By George Georgiopoulos
Warnings of dark forces bent on pushing Greece out of the euro and its leftist government out of power have increasingly moved from the fringes towards the mainstream, as talks in Brussels to secure vital bailout funds enter their final phase.
Rumblings of international conspiracies have featured in the rhetoric of the ruling Syriza party ever since it won power in January, vowing to reverse the harsh austerity imposed under the European Union and International Monetary Fund bailout.
In a country never short of plot theories, social media has long been awash with such talk, but mainstream and conservative newspapers often hostile to the leftist government are now following suit, underlining the profound breakdown of trust that has evolved during months of acrimony.
“It is now clear that a strong European centre wants Greece out of the euro zone,” the conservative Kathimerini newspaper said in a front-page editorial.
Greek officials say they have been repeatedly blindsided by the lenders and accuse them of introducing last-minute changes to estimates of projected tax revenues or pension cuts, making it impossible to come up with an acceptable offer.
They also argue that a radical leftist government is being asked to implement wholesale pension reform that even a previous conservative-led government could not accomplish.
The true purpose, some on the Greek side say, is to unseat the government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and force elections that would bring in a more lender-friendly administration.
“It’s obvious that some at home and outside are seeking the collapse of the government,” Labour Minister Panos Skourletis told state radio ERT. “It is clear that there is this dimension too in this negotiation.”
Greece needs an accord by June 30 or it faces default on a 1.6 billion euro repayment to the IMF, which could set it on a path out of the single currency.
European partners and international lenders have repeatedly insisted that they want to ensure Greece remains a member of the euro zone but as the months of wrangling over the bailout review have passed, the mood has darkened.
A comment from Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi that public opinion in some European countries “has the very strong and vehement desire that the next few weeks should be the last that Greece spends in the euro zone,” attracted feverish media attention in Greece this week.
As the standoff nears the deadline which could push Greece into default, speculation that the lenders are interested in more than just a bailout agreement has spread.
“I see a punitive stance from the part of the lenders towards Greece’s government because of the months of delay in closing the bailout’s fifth review, a vengeful stance,” said Vassilis Korkidis, head of the National Confederation of Hellenic Commerce (ESEE), a business lobby group.
“There may also be a strategy that aims for the government’s fall — the so-called ‘brief life of the Left’ solution,” he said, referring to a popular theory which holds that the Syriza government is being tolerated only as a short interim between more mainstream governments.
“But this is a dangerous game. Will we have to go bankrupt first to have a different government?” he said.
The speculation has been fed this week by the presence in Brussels of three leading opposition politicians, former centre-right Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, Fofi Gennimata, the leader of his former coalition partner PASOK, and Stavros Theodorakis, leader of the pro-European To Potami party.
The centre-left Efimerida Ton Syntakton daily suggested that Samaras and Theodorakis, who have both said they would be ready to serve in a unity government if Tsipras fell, would be more welcome to European leaders.
“The conclusion is obvious: domestic and foreign supporters of the bailouts wish to see a scenario that has a brief life for the left, disregarding the will of the people,” the newspaper said in an editorial.
While opinion polls indicate that most Greeks want to remain in the euro, widespread perceptions that the lenders are not interested in a fair agreement has embittered many Greeks and could poison the atmosphere between Athens and Brussels for years to come.
“I think he must not back down. He must not,” said Athens pensioner Constantina Danou. “When people have been suffering for five years now, a prime minister elected so recently must not back down. It’s not fair, it doesn’t seem right.”