Could Syriza win tilt Greece's foreign policy towards Russia?

Syriza supporter holds flag and placard (22 Jan) Image copyright Getty Images

While much of the world's attention has been focused on the wider economic ramifications of the new Syriza-dominated government in Athens, this curious coalition of far left and nationalist right raises all sorts of questions about the trajectory of Greek foreign policy as well.

Could Athens, for example, now block further EU sanctions against Russia? Will the new Greek coalition be committed to Nato? Might Greece's improving economic and security relationship with Israel be reconsidered?

And what about the curious mixture of friends and sympathisers that Syriza seems to have gathered around the world? What does this tell us, if anything, about the Greek coalition's likely direction?

The Russian ambassador to Greece was the first foreign diplomat welcomed by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

Russia is a major commercial partner of Greece and the Greek economy has inevitably suffered from the sanctions imposed on Moscow by the EU in the wake of the Ukraine crisis and from the counter-measures instituted by Moscow in return.

"We do not agree with the spirit of the sanctions against Russia," said the new Greek Minister for European Affairs Nikos Chountis on Wednesday.

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Image caption Syriza has been more sympathetic towards Russian President Vladimir Putin than others in Europe

It is true that on Ukraine, Syriza has been much more sympathetic to the Russian position than most of its EU counterparts.

Syriza MEPs have consistently voted against motions critical of Russia in the European Parliament, and they opposed the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine - a deal establishing economic ties between Brussels and Kiev.

With an extraordinary meeting of EU foreign ministers due on Thursday - which will discuss a new set of sanctions against Russia - the new Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias has already made it clear that Athens is not going to be bounced into anything.

He has accused EU nations of seeking to present Greece with a fait accompli. "We made that clear from the beginning," he noted on Tuesday. "It will not be accepted."

Challenge to Nato

Strident Greek opposition to further sanctions - or indeed to the renewal of existing measures - could seriously compromise the EU's concerted approach towards the Kremlin. Clearly such a policy would win the Greeks few friends in other European capitals.

But it could strengthen the voice of the small number of EU countries that have reservations about the sanctions.

On Nato, Syriza describes its approach as "a multi-dimensional, pro-peace foreign policy for Greece, with no involvement in wars or military plans." It seeks "the re-foundation of Europe away from artificial divisions and Cold War alliances such as Nato."

Last year one Syriza MP called for Greece to leave Nato altogether, though the comments were rapidly played down by senior party officials.

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Image caption Syriza has suggested it may want to distance itself from Nato

One interesting aspect of recent Greek foreign policy has been the developing defence and economic relationship with Israel. In part this was a measure of the worsening relations between Israel and Turkey.

But it was also an indication of their joint concern about the developing chaos in the region and of the potential for co-operation in developing energy links between Israel's gas fields in the Mediterranean and European markets.

Syriza is a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause, but that does not necessarily mean that improving ties with Israel will be damaged.

The appointment of Nikos Kotzias as foreign minister is seen as a pragmatic choice. Greek security policy looks likely to continue to be orientated around its concerns about Turkey. That suggests that defence ties with Israel may not suffer.

Nonetheless, the appointment of right-wing coalition partner Panos Kammenos as defence minister could cause some bumpy moments. The Independent Greeks leader drew strong criticism last year when he made a statement accusing Greek Jews of not paying their taxes.

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Image caption Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has steered Syriza away from some of its more radical positions
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Defence minister and leader of the nationalist Independent Greeks Panos Kammenos

His presence in this coalition points to another curious aspect of the new government - the way its members have drawn support from an odd mixture of parties and politicians abroad, especially those on the nationalist right of the political spectrum.

Such supporters range from controversial Russian right wing ideologue Alexander Dugin to the leader of France's far-right Front National, Marine Le Pen.

From opposition to government

It is Syriza's apparent anti-capitalism, its sympathy towards Vladimir Putin's Russia, its opposition to Nato and so on, that makes it attractive to such people. It is, in large part, the same set of reasons that has brought the Independent Greeks party into the coalition in Athens.

But what all this tells us about the likely direction of Greek foreign policy is unclear. Syriza has to make a rapid transition from being the voice of dissent and opposition into a governing party with economic catastrophe looming.

It is the economy and negotiations with the EU that are going to dominate this new Greek cabinet's first months. Everything else will be secondary.

Radical changes in Greek foreign policy will only alienate countries that Athens needs to influence. Don't be surprised then, if there is a good deal less change than many outside Greece may have feared.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The new Greek cabinet will need to win friends in Europe

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