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Tsipras heads to Moscow, Europeans keeping wary eye on visit

April 7, 2015

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece’s new left-wing prime minister, whose cash-strapped country is embroiled in tortuous negotiations with its European creditors, is heading to Moscow for a visit that has stirred high hopes in Athens but caused consternation elsewhere in Europe.

The trip starting Tuesday night couldn’t come at a more critical time. Greece, dependent on international bailouts worth 240 billion euros since mid-2010, will run out of funds within weeks unless it reaches a deal with its creditors to release at least part of the last remaining 7.2 billion-euro bailout installment.

Alexis Tsipras’ government — a coalition of the radical left and nationalist right elected in January on promises to repeal the austerity measures imposed as a condition of the rescue — has been flirting with Moscow from the start.

His trip may clarify whether he views his relationship with Russia as a potential bargaining chip, or whether he simply aims to enhance Greece’s international relations and deepen the two countries’ traditionally warm ties.

“It’s a move clearly of high symbolism on the part of Greece,” said Constantinos Filis, research director at the Institute of International Relations. “From there on, one must see what the substance is and whether there will be any substance.”

He noted, however, that “Russia is not and cannot be a (EU) substitute for Greece, it can only be a supplementary option.”

Russia, whose own economy is struggling, could only offer limited financial help to Greece.

But Tsipras, who meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev the following day, has been cultivating the impression that Athens might see Moscow as a potential means of pressure in its current negotiations.

“Greece lost a large part of its economic power in the last 4 ½, five years,” Tsipras said Monday in an unrelated Parliamentary debate. But, he added, “it is a sovereign country that partners and creditors cannot play with. You will see that, and the partners and creditors will see that.”

Tough talk, particularly in relation to Greece’s creditors, has made Tsipras’ popularity soar at home, with many Greeks saying they have regained a sense of lost national pride.

And Greece is seeking any financial leverage it can get. Energy Minister Panagiotis Lafazanis returned last week from his own Moscow trip with pledges to deepen energy cooperation and hopes that an embargo on Greek fruit imports to Russia might be lifted.

The U.S. and EU have imposed crippling economic sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and support for an insurgency in eastern Ukraine. Moscow retaliated by banning most Western food imports, which hurt Greek agricultural exports.

Moscow hopes talks with Tsipras will help further weaken the EU’s resolve to maintain the sanctions against Russia, said Sergei Oznobishchev, head of Russia’s independent Institute of Strategic Assessment.

“We see a group of countries ... which are against the prolongation of sanctions against Russia, and Greece is among them,” Oznobishchev said. “Now it’s time to move further. For the Russian side, this is one more possibility to raise (the issue of) sanctions, to make the European Union less strong and to acquire some economic privileges.”

But analysts warn Tsipras is playing a dangerous game, particularly if the tough talk reflects actual intentions rather than just rhetoric aimed at a domestic audience.

“If Greece goes to Moscow with the logic of showing, as the prime minister said, to its creditors that it cannot be blackmailed, and it attempts itself to blackmail its partners through the so-called deepening of its relations with Russia, then I fear this will be a very strong blow to the confidence of our partners toward us,” said Filis.

Tsipras has made no secret of his disagreement with the EU’s position on Russia.

Yet the EU has made clear it expects every country in the 28-nation bloc to follow the common line on Russia.

“We expect that all member states are treated equally and we expect as well that all member states speak with one voice to all our trade partners, including Russia,” EU Commission spokesman Daniel Rosario said. Potential bilateral agreements to lift import bans from any state “are for the moment speculation,” he said.

Not everyone in Greece’s government has been playing the Russian card. Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis has insisted the country’s place is firmly within the EU.

“The solution to the Greek social economic crisis concerns the European family, and must be found within the framework of the EU,” he said in an interview with the financial daily Naftemporiki published Monday.

“The tightening and cultivation of relations with countries outside the eurozone and outside the EU, which have common interests with Greece ... is a totally different issue.”


Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed.

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