Changes in latitude, changes in attitude | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 28.04.2015
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Changes in latitude, changes in attitude

After the debacle in Riga, Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis will have to do without his chief negotiator. But Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras may face resistance from the left wing of his party on any debt deal.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras struck a defiant note. Athens "reaffirms its support for Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, who has become the target of bogus reports in the international press," read a statement from his office published in online newspaper "To Vima."

But the real message came in the very next paragraph, announcing a new team for negotiations with international donors "under Varoufakis' supervision" - but "coordinated" by Deputy Foreign Minister Efklidis Tsakalotos.

What's more, Athens' chief negotiator, Nikos Theocharakis, an ally of the controversial finance minister, has been replaced by young economics professor Giorgos Houliarakis, who has a reputation as being easygoing and straightforward - things Varoufakis is not.

Houliarakis made an appearance in the left-wing government's first days in office in January, but quickly fell out with the finance minister. His re-emergence is being welcomed cautiously in Brussels. Thomas Wieser, president of the Euro working group, praised Houliarakis as a gifted negotiator, the Athens news portal" Thetoc" said.

For opponents like conservative former Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis, this political carousel spin can't turn fast enough. Varoufakis should resign as soon as possible, he thundered in a TV interview, calling him a narcissist and a burden on the government.

Alexis Papahelas, executive editor of the newspaper "Kathimerini," said the government had wasted precious time. "We are now probably all aware that we have lost three months in which no reasonable negotiations took place," he said. "Now we face a moment of truth, especially since the money is gone."

He said Varoufakis had stolen the spotlight away from Greece's problems - describing this as a huge mistake for someone who was supposed to be representing his country.

Shrill tones from the left

The first meeting of the new negotiating team on Monday evening suggested the government now acknowledged it had run out of time. Deputy Prime Minister Yannis Dragasakis said Athens would now strive for an agreement with lenders in the first days of May.

Less clear is whether the change of personnel will in fact lead to a new, pragmatic approach to the negotiations with creditors. Prominent left-wing members of Greece's governing SYRIZA party strongly oppose "caving in" in the talks - and may hamper the prime minister's plans.

This was probably best expressed by Stathis Leoutsakos, SYRIZA member of parliament for Piraeus and a former member of the Central Committee of the Greek Communist Party. In a commentary for the far-left website "," he wrote that a new currency in Greece "would not be the end of the world." He criticized the "German-dominated EU," and the "American-oriented IMF," which he said were leading the country to financial and social bankruptcy.

His solution: "SYRIZA should prepare the workers and the people for the great class struggle against domestic and foreign political and economic elites."

EU Sondergipfel Ankunft Tspiras

Tsipras says a referendum may be needed on a debt deal

More moderate government figures have refrained from such combative tones. But they too want "popular involvement" if negotiations with creditors lead to a dead end. If this should happen, they want to "keep open" the possibility of new elections or a referendum, Deputy Prime Minister Yanis Dragasakis said in a recent newspaper interview.

Tsakalotos, the new strongman in Athens' negotiating team, has also made similar statements in the past. Even Tsipras suggested in a television interview on Tuesday there could be a referendum if Greece's creditors demanded his government take steps that could not be reconciled with SYRIZA's election manifesto.

The mayors' rebellion

Meanwhile, the Tsipras government is scraping together all its money to pay salaries and pensions. By decree, all public institutions, as well as cities, municipalities and regional governments have been told to transfer their reserves to a special account of the Greek central bank. This even includes universities, public libraries and the authority for building schools.

"It was an emergency measure in an emergency situation," political consultant Levteris Koussoulis said of the decree in an interview with DW. "The government had no choice."

The legal basis for the decree is an emergency law from 1950 that had repeatedly allowed the previous conservative government to fast-track the enforcement of austerity measures. SYRIZA, then in opposition, had strongly criticized this procedure for sidestepping Parliament, but now it's resorting to the same tricks.

"Reality is now getting its revenge," Koussoulis said.

The president of the Association of Greek Municipalities, George Patoulis, called the decree "unacceptable." The association of regions responded indignantly. The Governor of the Central Greece region, Kostas Bakoyannis, even announced he would appeal to the Supreme Court.

But in several crisis meetings with representatives of affected local authorities, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras succeeded in overcoming these objections. He said the decree was merely an exceptional and temporary measure, and the money would be paid back.

This "exceptional measure" is probably not a solution to Greece's financial problems: Government estimates say it might raise as much as 2 billion euros. That's barely enough to cover wages and pensions for April.