Syriza in Athens and Putin in Moscow: An Unholy Alliance?

Islam is by no means the only faith in which evil intentions are covered by pious phrases. The fantasy of a new Christian Orthodox empire should alarm the world no less than the tremors of the financial markets or the status of the euro.
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The sensational victory of the radical leftist Syriza movement in the January 25 Greek elections, with the populist coalition winning 149 of 300 parliamentary seats, has raised numerous questions across Europe and the world. Most of the controversy about this episode focuses on whether Greece will default on its debt, in a crisis for Europe; or leave the Eurozone altogether, which some would consider a catastrophe.

Less attention has been paid to the troubling attitudes of Syriza and its leaders in foreign policy, although many hints have appeared in authoritative media.

Syriza has chosen to rule in alliance with 13 deputies from the rightist party of Independent Greeks, which gives the new government a majority. But why did a militant neo-Marxist phenomenon like Syriza find itself wedded to a conservative force like the Independent Greeks?

Information about the background of this puzzling lash-up is dismaying, and indicators point to meddling from Moscow. On January 29, Sam Jones, Kerin Hope, and Courtney Weaver of the London Financial Times published a detailed analysis of links between Syriza and the Independent Greeks, on one hand, and the circle of Vladimir Putin, on the other. Titled "Alarm bells ring over Syriza's Russian links," the reportage disclosed an intimate association between Nikos Kotzias, the new, Syriza-appointed Greek foreign minister, and Aleksandr Dugin, a prominent Russian ultra-nationalist and proponent of Christian Orthodox domination over Eurasia - from the Atlantic to the Pacific. According to the seldom-inaccurate FT, Dugin has called for the genocide of Ukrainians for resisting Russia's revived expansionism.

For their part, the Independent Greeks were known previously for a claim by their leader and the new regime's defense minister, Panos Kammenos, that "Buddhists, Jews, Muslims are not taxed [in Greece]. The Orthodox Church is taxed and in fact is at risk of losing its monastery assets." To comprehend the inflammatory nature of this charge, it is useful to know that Greece is overwhelmingly Christian Orthodox and that Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists comprise small minority communities. One may argue for or against taxation of churches - with most religious bodies tax-exempt in the U.S. - but the supposition that Greece is about to disestablish and confiscate the assets of the Orthodox Church appears absurd.

Alexis Tsipras, the founder and leader of Syriza, expressed his atheism when sworn in as prime minister January 26, by refusing an oath on a Bible. How, then, will atheist leftism and Christian Orthodox chauvinism coexist in the new Athens administration?

One may find an answer in the nature of Eastern European politics as influenced by Putin and Russia. The Kremlin chief has worked to refine a "red-brown alliance" - the term used for the merger of communist and fascist movements in Russia and Serbia after the formal, but incomplete, dismantling of their party-states in 1989-91.

The first foreign official to visit prime minister Tsipras was Russian ambassador Andrey Maslov, who soon invited defense minister Kammenos to visit Moscow. Putin echoed the welcome. Meanwhile, aside from its criticism of European economic policies, the Tsipras cabinet has dissociated itself definitively from Western sanctions against Moscow over the seizure of Crimea and other Russian armed intrigues in Ukraine.

The vision of Christian Orthodox unity projected by ideologues like Dugin and sought in practice by Putin is not a uniform one. Greece may be especially useful to Moscow as a weapon to disunite the European Union and destabilize the Balkans. The latter is a threat of which German chancellor Angela Merkel has warned explicitly. The Tsipras government has blustered that it might demand huge financial reparations from Germany for the occupation of Greece during the second world war.

Yet on the borderlands of Russia as well as in the ranks of the EU, not all Christian Orthodox societies are viewed by Russia with the same friendly manner as Serbia - which has been promised support by Putin in its continuing partition of Bosnia-Hercegovina and its ambition to carve off a piece of northern Kosovo - and Greece. An FT survey published February 4 cautioned that EU-affiliated Romania, no less than the Baltic members of the EU and NATO, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, are considered within the area of Russian military aggression. Romania, like Ukraine, has a Christian Orthodox heritage, but is Latin, not Slavic. Macedonia, which is mainly Slav, has a similar Orthodox religious culture, but Greece does not recognize it fully as an independent country, and Macedonia will probably not benefit from Russian patronage.

Russia plays many sides in these international and regional rivalries. FT columnist Gideon Rachman pointed out on February 2 that "The rightwing German parties that are calling for [economic] toughness towards Greece and [foreign-policy] softness towards Russia, are also linked to the 'anti-Islamisation' demonstrations that have broken out in German cities."

In this kaleidoscope of demagogy, Balkan Muslims, including Albanians, who have long complained of discrimination by Greece, no less than Bosnians, may find themselves, as in the 1990s, threatened once again by violent bigotry, acting under cover of religious identity. A tragic outcome could befall equally the Christian Orthodox Albanians, who make up a third of their nationality in Albania and Macedonia.

Islam is by no means the only faith in which evil intentions are covered by pious phrases. The fantasy of a new Christian Orthodox empire should alarm the world no less than the tremors of the financial markets or the status of the euro. In their times, Hitler and Stalin used one another, and Stalin manipulated the Orthodox church as a foreign policy tool. But those were the most evil of times, and we should all pray they do not return.

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