Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, has promised to defy his critics by taking the country out of its longest-running crisis in modern times. “The worst is clearly behind us,” he told the Guardian in an exclusive interview.
“We can now say with certainty that the economy is on the up … Slowly, slowly, what nobody believed could happen, will happen. We will extract the country from the crisis … and in the end that will be judged.”
It is two and a half years since Tsipras assumed power. An improbable leader at the start of Athens’s great economic debt drama, the former communist youth activist is now the longest serving premier in the eight years during which Greece has struggled to keep bankruptcy at bay.
Yet it has been at immense cost, and while facing at times megaphone criticism, that has clearly hurt. “When I came into this office, I had no experience, or sense, of how big the day-to-day difficulties would be,” he concedes. “I think, now, I have a very different picture from the one I had initially.”
Two summers on, Tsipras is in reflective mood. At barely 42, responsibility, and the realities of governing, weigh heavy. “I have made mistakes … big mistakes,” he says, adding that his biggest error may have been “the choice of people in key posts”. Asked if that is a direct reference to his first finance minister, the maverick economist Yanis Varoufakis, the leftist rejects the notion, saying he was the right choice for an initial strategy of “collision politics”, but dismisses the plan he presented had Greece been forced to make the dramatic move to a new currency as “so vague, it wasn’t worth talking about”.
In 2015, Tsipras’s radical Syriza party was the great anti-austerity hope in the nation that, debt-choked and insolvent, threatened to tear Europe’s economic union apart. It was under threat of euro ejection – and, say aides, the risk of Greece being turned “into Afghanistan” – that the young politician, the global pinup of the far-left anti-establishment movement, eventually compromised by accepting a bailout programme whose excoriating terms were harsher than those that had been rejected by more than 61% of voters in a referendum only days before.
The fallout from the U-turn has been colossal. Syriza’s popularity has plummeted; Tsipras’s own ratings have nosedived. Some polls show the leftists trailing by as many as 16 points, others less, but all seem to reflect a view that the charismatic politician “lied” by adopting the virulent neoliberal budget cuts and tax rises he had once vowed to overturn.
On the leafy avenue outside the neoclassical villa that houses his office, there have been days when pensioners – among the biggest losers in Greece’s ordeal by bankruptcy – have been teargassed while protesting. Almost hourly, the media lists the indignities and depredations visited on a people hollowed out by record levels of poverty and unemployment, byproducts of the downward economic spiral brutal fiscal adjustment has imposed.
The leftists’ unnatural cohabitation with the far-right Independent Greeks – the result of a wafer-thin majority when Tsipras won a second mandate in September 2015 – has spawned accusations that Syriza’s pre-eminent concern is political survival and the trappings of power.
The eurozone’s weakest link is far from being out of the woods. With a debt load close to a staggering €340bn, or 180% of GDP, economic recovery is still a distant dream. The net worth of Greek households fell by 40% between 2009, when the crisis erupted, and 2014. For many, the noose is tightening, with authorities raiding the bank accounts of private debt holders and stepping up confiscations of properties. More than 1 million Greeks, or 21.7% of workers, are unemployed, down from 27.9% in 2013. Among Tsipras’s goals is a 10 percentage point drop in joblessness, but that is “in the next five years”.
Yet headway has been made. Talks with eurozone creditors, seemingly interminable and problem-plagued, are finally over following the disbursement of €8.5bn in emergency funding earlier this month. Capital controls imposed to thwart a bank run, after the collapse of the banking system in the heady days of June 2015, have been relaxed.
Amid speculation of Athens’s imminent return to markets – the first in a series of test runs seen as crucial if the country is ever to wean itself off borrowed money – the leader is keen to exploit the signs of light at the end of the tunnel.
Last week, the International Monetary Fund, the toughest of lenders shoring up the Greek economy since the first of three gargantuan bailouts in May 2010, agreed “in principle” to participate in the latest €86bn rescue programme – even if approval is contingent on the 19-member euro bloc providing much-needed debt relief. With fiscal measures also legislated, and a horizon free of elections until September 2019, he can, he says, get on with the business of governing; of applying an agenda more in line with the liberal values of his party. To this end, laws aimed at alleviating hardship, starting with reconstruction of the shattered welfare state, are in the pipeline.
“All this time we have been in continual negotiation and continual quest for compromise between our programme and the memorandum [of bailout conditions],” says Tsipras, insisting that while supervision will continue until the expiry of the country’s current bailout, the next 12 months will be easier. “The big breakthrough will come in August 2018, when, after eight years, we’ll emerge from the programme and international oversight. In the negative climate that prevails today, it is something the average Greek still doesn’t quite believe.”
Although it is 33C in the shade and blindingly bright outside, the lights are on in the prime minister’s residence when the clock strikes noon. Tsipras’s wood-panelled bureau has the feel of a cocoon. When I am led inside he is alone, hands in his pockets, a pensive look on his face.
There is small talk as he motions to a sofa under a large yellow abstract painting. The entire room, he says, has been rearranged. His desk – almost empty save for a few paper notes, a stack of neat files and a box of Cuban cigars – was previously in front of the window, making it impossible to enjoy any fresh air. A “very heavy” artwork – the choice of Antonis Samaras, his conservative predecessor – adorned the wall. A table and set of oval backed chairs were where his desk is now. “It was so depressing. I changed it all,” he says.
On a domestic front rarely free of tension, the swashbuckling Varoufakis is again in the news, causing ructions with revelations of a parallel currency and contingency plan had an exit from the EU, Grexit, occurred.
Today, Tsipras wants to dwell neither on Varoufakis – blamed widely by Greeks for the bungled “game of chicken” that led to the EU and IMF enforcing the harshest austerity measures yet – nor his nemesis, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble. “Yanis is trying to write history in a different way,” he allows himself to say. “Perhaps the moment will come when certain truths are told … when we got to the point of reading what he presented as his plan B it was so vague, it wasn’t worth the trouble of even talking about. It was simply weak and ineffective.”
Far from being a hate figure, Varoufakis held Schäuble in high esteem, Tsipras says. “I think he was his alter ego. He loved him. He respected him a great deal and he still respects him.”
Attempting to set the record straight, Tsipras says that while the Syriza government’s original strategy was one of collision politics – “in line with our mandate” – quitting the single currency, and by extension the EU, was never in question, even in the white heat of crisis when Athens was days away from default.
“Leave Europe and go where … to another galaxy?” he quips. “Greece is an integral part of Europe. Without it, what would Europe look like? It would lose an important part of its history and its heritage.” Besides, Grexit would have amounted to acceptance of the “punishment plan” concocted by Schäuble that foresaw Athens taking “time out” of the bloc.
Compromise was the only option, says Tsipras, likening the measures that came with it to a ghastly medicine endured when life is at stake. “You hold your nose, you take it … You know that there is no other way … because you have tried everything else to survive, to stay alive.” Despite the firestorm of criticism he now endures, non-Greek observers say the once-firebrand leader has also shown courage in implementing policies he evidently loathes. Tsipras has managed to persuade many of those in his own party opposed to austerity to swallow the bitter pill that has kept Greece in the family of nations it has long identified with. The scenario of a “left parenthesis”, peddled by political enemies at the start of his tenure, has been put to rest.
Now, he says, the time has come to push ahead with “a new model of development”: one that exploits the nation’s highly skilled young professionals, redresses the brain drain that has seen close to half a million flee already, and ensures that the mistakes of the past – sins embodied by epic corruption and cronyism – are never repeated.
Greek society has changed and matured. “Our first priority is to regain our [economic] sovereignty,” he explains, adding that plans are afoot to exploit Greece’s prime geopolitical location, at the crossroads of three continents, and promote its potential as an international energy, transport and telecommunications hub.
It won’t be easy. Syriza’s penchant for high taxes has not only decimated the middle class – the glue in any society – but has slowed down vital foreign investment. Businesses that have not closed are leaving en masse. For many, the real economy has never been worse.
But the leftists argue that they have the moral high ground. A recent Alco poll revealed that Greeks have little faith that the main centre-right opposition party – alongside the centre-left Pasok the force most associated with the ills behind Greece’s economic collapse – would handle the crisis any better.
With the worst behind them and their honour intact, Tsipras insists Syriza can bring about a moral revolution that will profoundly change the way Greece is governed. “If you go out into the street and ask about this government, many might say ‘liars’, but nobody will say we are corrupt or dishonourable or have had our hand in the honey pot.”
Ultimately, the great clash between Athens and the lenders keeping Greece afloat will be what is left imprinted on the collective memory, but Tsipras’s legacy, he says, will rest on something else. “It will be that I managed to take the country out of the bog in which it had been led by those who bankrupted it … and move ahead with a programme of deep reform.”
That, at least, is the hope. For Greece has become an unpredictable place and, as with history itself, there are no straight lines. “No one,” he says, “can ever be sure that the crisis won’t come back.”