Alexis Tsipras Is Smarter Than You Think

Greece’s prime minister has transformed from leftist firebrand to international statesman—and gotten more powerful at home in the process.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras at the European Council in Brussels on Oct. 18. (Francois Walschaerts/AFP/Getty Images)
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras at the European Council in Brussels on Oct. 18. (Francois Walschaerts/AFP/Getty Images)

In a historic moment for the Balkans, the diplomatic riddle over the name of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia came to an end Friday. With 153 votes, the Greek Parliament voted to approve the deal with its neighboring country, which will see its name changed to North Macedonia (distinguishing it from the Greek province of Macedonia). The change paves the way for North Macedonia to join NATO and the European Union, and both countries are likely to benefit from a new status quo that drains nationalist narratives of their force.

Coincidentally, Friday was the four-year anniversary of the first electoral victory in 2015 of Greece’s ruling Syriza party, which was previously on the fringes of the country’s political landscape. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, addressing the Parliament Thursday night, before the next day’s fateful vote, took the opportunity to link diplomacy to domestic politics. “It’s not us that history will prove justified. History will prove Greece justified,” he said before attacking the opposition and its leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, for their rejectionist stance on the issue. “Your main issue is not the deal. Your main issue is Syriza. Your main issue is me. That’s the truth.”

Tsipras is not wrong; the opposition is indeed enraged by his leadership. But that’s above all because Tsipras has outplayed everyone on this issue, from his handling of the international negotiations to his dealing with his coalition partner—the junior party ultimately abandoned the government before the crucial vote—to his facing down of nationalist protests across the country. Tsipras’s opponents accuse him of cynicism and opportunism. Meanwhile, foreign officials are praising him for his diplomatic bravery. Either way, there’s no doubting that he has been brilliant at politics.

This wasn’t always true. In the heady days of 2015, shortly after Tsipras led his formerly marginal party to victory in national elections, he embarked on a shambolic renegotiation over Greece’s basic relationship with the European Union—the most hapless such attempt in history until Brexit. As a result of Tsipras’s diplomacy, Greece’s economy tanked, and Greeks became more bitterly divided against one another until Tsipras ultimately ignored the result of a bailout referendum that he himself had organized and submitted to a deal he had originally rejected.

Tsipras’s rehabilitation commenced after surviving a round of elections in September 2015. Since then, he has essentially abandoned his radical credentials one by one, concentrating instead on appealing to international audiences while holding on to his core voting base in Greece. The former firebrand leftist has become instead the most U.S.-friendly and EU-oriented Greek prime minister since Costas Simitis in the 1990s. Tsipras has transformed from an anti-austerity populist into the most adept enforcer of EU financial discipline the country has seen since the crisis broke out in 2008.

And in bringing together and delivering a deal on the issue of Macedonia, an elusive foreign-policy objective for Greek governments since 1994, he has cemented his reputation abroad, with the German conservative media that once railed against him now running op-eds with such headlines as: “Only Tsipras defies the leadership vacuum of the West,” as Die Welt did a few days ago.

His critics at home hold other views: For the Greek Communist Party, he is a puppet of NATO; for nationalists, he is a traitor. But the mantra one keeps hearing about Tsipras from foreign officials and his own party is far more praiseworthy—although that praise hasn’t burnished his reputation with ordinary Greeks at home. Where successive governments collapsed under the weight of the cuts and reforms they had to push through, Tsipras’s Syriza managed to hold together and complete what is essentially the first full term for a Greek government in more than a decade. But it came at a huge price for his popularity, which lags that of his rival Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and has also demobilized the left that once brought him to power.

“The handling of the situation by the Greek government on a strategic level was positive because they realized there was a window of opportunity to close this issue once and for all,” said Thanos Dokos, the director-general of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy. Succeeding at international politics, however, has required deft domestic maneuvering. Much of Tsipras’s present success is due to his calculated ruthlessness in dealing with other parties.

The opposition mistakenly hoped that the Macedonia deal would prove to be Tsipras’s undoing—instead, the opposition itself became divided. While Syriza’s coalition partner did leave the government, as it had been threatening for months, the party’s own members of Parliament stayed loyal to Tsipras. The opposition Panhellenic Socialist Movement, which hoped that its adoption of nationalist tones would help it steal some of Syriza’s support, instead split over the issue, with some of its own MPs also siding with the government. The same happened with the centrist Potami, whose MPs deflected to both the left and the right.

These recent moves have decimated small parties, allowing both Syriza and its main opposition, the center-right New Democracy, to absorb supporters and especially for Syriza to make inroads to the center that were simply not thought possible a few years ago. And now the polls suggest that the divide between Syriza and New Democracy—which has been leading in national polls for many months—is narrowing.

All this leaves Greece in very perilous waters. Both Tsipras and Mitsotakis have invested heavily in polarizing narratives: Tsipras’s stoked anti-elite populism to get elected in 2015, and Mitsotakis has been loudly fanning nationalism over the Macedonia issue. It’s uncertain if they’ll be able to remain true to those reputations. Tsipras’s reputation, after all, has migrated far from the radical left image he built for himself before 2015; convincing the Greek left to support him once more might prove difficult, if not impossible. And Mitsotakis may face skepticism from moderate centrists who believe that his nationalist stance on Macedonia has brought him in line with the interests of Russia and Turkey in the region.

What’s clear, however, is that Greece has moved past the Balkanization of its party politics during the worst of the financial crisis. It again has a relatively clear-cut two-party system, as it always had after the military government collapsed in 1974. Tsipras has managed to transform Syriza into a new solid center-left party for Greece.

But the effects of austerity are still with ordinary Greeks. Unemployment, while dropping, is still around 18 percent. Low wages and precarity are the norm. The country’s trajectory over the next decade will depend on whether Tsipras can convince Greeks he can change these dire facts after EU-imposed austerity ends. Can he pull it off? Perhaps—but his successful diplomacy with Macedonia, which has enamored audiences abroad and impressed some Greeks at home, may not ultimately help in that effort.

Yiannis Baboulias is an investigative journalist, the writer of a forthcoming book on Golden Dawn, and a co-founder of the Precarious Europe project.

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