Greece and Russia An orthodox friendship
απο - the economist
WITH anti-German feelings among Greeks running at a post-war high, fewer German tourists are likely to visit the Aegean islands this summer. Many local hoteliers would almost certainly go bust were it not for the increasing number of Russians who are coming to Greece, thanks to more relaxed visa regulations. About 1m Russian holidaymakers are expected to visit Greece this year, double the number in 2010.
Many Russians are spending lavishly and buying second homes in the Halkidiki district in northern Greece, a favourite beach destination. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president-elect, is a familiar visitor to Mount Athos, a nearby enclave of Orthodox monks. He may even attend Orthodox Easter festivities there on April 15th. Abbot Ephraim of the Vatopedi monastery enjoyed a warm official reception in Moscow last year despite facing investigation at home for alleged involvement in a land-swap scandal. Romfea, a Greek website specialising in ecclesiastical news, receives Russian funding, say grateful acolytes.
Where tourists and politicians lead, money may follow. Greece’s cash-strapped government is rushing to privatise various public utilities, including DEPA, the state gas group. Gazprom, Russia’s state-backed giant, has expressed an interest in adding DEPA to its growing portfolio of international interests. DEPA already buys much of its gas from Gazprom, and one of its subsidiaries has signed up to join South Stream, a Russian project to pipe gas to central Europe via the Black Sea. There is also talk about stationing Russian naval vessels in Piraeus, Athens’s main port. Russia is worried about losing access to Syrian naval bases if mounting violence brings down Bashar Assad, the president.
Still, Antonis Samaras, Greece’s probable next prime minister, shows few signs of being tempted by either deal. His centre-right New Democracy (ND) party is forecast to win a general election expected in early May, although it is likely to fall short of an overall majority. Mr Samaras has made a pre-election trip to Moscow, but enthusiasm failed to ignite on either side. His advisers say their Harvard-educated boss would prefer to improve ties with America and to sell the gas utility to an investor from the European Union.
But as Greek politics becomes more unstable—as many as nine parties could win seats in the next parliament, not all of them with savoury views—there is still plenty of room for Russian influence-mongering. Panos Kammenos, a former ND deputy who opposes austerity and admires Mr Putin, says Greece should turn to Russia if, as expected, it needs yet another bail-out. (Russia has already lent Cyprus €2.5 billion, or $3.3 billion, to avert the island’s default.) Mr Kammenos’s new party, Independent Greeks, is predicted to sweep into parliament with around 10% of the vote. He is hoping to replace Abbot Ephraim as Russia’s best friend in Greece.