Those who know him best say Greek Prime Minister Tsipras is driven by three contradictory strands. Profile of a leader battling his 'inner troika.'
ATHENS — It was about 1 a.m. on Saturday June 27 when Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras spoke into a television camera, using a tone that was neither threatening nor indignant. The man who has exasperated European leaders for five months calmly delivered a shockwave that reverberated across the continent: the bailout plan imposed by the country's creditors would be put to a national referendum before the Greek people.
Tsipras' stand is a final act of defiance pitting Greek democracy against the so-called "troika" — the European Central Bank (ECB), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Commission — which has forced Greece into years of grinding austerity. It's an ultimatum that has left Greeks desperately roaming the streets in search of any bank still open to empty their bank accounts and hold onto their livelihoods.
Shortly before the announcement, Tsipras convened his government to inform them of his decision. "It was a joyous occasion," recalls Georgios Katrougalos, the Minister of Administrative Reform. "We unanimously agreed that the creditors were mocking us with their last proposal. We needed to reestablish control of the situation."
The disparate factions of Syriza, Tsipras' left-wing party, were relieved to have rediscovered unity after weeks of tense disagreement, especially for many who believed Tsipras had been making too many concessions to Brussels.
A novice in government, Tsipras spent long weeks in search of a compromise he was convinced he could ultimately reach. "He's a good guy who had to deal with the monsters of politics, and he certainly underestimated their power," says Stelios Kouloglou, a member of the European Parliament for Syriza. "He's an unrepentant Che Guevara." After all, his son's middle name is Ernesto (Guevara's birth name).
Alexis Tsipras always took his role seriously, well aware of the heavy burden he carried on his shoulders. The weight of a nation suffering from five years of crisis that elected him to end austerity but keep the euro; the weight of a party rife with internal debates and contradictions that has struggled to adapt to government and looked to him for leadership; and the weight of his dream of transforming a European Union that still treated him with suspicion. Three personalities struggle to cohabit inside the prime minister's head: Tsipras the pragmatist, Tsipras the hero and Tsipras the activist.
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Tsipras last year in Germany. Photo: Die Linke
For the past five months the Greek leader has struggled with his "inner troika." It was Tsipras the pragmatist who, with a heavy heart, sent a proposal to Brussels on June 22 extending austerity measures in exchange for a bailout. "It was a difficult moment for him because he had to break some campaign promises, but at the time he thought it was a compromise he could justify with his party and the Greek people," says a government source.
Tsipras the activist fought against a party base that rebuked his efforts, resigning himself to measures deemed far too drastic by the far-left wing of his party. But despite his concessions, IMF chief Christine Lagarde returned the Greek proposal covered in red ink indicating further cuts and changes, making it clear that the European leadership would never consider forgiving Greece's debt.
Standing up to Brussels
After reading the counter-proposal, Tsipras felt betrayed and humiliated. He immediately called a meeting with his closest collaborators: his right-hand man Nikos Pappas, Deputy Prime Minister Yannis Dragasakis, Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis and chief economics spokesman Euclid Tsakalotos. On Thursday June 25 during a European Council meeting, Tsipras phoned Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos to explore the possibility of a referendum. The next day, after a marathon government session, he called German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande to inform them of his dramatic decision.
Tsipras reassumed his mantle as the savior of European democracy to call upon his compatriots to reject the "intransigence" of Brussels. "The Greek people will say no to the ultimatum but a resounding yes to the Europe of solidarity," he said in a speech to the Greek Parliament the night of the referendum announcement.
While supporting Greece staying in the eurozone, Tsipras was never one to stray from his leftist beliefs. "Many in Brussels believed he would eventually moderate his views and move to the center-left, but he has convictions, he grew up politically in Syriza," says Athanasios Petrakos, Syriza's parliamentary spokesman. "He won't take the risk of dividing his party."
After six months of careful negotiations between Brussels and Athens, Tsipras chose to defy Europe and stand with his turbulent political party instead, setting the stage for a final confrontation. Some say he is fighting to bring democracy back to European politics, others contend he is dragging Greece into default and disaster.
Jan. 25, 2015 now seems like an eternity ago. It's been just five months since the 40-year-old euphorically took to the stage at the University of Athens to proclaim his electoral victory, depicting himself as "the new face of Europe."
"He was happy and proud, he brought the radical left to power," remembers Kouloglou.
Tsipras' victory in Athens continued his rise as a political star across the continent, a process that began in the May 2014 European elections when he was the Party of the European Left's candidate for president of the European Commission. Attending rallies from Paris to Madrid and even Sicily, he was greeted as a rock star even as he took on the weight of expectations.
"He's become grayer. He took his role too seriously and overestimated our momentum, we're still isolated in Europe," says Loukas Axelos, a member of Syriza's far-left wing who has known Tsipras for years. The left's electoral successes led him to believe that Syriza's rise to power could be a spearhead for similar parties to rise across the continent.
Scenes of celebration in Athens brought chills to ruling right-leaning parties in Europe. Tsipras' victory was regarded as a catastrophe by the governments in Germany, Spain and Portugal; and the rise of the anti-austerity left also set off alarm bells for the social democrats in power in France and Italy.
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Tsipras at the 2013 "Subversive Festival" in Croatia. Photo: Matthew Tsimitak
The post-election mood was less warlike in Brussels, where no one in the Commission panicked despite Tsipras' assertion that the new government would put an end to five years of austerity measures imposed by the troika. The creditors believed that Tsipras would eventually come to terms with reality, regardless of his brash finance minister Varoufakis' claims that Athens didn't need any European money. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was joined by leaders in Paris and Rome in offering a positive take on the Greek election: perhaps this young, radical leader would finally have the courage to implement the reforms that his corrupt socialist and center-right predecessors didn't.
For the love of Angela
Tsipras directed particularly harsh words at Germany and Chancellor Merkel during the election campaign. "She is just another one of 28 European heads of government, there is no need to refer to her as the informal head of the EU," he said. "She wants to colonize southern Europe and continue a policy that's causing a social Holocaust." A debate raged in Athens over whether Germany should pay reparations for Nazi war crimes, a proposal much mocked in the German press.
But on March 23, Tsipras and Merkel met for six hours, and the two leaders finely combed over every minute detail of Greece's budget. After distancing herself from the Greek negotiations in February, the Chancellor ordered her finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble to take a step back and allow her to personally oversee the talks. Appreciating his German counterpart's move, Tsipras stepped up his long phone calls to Merkel and Hollande. Merkel expressed that her priority was to help, impressing the Greek leader with her extensive understanding of Greece's economic difficulties.
But at the same time, Tsipras' exchanged a flurry of tweets and messages with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Since the January election Putin has sought to strengthen ties with the new Greek government, and the two first phoned each other just two weeks later on February 5.
Their first meeting began on April 8 in Moscow, a day after Tsipras spoke out against European sanctions on Russia, calling them "senseless." The warm greetings and Twitter exchanges continued, and soon the two met again for the second time in three months. In the midst of tense negotiations with Brussels, Tsipras traveled to St. Petersburg for an economic forum and a private 40-minute meeting with the Russian leader.
Putin made it clear that Moscow needs Greece to remain in the EU as a strong ally that can weigh in on decisions within the organization, not as a bankrupt country outside the union, especially since relations with Russia have soured due to the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine. He also opened the possibility of removing the embargo on Greek agricultural products and investing in Greek businesses.
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Tsipras meets with Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Photo: Kremlin
"They want to invest in the port of Thessaloniki, the Greek railways and the national nickel company," says an anonymous Greek source. The Russian navy is also searching for another naval base in the Mediterranean since the Syrian army's recent defeats have put the security of the strategic port of Tartus in doubt. But despite the close collaboration, Russia is not willing to alleviate Greece's debt. Reeling from a fall in oil prices and the pressure of international sanctions, Moscow doesn't have the means to come to Athens' aid.
EU chief Jean-Claude Juncker embraced Tsipras at his first summit in Brussels in early February just days after his victorious election, welcoming him into the circle of European leaders. Along with French President Hollande, Juncker sought to be a mediator between Tsipras and the more hardline negotiators, spending hours on phone calls and one-on-one diplomacy to forge a closer relationship with the Greek leader.
After Varoufakis' alienation of his European finance counterparts with his condescending economics lessons, Juncker attempted to teach Tsipras the practice of maneuvering through European institutions. But as trust eroded and tensions rose, the creditors' decision to extend aid through to June 30 without an overall agreement proved that the divisions remained too stark to reach a final accord on reforms.
On June 2, Juncker delivered the creditors' latest proposal to Tsipras for a series of reforms in exchange for 7.2 billion euros in assistance. "It came as a huge shock. The text included pension cuts, unsustainable hikes in the value added tax, and didn't mention any of our proposals," says a source involved in the negotiations.
After an evening meeting in Brussels that ran late into the night, European leaders were confident Tsipras had agreed to the principle of making the reforms, after Juncker had worked tirelessly to convince the IMF to moderate its requests. But in a speech the next day on June 5, Tsipras rebuked his colleagues and spoke of a "bad moment for Europe."
So the endless rounds of discussions started again, with trust between the parties at historic lows. "Despite the disappointment, Alexis got back to work and negotiated the agreement point by point to find a new compromise. But after that last proposal his trust in his partners collapsed, especially in Juncker who had presented himself as a friend but completely betrayed him," says a member of Tsipras' negotiating team.
The referendum announcement reinforced the convictions of those in Brussels who insisted for months that it would be almost impossible to deal with the Tsipras government.
"When a leader is against the wall, he has to go for all or nothing," says psychoanalyst Stelios Stylianidis. Both cornered and certain of being right, Greece and Europe alike are tempted to do just that.
*Le Monde correspondents Cécile Ducourtieux, Adéa Guillot, Frédéric Lemaître and Isabelle Mandraud contributed to this report.