it’s difficult to argue that Russia isn’t coming away with the upper hand. Vladimir Putin has shrugged off sanctions, recession, and drastic inflation, all while increasing personal popularity and national territory. He likewise out-flanked the more-hawkish Western voices in Syria by utilizing Russian soft power, coordinating a chemical weapons disarmament. With a meager 18% debt-to-GDP ratio, Russia has the financial depth and flexibility to do as they please. Lending a helping hand to Greece would be a simple first step to begin prying Greece away from the EU and into a welcoming Russian sphere of influence.

Greece has recently been torn between Russia, an ‘Orthodox brother nation,’ and it’s EU counterparts. The economy was exploding with prosperity before the global recession of 2007-2008 and this newfound wealth was largely facilitated by its close relationship to the EU and inclusion in the Euro currency. Conversely, Greece has historical, cultural, and religious connection with Russia. In addition, tourism and diaspora between the two countries is quite high. Thus, with six years of economic downturn and multiple recessions following the initial depression, Greek positive sentiment toward the EU has plummeted to roughly 25%. Meanwhile, two-thirds of Greeks have a favorable view of Russia, a unique antithesis with much of the EU.

Russia’s relationship with the current Greek political hierarchy began on strong footing, as Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras attempted to block sanctions against Russia just days into office. After sanctions were imposed with the United States’ urging, Greece reportedly told Russia that they were able to reduce their intensity. This may be the strongest leverage that Greece can offer Russia: while still being a member of the EU, even without its currency, Greece can use its vote to sway sanctions. While a difficult task for Greece to diametrically oppose the wishes of stronger Western powers, one dissenting vote to new sanctions significantly weakens impending ones. Previously, the EU warned of isolationism if Greece bowed to Russia with respect to sanctions and warned not to challenge the EU position. In the wake of default this threat will prove hollow, while isolation from the EU may drive Greece further to the side of Russia. The Greek government would be walking a dangerous tightrope between Russia and the EU, but with little options for an immediately stable economic future they may gamble.

In addition to challenging sanctions, Greece has also fought against the position held by the EU in regard to Russian natural gas. EU members are attempting to move away from reliance on Russian gas and the Gazprom empire. In April, Greece signed on for inclusion in the Turkish Stream gas line project (although that project has yet to begin). Many anticipated that this was a ploy to bluff Europe into accepting easier loan terms, but deciphering what was political brinksmanship and genuine agreements may prove difficult: Russia is going to accept the contract either way.

The EU is stuck between offering Greece the demanded debt write down and further bailouts or gambling with the standard line of austerity and possible ‘moral hazard.’ This was certainly a fight the creditors never wanted to face, with the political implications singularly negative and no positive outcomes readily imaginable. The EU outcome that would have subdued Russian influence would have been to keep the status quo. When it became clear that the Syriza party had no interest in doing so, the EU could only keep pressing Greece until it broke. Unfortunately, the break may certainly occur, but may consequently create a new alliance the EU never anticipated: an Orthodox alliance that renders EU influence in the Adriatic severely compromised.

Greece has until July 20th to decide whether to accept bailout funds or simply fall out of the Euro. The latter move will show the rest of the EU that membership is not a strictly one-way road and any prospective members may be hesitant in accepting membership. Highlighting the weakness of European partnerships and rigidity of monetary control would represent a large prize to Russia, always interested in embarrassing Western powers when it has opportunity to do so, given what it considers to be like behavior from the US and EU.

Make no mistake: the EU is giving every opportunity to Russia to advance in the economic vacuum that will be left behind as default sweeps through the markets of Greece. For six months it has let the confidence in the Euro, and the EU itself, be shaken through vicious back-and-forth political rhetoric. While the concessions that Greece demanded were far more than the EU felt allowable, Greeks understandably balked at even more austerity. With Russia actively participating in Greece’s alternative plans, the EU needs to be legitimately concerned about watching Russia slowly embrace Greece away from Western Europe and more towards its Orthodox brother and the more East-leaning shift it is trying to create in the Caspian and beyond to China. If Greece rebounds as a result of Russian influence, it will give pause to other newer and potential EU members facing similarly severe austerity measures. The EU can still salvage this situation, but it will take drastic compromise since Greek voters appear resolved to accept a Euro exit. With severe austerity the question simply becomes, “how can a state effectively govern when it has little decisions over its budget?” Greece seems to be saying it cannot and therefore is seeking alternative answers to this European economic stick. It proclaims to want economic dignity back. And Russia just might be the country holding the dignity carrot.

Brian Hughes is currently a student in the International Security and Intelligence Studies program at Bellevue University in Omaha, NE, USA.

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Complicated puzzle in the UK

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Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union has become a major riddle in the country. Many English citizens do not have a complete understanding of the EU, the British government and the UK Parliament’s move to leave the European Union. However, the British authorities seem to have planned a tentative game.

Recently, some western news sources are speaking of an issue called “repeating the Brexit referendum”, and name it as a possible option! An option that had been previously denied by British authorities, including Theresa May, the Prime Minister of the country. According to the France news agency, regarding the increasing doubt about the British Prime Minister’s efforts to conclude an agreement with United Europe, the possibility of holding a second referendum on Brexit has multiplied.

However, one of the goals of the English authorities is to complicate the exit process of the European Union. Accordingly, “Brexit” continues to be an implicit term in Britain’s political equations. the British government, with its widespread negative propaganda against the Brexit, is seeking to re-arrange a referendum. In other words, the European authorities are trying to direct the public opinion about the Brexit.

It should not be forgotten that both Labor and Conservative parties in the UK in the 2016 referendum were opposed to withdrawal from the European Union. The negative propaganda of Theresa May’s government against the Bexit since 2016 is known to everyone. After the British citizens voted to leave the European Union in 2016, the two Labor and Conservative parties (as UK’s two traditional parties) tried their best to change the general vote on this issue.

 The active role played by people like former British Prime Minister Tony Blair can well indicate the dissatisfaction among British authorities over the Brexit. Although it seems that Theresa May is trying to convince legislators to give a positive vote to this agreement, not only members of the Labor Party, but also some members of the Conservative Party are opposing it. The MPs argue that Brexit is basically contrary to the interests of the UK.

 Meanwhile, supporters of the “People’s Vote” campaign, who is now very active in England, believe that the parliament’s negative vote will pave the way for a new referendum on the Brexit. This issue is no way contrary to the demands of Theresa May and the Conservative Party, but it’s secretly supported by them. 

Puzzles in the UK over the country’s exit from the European Union are becoming more and more complex. The European Union is also keen on the continuation of this complicated game. However, it is still not clear if England will eventually leave the European Union. As mentioned, the two traditional British parties were both opponents of leaving Europe.

Labor Party officials led by Jeremy Corbin have also agreed to vote again on the Brexit, and have officially backed this issue. The fact that Britain’s two rival parties have come to an agreement on holding a new referendum has provided the ground for its ultimate realization.

First published in our partner MNA

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Rift deepens between US and EU over Iran

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Munich Security Conference 2019: A view of the main conference hall, Image source: MSC / Kuhlmann

Recent days have been witness to two important events: the Middle East Conference in Warsaw (co-hosted by Poland and the US State Department from February 13-14, 2019) and the Munich Conference. Differences between the EU and US over dealing with challenges in the Middle East, especially concerning Iran, were primary during both events.

The Middle East Conference in Warsaw somewhat lacked legitimacy as a number of important individuals were not present. Some of the notable absentees were the EU Foreign Policy Chief, Federica Mogherini, and the Foreign Ministers of Germany, France, and Italy. Significantly, on February 14, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met in Sochi, Russia to discuss the latest developments in Syria and how the three countries could work together.

The personalized aspect of Trump’s diplomacy

In addition to the dissonance between the EU and US over handling Iran, the dependence of Trump upon his coterie, as well as his overly-personalized diplomacy, was clearly evident. Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, spoke about the Middle East peace plan at the Warsaw Conference, which Trump will make public, after elections are held in Israel in April 2019. The fact that Netanyahu may form a coalition with religious right-wingers could of course be a major challenge to Trump’s peace plan. But given his style of functioning and excessive dependence upon a few exclusive members within his team who lack diplomatic and political experience, this was somewhat expected.

EU and US differences over Iran

While Israel, the US, and Arabs seem to have identified Iran as the main regional threat, the European Union, while acknowledging the threat emanating from Iran, made it amply clear that it disagreed with the US method for dealing with Iran unilaterally and was against any sort of additional sanctions. US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, even went so far as to state that the goal of stability in the Middle East could only be attained if Iran was ‘confronted’. The EU, unlike the US, is opposed to the US decision to get out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

At the Warsaw Conference, Vice President Mike Pence criticized European Union member countries for trying to circumvent sanctions which were imposed by the US. Pence was referring to the SPV (Special Purpose Vehicle) launched by Germany, France, and Britain which de facto undermine US sanctions against Iran. The US Vice President stated that the SPV would not just embolden Iran but could also have a detrimental impact on US-EU relations.  

Differences at Munich Conference

The differences between the US and EU over Iran were also visible at the Munich Conference. While Angela Merkel disagreed with Washington’s approach to the Nuclear Deal, she agreed on the threat emanating from Iran, but was unequivocal about her commitment to the JCPOA. While commenting on the importance of the Nuclear Agreement, the German Chancellor said:

“Do we help our common cause…of containing the damaging or difficult development of Iran, by withdrawing from the one remaining agreement? Or do we help it more by keeping the small anchor we have in order maybe to exert pressure in other areas?”

But it was at the Munich Conference that the US Vice President clearly flagged Iran as the biggest security threat to the Middle East. Pence accused Iran of ‘fueling conflict’ in Syria and Yemen, and of continuously backing Hezbollah and Hamas.

GCC Countries at the Warsaw Conference

It is not just the US and Israel, but even representatives of GCC Countries took a firm stand against Iran. A video leaked by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed this.

Bahraini Foreign Minister Khaled bin Ahmed Khalifa stated that it was not the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict but the threat from Iran which posed the gravest threat in the Middle East.  Like some of the other delegates present at the Warsaw Conference, the Bahraini Foreign Minister accused Iran of providing logistical and financial support to militant groups in the region. Similarly, another clip showed the Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Adel Al Jubeir, saying that Iran was assisting and abetting terrorist organisations by providing them with ballistic missiles.

Iran was quick to dismiss the Middle East Conference in Warsaw and questioned not just its legitimacy but also the desired outcome. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated that the conference produced an ‘empty result’.

US allies and their close ties with Iran

First, the US cannot overlook the business interests of its partners not just in Europe, but also in Asia, such as Japan, Korea, and India. India is not just dependent upon Iran for oil, but has significantly invested in development of the Chabahar Port. This will be its new modern gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia. New Delhi in fact took over operations of the Chabahar Port in December 2018. On December 24, 2018 a meeting – the Chabahar Trilateral Agreement — was held and representatives from Afghanistan, Iran, and India jointly inaugurated the office of the India Ports Global Chabahar Free Zone (IPGCFZ).

The recent terror attacks in Iran as well as India have paved the way for New Delhi and Tehran to find common ground against terror emanating from Pakistan. On February 14, 2019, over 40 of India’s paramilitary personnel were killed in Pulawama (Kashmir) when a suicide bomber attacked a convoy of Central Reserve Police Personnel (CRPF). The attack is one of the worst in recent years. The terror group Jaish-E-Muhammad claimed responsibility. On February 13, 2019, 27 members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards were killed in a suicide attack in the Sistan-Baluchistan province which shares a border with Pakistan. Iran stated the attack was carried out by a Pakistani national with the support of the Pakistani state.

In the aftermath, the Indian Foreign Minister, Sushma Swaraj, met with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Aragchchi en route to Bulgaria. In a tweet the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister stated that both sides had decided to strengthen cooperation to counter terrorism, remarking that ‘enough is enough’. This partnership is likely to evolve further. In fact, many strategic commentators in India are pitching for an India-Afghanistan-Iran security trilateral agreement to deal with terrorism.

Conclusion

 So far, Trump’s Middle Eastern Policy has focused on Iran and his approach suits both Saudi Arabia and Israel but it is opposed by a number of significant US allies. As a result of the recent terror attack in Pulwama, geopolitical developments within South Asia are extremely important. Thus, the US and GCC countries need to keep a close watch on developments in South Asia and how India-Pakistan ties pan out over the next few weeks. If Iran strengthens ties with India, and given the fact that it already has Russian support, achieving its isolation will be tough for America. New Delhi may have no option but to enhance links with Tehran given its own national security interests in the region. Trump needs to be more pragmatic towards Iran and should think of an approach acceptable to all, and not just the small cabal within his Cabinet that view the region from an anti-modern perspective.

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Montenegrin political earthquake

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In mid-January, across Montenegro, one video clip caused a real political storm. For the first time it was seen how a businessman close to the government gives 97,000 euros to Slavoljub Stijepovic, former mayor of capital Podgorica and senior official of the rulling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), to fund the election campaign. It all happened ahead of the parliamentary elections in 2016. Dusko Knezevic, chairman of the Montenegro-based Atlas Group, meanwhile suspected of money laundering and other financial malversations, explained that this was just one in series of multi-million donations to the DPS of President Milo Djukanovic, during which time the DPS has never been out of power. This video clip was the first concreate confirmation of something that has long been an open secret in Montenegro.

Ten days after the release of the video Djukanovic confirmed that Knezevic was a donor, but not in the figures stated by Knezevic. The Prosecution Office needed three days to make a statement after Knezevic’s video, which shocked most of the public. Also, it was shocking how the Prosecution Office led the investigation. Thus, after the audio recording as part of the affair Atlas, the former Vice Governor of the Central Bank Velibor Milosevic was arrested expressly, because of the suspicion of being part of a criminal organization, for whose boss is marked Dusko Knezevic. Milosevic was detained for up to 30 days, due to possible influence on witnesses. On the other hand, the video from the beginning of the story was not a sufficient reason to treat Slavoljub Stijepovic in the same way. He was interviewed only 20 days after the appearance of the video, as a citizen. Unlike Velibor Milosevic, who was detained by the prosecutor with handcuffs and in front of television cameras, Stijepovic had the privilege to come to the Prosecutor’s office through the premises of the Ministry of Justice and to come out unnoticed.

The Prosecution Office decided to suspect Stijepovic for the criminal offense of Money Laundering by helping, but Prosecution Office in his case, as in the case of Velibor Milosevic, did not see a threat to the influence of witnesses or the need for detention. According to some media reports, Stijepovic took the guilty upon himself, which is why the Prosecution assessed that there was no need for the hearing of Milo Djukanovic, president of Democratric Party of Socialists and Montenegro. Stijepovic also reportedly told the Prosecution Office the names of DPS activists from the Zeta region who received money. More than 20 were heard in the Prosecutor’s Office, no detention was ordered.

Reaction

On the same day when he was charged with a criminal offense, Stijepovic  came to the session of the Presidency of the Democratic Party of Socialists, where “traditional centers of destruction”, media and other circles, were blamed for current affair, aimed at destabilizing the country. Milo Djukanovic, according to a tried-and-tested model, tried to show that behind this affair are centers of power from Russia. So his media machine was trying to show that Dusko Knezevic is in Moscow and that he work at the orders of the Russian intelligence services. However, it soon became clear that Dusko Knezevic is in London. In an interview with Al Jazeera Balkans in London, Dusko Knezevic presented new accusations against Milo Djukanovic. Dusko Knezevic stated that he has a lot of videos that shows how he personally gives money to Djukanovic. He keeps these videos for the finals of the affair, when he says, will completely reveal the criminal octopus of Milo Djukanovic.

This criminal affair encouraged people to action. Soon protests were organized. The first protests were held on February 2. The protest was organized by a group of citizens who claimed that they started “civil struggle” against the regime in Montenegro, and that behind them stands no organization. With whistles and sirens, the demonstrators scandalized the “Street of Freedom”, “Rise Up, People”, “We Want Justice”, after which they left 97 envelopes in front of the building of the Supreme State Prosecutor’s Office, on which they wrote “1,000 Euros” on the one hand, and on the other some of the long-standing unsolved affairs that the Prosecution should solve. On Saturday, February 16th, second large gathering was held in the capital of Montenegro, where the demands to the Protesters Office were presented. From the protest gathering, held under the slogan “97,000 Resist”, urgent and irrevocable resignations were sought from the president of the state and the government, Milo Djukanovic and Dusko Markovic, Supreme State Prosecutor (VDT) Ivica Stankovic, Special State Prosecutor (SDT) Milivoje Katnic and Director of the Agency for the Prevention of Corruption (ASK) Sreten Radonjic. Since Dusko Knezevic has said that there is a part that is not corrupt in the Democratic Party of Socialists, the protestants decisively denied that. The current events with the new affair of Milo Djukanovic were also used by Albanians from the United States. A truck with the inscription “Meet the Montenegrin president – a man of organized crime in the year 2015” was parked near the White House, the Congress, the State Department, the Montenegrin and the EU Embassy in Washington. On the truck also stood the message “Stop the discrimination of Albanians in Montenegro”.

Conclusion

Montenegro, which is, a NATO member since July 2017 and a candidate for EU membership, is often accused of not doing enough to tackle organized crime and corruption. EU has demanded more concrete results in the fight against corruption at a high political level as one of the main conditions for its making progress towards joining the EU. The entire rule of Milo Djukanovic is marked by affairs, but what this sets out is the fact that Dusko Knezevic is an insider, a man who took part in many important tasks. In addition to his testimonies, Dusko Knezevic also presents video recordings as well as documents. What many analysts spoke and warned about long time ago, now is documented. This affair also clearly demonstrated that all institutions in Montenegro are under the control of Milo Djukanovic. Initially, the scandalous silence of the Prosecution Office after the outbreak of the affair, the subsequent refusal to execute detention measures for Stijepovic, but above all the absence of a hearing of Djukanovic despite the unquestionable evidence of his involvement in illegal work, is in favor of the long-held thesis that these institutions are an integral part of the regime. Judicial institutions do not even try to show that they are independent. There is no doubt that the affair initiated by Montenegrin businessman Dusko Knezevic seriously shaken Milo Djukanovic and his party. It is still early to predict how the affair will culminate because all the evidence Knezevic announces has not yet been published. However, this is clear indication that the West has decided to significantly weak Djukanovic. An attempt by the media machine of Mila Djukanovic to connect Dusko Knezevic with Russian intelligence services, is not accepted in the West. Dusko Knezevic clearly shows that he is doing all the attacks on Djukanovic from London, where he currently lives. The fact that some political parties that are close to the Western Embassies support street protests, which was not the case before, speaks enough. One of the reasons why Milo Djukanovic has been ruling for almost three decades is complete obedience to the West. However, Djukanovic did all the tasks that the West needed, the separation of Montenegro from Serbia, the recognition of Kosovo’s independence, and finally the violent entry of Montenegro into NATO. Now with his biography, which is full of affairs, he is only a burden to the West. In any case, this affair will either take Djukanovic out of power or send him a clear message that it is time for political retirement.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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