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The Geopolitics of a Grexit Are Actually Pretty Boring

Those fretting that a Greek departure from the eurozone will unleash a flood of migrants and send Athens into the arms of a waiting Putin should calm down. None of this is going to happen.

ATHENS, GREECE - JUNE 21: Protesters attend  an anti-austerity pro-government rally in front of the parliament building  on June 21, 2015 in Athens, Greece. Greece's leftwing government believes it can reach a deal with its creditors on Monday. (Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)
ATHENS, GREECE - JUNE 21: Protesters attend an anti-austerity pro-government rally in front of the parliament building on June 21, 2015 in Athens, Greece. Greece's leftwing government believes it can reach a deal with its creditors on Monday. (Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)

The doomsday scenario goes like this: An angry, desperate Greece, alienated from Europe and with nowhere to turn, looks around for help. It glances eastward and sees the open arms of none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin. Moscow offers its assistance — for a price: Greece and Russia form a relationship. Greece either leaves the European Union and NATO, or sticks around to play the spoiler, foiling their efforts to build the unanimity they need to move forward with policies against Putin or his allies. At the same time, Greece’s relationship with Turkey falls apart, introducing a new element of instability on Europe’s eastern frontier. Then — amid all these pressures — the country collapses, releasing a wave of asylum-seekers previously contained within its borders, leaving them free to romp throughout Europe.

Sound alarmist? Perhaps. But it’s an argument that many are peddling these days. Former NATO commander James Stavridis argued recently in Foreign Policy that “an angry, disaffected, and battered nation” could have the will and the guts to wreak havoc on both EU and the Atlantic alliance by sabotaging joint decisions — like sanctions against Russia, the Iran nuclear talks, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the bête noire of Europe’s radical left. For its part, the Economist raised the specter of Greece leaving NATO, despite the fact that the country plays host to several alliance facilities. And a recent roundtable conducted by Carnegie Europe (in which, full disclosure, I participated) found that many prominent experts when asked the question, “Would a Grexit be a geopolitical disaster?” answered “yes.” Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s phone call with Putin, soon after the resounding “no” by the Greek people at Sunday’s referendum, only added to such fears. Memories of Greece backing Slobodan Milošević in the 1990s or the abrasive anti-Western rhetoric of Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou in the 1980s have reemerged.

This analysis calls for a deep, calming breath.

In the months of negotiations, deadlock, and stalemate that led up to this past weekend’s dramatic referendum vote, somewhere along the way Greece took on new significance, transforming from a peripheral member of the West that accounts for a mere 3 percent of the eurozone’s GDP to a pivotal country. As a recent Financial Times op-ed breathlessly put it, “This is a country that bridges north and south, and east and west, like no other. It forms NATO’s southern tip. And the relationships it enjoys with Russia, Iran, China and others are unique within the alliance. Even if keeping Athens securely inside the European political and security order were to come at a high price, it is one that is likely to be worth paying.” On the pages of the Wall Street Journal, Robert D. Kaplan echoed a similar sentiment: “If Greece does leave the eurozone, whatever the country’s sins, it is demonstrably in Europe’s and America’s interest to nurse it back to health to keep, for example, Russian warships away from Greek ports.”

How did Greece come to be seen as holding the fate of Europe — if not the West as a whole — in its Hellenic hands? Part of the explanation lies with Tsipras, who understandably embraced this narrative of Grecian importance, seeking to use it as a tactic to leverage geopolitical fears in the pursuit of concessions from European creditors. The ongoing flirtation with Russia by both Syriza and its coalition allies, the right-wing Independent Greeks (ANEL), looked like it might provide some space to maneuver for the embattled government in Athens. But thus far, the Russia gambit has failed to pay off. Brussels, Berlin, and other key capitals have stayed firm. Tellingly, even Cyprus has refrained from siding with the Hellenic Republic. Whatever the geopolitical value of Greece, it has not given it much mileage in the debt talks.

At a deeper level, the concern over Greece is rooted in the anxieties bedeviling Europe as a whole. The Greek drama, viewed through European eyes, is a sort of perfect storm, encompassing elements of all of the continent’s deepest, most unresolved problems: Hit by economic shock, an enfeebled country on the EU periphery has come under the rule of radical populists who are now themselves coming under the sway of Russian influence and gambling with 40 years of convergence with the West. On top of it, the conflict-ridden Levant, a source of refugees and terrorism, is dangerously close, while Greece has been one of the major routes for migrants from the Middle East and Africa to cross into EU territory. Greece once looked like an outpost of Europeanization in a volatile neighborhood; today, it appears more of a miniature version of the continent’s worst nightmare. Naturally, this has imbued its fate with a great significance disproportionate to the country’s actually capacity to cause mischief.

There is nothing wrong with being alert or alarmed over Greece. The country is technically in default. The Grexit possibility is all too real, bringing with it the prospect of continued recession, social tensions, and further marginalization within the EU. But those sounding the doomsday scenario alarm should think twice. For one, Tsipras and his government have, by and large, continued with the foreign policy they inherited, threading a fine line between multilateral commitments and perceived national interest. Unlike the classical Greek populists of Andreas Papandreou’s 1970-1980 vintage, they are not calling for an exit from the EU and NATO. Russia enjoys near universal popularity in Athens, but it is a marriage of convenience rather than a love affair. And while the spillover of economic troubles remains a concern, diplomatic relations with neighbors — notably Turkey — are, overall, on a positive trajectory. Even if Athens wanted to foment trouble — and there are few signs that it does — it has little power to actually do so.

A review of each cause for alarm reveals how unlikely they all actually are; let’s start with Putin. At this point, Greece has no opportunity to roll back the EU’s sanctions against Russia for its role in the fighting in eastern Ukraine. The Syriza-led government went along with the rest of the Union both in January, when it was inaugurated, and in June, when the EU Council extended sanctions until the end of January 2016. While it surely wants to see the restrictions lifted (ending sanctions would help boost its agricultural exports, attract Russian investment, and reduce its gas bill), Athens is highly unlikely to wield a unilateral veto next time the issue arises in Brussels. Come next December, if Tsipras and his foreign minister, Nikos Kotzias, decide to play tough, they will do so in alliance with other member states such as Italy or Hungary, who are keen to return to “business as usual” with Putin, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel acting, yet again, as the arbiter between Europe’s Russia “hawks” and “doves.” Meanwhile, the disagreements between Moscow and Ankara regarding the projected Turkish Stream pipeline have quashed hopes for billions of dollars pouring into Greece from Russia. Links with the Kremlin are no shortcut to an economic rebound, whatever the rhetoric.

There also is no indication that Greece is prepared to rock the boat on other external dossiers such as Iran or the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Some prominent Syriza members have vowed the Parliament in Athens would refuse to ratify the trade pact with the United States, but Tsipras has not spoken out against it. Picking a fight over the prospective Iran deal makes no sense. On the contrary, a normalization of ties with the Islamic Republic, which would keep crude oil prices down, is surely good news for a country dependent on energy imports that is struggling to balance the books.

Could Greece open its gates wide to migrants? Not very likely. With the rightist Independent Greeks in their coalition and the xenophobic Golden Dawn breathing down Syriza’s neck, there is not much room to use migration controls as a weapon in a guerilla war against Europe. More to the point, a bankruptcy and reintroduction of the drachma does not mean Greece will stop controlling its borders either. And indeed, Athens has continued to show signs of wanted to color within the lines on this issue as recently as late June, pushing, in concert with other EU member states like Italy, for more solidarity and burden sharing.

The Tsipras government has done well with neighbors, which should calm fears about the Grexit’s implications for security affairs. Foreign Minister Kotzias has been on a charm offensive, visiting Ankara in May and even pairing up with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu to both back the renewed talks for a settlement in Cyprus. In fact, Turkey has shown a great deal of sympathy for Syriza’s tough line toward creditors. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and other members of his party have toyed with the idea of repaying Greece’s 1.5 billion euro debt installment to the International Monetary Fund, which came due on June 30, though sustaining this positive momentum hinges on the composition of Turkey’s next governing coalition.

There are bright signs in the Balkans too — again at odds with the image of an angry Greece flexing its muscles in order to bully neighbors. In June, Kotzias visited Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, to unveil a list of 11 “confidence-building measures” on matters ranging from education to transport to justice and home affairs. Remarkably, it was the first such trip in a decade. While Athens has no plans to lift its veto on Macedonia’s accession talks with the EU, it is trying to be constructive amid the political crisis engulfing Skopje. On July 15, Kotzias is scheduled to head to Tirana, Albania, to discuss ideas on how to improve bilateral ties, which are already extensive, given the hundreds of thousands of Albanians who have called Greece home since the 1990s.

Greece’s capacity to make trouble, as it did during the heyday of its competition with Turkey or the war in the former Yugoslavia, is today quite limited. Athens has neither plans nor the capacity to single-handedly overturn key Western policies, whether in Southeast Europe or the Eastern Mediterranean.

If the crisis and the possibility of a Grexit have created a geopolitical problem, it is in Greece’s diminishing capacity to serve as an example to neighbors and a driver of positive change. It was once the model of an impoverished country under authoritarian rule that had made it to the club of rich and free nations with the help of European institutions. Through trade and investment, Athens helped advance the Western liberal order, even at times when its diplomacy was confrontational. Today’s Greece in crisis will not become a rogue state — but it will be one deeply absorbed in its own depression and its own affairs, with little to offer to its allies and neighbors.

Photo credit: Milos Bicanski/Getty Images

Dimitar Bechev is Research Fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Senior Nonresident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He is the author of Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe (Yale University Press, 2017).

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