The pressure to stay strong
Greece is coming closer to the financial brink as the date arrives on April 9 for repaying a loan to the International Monetary Fund (IMF)--one of the three institutions making up the Troika that demanded drastic austerity measures in return for a bailout of the Greek financial system under previous governments.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis negotiated an agreement with the Eurogroup finance ministers in February that made numerous concessions on the promises and commitments made by the Coalition of the Radical Left, or SYRIZA. But the European officials have yet to approve the program of "reforms" put forward for the government in return for a continuation of the bailout.
Antonis Davanellos is a leading member of the Internationalist Workers Left (DEA), one of the founding organizations of SYRIZA in 2004, and now a member of SYRIZA's Central Committee and Political Secretariat and a supporter of the party's Left Platform. At the start of April, Davanellos spoke via videoconference on the current situation in Greece and the shape of future battles. This question-and-answer article is based on his presentation and answers to questions.
WHAT HAS been the outcome of the agreement with the Eurogroup finance ministers made by Alexis Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis?
WE CAN see clearly now how the February agreement between the Greek government and the creditors was a trap. In that agreement, the Tsipras government accepted that the Greek debt would be paid in full and on time, and that most of the radical reforms proposed by SYRIZA would not be put in place unilaterally, as Tsipras promised. In return for this, they were hoping to get money to keep the Greek economy going for a period of the next four months.
What happened? The creditors, led by Wolfgang Schäuble and the German government, said that the agreement wasn't good enough, and that the situation must return to the previous status quo--that is, the relationship between the creditors and the Greek government under Antonis Samaras and Evangelos Venizelos. That means Memorandum policies.
The European powers were saying that if you need liquidity to keep the Greek economy going, you must fulfill the terms of the Memorandum signed under previous pro-austerity governments. This program is subject to evaluation, and at the end of it, if Greece needs new loans, it must sign a new agreement--essentially, a new Memorandum.
This financial blackmail is connected to an expectation of political change in Greece. They believe that the renewal of the Memorandum austerity agreement cannot be carried out by a government led by SYRIZA. Therefore, the pressure is for the formation of a national unity government.
Tsipras says he is resisting the pressure to capitulate. He is saying that we don't accept the continuation of Memorandum policies, that we don't accept the evaluation of the last Memorandum as the basis for more funds, and that we insist there must be a new basis for the relationship between the Greek government and the creditors.
The basis of this new relationship is contained in the list of reforms that Varoufakis drew up in February and is recommitting to now in a document sent by the Greek government to the EU.
There are many concessions in the reforms from the promises SYRIZA made before the elections. The government is saying that there are some red lines that it will not cross--that it will not accept new cuts in wages and pensions, it will not accept layoffs. The government will accept privatizations, but with a strong element of state control.
Inside the government and inside SYRIZA, there is a heated discussion, because everybody understands that time is on Schäuble's side--and money is on his side, too. In the last month, the Greek government was obliged to collect all the funds that could be found in the public sector of the Greek economy for debt repayments. That is leading to a situation where the government will have to ask for new funds not to cover debt payments, but to pay the wages and pensions of public-sector workers.
There is a campaign in the bourgeois media to say that the economy is doing very badly. This is a way to pressure Tsipras to accept capitulation quickly. This isn't the reality, though it could become much worse very quickly. It's true that there hasn't been an increase in employment. But many of the big corporations are profitable now for the first time since the crisis--some of them very profitable.
The next big repayment comes on April 9, when an IMF loan comes due. Leaders of the government say they will come up with the money. But the newspapers are speculating that it may have to refuse to pay the debt. That would mean default, and the consequences of this are huge. And domestically, there would be a significant confrontation between SYRIZA and the bourgeois parties New Democracy and PASOK--and with the forces of the real state.
This last conflict is very important, because while SYRIZA may be in the government, it is not in power.
We have already seen signs of disobedience to the government from this unelected part of the state. There are judges who defy the government. Recently, the Bank of Greece delivered more euros to the creditors than it needed to. Afterward, they said this was a mistake--a mistake in an economy where every penny is counted.
And during the military parade on March 25, which is Greece's independence day, the Special Forces of the Navy marched in front of Tsipras shouting far-right nationalist slogans--in reality, threatening a war with Turkey. This is a small sign, but an alarming one.
We are in a very difficult situation. There are really three possible scenarios. The first is that Greece wins what Varoufakis calls the game of chicken--that at the last moment, the creditors will give in and agree to make new loans without the severe conditions. The second scenario is that the government refuses to retreat, there is a default.
The third scenario is that Tsipras will give in--that he will agree to concessions this month that will pave the way for a major agreement in June, at the end of the four-month period, which is, in reality, a new Memorandum and the renewal of austerity.
If Tsipras starts retreating, he will have to retreat very quickly. So he is blackmailed by the situation, but the blackmail is also used against any critics within SYRIZA. He says: "What can I do? Do you have any alternative? What do we do about the banks? Who will we send to the banks, and what will they do?"
HAS THERE been a revival of struggle among workers and the popular movements against austerity and to pressure for the government to honor its promises?
WE CAN'T, at this moment, talk about a resistance among the unions and social movements. There are few strikes and demonstrations. People understand that there is a big confrontation going on between the government and the creditors, and they are waiting to see what happens.
But there are signs that the lull is coming to an end. The main resistance right now is within the party of SYRIZA, where we have some changes inside the party. A new general secretary was elected, and he's one of the radicals of the party's majority. He is not part of the Left Platform, but one of the radical members of SYRIZA. A new political secretariat was also elected, this one much smaller. The left within SYRIZA has kept all its forces inside this smaller body.
Inside the party and its organizations at the base, there is an intense discussion about how to organize to make sure the government stays to the left and committed to the program put forward by SYRIZA. Right now, there are two main questions where this is focused--the public health system and the issue of privatizations.
The most important political issue of the last month was around health care and public hospitals. The sentiment is that we can't wait--the public hospitals are in a very dangerous state, we need new doctors and new nurses immediately, and so that means that the government must find money for the hospitals immediately.
In reality, this was based not so much around protests or strikes, but discussions and meetings that involved many people, including members of SYRIZA. And the outcome was that Tsipras was obliged to change the government's attitude. He was forced to go out publicly promise some of the concrete things for the hospitals that we are demanding. He pledged the hiring of 4,500 specialized medical staff and said the government would abolish the compulsory 5 euro fee for treatment at public hospitals.
The privatizations are also a problem for the government. It isn't possible for the party as a whole, including ministers in the government, after having been involved in all the previous struggles against privatization, to accept what is demanded of Greece.
Take this example: In March, the Deputy Prime Minister Yannis Dragasakis was in China, and he said that the government would go ahead with plans to sell the port of Piraeus to a Chinese multinational. But on the same day, another minister, Thodoris Dritsas, said the government would not sell its majority stake in the port. This shows the conflict within SYRIZA.
Plus, the minister responsible for energy and the environment is Panagiotis Lafazanis, the best known leader of the left within SYRIZA. It will not be possible to organize the privatization of the state power companies while Lafazanis is the minister.
The union in the port of Piraeus is not very strong, and it is led by the social democrats. But you must understand that, on the question of privatization, the opposition of society as a whole is real. With the port of Piraeus, the resistance won't just be in the union. It will be all around. We have a history in Greece of intense battles against the privatization of public enterprises and public space.
So we know that they face a very strong resistance inside SYRIZA. For the time being, there is still not a large presence of workers and the people in the streets. We will see what happens in the future. For us, it would be much better if we had a movement like the one that existed a few years ago, when there was more than 30 general strikes and mass mobilizations. But we don't. There is no button we can push to create this movement.
NOW THAT the extortion of the Eurogroup is clear and the hopes that the Troika would relent are tarnished, is there greater support among the population for Greece to leave the euro?
IT DEPENDS on how you ask the question. If you ask people, "Would you like to see a Grexit?" the answer from the majority is no. If the question is, "Do you want to stay inside the euro, but at the cost of a new cut in wages?" the question isn't a clear yes anymore--it's 50-50. And if you ask" "Do you prefer to stay inside the euro, but public hospitals will be closed?" the answer is no.
For us, we don't start from the question of the currency. There are some on the left who do--they have an idea of how to organize the Greek economy on the basis of leaving the euro and returning to the drachma. But if Greece leaves the euro, and the political and social conditions remain as they are now, it could be a disaster, with a huge devaluation in order to make Greece "competitive" in world capitalism.
We start from the priority of overthrowing austerity--to save the hospitals, the schools, the lives of the workers. We must do this by any means necessary. Unlike the leaders of the government, this must be said in advance--that a confrontation with the European Union over the euro may be necessary.
THERE ARE reports in the European press that Tsipras is under pressure to get rid of the left inside SYRIZA. Does DEA and the Left Platform generally have the support to counter this pressure?
I THINK that it's clear--and this is something that even the mainstream media in Greece discusses and acknowledges--that SYRIZA will not be easily transformed into a party that accepts austerity. So if this is the direction of the government in the next month, there will be a major crisis inside SYRIZA.
We have made it absolutely clear within SYRIZA that we will not compromise. We were the first people in the party who wouldn't accept the selection of the president of the republic. That's not a minor question, to go against your party in parliament.
Everybody knows that if the agreement is an austerity agreement, we will not vote for it. We don't accept that this means we will be expelled from SYRIZA. We are trying to organize not just sympathy for the left inside SYRIZA, but real political relations. Our roots in SYRIZA are important. They are not as big and deep as we would like, and so, for the time being, our emphasis is on this.
Every week, we face huge questions, around concrete issues where we must give answers. This is very difficult, but we are becoming a stronger and more effective organization. We are fighting for the political strategy and orientation we have had for the last 10 years, and we are continuing to fight for it.
In the major bourgeois media, the left inside SYRIZA is described as primitive and stuck in the past--the old-fashioned Marxists who don't understand reality. That's one picture. But in society at large, it's different. In my neighborhood, they know that I am part of SYRIZA, and when you go to the shop to buy a bottle of milk, the shopkeeper says to you, "Don't retreat, stay strong."
That's the reality. There is a lot of pressure on us. But at the same time, there is a lot of support in the population saying that SYRIZA is our hope, so stay strong.
FROM LONG before the election, you've emphasized the importance of international solidarity for Greece and the movement against austerity in Europe.
YOU ALL know the old phrase of the Russian revolutionaries: Without a revolution in Germany, we are lost. I have heard something similar many times in Greece: "Without a victory for the left in Spain, we will lose." That's a common feeling among ordinary people, not just people on the left. Everybody is watching the news to see whether the demonstrations in Madrid were big or not, because they understand that this has to do with our lives.
Unfortunately, Podemos is falling in the opinion polls, so the situation going into elections later this year doesn't look as good as it did some months ago. But the bigger problem isn't Spain--where at least there is hope for Podemos. The bigger problem is with France and Italy. For a century, the working class movement in Europe has been centered in France and Italy, but there, we don't see the same prospects.
We are asking for international solidarity and support from the left in Europe, but this isn't just international solidarity. The fight is for yourselves, too--challenging austerity in your own country.
Unfortunately, the left in Europe is weak, and so there is a clear danger facing Greece. But we can't stop and wait until the situation gets better in Europe. We must do whatever we can in this situation.
Transcription assistance from Karen Domínguez Burke, Rebecca Anshell-Song, Sarah Levy and Craig McQuade