Sunday, 10 December 2017

Grandstanding “derails” Greek-Turkish rapprochement

This article was published by Al Jazeera International. 

Tayyip Erdogan and Alexis Tsipras (R) pose for pictures before entering the Greek prime minister's office (Handout)

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan's visit to Greece was supposed to be historic, because it was the first by a Turkish president in 65 years.

If it is to be remembered, it is likely that it will be for a public spat between Erdogan and his Greek counterpart, Prokopis Pavlopoulos, over a 94-year-old treaty.

"I don't think the meeting will stand up to history," says Haralambos Tsardanidis, head of the Institute of International Economic Relations. "The meeting between the presidents rather poisoned the relationship."

In an interview televised in Greece the night before Erdogan's visit, he set the agenda. Erdogan expressed the wish to "update" the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which fixed the border between Greece and Turkey and provided for protections of minority rights and customs in both countries.

Greece is against any revision of the treaty, and Pavlopoulos, a constitutional law professor, told Erdogan on it as soon as they met, calling it "non-negotiable".

"It has no gaps. It needs neither revision nor updating. It stands as it is, it covers absolutely the issues that it needs to cover, and stresses that among other things it leaves no leeway for grey zones or minority issues," Pavlopoulos said.

Erdogan replied: "In Western Thrace they can't even stand the word Turkish. They abhor seeing it on a school sign or a club. We need to get past this. When I talk about updating, this is exactly what I mean."

Erdogan said he would like the Muslim community in Thrace to be called Turkish, to be free to elect its head mufti [who is currently state-appointed] and to enjoy a higher standard of living.

Greek observers were surprised. "I must say, I've never seen a substantive negotiation take place in front of the cameras," commented Yiorgos Koumoutsakos, Greece's conservative shadow foreign minister.

Conservatives on the street were happy, however. "I think Pavlopoulos has scaled the pinnacle of his political career," said right-wing radio commentator Yiorgos Trangas.

Nor did the atmosphere greatly improve when Erdogan met Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister. During their discussions, they sparred over the ongoing division of Cyprus, whose northern third has been occupied by Turkish troops since a 1974 invasion.

Erdogan blamed the Greek side for two failed rounds of talks to reunify the island in 2004 and this year. "The Greek Cypriot side wanted to walk out of talks and I said, 'No, we will sign an agreement.' In the referendum that followed, 60 percent of the Turkish-Cypriots accepted the Plan but 60 percent of Greek-Cypriots rejected it. The Greek Cypriots promised us that we would solve the Cyprus problem but that's not what happened. Recently we met again in Switzerland but who walked out? The Greek-Cypriot side again."

Tsipras responded: "I am 43 years old, and for 43 years Cyprus has been an ongoing issue ... this issue remains open because 43 years ago there was an illegal invasion and occupation of the northern section of Cyprus."

A leading Turkish newspaper, Hurriyet, saw the acrimony as a deliberate deflection of attention from US President Donald Trump’s controversial decision to recognise Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. “Today is the first Friday after Trump’s decision and millions of Muslims are expected to take to the streets across the world after Friday prayers by midday,” wrote senior editor Murat Yetkin. “[Erdogan] chose to focus on Lausanne, showing his mastery on how quick he could change the agenda. Perhaps thanks to this manoeuvre he tried to maintain a degree of control over the potential anti-U.S. protests that would erupt… and at the same time caught the Greeks off guard.”

Bilkent University's Ioannis Grigoriadis blames the Greek side for what he calls a "derailment". 

 “I don’t think Erdogan intended to cause problems during his visit, but since the Greek president put things to him in public he felt obliged to respond,” says Grigoriadis, a political science professor at Bilkent University.  

Presenting Turkey as the protector of Muslim minorities in the Balkans is a standard Turkish foreign policy position, and Grigoriadis believes Erdogan would have mentioned the Muslim minority in Greece anyway, but in a less acrimonious way.

"He wanted to appeal to his right wing. That's his base, and he’s afraid of losing part of it to the MHP-splinter ‘Good Party’ that has been recently founded,” Grigoriadis says.

Erdogan was elected to the presidency in 2014 with a sliver of a majority - 52 percent - and he failed to carry Turkey's largest cities - Istanbul, Izmir and the capital, Ankara, in an April 16 referendum granting the presidency increased powers.

He faces re-election in 2019. “He has reason to worry about the elections despite the state of emergency,” says Grigoriadis. “His polls are declining. The economy is in a fragile mode. There are many parameters that could shift against him.”

Falling international confidence in the Turkish economy is reflected in the Turkish lira, which has dropped to 26 cents on the dollar, from almost 60 cents four years ago. Some of that confidence gap stems from the increasing isolation of Turkey, since a July 2016 attempt by military officers to unseat Erdogan.

The Greeks sought this meeting partly because it was an opportunity for Greece to act as a mediator between Europe and Turkey.

Since then, Turkey’s state of emergency has distanced Erdogan from European leaders even further. Greece’s invitation to Erdogan is only the second from an EU country since the coup.

Greece is also alarmed by the rise in refugees arriving across the water from Turkey, from an average of 50 a day in the spring to four times that number. That rise has come with renewed tension in the Aegean - some 3,000 airspace violations by Turkish fighter aircraft this year, marking a five-year peak. In a statement last month, Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias said that “the danger of an accident in the Aegean is on the rise,” as Greek fighter jets take off to meet Turkish ones. And Greece says territorial water violations number 1,600 this year, a ten-year high.

In this area of security, the two sides may have achieved something, believes Tsardanidis.

"What was salvaged was that the two sides agreed to talk about confidence-building measures and [delineating] the continental shelf. Both are important to the Greeks because they can lower tensions in the Aegean," he says.

However, he cautions against over-optimism. "It's open to question whether the climate that was created will allow for progress, because there are people in Greece and Turkey who don't want to see a substantial negotiation between Greece and Turkey, and they are very uncompromising."

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Government failures create a Greek class of working poor

The latest reports on Greek workers’ income make dismal reading.

More than one in three Greeks is at risk of poverty and social exclusion - the highest rate in the Eurozone and second-highest rate in the EU after Romania and Bulgaria (40pc) - the latest Eurostat figures reveal.

This is partly because of unemployment, which remains stubbornly high after an eight-year recession. By the official figures it stands at 23 percent, but a Labour Institute report, which also takes underemployment into account, puts it at 28 percent (compared to the Eurozone’s 9 percent).

The Labour Institute also highlights the second reason for Greek poverty risk: the fact that people are simply being poorly paid. Due to the weakness of the Greek recovery, new jobs are almost entirely part time, and underpaid. A third of full-time workers and one in four part-time workers are being paid an average of €397 euros, even less than minimum wage €431 per month) which is roughly the statistical poverty level (and this is already defined as a very low €4,500 per annum in Greece, compared to, say, €12,765 in Germany).

The Institute, Greece's main labour think-tank, blames low rates of investment. Given current rates, it says, Greek employment would reach pre-recession levels in 2033.

These readings underline how the medicine of austerity is still failing to produce notable results in Greece, long after Spain and Portugal graduated from their programmes and are now achieving higher rates of growth than the Eurozone average, while Ireland is approaching zero rates of unemployment.

It is true that thanks to austerity, Greece balanced its budget in 2014, but the recession produced by public spending cuts only ended this year, and the recovery is in the order of 0.8pc of GDP in the second quarter, failing to meet predictions of 2.7pc growth. 

Why is this? Partly because the Greek recession was deeper than those of other programme countries, wiping a quarter of the economy out; and partly because the Greek debt is known to be unsustainable, frightening investors away, and the Eurozone has been slow to reschedule it. But the answer also lies in the reluctance of Greek governments to challenge vested interests (with the exception of the Piraeus Port Authority, all of Greece’s major privatisations went to oligarchs), build an effective tax enforcement mechanism (the government’s conservative estimate of tax evasion from fuel smuggling, for instance, is €1bn), or to stimulate investment, exports and job creation.

This last is the most complex problem. It is partly due to the fact that banks cannot finance enterprise, because they have enormous levels of non-performing loans after years of dithering on governments’ part on how to dispose of these. Then there is the reluctance of governments to simplify procedures for opening and closing businesses, licensing and permitting, because that would involve staff cuts in the state – the country’s most influential client base. Third, there is the impossibility of offering tax cuts to businesses and consumers, because the combination of a bloated state and inefficient tax collection machinery mean high taxes for all. And finally there is the inability of most Greek politicians to comprehend how money is made, because few of them have worked in the private sector.  

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Nurzai’s Odyssey

This article was published in the Spring 2017 issue of The Sewanee Review


When Nurzai was eight years old, a shootout at the Afghan-Iranian border separated him from his family. It was late at night, and the family was trying to cross into Iran. Instead of being met by border guards, they found themselves negotiating with smugglers.

“They told us to get out of the car and walk… We had been warned by the smuggler’s own henchmen that he is a thief and might kidnap children, even if we paid him… we thought that if we ran for it we might escape,” says Nurzai, who was travelling with his parents, an older brother and an older sister. “They opened fire spraying bullets everywhere… Everyone else ended up in one group and I was on my own.”

Nurzai, who prefers not to reveal his real name and hometown, is now a demure, soft-spoken 14 year-old. He has spent the last six years making his way, alone, to Greece – the first European foothold attainable from Asia. The fuzz on his upper lip suggests a sophomore, but the experiences he has been through, his composure as he relates them, and his very survival, suggest resourcefulness and maturity rarely found in adults, let alone children.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Greek asylum chief calls for a massive legal migration into Europe

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

Greece's asylum chief is calling on Europe to resettle “several hundred thousand” refugees a year directly from the Middle East, rather than allowing them to suffer the hazards of illegal crossings.

“That’s the number of people coming into Europe anyway,” says Maria Stavropoulou, who has overseen Greece’s Asylum Service since it was founded in 2013. “This past year [Europe] has had a million asylum applications. We know who makes these applications. The majority is people coming irregularly into Europe. So what are we doing? We’re just giving business to smugglers.”

The European Union runs a Resettlement programme, through which refuges can be admitted directly from Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, but it has a ceiling of 22,504 over two years.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Gold miner’s woes cloud Greece’s investment skies

 This article was published by Al Jazeera International

The extended plant at Olympias, which received a permit on Friday 15 Septemebr

ATHENS, Greece – The fate of one of Greece’s biggest foreign investments hung in the balance on Wednesday, as relations between the government and Canada’s Eldorado Gold Corporation seemed close to breaking point.

Push, literally, came to shove outside the energy and environment ministry, as dozens of yellow-vested miners tried to force their way past a blue wall of riot police to gain an audience with minister Yiorgos Stathakis.

“The miners are going crazy. They don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” said Yiorgos Hatzis, a senior member of one of the four unions that chartered overnight buses from northern Greece to picket the ministry.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Greece’s Pivot toward China

This article was published by The Weekly Standard under the title, "How China acquired a major port in Europe". 

COSCO's first of two 80,000-tonne capacity floating docks, new additions to the Piraeus Port Authority's ship repair division. (Handout photo)

ATHENS, Greece - In the Salamis strait where an Athenian-led fleet of 380 ships once sank a Persian fleet of more than a thousand and altered the history of the Western world, the China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) is redrawing global trade routes. The strait lies just outside the port of Piraeus and is the heart of its cargo business. Container ships arrive around the clock to be loaded or unloaded with pinpoint precision. The only sound is that of whirring motors as containers are lifted from decks and placed on flatbed trucks to be stacked on the quay.

Since 2008, when it signed a 35-year lease from the Piraeus Port Authority to operate two container piers, COSCO has increased throughput from 700,000 twenty foot-equivalent units (teu) to what it estimates will be over four million this year. Within the next five years, Piraeus is scheduled to handle 7.2mn teu a year, making it the Mediterranean’s biggest cargo hub and putting it behind only Rotterdam, Antwerp and Hamburg in Europe. COSCO has sunk €600mn into shoring up the strength of the piers to shoulder the weight of container cities stacked six storeys high, doubling the size of the second pier, and installing 33 of the tallest gantry cranes in the world, capable of loading and unloading container ships so large, they have not yet been built. By the time COSCO finishes its investments, Piraeus will be the only Mediterranean port capable of harbouring five giga-container vessels simultaneously.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Eurogroup grants the beginnings of long-term debt relief for Greece

This article was published by Al Jazeera International. 

Greece came away from Thursday’s Eurogroup meeting with a $9.5bn (€8.5bn) loan instalment and the beginnings of a commitment to longer-term debt relief – the Syriza government’s key demand since it came to power in 2015.

The six hour-long meeting of Eurozone finance ministers effectively brought the International Monetary Fund on board with Greece’s third bailout loan, currently held only by European institutions, because the IMF insisted on debt relief as a precondition.

“Nobody claims that this is the best solution,” said IMF chief Christine Lagarde, who attended the Eurogroup session. “That would have been a final approval on debt relief so that there would be clarity. This is second best.”