Syriza government faces major challenges
Syriza government faces major challenges
SP leader Emile Roemer, along with the party’s Senate group leader Tiny Kox and General Secretary Hans van Heijningen, is visiting the refugee camps in Greece. Despite the massive problems with which Greece is faced, the left Syriza government is doing all it can to organise the decent reception of the refugees. On the third day of their visit, the three spoke with Deputy Minister of Defence Dimitris Vitsas.
Deputy Defence Minister Dimitris Vitsas has just come out of a meeting with Greek generals on the closing of the border with neighbouring Macedonia. While in the last three days thousands of refugees have arrived in the Greek islands, some of them are now stuck on the Macedonian border. Most are Afghans, on whom the Macedonians have suddenly placed additional demands. The longer this lasts, the greater the problems there become. During the last EU summit, it was agreed that the EU would do everything possible to allow refugees to pass through Greece, Macedonia and Serbia to the remaining EU countries, because Greece is certainly in no condition to accommodate thousand of refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. But as far as anything having to do with the refugees goes, between word and deed there's a persistent difference, as Vitsas and his colleagues in the Greek government have noticed.
At least as important as open borders to the rest of Europe is countering illegal crossings from Turkey to the Greek islands close to the Turkish coast. Lesbos, Samos, Kos, Chios – hundreds of thousands of people have arrived over the last year in flight from war in their own countries. They cross in ramshackle, short-lived, dangerous boats illegally produced in Turkey, and highly profitable for the people traffickers. To get an insight into Turkey's efforts to limit these illegal crossings, it has been agreed that NATO will patrol the Aegean Sea between the military alliance's two member states, an operation which is being watched closely in both countries, relations between which are after all less than friendly. Vitsas is no fan of NATO but knows that the decision has now been taken, especially as the EU cannot alter it. The Deputy Minister says, however, that he suspects that at the last minute the Turks will make difficulties regarding the monitoring mission. That remains to be seen. Turkey wants the NATO patrols to sail further west, putting Greek islands between them and their own country. In this regard Vitsas notes that in recent days fresh streams of refugees have been arriving at Greek islands that were previously shunned. That can only be a result of Turkish interference. Turkey still maintains a claim to a number of islands which belong to Greece. The Greek government fears that its massive neighbour will use the refugee crisis to strengthen its claims to Greek territory. The Greeks cannot of course accept that, but the country also urgently needs to limit the enormous flow of refugees from Turkey. Turkey is to receive three billion euros to accommodate refugees from Syria and Iraq within its own borders, but Vitsas knows that it has already been privately agreed that they will be paid many more billions. For their part, the Turks are trying to extract as many euros as possible in exchange for cooperation in limiting the flow of refugees into Europe. The Deputy Minister knows also that Macedonia, Serbia and Albania are making exaggerated financial demands in exchange for any opening of their frontiers.
He went on to note that Turkey wants to create a corridor in Syria's wartorn north. This is allegedly to ease the passage of refugees into their country, but according to many the real reason is to limit the influence of the Syrian Kurds there. Since last summer the Turkish army has been fighting all out against its own Kurdish population in Turkey's east, and for some months openly also against the Kurds in northern Syria. According to President Erdogan, the Kurds are collaborating against him and he is demanding the right to deal with them militarily.
As long as the war continues, the refugees will keep coming - to Turkey and then on to Greece, as Vitsas knows. Almost half a million Syrians arrived in Greece last year, and on top of that 200,000 Afghans, tens of thousands of Iraqis and finally people from a range of other countries, all in search of a better future. Till now the Greek people have done well and a lot of effort is being made to offer the refugees as good a reception as possible on Greek territory. Solidarity is writ large on the banner of the left government. But that government knows also that the fascist party Golden Dawn is waiting its moment. Here and there meetings of political parties and organisations have already been disrupted and several members of Golden Dawn are in prison as a result of acts of violence against foreigners.
Vitsas explains that Greece is doing more than simply accommodating refugees. His country is trying also to play a role in stabilising the whole region, and not without success. “We're deliberately not taking part in military missions in our region, so that in some cases we can play a mediating role,” he says. “Whether it concerns Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine or Cyprus, if we're dropping bombs somewhere or sending troops, such a role is impossible.” He agrees completely with Emile Roemer that the Netherlands could make more of a contribution via diplomatic means than through military involvement. “Countries would do better by not dropping bombs and instead using diplomatic channels to get the warring parties around the negotiating table.”
Yannis Dragasakis is the Deputy Prime Minister and one of Syriza's founders. He is closely involved with the financial and economic policy of his government. The government has little leeway, being restricted by all sorts of commitments in relation to the EU, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Nevertheless, they are attempting to share out the obligatory spending cuts as fairly as possible and as far as possible spare the poorest people. “Within that framework we are giving priority to food aid for the poor and we have just won parliament's support to give uninsured people access to health care,” he explains. “If more money is needed to put the budget in order, we'll raise taxes on the rich and we want to deal with tax evaders on the basis of the Lagarde list which we received from the Germans. We're going to bring the land register up to date and work on the reconstruction of our country. You could indeed compare our situation to that of a country which has just had a war. We lost a quarter of our gross national product. A quarter of our people are without work. Whole families are dependent on a single pensioner. Many people are living in survival mode. The government has put an end to evictions of tenants in rent arrears. And we are organising free public transport for the poorest layer of the population. We are doing what we can but we know that it isn't enough. It's vitally important that we stabilise our economy and attract investors. The times seem somewhat better for this than they did a year ago, when there was talk of social and economic paralysis. We had no money to pay salaries and pensions. Now we're getting more tax money in because we are making it possible to spread out your payments. We've managed to bring imports down and made good use of the EU subsidies to which we have gained access. For this year, we expect during the first six months to still experience a small amount of shrinkage and for the second half a limited growth.”
Dragasakis believes that Europe is at the moment being a bit more reasonable than is the IMF. “The IMF is refusing to cooperate on a rapid assessment of what we have already done in the framework of the memorandum,” he complains, “although everyone can see that it's 'two out of twelve' because the people haven't got inexhaustible patience and we as the government also want to make progress.”