While we try to make sense of the Greek election returns, it’s worth stepping back for a moment to think about the bigger picture. For the past few decades Turkey has been seen as a country on the border between East and West. Countless articles have been written about “Turkey’s turn towards the East,” and one of the most powerful arguments for Turkish accession to the EU has always been the strategic value of bringing a powerful and ascendent Muslim nation closer to the West.These conversations are common, but they are also to be expected. Turkey’s Islamic roots and Ottoman history suggest a strong relationship with its eastern neighbors, but its economic interests and the resentment of many Arabs towards their Turkish neighbors push it towards the West. Much less expected are new reports discussed in the FT that Turkey’s neighbor and chief rival—Greece—may now be making a similar move. As Greeks head to the polls on Sunday, either the leftist Syriza party or the center-right New Democracy party are expected to prevail. Both of these parties have close links with non-western leaders and many now believe that either of these new governments may turn to China, Russia or Venezuela for aid beyond what is forthcoming from the EU and the IMF.
Alexis Tsipras, leader of Syriza, visited Venezuela in 2009 and is an admirer of Hugo Chávez, the president whose anti-US world view chimes with the hatred of imperialism embraced by one generation after another of Greek leftists. Mr Chávez specialises in using Venezuela’s oil reserves as a tool of diplomacy, a factor that could come to the fore if Mr Tsipras were to take power in Greece, which is heavily dependent on energy imports.As for Antonis Samaras, leader of New Democracy, he travelled to Moscow in January on a trip that emphasised Greece’s cultural bonds with Russia, a fellow member of the Orthodox Christian world. Russia supplies the bulk of Greece’s gas imports and the Kremlin last year arranged a cheap €2.5bn loan for Cyprus, whose Greek Cypriot leaders are close to Athens because of their shared wariness of Turkey.The difficulty for pro-western Greek politicians is that, thanks to the economic crisis, loyal membership of the EU and Nato is associated to some extent in the public mind with craven submission to the European and IMF overseers who have imposed strict conditions in return for financial aid. Although younger Greeks are proud of their modern European identity, half of them today are unemployed and fearful for their future. Older Greeks, meanwhile, remember Nato’s decision to stay on the sidelines when Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 – as well as what they recall as US support for the 1967-74 Greek military junta.
Putin in particular is likely to take an interest in a deeper relationship with Greece. A Greece working closely with Russia could hamstring both NATO and the European Union in many ways, while also countering the new Turkish activism which Russia finds a little disturbing.Even Greeks who don’t want to climb all the way into bed with Russia may see the point of going out on a date for dinner and drinks. Many Greeks feel that the West has taken Greece for granted in this crisis, treating it with contempt and failing to take its interests fully and fairly into account. That feeling is widespread both among politicians and among the people at large. Moves toward a deeper relationship with Russia (and Russia’s friend Serbia) would suit many Greek nationalists very well at this point.Only time will tell how this plays out. Russia is in no position to pay Greece’s debts or send enough aid to revive its economy — and President Putin has generally not pursued checkbook diplomacy. An interesting test will be whether Russia presses Greece as Athens has more and more trouble paying its gas bill.As we await the results of the Greek elections, however, we should remember that the euro meltdown is not just an economic problem. It has the potential to create serious geopolitical shifts that could make the eastern Mediterranean a major headache for Americans and Europeans alike.