Greece Referendum: SYRIZA Didn’t Get the Message

motorcycleBy Michael Nevradakis
Reporting from Athens

Originally published on 99getsmart.com.

It was November 2011 when I had the opportunity to meet Yanis Varoufakis in person, for the first and so far only time. Upon the invitation of his close friend and promoter James Galbraith, Varoufakis was visiting the University of Texas, where I was studying, to give a talk about the future of the Eurozone and to present his new book. As the host of what was then a locally-produced Greek radio program (Austin Hellenic Radio), I attended Varoufakis’ talk in order to try to get an interview with him on site. And indeed, I did. “Be quick though, eight other media outlets are waiting to speak with me,” Varoufakis told me.

This quote made an impression on me, but is quite indicative of Varoufakis’ personality. His “rock star” status in the world of “anti-austerity” economics was already beginning to be solidified. That same period, Varoufakis made appearances on CBS’ 60 Minutes, on NPR, and on a number of other media outlets across the world. One year later, Varoufakis would be back at the University of Texas, apparently on Galbraith’s invitation, as a visiting scholar. His annual salary of $100,000 (which can be seen through publicly-available records, as the University of Texas is a state university), was more than what many tenured professors earn at the same university. But despite his burgeoning celebrity status, little did I imagine that just a few years later, he would become the finance minister of a Greece which was even deeper in crisis.

Flash forward to Sunday night: the resounding “no” vote in Greece’s dubious referendum on whether or not to accept the already-rescinded proposals of the institutions formerly known as the troika was now official. For many in Greece and also in the global left, which continues to amaze with just how unaware of reality it really is, this “no” vote was the beginning of a new chapter for Greece, a victory for anti-austerity forces led by the darlings of the global left, SYRIZA, with prime minister Alexis Tsipras and finance minister Varoufakis at the helm. Yet, it did not take long for that bubble to burst—for those who were paying attention. Soon after the “no” result became official, Varoufakis tweeted that Greece’s place is firmly within the Eurozone, adding that he would not permit the alternative, a “parallel currency,” to be instituted. No word, of course, about the true alternative which has always been on the table: a return to a national currency. Varoufakis then described the “no” vote as a “majestic, big YES to a democratic, rational Europe,” Tsipras then followed this up with a similar tweet of his own, stating that the voters of Greece responded to the true question at hand in the referendum by stating that they want a Europe “of solidarity and democracy.” Surely that was the exact thing grandma, grandpa, and the unemployed were thinking while filling out their ballot.

The “no” vote led to celebrations in Syntagma Square and throughout Greece despite the deep divisions which exist within Greek society and which remained apparent in the lead-up to the referendum and in the results. Just one day later though, Varoufakis did what he does best: grabbed the headlines, announcing (via Twitter) that he was resigning as finance minister. The timing, while seemingly peculiar to some, couldn’t be better: Varoufakis is exiting the government as a hero, a “leftist” and “anti-austerity” darling who surely has a bright future to look forward to on the lecture circuit, as an author and analyst, and perhaps even with a corner office waiting for him somewhere in Washington or Brussels.

Varoufakis is escaping at just the right time, as a few hours later on Monday, Tsipras was given the “green light” by the leaders of all of the political parties represented in the Greek parliament, sans the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), to come to an agreement with the “institutions.” Tsipras and other SYRIZA officials have, again, stated their repeated intention to keep Greece within the Eurozone. Tsipras and others, including Varoufakis, have never acknowledged the findings of their own government’s “debt truth commission,” which found that most of Greece’s public debt is illegal and odious and the repayment of which would be a violation of the Greek people’s human rights. Tsipras, instead, has stated his intention to follow the recommendations of the “good cop” (the IMF) in merely requesting a “debt haircut” of 30% and a 20-year “grace period.” Following Varoufakis’ resignation, Tsipras was said to be considering a broader cabinet shake-up which would include more “centrist” elements that would then continue negotiations with the creditors.

In case it is still unclear, the writing on the wall is as follows: Tsipras and his government are going hard for a new agreement that will not be popular, and which will not be much different from the proposals which Greek voters said “no” to. A new agreement perhaps not markedly different from the 47-page proposal submitted by SYRIZA prior to the referendum being called, which included the implementation of a primary budget surplus of almost 1% beginning this year (even though Greece is currently in deficit and would therefore need to cut its way back to a surplus), dozens of privatizations in a program that would continue well past 2020, making permanent many previously “temporary” taxes which SYRIZA had declared unconstitutional prior to the elections, and pledges to honor Greece’s debt commitments. And this time around, whatever the proposal is, either on the part of the government or the “institutions,” the Greek people won’t be given the option to say “yay” or “nay.” Notably, with the “vote of support” Tsipras received today, he has the backing of the same pro-austerity political forces—New Democracy, PASOK, To Potami, and the far-right Golden Dawn—which, until yesterday, were urging the Greek public to vote “yes.”

Varoufakis, in other words, is escaping the oncoming train wreck, and with good reason. But does that make him a hero? Anything but. Varoufakis is a master of rhetoric and doublespeak, a man who knows exactly how to tailor his message for the audience he is addressing, saying one thing to his “partners” in the IMF and in Brussels, and something different to the Greek people shaking his hand and patting him on the back on the street in Athens. Despite his carefully-crafted public image, however, there is much evidence which belies Varoufakis’ true intentions:

  • Soon after assuming the post of finance minister, Varoufakis proposed towards his partners in the Eurogroup the continuation of 70 percent of the previously-existing (and illegal) austerity measures, enacted by the unelected government of technocrat Loukas Papademos in February 2012 amidst tremendous popular protest and police violence.

  • When even the continuation of almost three-fourths of the austerity measures proved to be insufficient for the troika, Varoufakis capitulated, agreeing to continue all of the existing agreements “temporarily” (for an additional four months). He then returned to Greece and told the Greek people that this agreement consisted of “creative ambiguity.”

  • In an interview with the Associated Press in early March, Varoufakis flatly stated that he would “squeeze blood from a stone” to repay the IMF, which holds views that he “personally agrees with.”

  • Varoufakis ended up being true to his word: in late April, the Greek government issued a presidential decree (a practice which it had pledged prior to the elections that it would not continue) to essentially confiscate all remaining funds in the Greek Treasury, including pension, health, and education funds. These funds were then used to make the IMF May loan repayment.

  • In May, Varoufakis, along with economy Minister Giorgos Stathakis and then-lead negotiator Euclid Tsakalotos (who is now Varoufakis’ replacement as Finance Minister) hand-picked former World Bank employee Elena Panaritis as Greece’s new representative to the IMF. Panaritis’ impressive CV boasts of her accomplishments in pushing forth hundreds of privatizations in Peru and other Latin American countries, while she is perhaps best known for her role in promoting policies which became known as “Fujishock,” named after the now-jailed (on charges of murder and human rights violations) ex-president of Peru Alberto Fujimori. Panaritis is a former MP with PASOK, who has stated that she is “American, not Greek, and who voted in favor of the memorandum (austerity) agreements. Due to popular outcry, including from voices within SYRIZA, Panaritis eventually withdrew from her new post as IMF representative.

  • Prior to the July 5 referendum, Varoufakis kept stating his intention to “restructure” Greece’s debt, even though his government’s own “debt truth commission” found that the debt is illegal and odious. Varoufakis has not acknowledged this finding, talking only of a “restructuring.”

  • Varoufakis flat-out lied, in a radio interview on ABC Australia, claiming that Greece could not print drachmas even if it wanted to, that they were destroyed in the year 2000, the year before Greece joined the Eurozone. In actually, Greece joined in 2002, and to this day maintains an ultra-modern banknote printing facility in the Athens suburb of Holargos, one of six such facilities in the Eurozone, which is used to print 10 euro notes, and occasionally other denominations. Even if Greece did not have such a facility though, it could follow the example of dozens of other countries and simply outsource its banknote printing to outside firms, based in Switzerland and elsewhere.

  • Varoufakis, prior to the January elections, had his new book presented at the Athens Music Hall by television talking head Mbambis Papadimitriou of Sky TV. Papadimitriou is perhaps best known for stating his views that the previous New Democracy government should not discount a future governing coalition with a “serious” Golden Dawn, while Sky TV, in a sea of pro-austerity media outlets, waved the “yes” flag higher than most, providing exactly zero minutes and zero seconds of televised coverage of the demonstrations in favor of voting “no.”

  • Varoufakis, early in his tenure as Finance Minister, spoke of the need for the Greek people to lead an “austere existence.” He and his wife Danae Stratou then posed for a remarkably obnoxious photo shoot at their Athens penthouse, with a view of the Acropolis, for gossip magazine Paris Match.

  • Varoufakis has repeatedly repeated mythology about the crisis and the Greek people which is untrue: that “hard-working” European taxpayers are supporting Greece (when in fact, their money is being loaned, profitably, to Greece), while referencing the myth that Greece has the highest percentage of Porsche Cayenne ownership in the world, a claim which has been debunked but which remains remarkably persistent to this day.

  • Varoufakis has stated that his homeland is Europe, not Greece, and that he would like to see the formation of a “United States of Europe.”

  • Varoufakis has repeatedly claimed, falsely, that no country has ever not repaid the IMF. He has also stated that he prefers a “European solution” to Greece’s crisis, instead of following the example of countries such as Argentina.

As pointed out by analyst Wayne Madsen, Varoufakis has also been employed as an “economist-in-residence” for the Valve Corporation, closely linked to Microsoft and Bill Gates. He served for six years as an economic adviser to former Greek prime minister George Papandreou, who later dragged Greece under troika supervision after first ensuring that Greece’s debt and deficit figures were falsified (worsened) in order to provide the economic and political impetus for Greece to be dragged under troika oversight. The foreword to one of Varoufakis’ books, “A Modest Proposal,” was written by former French prime minister Michae Rocard, who has called for current European Parliament president Martin Schulz to be apppinted as European “strongman” and who has repeatedly warned SYRIZA to abide by the current austerity agreements.

It is clear that Varoufakis is not a hero or a man of integrity. If anyone is heroic, it is the majority of Greek voters, who in the face of an unprecedented media and political terror campaign, voted “no” to the European creditors’ proposals, even if the referendum itself is dubious in nature. Despite this though, Varoufakis and SYRIZA are receiving heroic treatment, proving once again how easily people are swayed and how easily they are satisfied by words, instead of by concrete actions. Greek voters may have courageously voted “no” to the proposals of the troika, but the ball remains in their court: will they keep up their resistance, or will they accept a SYRIZA capitulation and continue giving a hero’s welcome to a government which has sold them out?

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