Alarm bells ring over Syriza’s Russian links | Financial Times

Soon after Syriza, the Greek radical leftwing party, swept to power this week, alarm bells began ringing in the capitals of Europe. However it was not finance officials who were rattled but Europe’s defence and security chiefs.

The day after his election as Greece’s new prime minister, Alexis Tsipras threw a grenade in the direction of Brussels: he objected to calls for further sanctions against Russia as a result of rising violence in Ukraine.

On Wednesday, Athens went further. “We are against the embargo that has been imposed against Russia,” said Panagiotis Lafazanis, the energy minister and leader of Syriza’s far-left faction, according to the semi-official Athens News Agency. “We have no differences with Russia and the Russian people.”

The Greek rebuff has elicited an angry — and, behind closed doors, indignant — response. EU powers led by the UK, Germany and France, have lately trodden a careful path in trying to keep the EU’s 28 member states unified on the need to impose a financial and economic cost on Russia for its destabilising actions inside Ukrainian territory.

While some diplomats and analysts see Mr Tsipras’s intervention against more sanctions as an opening gambit in forthcoming negotiations over Greece’s international bailout and debt burden, others point to it as another example of spreading Russian influence in southeastern Europe.

European and Nato intelligence officials are now poring over links between the Kremlin and senior figures from Syriza and its coalition partner, the Independent Greeks party.

The fact that the first foreign official Mr Tsipras invited to the Maximos Mansion in Athens on Monday was Andrey Maslov, Russia’s ambassador, speaks to their concerns.

Mr Tsipras’s previous comments on the Ukrainian crisis are also clear enough: in a trip to Moscow in May, he chief accused Kiev of harbouring “neo-Nazi” elements and denounced sanctions against Russia.

The trip was part of an election tour of European capitals by Mr Tsipras, who was then running for European Commission president as the candidate of the European far left.

“It’s a regression for us to see fascism and the neo Nazis entering European governments again and for this to be accepted by the EU,” Mr Tsipras said at the time. “The EU is shooting itself in the foot with this strategy.”

Other members of Greece’s new government harbour similar views. Nikos Kotzias, the foreign minister, and Panos Kammenos, defence minister, have both been cultivated by figures close to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.

Mr Kotzias — a former Piraeus university professor — has espoused increasingly nationalist positions, developing a relationship with Alexander Dugin, the Russian nationalist philosopher, during several visits to Moscow, according to a colleague who declined to be identified.

Mr Dugin, who is close to several figures in the Moscow security establishment and last August called for a “genocide” of Ukrainians, was invited by Mr Kotzias to speak at an event in the Piraeus campus in 2013, where he extolled the role of Orthodox Christianity in uniting Greeks and Russians.

Mr Kammenos has also been a frequent visitor to Moscow. A picture shows him in the Russian capital two weeks ago, meeting the chairman of the Russian Duma’s foreign affairs committee and the deputy chairman of its defence committee.

Russian billionaire Konstantin Malofeyev, a sometime ally of Mr Dugin, and another pro-Kremlin figure who has developed close ties with radical European political movements, said he also knew Mr Kammenos.

Mr Malofeyev is subject to EU and US travel bans and wanted by Kiev for allegedly financing pro-Russia separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.

“I used to travel to Athens often — before the sanctions,” he told the Financial Times. He said Greece has lived “under a long enslavement by the troika [of international lenders — the EU, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank]”.

“It is in the interests of Greeks for relations with Russia to normalise . . . For the Greek economy, for the Greek people, friendship with Russia is necessary,” he added.

Anton Shekhovtsov, a Vienna-based analyst of Europe’s radical political movements, has studied links between Russia and populist parties such as Syriza. “Russia will certainly be looking to capitalise on the win of Syriza and pro-Kremlin sentiments that are fairly widespread in Greek society but especially in these parties,” he said.

Figures such as Mr Dugin have become very active in developing ties with radical populist European movements, Mr Shekhovtsov added, from the National Front in France to Austria’s FPÖ. “The Greek case is perhaps the most dangerous in terms of its potential implications for the EU and sanctions policy. There is also the issue of Nato’s information security.”

Mr Dugin, Mr Kammenos and Mr Kotzias were not available for comment.

Fears over the links of Greece’s new political establishment with Moscow are part of a growing set of concerns among European security agencies.

“The question of [Russian] influence in fringe politics is definitely a worry,” said one British diplomat who declined to be named. “It’s something we and others are certainly looking at.”

The issue is nevertheless tricky to pin down. The notion of political parties cultivating international links is certainly nothing new. And nor is it necessarily any indication of nefarious or underhand activity, analysts pointed out.

Syriza campaigned two years ago for Greece’s exit from Nato but has since toned down its hostility towards the alliance.

Athens-based analysts said it was too early to tell whether the new Greek government would shift foreign policy more permanently towards Russia. In the meantime, it is “leverage”, one said.

Source: Alarm bells ring over Syriza’s Russian links | Financial Times