THE GRAECO - RUSSIAN CONNEXION
Some commentators, and not only Mannichean Cold War journalistic warriors, depicted Greek-Russian military co-operation at the end of the last millennium and the abortive delivery of two batteries of S-300 defensive missiles to Cyprus as unhelpful political opportunism. The typical argument runs that it is destabilising and bad for NATO cohesion, and that Greece is helping Russia to gain influence in the Eastern Mediterannean. This rather conveniently packaged argument is never elaborated on, just as US-Israeli-Turkish military co-operation was expediently accepted, with little more than a murmur. There is of course far more to the Greek-Russian relationship than meets the eye, and any serious pundit needs at least to be aware of the historical continuity of Greek-Russian relations, bedevilled only temporarily in the Cold War, and currently by a supine Greek government, to understand the background.
Long before Russia existed as a definable cultural, linguistic and geographic entity, Greeks had been settled around the Black Sea. When Russia began to emerge, it was the Greek monks Cyril and Methodius who laid the foundations of Christianity among the Slavs, creating a Slavonic alphabet, based on the Greek, but incorporating some non-Greek sounds. It is no exaggeration to say that the role of the Greek church in Russia rivalled that of the papacy in Western Europe.
After the fall of Constantinople, the memories of the Byzantine Empire lived on, not only in the Greek psyche, but in Russia. Some high points of Greek-Russian co-operation were the Orlov brothers' attempts to liberate the Peloponnese in 1769, and Catherine the Great's dream of capturing Constantinople and placing her grandson on the throne of a new Byzantine Empire. Of more practical help to Greece were the Treaty of Kütschük Kainardji, where Russia gained the right to protect Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire; the commercial treaty giving the Greeks the right to trade under the Russian flag (thus contributing to Greece's becoming the leading shipping power that she is today); the establishment of a military academy for Greeks in Russia; and Russia's crucial help in the war of Greek independence, which forced the British to intervene, more out of fear of Russia than sympathy for Greece. Modern Greece’s first leader, Capodistria, had actually been a Russian foreign minister.
Only ten years after Greek independence, the British Minister to Greece was to say: ‘A truly independent Greece is an absurdity. Greece can either be English or Russian, and since it cannot be Russian, it is necessary that she be English.’ Only a few years later during the Crimean War, British (and French) forces actually occupied Piraeus to prevent Greece helping Russia against a weakening Ottoman Empire. As recently as 1955, Winston Churchill himself (confirming that Stalin had agreed at Yalta to leave Greece out of the Soviet sphere of influence) wrote: ‘I must say, when I think of the risks I ran and the efforts I made on behalf of the Greeks, I feel they qualify for the first prize for ingratitude. But for my personal exertions they would be lumped with Roumania and Bulgaria inside the Iron Curtain.’ This was however an exaggerated claim, since in early June 1944, some four months before the infamous ‘percentages’ agreement, the Foreign Office wrote that the Russians [sic] had agreed to let them ‘take the lead’ in Greece.
The past has an uncanny way of influencing the present, whatever the Henry Fords of this world may claim: both Russia and Greece have been, and still are, worried by Turkish expansionism; both have been embroiled, and still are, in Britain's, now the USA's, concern to maintain a strong Turkey to combat what they see as Russian expansionism. Although Turkey does not dare to indulge in sabre-rattling against Russia, she is doing all she can to increase her influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus, resulting in Russia stepping up political pressure in Azerbaijan, strengthening political and defence ties with Moldova, and assisting Armenia. The quest for oil obviously plays its dangerous part, with the US and Turkey pushing for a Turkish solution, (Ceyhan) and the Greeks and Russians working on the Burgas-Alexandroupolis solution. This latter project, however, now looks under threat, thanks to Bulgaria looking increasingly like an American client state, and delaying the project on specious grounds, while the pro-US Greek Prime Minister, Papandreou, is happy to do nothing.
Until recently, the convergence of interests is clear. For economic, political, cultural and historical reasons, Greece and Russia were co-ordinating some of their foreign policy interests: in the same way that Greece did not wish to see a Turkish arc on its northern borders, nor did Russia on its southern and south-eastern flanks. Under Papandreou’s predecessor, Karamanlis, co-operation was improving. Karamanlis pushed hard for the pipeline. But now, with Greece under economic occupation, the Anglo-Saxon neo-liberal banking world is doing its best to destroy what might have been a strong Graeco-Russian partnership. Karamanlis, who seemed to be a man with some bottle, was almost certainly threatened, and is lying very low, while a bankrupt Greece is being ordered to continue buying expensive French, German and American arms, rather than cheaper, and often better, Russian ones.
The future is tricky. Russia no longer sees Greece as a reliable partner, but as a puppet of so-called ‘Western interests’. It is going to take a Greek leader with guts to help to re-establish the damage done. Without it, Greece could end up as a slave state of US-Turkish interests.