On May 27th and 28th, the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited Greece after nine years, shedding light on the complex relations between the two Countries. The visit happened in the context of Greece’s governmental crisis due to the approval of a package of economic and financial measures worth 11 Billion Euros, the migrants’ crisis and in particular in that of the conflicting situation in the refugee camp of Idomeni.

The meaning of the trip was somehow double: while Putin would try to détente the relations between the European Union and Russia he would also try to use this visit to discuss about privatization and pipelines in Greece. In an article in Kathimerini daily, Putin said Russia was interested in tenders involving Greek rail assets and the port of Thessaloniki, a major gateway into the Balkans. Leading Chinese shippers Cosco, who have a major presence at the main Greek port of Piraeus, are also eyeing Thessaloniki.

From a political point of view, the meeting had a strong impact. Putin reaffirmed what he had written in an article on Kathimerini: the European Union and the Russian Federation need to cooperate, but the EU is not ready and this is confirmed by the sanctions imposed by the EU in 2014 as result of the Crimea’s annexation to Russia. The sanctions on Russia’s banking, defense and energy sectors expire in July. Extending them will require a unanimous vote, and EU leaders are expected to discuss the issue next month.

The trip to Greece is part of a precise economic and strategic plan that Putin is leading. Greece, on its part, does not consider Russia as an enemy as the EU does. Instead, it seems that Greece is reaffirming its friendship with Russia, taking the distance from Turkey, considered as a threat to the security of the Country, due to the continuous Turkish actions to occupy Northern Cyprus and the continuous Turkish claims on the Aegean Sea, which highly conflicts with the international law of the sea.

The three keywords of the visit for Putin were: commerce, culture and religion. These three elements have always characterized the relations between the two Countries.

The first reason of the visit was the celebration of 1000th anniversary of the Monastery of St. Panteleimon, on Mount Athos, which is inhabited by Russian monks, one of the holiest sites of the Orthodox Christianity. Putin visited the site with Patriarch Kirillin, the Head of the Russian Orthodox Church.

After the visit to the holy site, Putin dedicated the rest of the trip to the discussion of important themes such as commerce and energy sourcing. He met both the Greek President, Prokopis Pavlopoulos, and the Foreign Minister, Nikos Kotzias. This meeting took place in Thessaloniki, which is not a casual place, but has a relevant meaning. In fact, Russia showed a strong interest in the privatization of the railway company TrainOSE and of the Harbour of Thessaloniki. The harbour, in particular, has a strategic importance due to its high commercial value and excellent geographic position. Moreover, the harbour is the country’s second larger. So, Putin´s project is to insert Thessaloniki in a big Russian plan that would allow Russia a wider opening to the sea.

Putin signed several economic deals with Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, in Athens during this visit in order to reinforce a relationship with one of his few friends in the EU at a time of tension with the West. From Greece’s point of view, the economic deals will help the Country to emerge from recession. In particular, the signing of a deal between the Russian oil company Rosneft and the Greek counterpart, Petroleum. The deal is one of the element of the energetic pivot constituted by Greece after the suspension of the two projects of South Stream and of the Turkish Stream, due to European sanctions.  The signing of deals arrives one month before the EU decides whether to extend or not, these sanctions against Russia for the annexation of Crimea. Tsipras, reaffirmed his will in reinforcing the partnership with Russia as a strategic choice. According to the Tsipras’ statements, Greece needs Russia. Greece needs foreign investments to relaunch its own economy and to acquire new trust from the investors. It is probably for this reason that Greece has begrudgingly complied with EU trade sanctions imposed on Moscow, but the government is looking for excuses that will allow the exports of Greek agricultural products to Russia that are not precisely defined in the retaliatory trade embargo that Moscow imposed on products from the EU. And, according to Russian pro-government newspapers, it seems that the creation of Greek-Russian agricultural companies will be due next month, thing that will accomplish the mission of the avoidance of the agricultural embargo.

Then there are Russian direct investment in Greece, estimated at 586 million euro in the first nine months of 2015. And there is tourism, which is a relevant aspect for both economies since Russia lost its ties with Turkey. Greece is one of the most popular destinations among Russian holidaymakers that are looking for seaside places and cultural immersion.

The relations between Russia and Greece have always been marked by religious and cultural ties. In addition, the two Countries share similar political views and, in particular, Greece is a strong supporter of Russia’s position on the Kosovo Unilateral Declaration of Independence. Even if Greece is a Member State of the EU and of the NATO, the relation with Russia has a strong tradition and both cooperate in sectors such trade, culture, energy, military and tourism.

The new left-right Greek ruling coalition, made by Syriza and An.El. (Independent Greeks, Anexartītoi Ellīnes) is trying to pursue a new foreign policy, not unidimensional, as it in the past, but a multidimensional one. The major aspect of this new policy is to look for the support of the emerging countries, BRICS, to give the Country a new role and to attract new foreign investments to allocate in the main sector of the Greek economics. This decision does not take into account the European membership as well as the Atlantic one. Indeed the ties with Russia are a perfect representation of this new political programme.

Russia, on its part, through this visit wants to soften the relation with the EU, especially in view of the future decision of the European Countries to maintain or not the sanctions against the Country after July. Putin needs a political opening and distension towards Russia and Serbia. And it is not a coincidence that few days before the trip to Greece, Putin met the Serbian Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vucic. The Greek-Russian axe is one additional element to the Russian-Serbian one.  And it is important to underline that these two partners are respectively, member of the EU and of the NATO (Greece) and the other is a candidate for EU membership (Serbia).

Obama seems to be worried about the relationship between the two Countries, as well as the Greeks’s neighbours and the other European Member States. The cooperation between Russia and Greece is not only commercial or partially political: in the past there were two examples of military cooperation. No joint exercises but exclusively a supply of complementary defence equipment. During the Government led by the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Panellinio Sosialistiko Kinima, ΠΑΣΟΚ), there were two episodes of cooperation with Moscow: first of all the a concession on behalf of Greece, of supply for the Russian fleet stationed at the boatyard of Syros´Island. Then, there was a Russian supply to Cyprus of the anti-aircraft system S300.

This kind of cooperation worried all NATO Member States. The relations with Russia could, in the long term, convince Greece to put some distance from the NATO and its politics. This would lead to a domino effect: the United States in primis would lose trust towards the Mediterranean Country, as well as all the others would. The defence of Mediterranean Sea will become again the central objective of the future plan of the Alliance. Denying the access to the sea to Russia could worsen the relations with Western Countries again. The possibility that this would happen in short time is quite impossible, but in a medium-long term perspective this would be possible and it could depend on the next initiatives of the leading coalition SYRIZA-An.El. Syriza, in its own political programme, talks about the submission to referendum binding treaties and other European relevant agreements. An.El., instead, ask for a reform of the educational system supported by the development of a Christian Orthodox oriented system. These two elements combined together represent the perfect recipe for getting closer to Russia more than before. Moreover, there is energetic cooperation resembling the military one, and the numerous advantage related to the agreements signed that will get Greece closer to the Russian orbit.

What will happen in the short-medium term is not easy to predict, but the real test will be the EU decision over Russian sanctions. In that occasion Greece should decide whether to vote against or in favor. If Greece will continue to maintain only economic and cultural ties with Russia, Greek diplomacy should be able to make the Country a bridge between the two cultures and politics. If Greece will continue to support the Russian politics to pursue economic advantages, the Country will change direction. A direction that will not be easily accepted and that will change the political assets of the most unstable region in Europe.

Alessandra Vernile

Master’s degree in International Relations (LUMSA)


References

Putin wraps up with Russian Monastery visit. 2016, May 28. Ekathimerini.com. Retrieved from: bit.ly/1PyA5qE.

Greece wants trade energy deals from Putin trip, 2016, May 27. Ekathimerini.com. Retrieved from:  bit.ly/28KUchh.

Putin visits Greece for energy investment talks. 2016, May 27. Ekathimerini.com. Retrieved from:  bit.ly/2680GEA.

Putin and Tsipras seeking to profit from historic ties. 2016, May 27. Retrieved from: bit.ly/1tAIllX

Seiti A. (2016, May 28) Russie-Grèce : une visite au carrefour des enjeux économiques, géopolitiques et symboliques, Retrieved from: bit.ly/1UgobJt