GREEK PRESIDENTIAL guards march at the Monument of the Unknown Soldier in front of Parliament during a ceremonial change of guards in Athens..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Syriza’s decision to form a coalition with the nationalist ANEL party could be the most important anchor of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to ensure domestic power consolidation and viable civil-military relations in Athens.
Above all, we should see that now there are two actors on the stage, and every politician needs a success story. While Tsipras’s story is expected to be socioeconomic-policy driven, ANEL leader Panagiotis Kammenos’s policy could potentially be a more critical one for Greece.
When Kammenos assumed the post of defense minister, his first move was leaving a wreath to the disputed islets between Turkey and Greece in the Aegean Sea in order to commemorate the Greek military personnel who died in a helicopter crash on the islets some 20 years ago.
As a result of the “wreath charm offensive,” the Greek and Turkish navies and fighter jets scrambled and maneuvered for a possible interception. Recalling that the Aegean islets of Kardak nearly dragged Turkey and Greece into a war in the 1990s, this was perhaps not the most auspicious start for regional stability in the Eastern Mediterranean.
At first glance, one might categorize Kammenos’s move as an irresponsible and populist provocation motivated by nationalist sentiment. Yet, the bigger picture could be more complicated, especially given civil-military relations in Greece. In fact, Tsipras’s first visit as a prime minister, hosted by the Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades, gave more hints about the sensitive balance that the new administration in Athens should carefully observe. The Turkish side had naively optimistic expectations to see harbingers of a shift in Athens’s traditional policy toward the Cyprus dispute.
However, in terms of foreign policy rhetoric, there was no major difference between any center-right Greek political figure and Prime Minister Tsipras during his visit to the island. Notably, the Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu stated that he would not expect any changes in Greece’s Cyprus policy, be it under a right- or left-wing government.
At this point, the question is not about whether Tsipras will change Greece’s traditional stance, but rather about his ability to do so.
A Politicized Military
It would be unfair to say that the contemporary Greek politics is exactly how it was during 1967-1974 junta times. However, it would be equally unfair to claim that the Greek Armed Forces is completely kept out of partisan politics. Greece has never enjoyed perfectly unproblematic civil-military relations as described by Huntington’s “objective civilian control” approach. In November 2011, when the Papandreou administration sacked top military chiefs, several speculations had surfaced including even a thwarted coup attempt.
The New Democracy Party, being the opposition at the time, accused the government for politicizing the armed forces. Interestingly, the sacked generals were appointed by the Karamanlis administration during the New Democracy Party era. Even this very fact shows how the Greek Armed Forces’ loyalty is perceived by the political elite. Furthermore, it should be noted that during the sensational replacement in 2011, the Syriza party opposed the decision taken by defense minister Panagiotis Beglitis and prime minister George Papandreou, claiming that it was an effort to create a highly politicized armed forces at a time of crisis, and asked the president to not to proceed with a formal ratification.Key Issues: Military Promotions and Defense Economics
For now, the way Syriza-ANEL government will handle the military promotions and manage to run Greece’s volatile civil- military relations remain to be seen.
Kammenos might be a more “ideologically correct” figure to consolidate the military’s support for the government than Tsipras; yet, his ideological references could overshadow sober rationalism as well. Furthermore, it is reported that the racist Golden Dawn party enjoys an alarming level of support among Greek police officers.
Therefore, controlling the security sector as a whole might turn into a problematic issue for the Syriza-led government.
Apart from civil-military relations, defense budget and military spending loom large as critical issues for Greece.
In the course of economic crisis, Athens managed to keep the nation’s defense budget to GDP ratio over two percent.
However, there are two important problems with the Greek defense economics.
Firstly, Greece’s defense spending decreased nearly 45% between 2010 and 2015. Secondly, within the already tight spending portfolio, the proportion of procurement is on decline too.
This means the armed forces’ modernization could be hampered in the coming years. Besides, recent cuts in salaries and exercises are degrading the military’s morale and combat-readiness. Finally, Tsipras-Kammenos leadership should confront corruption factor in military spending, which plagued the overall Greek economy. As seen in the former defense minister Akis Tsochatzopoulos case, which ended up with 20-years sentence due to corruption charges in 2013, there are serious transparency problems in the Greek defense spending.
Last but not least, under Syriza-ANEL coalition Greece’s stance within NATO, military ties with Russia, accord with the EU, and military cooperation with Israel, something which Syriza opposed in its party program, will be at the top of defense agenda to monitor.
The author is a faculty member in the Girne American University, and a research fellow at the Istanbul-based independent think-tank the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM).