Τρίτη 26 Μαΐου 2015

A Net Assessment of Europe

Geopolitical Weekly MAY 26, 2015
Last week I began this series with a Net Assessment of the World, in which I focused on the growing destabilization of the Eurasian land mass. This week I continue the series, which will ultimately analyze each region in detail, with an analysis of Europe. I start here, rather than in the Middle East, because while the increasing successes of the Islamic State are significant, the region itself is secondary to Europe in the broader perspective. The Middle East matters, but Europe is as economically productive as the United States and, for the past 500 years, has been the force that has reshaped the world. The Middle East matters a great deal; European crises can destabilize the world. What happens between Greece and Germany, for example, can have consequences in multiple directions. Therefore, since we have to start somewhere, let me start with Europe.
Europe is undergoing two interconnected crises. The first is the crisis of the European Union. The bloc began as a system of economic integration, but it was also intended to be more than that: It was to be an institution that would create Europeans. The national distinctions between European nations is real and has proved destabilizing, since Europe has been filled with nations with diverging interests and historical grudges. The EU project did not intend to abolish these nations; the distinctions and tensions were too deep. Rather it was intended to overlay national identities with a European identity. There would be nations and they would retain ultimate sovereignty, but the citizens of these nations would increasingly come to see themselves as Europeans. That European identity would both create a common culture and diminish the particularity of states. The inducement to all of Europe was prosperity and peace. The European Union would create ongoing prosperity, which would eliminate the danger of conflict. The challenge to Europe in this sense was that prosperity is at best cyclical, and it is regional. Europe is struggling with integration because without general prosperity, the seduction of Europeans away from the parochial allure of nations will fail. Therefore, the crisis of the European Union, focused on the European Peninsula, is one of the destabilizing forces. 
I use the term European Peninsula to denote the region that lies to the west of a line drawn from St. Petersburg to Rostov-on-Don, becoming increasingly narrow until it reaches Iberia and the Atlantic Ocean. France, Germany and Italy are on the peninsula, with its river systems of the Danube and Rhine. To the line’s east is Russia. Whereas the peninsula is intimately connected with the oceans and is therefore engaged in global trade, Russia is landlocked. It is very much land constrained, with its distant ports on the Pacific, the Turkish straits its only outlet to the Mediterranean, and its Baltic and Arctic access hampered by ice and weather. On the peninsula, particularly as you move west, no one is more than a few hundred miles from the sea. Russia, reliant upon land transportation, which is more difficult and expensive than maritime trade, tends to be substantially poorer than the peninsula. 
The second crisis rests in the strategic structure of Europe and is less tractable than the first. Leaving aside the outlying islands and other peninsulas that make up Europe, the Continent’s primordial issue is the relationship between the largely unified but poorer mainland, dominated by Russia, and the wealthier but much more fragmented peninsula. Between Russia and the peninsula lies a borderland that at times as has been under the control of Russia or a peninsular power or, more often, divided. This borderland is occasionally independent and sovereign, but this is rare. More often, even in sovereignty, it is embedded in the spheres of influence of other countries. The borderland has two tiers: the first and furthest east is Belarus, Ukraine and portions of the Balkans, while the second consists of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. After World War II, Russia’s power extended to the second tier and beyond. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, these countries became sovereign, and the influence of the peninsula moved eastward as two peninsular institutions, the European Union and NATO, absorbed the second tier. As this happened, and the Baltics were included with the second tier, Belarus and particularly Ukraine became the dividing line and buffer.
Two things must be noted here. First, it was the existence of the European Union that gave the peninsula a framework for eastward expansion. NATO, in many ways, became moribund as it lost its rationale after the Cold War. However, in the years after Soviet collapse, the European Union was dynamic and seemed destined to unite the peninsula. As Soviet power collapsed and European power seemed to expand, the European Union provided a united framework for expansion and an attractive option for newly sovereign nations in the borderland.
Second, Russia was in a state of systemic shock in the 1990s. It was a period of chaos, characterized by the complete loss of both controls and plans. It was almost as though Russia was unconscious. From the European and American points of view, this was the new normal in Russia. In fact, it was inevitable that this was merely a transitory state. The single institution that historically had held Russia together was the secret police. In a poor country with minimal communications and transportation, the ability of the center to control the periphery is limited. The institution of an efficient security system would be indispensable if Russia were to avoid fragmentation. From the Czars onward, this is what held Russia together. It followed that when the first shock of collapse passed, the security apparatus would reassert itself and stabilize Russia. It was not the personality of Vladimir Putin that mattered; if not for him, another leader would have emerged and halted the disintegration of the Russian economy and polity.
This process inevitably led Russia to restructure itself, within the limits of its diminished power. The effort included an attempt to both stabilize the country’s economy and reassert its geopolitical interests, first in the Caucasus and then in Ukraine. Without a buffer in the eastern peninsula, Russia lacks strategic depth, and it has only been this strategic depth that has saved it from peninsular invasions in the past. Therefore, any attempt to stabilize Russia would necessitate a look westward to the borderlands, where the second tier was completely lost and even the Baltics had become part of the peninsular system, and an interpretation of eastern expansion as an existential threat to Russia.
The European Union’s position was that the Continent’s growing integration was completely benign. That might well have been the subjective intention of the Europeans, but the Russians saw something they had never seen before: integrated institutions, with ambitions among some members to become a federation of nation-states that might go well beyond economics. There had been sufficiently ample discussion of European defense systems and federation to cause concern in Moscow. Without buffers, a united Europe with a shifted intent might well pose an existential threat to Russia. This was particularly the case because the United States held a vague alliance with the Europeans and shared the fear of Russia’s power re-emerging.

Russia's Resurgence and Europe's Crisis

In 2008, two critical things happened. First, and less important, was the Russian war with Georgia that demonstrated—more than reality might require—the re-emergence of Russia as a significant and capable regional power. Second, and more important, the economic crisis triggered by the American sub-prime mortgage crisis led to the gradual fragmentation of European unity, causing a massive divergence of interests. The eastern movement of European influence, supported by the United States, continued in spite of the crisis. The Russians were forced to counter and were less concerned about the consequences. 
The European crisis was simple, at its core. Germany had the fourth-largest economy in the world. It derived over 50 percent of its income from exports, half of which went to the European free trade zone. In addition, using its substantial influence, the euro maximized the interest of the European economy as a whole. Given the size of the German economy, it is only a slight overstatement to assert that its economic needs defined Europe’s economy. The euro helped stabilize and sustain German growth, as did the regulations created by Brussels. This limited entrepreneurial behavior in countries where low wages ought to have been the impetus for growth. Instead, these countries became opportunities for German investment.
All of this was bearable before 2008, because since EU members signed the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992, which led to a common currency, they had seen a period of extraordinary prosperity. A rising tide floats all ships. But in 2008, a routine financial crisis (from the standpoint of a century) tore apart the fabric of the peninsula. During any economic crisis, the most important question is who shall bear the burden, the creditors or debtors? Broadly speaking, Europe split along these lines. Germany was the peninsula’s major creditor. Southern Europe was its major debtor. Leaving aside the moral posturing over who committed what injustice against whom, the Germans insisted on austerity. International institutions, including the International Monetary Fund, aligned with Germany.
The interests of the European Peninsula diverged into four parts: those of Germanic Europe (Germany, Austria and, to some extent, the Czech Republic); Mediterranean Europe; the eastern frontier of the European Union; and the rest of northern Europe.
Germany has an overwhelming interest in the European Union and its free trade zone. It is an inherently weak nation, as are all countries that are dependent on exports. Germany's well-being depends on its ability to sell its products. If blocked by an economic downturn among its customers or political impediments to exports, Germany faces a declining economy that can create domestic social crises. Germany must do everything it can to discipline the European Union without motivating its members to leave. (The issue is not leaving the euro, but placing limits on German exports.) Thus Germanic Europe is walking a fine line. It is an economic engine of Europe, but also extremely insecure. Given the fragmentation in the European Union, it must reach out to others, particularly Russia, for alternatives. Russia is not an alternative in itself, but in a bad situation it could be part of a solution if Germany could craft one. This is, of course, a worst-case scenario, but the worst case is often the reality in Europe in the long run.
Southern Europe is seeking a path that will allow it to escape catastrophic austerity in a Europe that seems unable to generate significant economic growth. If that does not save Southern European nations, they must decide, in simplest terms, whether they are better off defaulting on debt than paying it. While Germany is currently inclined not to force them to this point, it is emerging on its own. This is the fundamental reality of Europe: Germany wants to save the free trade zone, but without absorbing Europe’s bad debts. Southern Europe needs to shift its burden and will eventually reconsider the viability of free trade, though it has not yet done so. Just as there are limits on agricultural trade, why not create the same environment that the Germans enjoyed in the 1950s, when they were able to protect themselves from American industrial exports, thereby growing their industry with minimal competition?
Central and Eastern European countries are in a complex position with the European Union, since they are generally members that are not in the eurozone. But for most of them, the question of Russia’s power and intentions is more important than the Greek crisis. For the east, there is an awareness that Europe never did progress to a common foreign and defense policy and that the European Union cannot defend them against Russia. They are also aware that NATO cannot defend them, except with American involvement, which is coming in very measured and slow increases.
Then there is the fourth part of Europe, particularly France, which is supposed to be Germany’s equal in the European Union but has fallen behind in recent decades, as it did in the 19th century. France is as much part of Southern Europe as Greece, along with high unemployment in the south. And along with the Southern Europeans, who are facing problems in the Mediterranean and North Africa alongside their economic woes, France is not drawn east, nor is it comfortable with German policies, but it is being drawn in multiple directions on economic and strategic issues.

A Continent Divided

A continent drawn in multiple directions is the best description of the European Union, and one that gives the Russians some relief. The collapse of oil prices and Russia’s inability to turn oil income into a diverse and sustainable economy are inherently limiting factors on Russia’s power. In Ukraine, the Russians are experiencing the twin problems of a failure of intelligence and the limits of their military forces. Their intelligence failed to detect or manage events in Ukraine, from anticipating the fall of the government to understanding that there would be no general uprising in eastern Ukraine. Russia’s military never invaded anything, albeit that Russia controlled and, to some degree, still controls warring militias. Russia was present in Crimea by treaty, and its minimal forces and operations in the east revealed both its aggressive intent and the limits of its power. The Russians did not do well in that campaign, nor in my view could they mount a successful invasion of Ukraine as a whole, given their limits on logistics and other capabilities.
But the Russians were saved by the fragmentation of the peninsula. The eastern Europeans wanted some definitive action from Europe. None came. Sanctions created pain, but they did not define Russia’s strategic policy. Thus, to the extent that the borderland has a patron, it is not Europe but the United States. The Germans have no desire to fundamentally alienate Russia over Ukraine. The French are torn in multiple directions and the Southern Europeans have no interest in non-EU issues aside from Muslim immigration. (This latter challenge, which solves problems of labor shortages but creates problems of immigration and some risk of terrorism, is important and a topic to which I will return in the future. Muslim immigration, however, does not threaten Europe's fundamental architecture, the elucidation of which is the purpose of a net assessment.)
The Net Assessment of Europe is that the Continent’s basic geographical split remains in place, and Russia still holds the weaker position. However, its relative strength has increased with the rise of divergent interests within the European Union, and its primary concern regarding the Continent is not Europe but the United States. Therefore, the crisis in the European Union will define the broader situation in Russia, and that fundamental crisis appears insoluble within the current framework of discussion. The discussion will move from debt and repayment to the creation of a sustainable European Union in which Germany may not get to export all it wants but must accept limits on its prosperity relative to its partners. Since politics makes that unlikely, the fragmentation of the peninsula will increase, and with it, Russia’s relative power will rise, drawing in the United States.

Δευτέρα 25 Μαΐου 2015

New York Times Magazine: A Finance Minister Fit for a Greek Tragedy?

Yanis Varoufakis knows when he will go. “I’m not going to humiliate myself, and I’m not going to become compromised in terms of principles and in terms of logic,” he told me in early May. The Greek finance minister had just returned to Athens from a hopscotch tour of European capitals, during which he warned his fellow European leaders that they faced a Continental crisis: If they didn’t lend money to his ailing country soon, Greece might end up forced to leave the eurozone. And yet Greece wouldn’t accept many of the conditions they were demanding in return. He sounded angry. “I’ll be damned if I will accept another package of economic policies that perpetuate this same crisis. This is not what I was elected for.” He would resign, he said, rather than push the Greek people deeper into economic despair: “It’s not good for Europe, and it’s not good for Greece.”

Varoufakis has been Greece’s finance minister for only four months, but the story of how he has thrown Europe into turmoil is one many years in the making. After Greece joined the European Union’s monetary union in 2001, the tiny country of 10 million was flooded with money from elsewhere on the Continent. Over the course of the next decade, Greek leaders, whose sclerotic and corrupt economy had long been rife with patronage and tax evasion, borrowed billions from imprudent European banks and then lied to E.U. officials about its mounting debts. When the financial crisis finally rolled into Greece in 2009 and 2010, the country was an estimated $430 billion in debt, a staggering figure that imperiled the economic health of its near and distant neighbors — indeed, all of Europe. The European Commission, International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank (often referred to as the troika) agreed to bail out the sinking economy by loaning it $146 billion. In return, as Athenians rioted in the streets in protest, the government promised the troika it would reduce state spending by slashing pensions and wages, eliminating jobs and raising taxes, an approach to debt reduction known as “austerity.”

That bailout, along with another, even larger rescue in 2012, temporarily buoyed Greece, but the spending cuts have produced what many Greeks consider to be a humanitarian crisis. Twenty-five percent of the country’s population is unemployed; Greece’s gross domestic product has shrunk by a quarter; suicides and homelessness have increased; hospitals, woefully underfunded, scrounge for medicines. Just this month, Varoufakis warned that the country could run out of money in weeks.Photo
Yanis VaroufakisCreditLuca Locatelli/Institute, for The New York Times

In successive elections after the crisis, both dominant political parties — Pasok and New Democracy ruled Greece for the last 40 years — failed to transform the Greek economy or protect its people. In January, more than a third of the electorate voted into power the Coalition of the Radical Left, a collection of older leftist parties now known as Syriza, which pledged to end austerity. Its ascendance amounted to a kind of democratic revolution. Its victory, however, threatened an ominous evolution for the eurozone: The rise of a “radical” party in the region has frightened conservative and centrist European leaders facing anger at home amid declining living standards. And while most of Syriza’s officials, including its leader, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, want to stay in the eurozone, as much as a third of Syriza’s membership would be willing to abandon the euro to avoid more austerity. It’s an outcome more likely than ever before, and its consequences are frightening and unknowable.

The European Union has been a project in the making since the end of World War II, but its monetary union, the eurozone, is only 16 years old. There is no agreement on what might happen if a country were to leave it. A result could be catastrophe, especially for Greece itself, which would have to return to its former currency, a drachma vastly reduced in value. Banks could close, savings evaporate, businesses collapse, medicine and petroleum and all sorts of other goods become impossible to import. The uncertainty alone — could Greek companies or the state pay its bills? — would scare off foreign investment. Globally, meanwhile, the markets fluctuate every time bad news comes out of Greece.

Whether the eurozone as a whole is now prepared for these sorts of disruptions, as some experts believe, Greece’s official creditors, some of which are European governments, would still have to absorb losses. And the symbolic and moral failure of a union and monetary zone designed to prevent ethnic conflict and ensure prosperity for all European citizens would be incalculable. If the “Grexit” comes to pass, could Spain be the next country to leave? Could Italy? Without the Parthenon, without La Sagrada Familia, without the Colosseum, what is a European “union”?

These concerns clouded Syriza’s triumph, and in February the party faced the disheartening task of somehow wrenching a new agreement from Europe. During the campaign, Syriza promised its voters a range of seeming impossibilities that ran directly counter to the political realities inside the European Union. Austerity would end; the next installment toward paying off the second bailout would not happen; above all, dignity would be restored. At the same time, Syriza was now vowing to remain in the euro. As someone joked to me, Syriza essentially hoped that 1 plus 2 could equal 4. To negotiate an agreement that might accomplish this seemingly impossible outcome, Tsipras decided to send a pugnacious economist named Yanis Varoufakis.

It was a startling choice. Varoufakis is neither a politician nor a banker by training. He has been one of the most visible and vociferous critics of the Greek government, the European establishment and the Greek-European bailout. Imagine that President Obama had, instead of picking Timothy Geithner to be his Treasury secretary in the midst of the financial crisis, appointed a progressive academic economist like Paul Krugman or Joseph Stiglitz, only edgier and funnier, someone who had spoken out scathingly against bank bailouts, freely expressing himself however he wanted on television and in public debates because he wasn’t running for office. His popularity was undeniable, though. When Syriza did put Varoufakis on the ballot for Parliament in January, despite the fact that he was living in Austin, Tex., at the time, he won more votes than any other candidate.

Four months into his political tenure, Varou­fakis is at the center of a contest that could determine the entire Continent’s future. No deal between Greece and the domineering center of European authority has been reached. Varoufakis finds himself struggling to hold on to his principles, what he calls the “red lines” that prevent him, in his mind, from becoming like every other Greek politician before him. Those ideals risk bringing more hardship to Greece, but Varoufakis has staked his academic integrity on a particular economic and moral critique of the crisis. To what, to whom, does he presently owe his ultimate responsibility?

“For the people who are now 15, 16, 17 years old, to have a chance by the time they are 20 — this is what matters,” he told me this month. “There’s no doubt that this economy now is far worse off in the last two months as a result of our hard bargaining.” He described that change as a trade-off, an investment in a better future. “And an investment always involves a short-term cost,” he said.

I asked him about that short-term cost. Is he worried about the Greek economy today?

“Terrified,” he said. “Terrified and aghast.”

Economic crises in modern countries are not always easy to see; the suffering doesn’t reveal itself everywhere. Athens is a cafe civilization. Its streets are lined with tables that in springtime, when the sun is pale yellow and soft, are full of people. The vitality of the scene might cause a visitor to wonder: what financial crisis? Where is the emergency? Shops are still open, crowds flow from the Metro exits, automobile traffic clogs the streets. The Acropolis still stands.

Only someone who lives in Greece can look at that busy restaurant and tell you that a souvlaki and soda costs only $5; that the college graduate sits outside for hours because he is unemployed and has no future; that the elderly man sitting with him lost his pension and has been nursing that same beer all day. A few minutes from the tourist center of the city, the streets are desolate, the stores boarded up; farther out, much of Athens is grim and poor. According to one Greek political theorist, the recession in Greece has reached a level “unseen in a Western country since the 1930s.” Anthony Kefalas, a former adviser to the Hellenic Federation of Enterprises, a business lobby, told me that if something isn’t done soon, “an entire generation in Greece will never be employed.” Hospitals and universities have been ravaged; the economics Ph.D. program that Varoufakis ran at the University of Athens, for example, now barely keeps going.

The finance ministry itself was deserted when I visited Varoufakis in February. Few people seemed to be working there, except for a guard sitting sleepily outside a bank of elevators and a woman smiling behind a desk in the hall. Wires hung from cracked panels in the ceiling; a parched fern wilted in the corner. Varoufakis did not have a staff yet. When he first moved into the ministry, there was no computer in his office, and the Internet didn’t work. He had a press person of sorts — who told me to text “Yanis” directly for appointments.

After a while, Yanis found me in the waiting room. “I’m just going to come out here and get you myself,” he said. Polite and full of energy, Varoufakis took me inside to his office, whose windows directly face the Parliament building across Syntagma Square, the nucleus of the city. The view, especially with the angelic Athenian light, was better than the space, which was bereft of personal effects and ached with the drabness of ’70s-era bureaucracy. Someone later told me that the only change to the office during the last five years was that a hole in the window, caused, legend has it, by a bullet fired during a 2010 demonstration in the square, had been fixed. A flat-screen TV mounted on the wall blared a Greek talk show.

“Why is this on?” he said, punching at the remote-control buttons. “I hate TV. And I don’t know how to work this. See, I don’t know how to work my own television.” Varoufakis is almost always sardonic; when he seems to be poking fun at himself for not knowing how to work the television, it’s clear that it’s the television’s fault.

His office had been set up for a news crew, and wires and gadgets crisscrossed the floor — he was doing a lot of television. During his recent tour through European capitals, and lastly in Brussels, where he faced off against his European negotiating partners, Varoufakis stunned Europeans and Greeks with his reflexive defiance. Greece, he said, would no longer simply acquiesce to the austerity doctrine of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the I.M.F. In fact, Varoufakis, who believes Greece should have been treated as a bankruptcy case, initially wanted the institutions to write off a portion of its debt, which amounted to some $262 billion. After many rounds of confrontation, Greece and its creditors agreed to extend the controversial second bailout, which came in 2012, and Greece was allowed to propose its own list of economic reforms.Photo
Varoufakis has remained popular at home amid criticism from Northern European countries.CreditLuca Locatelli/Institute, for The New York Times

On his Continental tour, Varoufakis also became a celebrity. The Europeans eyed Varou­fakis as if his species had never swum in their lagoon. Epithets included “used-car salesman,” “hothead” and “nightclub bouncer,” and some wondered why he always had one hand in his pocket. They dwelled on his black leather jacket, his popped collar, the colors of his shirts, his shaved head. He was apparently a sex symbol, too. He rode a motorcycle. He worked out; he had charisma and cheekbones. He had a way of tilting his face down so that his eyes looked up from under his brow unnervingly: One image that circulated online depicted lasers shooting out of his eyes. His personal style was blunt; he disregarded the bloodless etiquette of European politicians. When the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, said at a news conference after their first meeting, “We have agreed to disagree,” Varoufakis replied, “We didn’t even agree to disagree, from where I’m standing,” and it was thrillingly clear that the Greek finance minister had never been a politician before. Some German comedians even made a video that depicted Varoufakis as a man of animalistic power, some sort of rock star who licks his motorcycle seat in one scene. Another scene includes footage of Varoufakis himself apparently giving the finger to Germany.

At home, “V Is for Varoufakis” posters hung in the windows of cafes. Greeks showered him with love, twittered over his looks, and wrote adoring satires of his glamorous life and wide-ranging talents. Varoufakis’s oldest friends were bewildered by the international fuss, but everyone I’ve spoken to who knew him before this ministerial turn says Varoufakis’s behavior on the European stage is typical: He’s outspoken, passionate and confident about his ideas. That, apparently, was the problem, because Varoufakis did not go to Europe merely to negotiate Greece’s future. He had bigger ideas. He wanted to show the Europeans how to save Europe itself.

Varoufakis’s wife, Danae Stratou, invited me over one evening to their apartment near the Acropolis. It was located in a turn-of-the-century building that belonged to Stratou’s mother — the family once owned the largest textile company in Greece — and Varoufakis and Stratou lived on the first floor. (They have since moved.) It was not large and had a small balcony off the back. A bookshelf by the Israeli industrial designer Ron Arad hung on one wall, and Stratou’s artworks were on display throughout. One piece, a large photograph of hooded crimson scarecrows, arms outstretched and leaning in a lush Kashmir field, reminded me of the prisoner photos from Abu Ghraib. Around the time I visited, the apartment achieved a measure of fame when it appeared in Paris Match magazine, whose photographs showed Varou­fakis and Stratou smiling and eating fish. The scene came across as rather glitzy for a leftist politician, and Varoufakis told me he regretted the pictures. “Look, I know it sounds stupid, but I didn’t know what Paris Match was,” he said. “I don’t read these magazines.”

Stratou, who is beautiful and has wide, ice blue eyes, is a large-scale land artist; her first major work, “Desert Breath,” took nine months to construct and still exists in the Egyptian desert. After she and Varoufakis started dating in 2005, he began taking part in her art projects, including one that took them to borders around the world — between Israel and Palestine, Ethiopia and Eritrea, United States and Mexico — where dividing walls keep people apart. It sounded as if the couple had a fruitful collaborative relationship, and Stratou said Varoufakis’s only major concern about becoming the finance minister of Greece was the disruption it would bring to their life.

“He did it because he felt he had to morally be there,” Stratou said. “He was offered the chance to help his country. He feels extremely responsible to 10 million Greeks. And he has lost a lot of sleep over that. What I can see is that he is someone walking on a minefield. Every moment that passes, he doesn’t know what he’s going to step on.”

Varoufakis says he took the job because, after years of articulating a solution to the crisis, he said he felt he didn’t have a choice. “In the 1980s, I was incensed by apartheid. Some people could forget about it; I couldn’t forget about it. It’s not because I am morally superior, I just couldn’t forget about it. Similarly, in the case of the 2008 crisis, it was the idiocy of it: This was a crisis that was unnecessary.”

Varoufakis traces his political consciousness to his childhood in “the junta era” — the years when Greece was ruled by dictatorship. “It was very hard to avoid being political,” he said. “It was all around you.” His father, he said, was raised as “a liberal enlightenment person, not a left winger,” but when he immigrated to Greece from Cairo in the late 1940s, the royalist-communist civil war was underway. One day, the police roughed him up but said they would release him if he signed a denunciation of communism. “He said, ‘Look I am not a Buddhist, but I would never sign a denunciation of Buddhism,’ ” Varoufakis said. “He read Rousseau at 13 years old, and he knew about civil liberties.” He ended up in a concentration camp with communists — and joined the Communist Party, which made finding work nearly impossible. Eventually, he got a low-paying job as a personal assistant to the owner of a steel company, and today, at age 90, he is its chairman. Varoufakis’s mother, a biochemist, made “a pittance,” he said, because she was a woman. She became involved in the feminist movement in the 1970s. Varoufakis was also a political activist from a young age. When he began his career as an academic at the University of Essex, he said, his slogan became “subvert the dominant paradigm,” which some of his students later put on a T-shirt.

Varoufakis left England in 1988 to teach at the University of Sydney, where he began a series of conversations about the global economy with the economist Joseph Halevi, the two of them among academics in their field who contested the notion then popular that the world had entered a new phase of “perpetual growth,” what the former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke called the “great moderation.” After the crash, Varoufakis decided to put those ideas into a book for a popular audience titled, “The Global Minotaur,” which presented the world, and Europe, as perilously yoked to the fluctuations of the American economy. When the crisis finally reached Greece, Varoufakis began working with the British economist Stuart Holland and, later, the American economist James Galbraith, on a pamphlet titled, “A Modest Proposal,” which identified four major crises in Europe — in banking, public debt, underinvestment and social welfare — and proposed solutions to each. “Europe is fragmenting,” they wrote. “As this happens, human costs mount, and disintegration becomes an increasing threat. . . . The fallout from a eurozone breakup would destroy the European Union, except perhaps in name. And Europe’s fragmentation poses a global danger.”

He told me that he still felt that way. The crisis that began in 2007 was just as bad as the Great Depression that started in 1929, and it was far from over. “We need a New Deal for the globe,” he said, “at least for Europe.” But when he sought to make his case in interviews and speeches across Europe these past months as finance minister, while also mounting a moral argument for easing the suffering of Greece as well as other southern European countries, his European counterparts were exasperated. They were frightened, too, by the prospect of Varoufakis serving as inspiration for leftist movements elsewhere — especially in Spain, where Podemos, a leftist party led by activists who also oppose austerity policies, has made significant inroads. At the February meetings, the European financial leaders pushed back by insisting on austerity. Aristides Hatzis, a professor of philosophy in Athens, says that Varoufakis found himself “where no one was interested in life in the eurozone in the long term — they were only interested in specific details about the way Greece was going to pay its debt.” Because Varou­fakis is clever, Hatzis says, he adjusted to this reality and changed course. He was also forced to make many concessions.

The American economist Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winner, describes Varoufakis’s situation as “absolutely impossible.” “There is an obsession among policy-making economists in Germany about fiscal balance,” he says, “compared to unemployment, inequality, economic growth, financial stability.” When Greece received its first bailout in 2010, the Europeans insisted on severe austerity while predicting that Greece’s gross domestic product would shrink by only 4 percent. Over five years it shrank 25 percent. (Stiglitz says that he tells his students that if their economic models and forecasts were that bad, he would give them an F.) By 2011, according to Stiglitz, the European leaders admitted they needed a new strategy. “They never delivered,” Stiglitz told me. “In a way, Europe has reneged on their promises over and over again, and Yanis and this new government have to pick up the pieces.”

When I met Varoufakis in late March, his popularity remained buoyant, at least on the street, despite the increasingly caustic criticism of him at home and abroad. It was a gray Sunday morning in Athens, and only a few men sat in cafes drinking coffee and smoking. “Keep going, Yanis,” said a taxi driver as we walked to a cafe near the Acropolis. “Good job,” another said. Varoufakis smiled and thanked them. Before turning inside, a man stopped him and shook his hand. I asked if it was always like this. He said, “Yes, all the time.”

That weekend, the Greeks and Europeans still hadn’t settled on the reforms. No money had been released. Two teams of negotiators, in Athens and Brussels, were desperately trying to work out the agreement. Syriza was scouring even university bursaries for cash. Weeks before, the party entered into an ugly nationalist squabble with Germany: Syriza politicians began demanding reparations for damages done during Nazi Germany’s occupation of Greece in World War II, prompting the accusation that they were trying to deflect attention from Greece’s own economic failures.

In a situation like this, a government could pursue right-wing reforms like privatization or left-wing reforms like going after wealthy tax evaders. Syriza had done neither. I asked Varou­fakis why.

“When?” he said. Greece’s creditors had given the party no time to maneuver. “I have done nothing else for two months than to negotiate for the right to negotiate — to have this discussion. I still haven’t won that right. Which means everything we do has to go through this negotiating process.” He thinks the Europeans’ complaints are about something else. “They do not believe a little colonial outpost in the eurozone has a right to have an opinion about its own affairs and the eurozone.”

PhotoIt made some sense, however, that a new party in power for a mere two months might have been unprepared to figure out what was broken and how it could be fixed. He told me, for example, that it was impossible to know how much money the government could collect from tax evaders, and he didn’t want to lie. Yet the Greeks are frequently portrayed as “stalling.” Varoufakis says he wanted to limit the number of reforms to three or four that could immediately be put into effect, but the Europeans require a highly technical list of reforms that is now about 26 pages long.
Varoufakis walks alone from his office to another government building across Syntagma Square. CreditLuca Locatelli/Institute, for The New York Times

“Our critics will say we have been talking too much, but it isn’t our choice,” he said. “This is what the institutions want. This is what they’re doing as we speak.”

From the European point of view, Greece has no right at all to argue about reforms, so utterly did previous governments, after torpedoing their own economy, fail to implement them over the past five years. But Varoufakis and Syriza regard their election as a sort of “Day Zero” for Greece. “We are the guys who spent all our lives in Syntagma Square outside my office protesting what the people inside my office were doing,” Varoufakis said. “We were being bombarded with gas, because we didn’t see how we could repay a loan under the circumstances.” He compared himself to Margaret Thatcher, elected in 1979 in opposition to the welfare state. “How intelligent is it to blame Margaret Thatcher for the postwar corporatism that came before her?” he asked. “Not much. So what we have here is a serious case of deeply rooted racism that all Greeks are the same, that whether or not they protested the bailout, they are still responsible for it.”

At that moment, a tourist interrupted him. “Excuse me, can I take a photo with you?”

“No, not right now, thank you,” he replied, and turned back to me. “Hannah Arendt said that if one German died in Auschwitz resisting Hitler, you can’t say the German nation was responsible for Nazism. I believe in that. But that applies to the Greek people as well.”

His cellphone, which had been ringing constantly throughout our talk, went off again; this time it was Prime Minister Tsipras, presumably calling from Brussels. After finishing the call, he needed to go. I asked how the weekend’s negotiations were going so far.

“I don’t know,” he said, his voice inflecting as if he, too, were curious. “It’s a political decision. It has nothing to do with these discussions. The question is: Have they decided to throw us out of the eurozone? I am not going to pay the I.M.F. and not pay pensions in the next few weeks. So I said to them: ‘Decide. Do you want this to be a proper bargaining round, or do you want this to be a post-mortem?’ ”

I suggested that maybe this is why he’s accused of brinkmanship.

“It’s not brinkmanship. It’s the truth. They want me to fold. That’s brinkmanship on their part. I am not going to fold on pensions.”

Syriza’s opponents in Greece wonder if Tsipras and Varoufakis have already failed. They were naïve, the critics contend, to believe that they could extract huge concessions from the Europeans, and they will end up with the same bailout terms as before and an economy in even worse shape. In that case, Greece could be subjected to a fifth year of austerity. If Greece seeks a third bailout in June, as even Varoufakis assumes it will, it’s hard to imagine Europe, basking in triumph, would relent on any of its conditions.

Varoufakis says that he has done what the Europeans have asked of him. He is proud, even, of the compromises Syriza has made, which include privatizations of some state assets, like the port of Piraeus, and a delay in raising the minimum wage. But he refuses to budge on maintaining pensions — slashing them has already brought considerable hardship to elderly Greeks — or on restoring collective bargaining rights, which would give workers more leverage in negotiating salaries. His greatest fear is that the Europeans may insist on what is in his eyes the worst measure of all: the maintenance of a 4.5 percent surplus, a stringent European stipulation from 2012 that preserves large state savings and cripples expenditures. The policy is the embodiment of austerity. For Varou­fakis the economist and academic, this is very likely the red line that would be the hardest to cross, intellectually and professionally.

For Syriza, this is a question of democracy, Greek self-determination and the architecture of the European Union, in which member states don’t necessarily control their own fates. But as many critics have pointed out, the eurozone is not a place for rebelliousness or big ideas; it is a place of rules. And in that forum, Varoufakis has done poorly, says Daniel Gros, the director of the Center for European Policy Studies, a research firm based in Brussels. “He is unable to provide them with the kind of detailed proposals they are looking for,” Gros says, referring to the Europeans he believes were more sympathetic to Greece than Syriza claims. “They were fed up with the old status quo. They thought: O.K., maybe there is someone here who is tough talking but will deliver. And he hasn’t. The attitude is: You get money if we see something concrete.”

Syriza officials to the left of Varou­fakis believe his mission was quixotic from the start. There is a sense that he and Tsipras were both too idealistic and too confident in their ability to persuade the Europeans to abandon an ideological policy they have promoted for years. “They really thought that they could get something substantial,” says Stathis Kouvelakis, a member of Syriza’s Left Platform, which represents a third of the party and believes, among other things, that leaving the euro is the only option for Greece. “There is a miscalculation from the outset. You have the iron cage of neoliberal policies that has to be defended at any cost, and Greece was the test case of that: Do what you are told to do or you will be punished. This will serve as a lesson to Podemos or any force in Europe that would dare contest its neoliberal austerity politics.”

In April, after newspapers reported that Varoufakis had been “sidelined” from the negotiations after finance ministers angrily insulted him at a meeting in Riga — reportedly calling him a gambler, an amateur and a time-waster — Varoufakis tweeted: “FDR, 1936: ‘They are unanimous in their hate for me; and I welcome their hatred.’ A quotation close to my heart (& reality) these days.”

According to Varoufakis, the tweet — he has more than 400,000 Twitter followers — was directed not at his fellow finance ministers, but at journalists. “The media went into a frenzy of obfuscations and lies, which I am sure they are not entirely responsible for,” he said. “It seems as if there were leaks from within that were disconnected from the reality of what happened. All these reports that I was abused, that I was called names, that I was called a time-waster and all that: Let me say that I deny this with every fiber of my body.” (He says he taped the meeting but cannot release the tape because of confidentiality rules.)

Nonetheless, he said, he and the prime minister decided that they should reshuffle the teams to adjust to the current climate and the narrative that dominated the media, even though he denies that he was “sidelined.” He represented Greece as usual at the next round of negotiations. “This is a narrative that feeds on itself,” he said. “It’s completely disconnected from reality, but it’s a parallel reality, a Goebbels-like propaganda style that has a wonderful capacity to change the atmosphere.”

He described himself as simply the “lightning rod.” He knew how difficult the job would be. “I take it all in stride. I would have been down in the dumps and upset, maybe even panicking, but I was expecting it. So it’s O.K.” Strangers on the streets of Athens, he says, still call out messages of support. “What they are starved of is a government that they can be proud of,” he said. “We are not particularly concerned about retaining our positions. So that destabilizes the other side. They are used to politicians who are really keen to maintain their positions. And we’re not that keen. We don’t care. We want to do the right thing, and if we can’t do the right thing, we’ll go.”

Suzy Hansen is a contributing writer for the magazine. She is working on a book about living in Istanbul.

The Heat Is on Greece’s Alexis Tsipras, From Inside and Out

MAY 24, 2015

ATHENS — With Greece in the final stretch of negotiations with its creditors, aimed at unlocking rescue loans the country needs to avert an imminent default, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras faces growing pressure from the ranks of his own party.

After weeks of simmering dissent among the more radical elements of his leftist Syriza party, Mr. Tsipras on Sunday faced his biggest challenge from within the party since taking office in January. A faction known as the Left Platform proposed that Greece stop paying its creditors if they continue with “blackmailing tactics” and instead seek “an alternative plan” for the debt-racked country.

The proposal came as the interior minister, Nikos Voutsis, told Greek television that Athens would not be able to make debt repayments of 1.6 billion euros, or nearly $1.8 billion, that are due next month to theInternational Monetary Fund, one of Greece’s three international creditors.

“The money won’t be given,” Mr. Voutsis said. “It isn’t there to be given.” 

That Mr. Tsipras’s more moderate stance prevailed represented a small victory for the prime minister. But the strong support for the Left Platform’s proposal indicates that Mr. Tsipras faces a difficult balancing act as he tries to seal a deal with creditors and bring it to Parliament.

Syriza came to power on a promise to take a hard line with creditors in debt negotiations and resist the type of austerity measures that are blamed for driving up unemployment to 25 percent and slashing household incomes by a third. But Mr. Tsipras has had to soften his approach as he has worked for months to reach an agreement with the country’s three international creditors — the I.M.F., theEuropean Commission and the European Central Bank — and unlock €7.2 billion in bailout funds that Greece needs to meet debt repayments over the summer and remain solvent.

His challenge now is to keep the backing of a majority of Syriza’s party officials and legislators as he moves ahead.

In a speech to the central committee on Saturday, Mr. Tsipras told party officials that Greece was “in the final stretch of negotiations.” He said he would not submit to creditors’ “irrational demands” on value-added taxrates, further liberalization of the labor market and changes to the pension system — the main sticking points.

The party’s central committee on Sunday voted in favor of Greece reaching a “mutually beneficial deal” with creditors that was not based on further austerity measures.

Such a deal, the committee said, should set low targets for Greece’s primary budget surplus, avoid further cuts to pensions and government salaries, restructure Greece’s debt and introduce a strong investment plan to help the country emerge from years of recession. The text of the decision did not rule out halting payments to creditors, “if things reach a marginal point.”

Mr. Lafazanis, the Left Platform leader, suggested that the impact of Greece’s exit from the eurozone could be manageable. “Who says an exit from the euro and return to the national currency would be catastrophic?” he said, adding that the government should start preparing Greeks for the possibility of an “alternative solution” to avert the imposition of new austerity measures and privatization of government assets.

The growing resistance from within Syriza comes as Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, has taken a harder line on Greece, insisting that the country commit to reforms in return for the funds and refusing to rule out the possibility that Greece could default on its debt.

In the meantime, more voices have been added to the discussions about a possible Greek exit from the eurozone. Over the weekend, Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman, said it was only a matter of time before Greece left the euro, while Warren E. Buffett, the billionaire investor, indicated that the euro could benefit from a Greek exit.

A version of this article appears in print on May 25, 2015, on page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: Heat Is on Greece’s Leader, From Allies and Adversaries.

ΤΗΕ ΝEW YORK ΤIMES: With Money Drying Up, Greece Is All but Bankrupt

ATHENS — Bulldozers lie abandoned on city streets. Exhausted surgeons operate through the night. And the wealthy bail out broke police departments.

A nearly bankrupt Greece is taking desperate measures to preserve cash. Absent a last-minute deal with its creditors, the nation will run out of money early next month.

Two weeks ago, Greece nearly defaulted on a debt payment of 750 million euros, or about $825 million, to the International Monetary Fund.

For the rest of this month, Greece should be able to cover daily cash deficits of around 100 million euros, government ministers say. Starting June 5, however, these shortfalls will rise sharply, to around 400 million euros as another I.M.F. obligation comes due. They will then double in size on June 8 and 9.

“At that point it is all over,” said a senior Greek finance official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Continue reading the main story

On Sunday, the interior minister, Nikos Voutsis, said that there would not be enough money to pay the I.M.F. if there was no deal by June 5.Photo

“There are no free rides in this country anymore,” said Kostas Bakoyannis, 37, the governor of the Central Greece administrative region. “The old parties — they never spoke truth to the people. Now we have to live on what we can make and produce.”CreditEirini Vourloumis for The New York Times

In a society that has lived off the generosity of the government for decades, the cash crisis has already had a shattering impact. Universities, hospitals and municipalities are struggling to provide basic services, and the country’s underfunded security apparatus is losing its battle against an influx of illegal immigrants.

In effect, analysts say, Greece is already operating as a bankrupt state.

The government’s call to conserve funds has been far-reaching.

All embassies and consulates — as well as municipalities throughout the country — have been told to forward surplus funds to Athens.

Hospitals and schools face strict orders not to hire doctors and teachers.

And national security officials complain they are under intense pressure to keep air and sea missions to a minimum, at a time when migrants from Africa and the Middle East are rushing to Greece’s shores.

Even the swelling ranks of investment bankers, lawyers and consultants advising the Finance Ministry have been told that, for now at least, their work is to be considered pro bono.

Since its first bailout in 2010, Greece has been forced by its creditors to cut spending by €28 billion — quite a sum in a €179 billion economy. A proportional dose of austerity applied to the United States, for example, would come to $2.6 trillion.

During the past six months, a period during which Greece has had its credit line revoked over disagreements with Europe regarding economic overhauls, the state has been forced to wield an even sharper knife.

For a generation of Greek politicians who saw government spending (and borrowing) as a national birthright, the idea of deploying only the money at hand has been jarring.

But for other Greeks who are eager to break from the country’s tradition of dispensing political favors to the well-connected, these years of imposed restraint have also provided a valuable lesson.

“There are no free rides in this country anymore,” said Kostas Bakoyannis, 37, the governor of the Central Greece administrative region. “The old parties — they never spoke truth to the people. Now we have to live on what we can make and produce.”

Mr. Bakoyannis was in the middle of a weeklong tour of the 25 municipalities that he oversees. He delivered this very message to the city elders of Thebes, a town of about 36,000 people, roughly 75 miles northwest of Athens.

Although Mr. Bakoyannis was elected as an independent and is scathing about Greek politicians past and present, he himself is a scion of the country’s right-leaning New Democracy Party: A grandfather, Constantinos Mitsotakis, was a prime minister, and his mother, Dora, has been a senior minister in various governments.Continue reading the main story

December 2009 Credit ratings agencies downgrade Greece on fears that it could default on its debt.
May 2010 Europe and Greece reach a $146 billion rescue package, conditional on austerity measures. Some economists say the required cuts could kill the patient.
October 2011 Banks agree to take a 50 percent loss on the face value of their Greek debt.
July 2012 Stocks soar after the head of the E.C.B. says policy makers will do ''whatever it takes'' to save the euro zone.
January 2015 Greek voters choose an anti-austerity party. Alexis Tsiprasbecomes prime minister.
May 2015 Greece quells fears of an imminent default on its debts,authorizing a big loan payment to the I.M.F. It is not clear how much longer Greece can continue to scrape by.

As it is in many small towns here, the unemployment rate is higher than the national average of 25 percent. And while the trash is being collected, budget cuts of 50 percent leave room for little else.

For about a year now, Thebes has been trying to complete a modest €2 million project to refurbish the town’s main street. But because the construction company has not been paid in more than a month, work has ground to a halt.

An abandoned bulldozer gathering dust in the rubble of the road suggests that the project will not be completed anytime soon.

What makes this work stoppage especially worrisome to Mr. Bakoyannis is that it is one of the many infrastructure projects in Greece that is backed by the European Union.

Some 89 percent of Greece’s €6.5 billion investment budget is majority financed by Europe, meaning the government is paid back shortly after each outlay.

Through the worst days of austerity, Mr. Bakoyannis explains, these investments — highways, bridges and ports, for example — had continued, as the government always knew it would be paid back in weeks.

Since April 30, he says, the liquidity crisis in Athens has forced the government to stop payment on these initiatives as well, the first time in his memory that that has happened.

“These projects are our lifeline,” said Mr. Bakoyannis, who has seen his infrastructure budget cut to €12 million from €65 million in the past four years. “It’s not about Keynesian politics anymore — it’s about finding enough money to repair a simple road.”

Security experts say that well-to-do families in suburban pockets surrounding Athens are now supplying critical funds to local police departments.

“It’s an increasing trend,” said Ioannis Michaletos, an analyst with the Institute for Security and Defense Analysis, a nonprofit group in Athens. “There is less money and a lot more work for the police to do.”

Perhaps no other areas in Greece have felt the full force of the country’s cash drain than its state-funded universities and hospitals.

At the University of Athens, the country’s largest educational institution and home to about 125,000 students, the annual operating budget has fallen to €10 million from about €40 million before the crisis.

As for the hospitals, even though they are taking in twice as many patients now, their budgets have been cut to the bone. In the first four months of this year, health officials say that the 140 or so public hospitals in Greece received just €43 million from the state — down from €650 million during the same period last year.

Sitting at his desk at the start of yet another 20-hour-plus workday, Theodoros Giannaros, the head of Elpis Hospital in Athens, chain-smoked cigarettes and signed off on a pile of spending requests that he said he knew would not be fulfilled.Photo

Theodoros Giannaros, the head of Elpis Hospital in Athens, said he recently suffered a heart attack from the constant stress of his job. But it is his surgeons he worries about most, he said. They are working extremely long days, and for less pay than they were earning just a few years ago. CreditEirini Vourloumis for The New York Times

Since he started work at the hospital in 2010, Mr. Giannaros has seen his salary shrink to €1,200 a month, from €7,400. His annual budget, once €20 million, is now €6 million, and the number of practicing doctors has been reduced to 200 from 250.

Like almost everyone in Greece, he is making do with less. The hospital recycles instruments; buys the cheapest surgical gloves on the market (they occasionally rip in the middle of operations, Mr. Giannaros says); and uses primarily generic drugs.

“We have learned that we can live with a lot of money and survive with nothing,” he said. “Maybe the crisis makes us better people — but these better people will die if the crisis continues.”

Mr. Giannaros, who is 58, says he recently suffered a heart attack from the constant stress. But he says it is his surgeons he worries about most.

In aging, depression-ridden Greece, treating the 150 or so patients that come to his hospital each day has put an extraordinary strain on his shrinking corps of doctors.

The fact that many have begun to strike because they are not getting paid for overtime makes matters worse.

Striding across the hospital grounds, Mr. Giannaros waved over his star surgeon, Dimitris Tsantzalos.

How many operations did you do last year, he asked.

“About 1,500,” said Dr. Tsantzalos, who, with his strapping build, seems younger than his 63 years.

Recently he says he put in a month of consecutive 20-hour days and, not surprisingly, confesses to exhaustion.

“I am burnt out,” he said. “It’s very dangerous for the patients.”

A week later, a tragedy struck Mr. Giannaros: His 26-year-old son, Patrick, committed suicide by jumping in front of an Athens subway train.

“There was just an emptiness in front of him,” Mr. Giannaros said between wrenching sobs in a brief telephone conversation. “The emptiness of the future they have taken away from us.”

His son had finished his university studies and, unable to find work in a country where more than half the young are jobless, was helping his father at the hospital.

“He saw no future, no way to help his family,” Mr. Giannaros said. “Now God has found him a job — as an angel.”

While Mr. Giannaros said he understood the importance of staying current with important creditors like the I.M.F., he said enough was enough.

“They can take their money,” he said, using an expletive. “I feel ashamed to be a European.”

Pavlos Zafiropoulos and Niki Kitsantonis contributed 


Πέμπτη 21 Μαΐου 2015

Kurds abandon AKP

Kurdish demonstrators gesture as Selahattin Demirtas, co-chair of the HDP, Turkey's leading Kurdish party, addresses a crowd in Diyarbakir, Oct. 9, 2014. (photo by REUTERS/Osman Orsal)
With only weeks to go before Turkey’s June 7 general elections, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is using every means to stop the pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party (HDP) from passing the 10% threshold to enter parliament. The HDP, for its part, is bent on overcoming the barrier and spoiling President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s dream of becoming an omnipotent, executive president. While campaigning on a brand-new platform of nationwide appeal, the HDP is resorting also to the oldest of vote-pulling methods.
To bolster the HDP, the Democratic Society Congress (DTK), created in 2007 as an umbrella organization for Kurdish political and civic groups, has been busy luring Kurdish tribes — and their block votes — to the HDP. As a result, many formally pro-AKP tribes have changed allegiances in recent weeks.
Traditional arbitration mechanisms have survived to date in Turkey’s eastern and southeastern regions, settling blood feuds and other disputes out of court. The DTK has transformed this tradition to a major tool of modern politics. Its social reconciliation and dialogue commissions — known also as “persuasion commissions” — are now working to attract rightist and conservative tribes to the leftist HDP camp.
Musa Farisoglu, the DTK member in charge of the commissions, told Al-Monitor that the commissions are made up of 15 to 21 members, including local notables from various walks of life, clerics and civil society activists.
Earlier this month, the Raman tribe in Batman, estimated to boast some 20,000 voters, made the headlines with a crowded ceremony that marked its shift to the HDP. The move was significant also because the tribe includes many village guards, a government-armed Kurdish militia that has backed the army against Kurdish rebels. Its leader, Faris Ozdemir, has served two parliamentary terms on the ticket of a center-right party.
The AKP took another blow in Batman as 300 people from the Alpahanlar clan, relatives of Agriculture Minister Mehdi Eker, the AKP’s Kurdish heavyweight, collectively joined the HDP. The Baravi tribe, which has about 2,000 voters, soon followed suit. The Alika tribe, the largest in Batman’s Besiri district, also joined the HDP, in what it said was a protest against the AKP’s policies on the Kurdish question.
In Baskale in Van province, the AKP’s entire district management resigned and joined the HDP. The move came as a reaction to an AKP candidate who paid a condolence visit to a local family in the company of police, despite advice that such a move goes against local tradition, visited shopkeepers in the escort of riot police and attacked the HDP, saying the town would be “saved from those extortionists.”
In Suruc in Sanliurfa province, the Erdogan, Kilicaslan, Kalkan, Sahin and Boydan tribes staged crowded marches before joining the HDP. The entire local AKP leadership that ran the party’s district office for 12 years is said to belong to those five clans.
In Kahta in Adiyaman province, 12,000 members of the Turanli tribe, which includes the daughter of a prominent tribal chief who was one of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s right-hand men in the Liberation War, also collectively joined the HDP. The Turanli tribe and many other conservative Kurds switching allegiances have been heavily influenced by Dengir Mir Mehmet Firat, a Kurdish co-founder of the AKP who is now running on the HDP ticket. Firat himself belongs to one of Turkey’s largest Kurdish tribes.
The HDP received a further boost in Siirt, where the Kiroyi tribe announced its support, even though one of its own, Ali Ilbas, runs on the AKP ticket. The commissions managed to enlist the support also of the ethnic Arab Karajna tribe in the Sanliurfa district of Ceylanpinar and a Turkmen village in Bozova.
According to Farisoglu, some clans have decided to back the HDP without publicly declaring their decision, including the Reskotan, Hamidi, Seyhan and Metina tribes. In addition, at least 40 headmen have agreed to join the party individually.
The tribes that have changed sides had served as strongholds for rightist and conservative parties for decades. The commissions’ persuasion methods and the targeted tribes themselves derive their clout from the power of traditions. The HDP’s success in using traditional methods to reach out to the tribes, involving the support of local mullahs, may come as a surprise, if not a contradiction, given the party’s innovative and bold vision on women’s rights, male-female co-chairmanship in all leadership posts, minority rights, education in the mother tongue and the settlement of the Kurdish question.
By persuading only the tribal chief, community leaders secure the backing of thousands of people. No doubt, this raises questions over democratic norms resting on the individual’s own will. Yet, there is a crucial difference here. Throughout Turkey’s recent political history, ruling parties or opposition parties vying for power enlisted tribal support with pledges of material and political benefits. The HDP, however, stands no chance of coming to power, and peace is the only pledge it can make.
Then, another question pops up: How people who have stood on opposite sides — one fighting the state, the other fighting for the state in the ranks of the village guard — are able to come together? Several factors stand out: 
The 2011 air raid that killed 34 young Kurds from the village of Roboski on the Iraqi border, Ankara’s hostile rhetoric against the Kurdish resistance to the Islamic State’s siege of Kobani, its description of Kurdish fighters as “terrorists,” Erdogan’s electoral shows with Kurdish-language Qurans and Ankara’s backpedalling on the peace process have all caused indignation among pious and conservative Kurds as well.
Farisoglu stressed that their efforts were not limited to the elections. “We are working in a broader framework to secure our internal peace in Kurdistan. The Raman tribe, for instance, had had a peculiar attitude since 1977. We have now secured a basic common understanding. We are seeking to resolve differences, achieve internal reconciliation and build a unified stand. Social peace is our objective,” he told Al-Monitor. “We do not reveal everything publicly, but very important developments are taking place. We are not working according to some hierarchy. We are organized on the basis of radical democracy and local [priorities].”
Asked about how far the tribal shifts could sway the elections, Farisoglu said, “I wouldn’t give a percentage, but our efforts have expanded significantly. Major popular segments are gravitating to the HDP. This has led to panic in the AKP, and they are trying to make some countermoves. But the AKP’s attempts at [luring] the tribes remain unanswered. That’s why they are trying to drag us into provocations. The bomb blasts [at HDP offices] in Adana and Mersin are the latest example.”
In remarks to Al-Monitor, Altan Tan — an HDP lawmaker who seeks re-election and stands out as one of the party’s pious figures — offered the following assessment: “Communities in Kurdistan are tightly knit with bonds dating back several centuries. Some clans are pro-HDP, but others are not. To persuade the latter, commissions were set up of mullahs, well-known sheikhs and prominent figures. The commissions are able to persuade five out of every 10 clans they contact. No doubt, tribal leaders joining the HDP will not change the outcome much, but this creates a certain synergy. Collective shifts [to the HDP] have the impact of a stun grenade. Young people in the tribes no longer obey what their fathers say. They were already voting for the HDP. Now their fathers have become HDP supporters too.”
Tan singled out government policies as the real factor behind the changing attitude of conservative Kurds, outlining five major factors repelling tribes from the AKP:
  • Erdogan has failed to meet the expectations of pious Muslim Kurds. In the past three years, Ankara has pursued delay tactics vis-a-vis the Kurds, especially in the settlement process, failing to take any serious steps.
  • A number of controversial developments, mainly the Roboski massacre and Ankara’s stance on Kobani, have alienated many Kurds.
  • When selecting its Kurdish candidates for June 7, the AKP opted for people who had previously backed center-right parties or members of feudal clans belonging to the village guard. Such misguided selections in Hakkari, Bitlis, Sirnak and Diyarbakir deepened the rift. Respected Kurdish figures such as Yilmaz Ensaroglu and Abdurrahman Kurt were placed in unfavorable spots on the AKP ticket, while candidates of leftist background such as Orhan Miroglu and Muhsin Kizilkaya enjoyed better spots.
  • The Kurdish movement’s drive to open up to pious Kurds (represented by Tan himself) was expanded further by the HDP. The party fielded candidates such as former Diyarbakir mufti Nimettullah Erdogmus and Huda Kaya, an activist who has campaigned against the ban on the hijab, making a positive impact on the pious electorate. That’s why the government is now trying to discredit the HDP as an irreligious movement, charging that it follows a Marxist ideology or the pre-Islamic Zoroastrian faith.
  • To keep the Kurds on the AKP side, Erdogan began brandishing Kurdish-language Qurans at rallies. This tactic has backfired. Many Kurds felt offended, saying, “We became Muslims before you [Turks]. We are not supposed to learn Islam from you.”
To contain the tide, the AKP leadership has launched attacks on HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtas on three controversial issues. First, it is trying to misrepresent the HDP pledge to replace the Religious Affairs Directorate with a Directorate of Faith Affairs as an HDP plan to do away with Islam.
Second, AKP leaders are manipulating the remarks Demirtas made when the government banned May Day demonstrations at Istanbul’s Taksim Square, which has acquired symbolic importance since dozens of workers perished there in May Day bloodshed in 1977. “Don’t take my words as a literal comparison, but Muslims go to the Kaaba for the hajj and Jews go to Jerusalem. Religions have their centers and shrines. You can’t do [certain rituals] elsewhere,” Demirtas said. “I don’t mean it’s a religious belief, but, yes, Taksim is an indispensable venue for workers. Without a celebration at Taksim, one cannot claim that May Day has been celebrated in Turkey.” Picking on those remarks, both Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu continue to claim that Demirtas had said that Taksim was “the workers’ Kaaba.”
The third controversy surrounding the AKP campaign is the claim that Demirtas had eaten bacon during a trip to Cologne. 
Religious sensitivities have come to the fore as never before in this election. Some argue the government’s countermoves have stalled the pious electorate’s shift to the HDP, but no healthy data exists to confirm this claim.

Read more: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/05/turkey-pious-kurds-abandon-akp-in-droves-hdp.html#ixzz3anKi7MDJ