The leader of Syriza, the party spearheading the anti-austerity backlash, says Greece is descending into ‘social hell’
- by Helena Smith
- guardian.co.uk, Monday 21 May 2012 15.52 BST
The Greek radical left leader, Alexis Tsipras, is making his international debut, holding talks with European leftists and government officials in Paris before moving on to Berlin. He spoke at length before his departure to Helena Smith, our correspondent in Athens.
This is the interview in full.
Helena Smith: The European parliament president, Martin Schulz, emerged from talks with you here in Greece saying you are not as dangerous as you might seem, Mr Tsipras. Is this true?
Alexis Tsipras: We had a substantive and a rather constructive talk, and I think the first thing that is necessary is to start a real dialogue. Because, you know, if you don’t talk, you can’t find a solution.
HS: And this hasn’t happened to date?
AT: So far, I believe there hasn’t been any real discussion, just as there was no political negotiation in Europe before the memorandum [of bailout conditions] on the terms and ways of confronting Greece’s fiscal problem. The memorandum was a political decision that was taken without consulting the Greek people, and it has proved catastrophic. The decision to place the country under [the supervision of] the IMF was taken by Mr Papandreou [the former prime minister] without any prior consultation and in full absence of any real political attempt to make any demands of the European Union.
And we’ve got to the point where it has been proved disastrous. After two packages of financial support that were accompanied by very harsh measures, recession remains at monumental levels, unemployment has soared, social cohesion has collapsed, and Greece is in danger of a humanitarian crisis. And on top of this, we’re not seeing results. Neither is the debt being reduced effectively, nor is the deficit; and nor is recession subsiding. Consequently, we can’t insist on a programme that has proved catastrophic and ineffective.
HS: You have spoken of the memorandum as a path that will lead to hell. How far off is this hell?
AT: We have never been in such a bad place. After two and a half years of catastrophe, the Greek people are on their knees; the social state has crumbled; one in two youngsters is out of work; there are people leaving en masse; the climate psychologically is one of pessimism, depression, mass suicides. We cannot accept that this is the future of a European country. And precisely because we recognise the problem is European, and it will spread to the rest of Europe, we are sounding the alarm bell and are appealing to the people of Europe to support us in an effort to stop this descent into what can only be called social hell.
HS: I was told by one of your assistants that you were born on the same day as Hugo Chávez. Do you have a good relationship with him?
AT: That is true, but he must have been born a few years before me. I have never met him but I have communicated with him because as a municipal councillor of Athens in the past. I travelled to Venezuela as part of a Greek monitoring mission overseeing elections there before I became president of the Left coalition [Syriza’s main party] in 2008. And since then I have met with its foreign minister, and we have a good relationship with the Venezuelan ambassador.
HS: Is Chávez one of your heroes?
AT: I don’t believe there are heroes or saviours in politics. I don’t feel like a saviour: salvation can only be found by people en masse when they understand they have power in their hands. I totally disagree with the notion of a nation looking for heroes and saviours, especially a nation that needs a saviour. Whenever I am in contact with people who tell me of their woes and say “Save us”, I always say that we are the only people who can save ourselves, altogether, when we realise the power that we have in our hands. It is a mistake to put salvation in the hands of individuals.
Right now, I represent a political party that works collectively, and which represents the struggle and anguish of a great part of the Greek people. Someone else could easily represent it. Since I am in this position, I will try to do my best but I know that my power is not dependent on my own capabilities or strengths but on the trust and strength that people will give us through their vote.
HS: Are you worried? In the event of Syriza emerging as the first party and you are put in the position of governing the country, would you be afraid?
AT: I would be afraid if this didn’t happen and Greece continued on a path of catastrophe and unhappiness where our children, and my own children, live in a country that has been destroyed, one in which they basically can’t live and are forced to move abroad. That is my worry. All these years, we allowed the people who governed us to destroy this country. And we have to stop them.
HS: You were born on 28 July 1974. You are from a generation that never experienced dictatorship, but democracy. Was the country you were born in the one you, and your parents, hoped for?
AT: I was born four days after the return of democracy. It was a definitive moment for Greek society, a moment of progress when it threw off a seven-year yoke [with the collapse of military rule]. I grew up at a time when there were huge hopes in Greek democracy and the political system.
I was very young but I do remember the period of “allagi” [change] after 1980, when Pasok took power. My parents at that time voted Pasok; a lot of people who came from the left did in 1981. But I also remember the expectations that had been created and the contribution of the left and particularly Harilaos Florakis [the late leader of the long outlawed KKE communist party] and Leonidas Kyrkos [the late leader of the communist party of the Interior] to the cultural and political renaissance that was happening in Greece.
But things changed in the 80s and very quickly visions of democracy and social equality were replaced by scandal, vested interests, a miserable public sector, [and] a state that lacked meritocracy, where to find work you had to go around MPs offices in the hope that they would find you a job. It was a system that did not give opportunities to young people.
HS: Did you feel this personally?
AT: I lived, and live, in this country, and in that sense of course I felt all of these things. But I am lucky that I managed to study at a very important university [Athens’s Polytechnic] and to do postgraduate studies there. And I believe, despite the difficulties in Greek political and social life, that there are certain good things, such as our universities. But in recent years, the political system led us to an impasse.
New Democracy and Pasok, the two parties that were in charge of the fate of the country all these years, and took it into the eurozone, worked on the basis of easy profit on the stock exchange, easy loans and the false consumer needs of the Greek people. They didn’t leave anything behind, any infastructure, when for over a decade, between 1996 and 2008, Greece had a record of positive growth – rates that before the  Athens Olympic Games were at 7% or 8%. Where did it go? It went into the pockets of certain corrupt and wealthy [individuals] and banks, to those who were paid kickbacks for defence procurements and constructions for the Olympic Games. It didn’t go into building a better social state. We didn’t build better schools or better hospitals, and now Greek people are in a much worse place to confront the crisis than, say, the French, the Spanish and other Europeans.
HS: Are Greeks one step before social explosion?
AT: Greek people have shown great maturity, huge maturity. Given all the terrible things they have suffered, I am amazed there has not been a social explosion. With dignity Greek people have protested, filling the streets and filling the squares. With dignity they have been teargassed in Syntagma and other squares around the country. With dignity they have gone and voted, and with great dignity they are have resisted all this scaremongering [about Greece exiting the eurozone] and have not gone to banks to withdraw their small deposits, unlike big-time businessmen and the lobbies of ship-owners and industrialists here, who have been, and are, involved in a dirty game of profiteering.
HS: Are you against the euro or are you against the policies being conducted in the name of the euro?
AT: Of course we are not against the euro or the idea of a unified Europe or monetary union. We believe that resolution of the problem is not found in friction or in the struggle for competitiveness between different nations. We have to understand that when we have a common currency we owe it to every member state that it has the right of last lender. If California has a huge problem with its debts, Congress and the Fed aren’t going to decide to expel California from the dollar or the US. Instead, the Fed assumes the cost of it being able to borrow cheaply until it the state can borrow again on markets. If we want a strong Europe and a united Europe we’ve got to show our teeth to the markets. When you create an EFSF that resembles a yacht when it is trying to pass off as a cruise ship, markets are not going to be appeased.
HS: Polls show Syriza is very likely to emerge with the greatest number of votes in the coming election. Have you thought about what you might do in government?
AT: I have thought about every [scenario], and it will of course be unprecedented in contemporary Greek politics for a party, in the space of a month, to go from less than 5% as the opposition to being in government. But what we have been experiencing in Greece these past two years is also unprecedented. The absurd thing would be if the Greek people didn’t react and allowed destiny to take its course. No one has the right to reduce a proud people to such a state of wretchedness and indignity. What is happening in Greece with the memorandum is assisted suicide.
You ask if I am afraid? I would be afraid if we continued on this path, a path to social hell. Defeat is the battle that isn’t waged, and when someone fights there is the big chance of winning; and we are fighting this to win. Lost battles are battles that are not fought.
HS: Is your enemy Germany?
AT: No, no, not at all. The war that we are experiencing is not between nations and peoples. On the one side, there are workers and a majority of people, and on the other are global capitalists, bankers, profiteers on stock exchanges, the big funds. It’s a war between peoples and capitalism, and Greece is on the frontline of that war. And, as in each war, what happens on the frontline defines the battle. It will be decisive for the war elsewhere. Greece has become a model for the rest of Europe because it was chosen as the experiment for the application of neoliberal shock [policies], and Greek people were the guinea pigs. If the experiment continues, it will be considered successful, and the policies will be applied in other countries. That is why it is so important to stop the experiment. It will not just be a victory for Greece but for all of Europe.
HS: But isn’t this very risky? Greece is receiving loans on which its economic survival depends.
AT: But who is surviving? Tell me. Greeks are not. Banks are surviving, but Greeks are not surviving. In reality, we have the salvation of Greece with the destruction of the people of Greece. What, ultimately, is Greece if it is not the people who live in this country? It’s not the mountains and the plains. We can’t say we’re saving a country when its people are being destroyed. The loans are going straight to interest payment and banks. We don’t want to blackmail: we want to persuade our European partners that the way that has been chosen to confront Greece has been totally counterproductive. It is like throwing money at a bottomless pit.
They gave the first assistance package in 2010, the second in 2012, and in six months we will be forced to discuss a third package, and after that a fourth. They have to be aware that what they are doing is not in the interests of their own people. European taxpayers should know that if they are giving money to Greece, it should have an effect … it should go towards investments and underwriting growth so that the Greek debt problem can be confronted. Because with this recipe, we are not confronting the debt problem, the real problem.
HS: You are visiting Paris and Berlin as of Monday. Who will you be seeing?
AT: Of course, I won’t be seeing Merkel. We will have meetings with the French and German left and social democrats and various representatives from the governing parties in France and Germany.
HS: What message do you want to pass on to representatives of the governments in Germany and France?
AT: That they understand the historic responsibility that they are under and don’t press ahead with a crime against the Greek people, a crime that is also a huge danger for the people of the rest of Europe. Mrs Merkel has a huge historical responsibility, and she should be conscious that as leader of Europe she cannot obstinately insist on a choice that is leading Europe into danger. I also want to send the message that they have to respect democracy, which is the basis of European law. Greece gave democracy to the rest of the world. With the change of political balances here after the [6 May] vote against the memorandum, we are seeing democracy again. Europe has to understand that when a people makes a democratic decision, it has to be respected. We are at the same crossroads as we were in the 1930s, after 1929. In the US, we had the policy of Roosevelt and the New Deal, a completely different development. In Europe, we had the rise of National Socialism because of the insistence on harsh fiscal policies, and the result was the second world war.
HS: Does Europe need a Roosevelt?
AT: Europe needs a New Deal and a Marshall Plan and expansionary monetary policies like those being followed by Obama. It doesn’t need disastrous financial policies
HS: If you are to negotiate with Europe, will you start on the basis that you no longer accept the memorandum [bailout conditions]?
AT: It’s not that we, Syriza, don’t want it: the Greek people don’t want it. If you have a sick patient, and you see that the medicine you are giving him makes him worse, then the solution is not to continue the medicine but to change the medicine. It’s only logical.
HS: But then what happens after you have rejected the memorandum and creditors say: “OK, we are not going to give you the next loan”?
AT: Then they will be acting unilaterally because we have no desire to make any unilateral move. We want to convince them, to come to some mutual understanding. If they make a unilateral move, one that is the equivalent of blackmailing us, then we will be forced to react.
HS: Perhaps they will consider rejection of the memorandum, which Greece signed up to, a unilateral move.
AT: This memorandum is a law of the Greek state, and the state has the right to change its laws when balances change in the parliament … a different plan for fiscal adjustment can be voted in the parliament. The memorandum was a political choice, and those who made that political choice [New Democracy and Pasok] no longer have the majority. To vote a different law in parliament is not a unilateral move. A unilateral move would be to renounce commitments we have signed up to via European treaties and conventions, or if we stopped paying our creditors.
HS: But how will you pay creditors if you don’t have the money?
AT: Europeans have to understand that we don’t have any intention of pushing ahead with a unilateral move. We will [only] be forced to act if they act unilaterally and make the first move. If they don’t pay us, if they stop the financing [of loans], then we will not be able to pay creditors. What I am saying is very simple.
HS: Is Greece in a much stronger position that people think?
AT: Yes, it is. Keynes said it many years ago. It’s not just the person who borrows but the person who lends who can find himself in a difficult position. If you owe £5,000 to the bank, its your problem; but if you owe £500,000, it’s the bank’s problem. This is a common problem: It’s our problem; it’s Merkel’s problem; it’s a European problem; it’s a world problem. The euro is the second strongest currency in the world, and no one has the right to play games with it on the basis that it is they who are strong and have power.
HS: Some would say Syriza, and you personally, are playing with fire. What do you have to say to that?
AT: It is not us who are scaremongering. Pasok and New Democracy are scaremongering, and it is very dangerous for the economy. In order to survive politically, all of them are scaremongering with all this talk that we are leaving the eurozone. As a result, since the beginning of the crisis €75bn has been withdrawn from banks. It’s criminal, what they are doing.
HS: Are fears overblown, then, that Greece could leave the eurozone?
AT: From what I know, there is no institutional possibility to eject a country from the eurozone, and they know this very well. Greece could leave the eurozone only if Greeks themselves choose to leave the eurozone. And given that our aim is not the exit of Greece from the eurozone but to remain there as an equal, Greek people have no reason to fear being kicked out. The only thing they have to fear is the continuation of policies of austerity.
HS: Do you agree on the need for structural reforms?
AT: Of course, absolutely. We always said there was a need for corrective reforms, and we have always pointed out that Greece’s productive base and economic policy is dysfunctional. First of all, we have to combat tax evasion. It’s not in our genes that we can’t combat it when everywhere else in Europe it is successfully combated. The truth is, no one in this country has ever wanted to
combat it, and as a result the rich have got away with not paying taxes. Reforms are definitely needed. The political system never pushed ahead with them all these years because the two main parties, Pasok and New Democracy, were mired in corruption.
HS: What will your priorities be if you get into government?
AT: Our first priority will be to put a break on this downward spiral by stopping the measures and starting a real dialogue at a European level to find a common solution to the basic problem that should be discussed, which is the debt. It’s not only Greece: Italy, Spain [and] France all have debt problems.
Our second priority will be to proceed with changes that will remedy the system such as changing the tax system to change the redistribution of wealth. I am not going to say, as [former PM] George Papandreou said, that “money exists”: money does not exist. Without growth, we won’t find money; and without necessary corrective reforms, we can’t boost productivity.
HS: Syriza is an alliance of 12 different groups ranging from communists to socialists. What would you say you are?
AT: In this most neoliberal phase of capitalism, in the depths of this crisis, it’s a bit oxymoronic to speak of labels. Syriza believes in social justice, democracy and equality in a society where there is no exploitation of man by man: the basic rights that were fought for from the French revolution and in Greece from the 1821 war of independence. We have a vision of socialism in the 21st century, and we don’t believe in investing in wretchedness. A fair society can be created by taking positive steps. Which is why we believe this downward spiral has to stop.