On Friday 27th May 2016 Russia’s President Putin visited Greece.
President Putin’s visit lasted just two days and resulted in no important agreements provoking further speculation as to why it took place at all. Panagiotis Lafazanis, Syriza’s former Energy Minister, who has since left the party, is accusing the Syriza government of downgrading the visit.
One thing can be said with certainty. Contrary to some media speculation Putin’s visit had nothing to do with the pending EU decision on whether or not to renew the sanctions against Russia, which is due to be made in June.
The Russians have said already that they fully expect the sanctions to be renewed next month. They certainly know there is no possibility Greece will veto them. The Syriza government made no attempt to veto renewal of the sanctions during the fraught period last year when Greece’s relations with the EU authorities appeared to be on the brink of breaking down. There is no possibility at all that it will do so now when its priority is to move forward with the latest bailout agreement.
As I have said previously on many occasions (see for example here), EU sanctions will continue to be renewed for so long as the small group of states and persons who actually run the EU – essentially the EU Commission and the German and French governments, with the US acting at all times acting as the dominant silent partner – remain agreed they should be renewed. Objections to their renewal by a small and weak state like Greece would be simply ignored whatever theoretical right to veto their renewal Greece might have.
Nor is it likely Putin’s visit involved energy policy. Lafazanis whilst Greece’s Energy Minister negotiated an agreement on the creation of a gas pipeline with Russia. Greek Prime Minister Tsipras’s realignment with the EU last summer however makes that agreement to all intents and purposes a dead letter.
As for the personal relationship between Putin and Tsipras, Tsipras’s attempt last year to play the Russians off against the Europeans in order to extract concessions from the Europeans predictably failed and – as I warned at that time – simply ended up annoying both the Europeans and the Russians. As result it is quietly admitted in Greece that Putin no longer trusts Tsipras and may even dislike him.
So why did the visit happen?
The probability is that the visit was agreed during the false honeymoon between Russia and Greece which happened in the first half of last year after the election which brought Syriza to power. Though that honeymoon ended badly neither the Russians nor the Greeks wanted to make the rupture public by calling the visit off.
That does not however mean that the visit had no significance at all.
What happened is that – following the collapse of the original political and economic purpose of the visit – Putin recalibrated it to emphasise its cultural aspects.
In the 2 days of the visit, Putin seems to have given as much of his time to cultural events as he did to his political meetings with Tsipras and with the Greek President. Thus a significant part of the first day was devoted to a visit by Putin to Athens’s Byzantine Museum, whilst the high point of the visit’s second day was Putin’s visit to the Orthodox monastic community on Mount Athos.
In both cases there was a significant Russian connection. The Byzantine Museum is currently hosting an exhibition of works by the great Russian icon painter Andrey Rublev, whose teacher Theophanes (“Feofan Grek”) was a Greek. As for Mount Athos, the connection of its monasteries to Russia extends back at least as far as the fifteenth century.
By contrast Putin did not visit any of the monuments or museums in Greece dedicated to Greece’s classical antiquity, which are the primary interest of Western visitors.
This appears to have been a conscious choice, with Putin choosing to emphasise the distinctively Byzantine and Orthodox roots of Russian civilisation.
This should not be seen as a turning back on Europe. Greece is after all a European country and a member of the EU. Rather it appears to be a reminder by Putin to both Russians and the West that Russia’s Byzantine and Orthodox roots also have their origins within European culture.
In the longer term, by emphasising the Byzantine and Orthodox connection, Putin is also reminding Greeks of Russia’s cultural closeness and affinity to them. With popular support in Greece both for the EU and for the euro weakening, this could serve as a gentle reminder to Greeks that if a break ever comes they are now without friends.