If we have learned anything about the way Greek PM Alexis Tsipras operates, it this axiom: when times are tough it’s always smart to come up with an attention-grabbing smokescreen. Imagine the atmosphere in the PM’s office some weeks back when his pre-Orthodox Easter call for an Emergency Eurozone Summit to unblock the First Greek Program Review was rebuffed on nearly all fronts. What next? Try something new — prepare a plan to send a “High-level Emissary” to the U.S. with all the bells and whistles. In all candor, until the U.S. Government declassifies and releases its messages from April 2016 we won’t know for sure when the decision was made to send Minister of State Nikos Pappas to Washington and New York, but the Greek government’s planning cycles rarely exceed one month so my bet is the visit was laid on in late April at the earliest, when Greece’s relations with the Troika/Quartet were at a low point and negotiations had almost ceased. Fortunately for all parties, the situation has since improved.
One useful indication of the “communications” importance Athens has given to this trip is the non-stop streaming by the Greek Press Ministry of every statement and interview given by Minister Pappas, most packaged neatly but some still being released even today. This is all the more critical when the U.S. side is not making official statements about the Washington meetings; we basically get the official Greek perspective, spin and all.
For the record, Minister Pappas, whose less-than-pleasant English language interview with Michel Freidman on Deutsche Welle’s “Conflict Zone’’ program was seen worldwide just before he visited Washington, spent two days in Washington and a day in New York stressing Greece’s need for debt relief and allegedly wooing investors with scenarios of Greece’s newfound stability.
Minister Pappas’ Washington meetings included State Department Assistant Secretary for European Affairs Victoria Nuland, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Under Secretary Nathan Sheets (official luncheon), Commerce Department Under Secretary for International Trade Stefan Selig (pipelines and projects), Director-level contacts with the National Security Council and some institutional speaking engagements (May 12-13). Details of Pappas’ New York meetings with the investment community have not been released other than a broad list of talking points. Greece’s diplomatic establishments in both cities apparently left no stone unturned in getting PM Tsipras’ right hand man fully introduced.
In Washington Pappas focused primarily on the need for debt relief, but we haven’t seen anything from his interlocutors that indicates the U.S. Government’s already supportive official position has changed in any meaningful way. Pappas also covered the refugee crisis, regional and global issues at State and the NSC.
It appears that the positive news related to the expected closure May 24th of the First Greek Program Review may have turned most of Pappas’ U.S. meetings into little more than a pleasant exchange of views. This is because most of his American interlocutors likely agreed to meet him under very different circumstances, sometime before the May 9th Eurogroup session which vastly reduced the tension level and put the First Review on a path towards closure (they probably assumed that Pappas’ Washington meetings would enable them to try and help work out a solution).
This does not prevent the Tsipras government from trying to sell the visit as a major success, however. But Pappas’ failure to get the lame-duck Obama Administration – deeply focused on Washington election concerns – to take a louder position on the scale of Greek debt relief stands out as a big “Why even bother.” Although Treasury Secretary Jack Lew did state he hoped for clarity soon on Greek debt relief and that this might come up in upcoming G-7 meetings, the American side has no official role in these negotiations so the Eurogroup is not likely to change course. This author can’t rule out an attempt by the Tsipras communications team to spin the Pappas visit as proof of Washington’s “advocacy” for better terms for Greece and its acceptance of Mr. Tsipras as Greece’s leader for the foreseeable future. This might even translate into a slight if even measureable uptick in support for the current government coalition, but with onerous new tax measures impacting everyone in Greece to be voted in Parliament this week, that would likely be a very short term boost in Syriza’s deeply sagging poll numbers, almost not worth the effort.
So for now, its back to ongoing Eurogroup negotiations, work on urgent legislation covering the Quartet’s “prior conditions” to complete the First Program Review and hope for Berlin’s blessings and maybe some clarity from the IMF.
Go West! PM Tsipras Sends State Minister Pappas to the U.S. in search of a lifeline
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