Interview with Alexis Tsipras, 30th of December, 2012

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This is a translation of an interview with Alexis Tsipras for Argentina’s Página/12, conducted by Martín Granovsky and published Sunday 30th of December.

Is Argentina still a topic of discussion in Greece with regard to reduction, default and restructuring of debt?

Yes, we talk about you.

About default or restructuring?

About everything.

And after this trip to Argentina?

We ended up a lot wiser. We studied in detail the process that took place during and after the crisis. We saw similarities and also differences. The International Monetary Fund’s prescriptions were the same in Greece as in Argentina. The medicines administered to Greece and Argentina were also the same in both countries. They failed. They drove us to catastrophe. The bed-ridden Greek patient is in a coma. All the tubes and medicine link it to the heart of Europe. It is complex. If the patient in a coma dies, it appears the Eurozone cannot survive either. That’s why I say we have similarities and differences between the Argentina of 2001 and the Greece of today. What is interesting is how the Argentinian example is presented in Europe.

Whom do you mean?

Those sectors most closely tied to the financial system. Argentina is the example of a country that said no to the world financial system. The financial sectors in Europe distort what happened here. The example bothers financial circles. That is why the ultra-liberal centrists are trying not only to distort things in ideological terms but to present a different historical account. They alter the facts. During our stay in Argentina and the meetings we held, there was coverage on Greek television news bulletins. So they put images of me meeting an Argentinian leader and, on a split screen, they showed examples of the Argentinean bank run and people beating the shutters of banks.

Without putting dates on each thing?


Without any accuracy. The message is clear: “Continue the path proposed by the Greek left and you will end up bankrupt like in Argentina.”

Does Greece find the example of restructuring debt with a write-down interesting?


Yes, of course, but first we must see what similarities there are in each country and at each historical conjuncture. The negotiation carried out by the Argentinean State after the crisis is an example to study and examine. In coming years it will no doubt be a topic in economics faculties. That shows that when there is a creditor and a debtor, both are in a difficult situation. Not just one of them. Negotiation in itself demonstrates this. But I see other positive points beyond debt restructuring. Argentinean economic development after the crisis held up even though the country remained outside lending markets. It held up because it had a broad base of production and exportation. It bore up because from the beginning it was able to revitalise its domestic economy and cover the needs of the people. In its second phase, exports were important and guaranteed the growth in Gross Domestic Product. But one also has to bear in mind that when Argentina underwent the phase of high economic growth, global growth was also high. And moreover all this happened within a positive conjuncture for the region of South America. We in Greece have neither of these positive points. Neither global growth nor a favourable regional conjuncture.


The worst of all worlds.


Yes, but at the same time we are trying to make a virtue out of necessity. With that in mind, we are in the Eurozone. Greece makes up only 2.5% of European GDP and at the same time is at the centre of global public opinion. This is not, of course, because everyone is worried about the suffering of the Greek people. There is a fear of a domino effect.


So a strong point for you is fear.


If Europe goes on like this, the main country that will be thinking about leaving the Eurozone is Germany. That means that a small country like Greece can be a little stone capable of breaking the giant machine that is the ultraliberal engine. That is why we sustained a frontal attack on a global level in the last elections. They were predicting that chaos would come. Maybe they can put up slightly with a post-neoliberal scenario. But they cannot accept it in the hard nucleus of Europe.


The key, it would seem, is Greece’s capacity to do damage.


Many times I have compared Greece’s situation with regard to its European associates with other eras. It is like the Cold War. Both sectors can press the button, but even if one does it, neither will win. The catastrophe will be everyone’s.


What would be that button today?


The button would be the explosion of the euro. But whoever loses this Cold War will be whoever takes the first step back. That is why we are preparing ourselves for a major confrontation. We have said clearly that in government we will break with the austerity treaties. We will continue along that path even if they cut off the loans. It is not a joke. We are going to do it. But we need popular support.


The political movement of the Greek left produces admiration and preoccupation in the progressive world. Admiration for its rapid growth in recent years. Preoccupation that this speed may not be sufficient.  

The movement began on two squares in Athens. Let’s give them some kind of name: the one below and the one above. The square below was always more politicised, with themed assemblies, with different talks. Many young people took part. They practised direct democracy. But the important thing is that these demonstrations were completely peaceful with great mass participation, with very many people taking part.


What happened in the square above?


It was less participative. That is why the system was more frightened by the one below. It was not the same as wrecking a bank or wrecking a cash machine. Wrecking strengthened the system. By contrast, the peaceful stance did sound an alarm for them. We have to bear in mind that these spontaneous and massive reactions led to the fall of two governments. But by contrast, going back to the comparison of the two squares, burnt out banks and burnt out small properties did not produce political results. It is very simple: where you had fires, big business could find some small business owner to cry.

And now?


Now there is an ebb in the movement, a relative political recession. People now expect sharp political changes and place more hope in a political confrontation with more results. That is why in the two elections in May and June we were unable to win. That too created a type of tiredness. It is tough to see that neither were there any results in the sense of change.

What is the desirable path for the left coalition?


The only path is to bring down the government through a democratic route. We have a responsibility that we are conscious of: a large part of the population placed its hope in the alternative project and we must reinforce that objective. But this is both positive and negative for us. People expect a great many things from us.

Is that the positive thing?


Yes. And the negative is that they deposit their hopes and merely wait. The risk of passivity does not just exist when one is in opposition. Even in a future government we cannot set about a truly alternative option without popular participation.


What are you now doing to resolve this?


The first thing we are doing is to keep telling people. And we are going to continue as with before the last elections, with people’s assemblies in neighbourhoods, in big cities, and in workplaces. We also ask people to take part in strikes and to be part of the labour and union movements in operation. At the same time we are building a major social solidarity network. Within the crisis, any social movement is also very political. But we also want to create a collective social consciousness. Not philanthropy. It is social consciousness. These networks can be the nucleus of a new mass social organisation, which in turn can be the nucleus of great social changes.

I heard that you were worried by neo-Nazism in Greece. What level of popular hold do the neo-Nazis have?


It is a very sad occurrence. This political context was born within the destruction of the society’s social cohesion, in combination with terror and fear. At the same time with difficulties. In this context the large masses of immigrants appear as a scapegoat.


From where?


In recent years Greece became a prison for immigrants. In Europe we have Dublin II, the famous treaty, which ‘protects’ countries of the north and centre of Europe. That creates a buffer of immigrants in Italy, Spain and Greece. In our country a large part of the border is water. They are islands. There are major mafia organisations that bring immigrants through Turkey especially. The majority, when they arrive, have already walked thousands and thousands of kilometres. They come from countries at war or from nations that have endured dramatic climate changes….They sell what they can to mafias, who transfer them in boats like sardines in a tin. When they get to Greece they are placed in centres. Then they are set free. They do what they can to survive. But they are very susceptible to manipulation by organised crime. Dozens of people live crammed into small apartments. There are places in Athens that are already ghettos. In these areas there are major confrontations. It is within this complex situation that the ideology of xenophobia and fascism is born. These ideas emerge from a real base.


The crisis in all its dimensions.


With the crisis this is multiplying. It is sad, because the Greek people has no racist behaviour. It is not in its tradition. It is a people of immigrants. How can it be racist? How can a people that organised anti-fascist partisans allow neo-Nazi movements to grow at its heart? That is why we have a man of 92 years of age, Manolis Glezos, who was a guerrilla fighter and who was in the Greek parliament to give history lessons.


Do peoples learn from history?


History is written by the winners. It remains to be seen whether that History is the true one. But we want to keep the historical memory of our people from generation to generation in the construction of a collective social consciousness. Greece suffered a lot because it is a vital territory. In the last century we had two examples of heroic battles. First, the resistance in the Second World War, when the National Liberation Front was very close to coming to power and the invasion of our country did not permit it. Second example, the resistance against the Dictatorship of the Colonels, between 1967 and 1974. That has a very strong historical weight and we will proceed ahead with that beacon lighting our way.

By whom do you feel accompanied in Europe?


Europe is undergoing a phase of transition. We are facing the mutation of social democracy into a pure neoliberal force. It is leaving an immense political void because it is breaking off its traditional ties to large layers of society. These are the layers that made social democracy hegemonic. Syriza was born in large part within that political void. In the rest of the south of Europe we will have that same journey, but perhaps at a slower pace. That is why our European alliances begin with the left of the left and end to the left of social democracy. The strongest allies on the European continent are the social movements and those that convince people every day that austerity is not the way. There is where our alliances begin.


It must be a temptation in Greece to be inspired by classical figures.


Mythological or real ones?


I don’t know. It depends on one’s taste.


Let me pick a mythological figure then: Hercules. When the gods punished him, one of the labours of Hercules was to clean up shit. He spent months and months clearing it out. He finished his work. Then they charged him with another task: he had to cut off the head of the hydra. The problem is that when he cut off one head another two emerged. That happens with the international financial system. We have to clean up the shit and confront the hydra. That is why we have to build a great political force: because it will not be easy.