After four years of rule by coalition SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left) and ANEL (populist-right), Greek voters decided to shift majority legislative power to conservative centre-right party, New Democracy.
The new Greek government promises dramatic changes in economic policy in comparison to their predecessors – especially in the facilitation of foreign investments and tax reduction. However when it comes to issues regarding foreign policy, sharply-dressed new Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis – a Stanford and Harvard graduate – is expected to maintain a balancing act between Greece’s EU and NATO obligations, while trying to attract international major investors, including China, US and Arab Gulf countries.
US-Greek relations are at a historic high since Alexis Tsipras of SYRIZA’s government which, although adopted left rhetoric (traditionally anti-American), worked constantly to enhance and improve the relations with the United States. Mitsotakis is expected to follow the same policy.
The Prime Minister comes from a family with longstanding political tradition. His father Konstantinos Mitsotakis, was a well-known political figure from the 1960s-1990s. Part of his legacy includes repairing ties between Greece and the US in the early 1990s after a decade of socialist rule. His sister, Dora Bakoyannis, a former mayor of Athens and Minister of Foreign Affairs while her son, Kostas Bakoyannis, is the newly elected mayor of Athens. Already following in his father’s footsteps with Pro-Western relations, Kyriakos Mitsotakis conducted a 20 minute conversation after his election with Vice-President Mike Pence.
The geographical position of Greece is at a crossroads of civilisations, religions and geopolitical interests. Greece is stuck in a neighbourhood with lots of open international issues. Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Israel and Palestine, all places of high American interest – are within a two to six hour commercial flight from Greece.
The other major NATO ally in the area, Turkey, has been increasingly flexing its muscles in the Eastern Mediterranean and Syria, not always in harmony with the US. Turkey’s President Erdogan, a devoted political Islamist is gradually drifting away (or has already drifted depending on point of view) from the secular identity that Ataturk attempted to impose at the beginning of the 20th century. Recently, Turkey sent drilling ships into Cypriot waters over gas and oil reserves it claims for itself. Regarding the longstanding Greek-Turkish dispute in the Eastern Mediterranean, Greek diplomatic sources believe that Turkey is trying to reestablish its status of predominant power lost after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Turkish strategy is revise the provisions of the 1923 Lausanne and 1947 Paris Agreements that determine the borders between the two countries.
Greek diplomatic sources also add that Turkey is trying to become a regional player in the wider area. Among other important military orders – which include an aircraft carrier, tanks and additional military equipment, insists on receiving the S-400 Russian air defense system. The latter brought Ankara on a collision course with Washington, which led American lawmakers to propose the ban of the sale of the F-35 jet to Turkey.
The above developments seemed to offer Americans the opportunity to reevaluate Greece’s strategic position. The Wall Street Journal reported in September of last year the US was looking to open more bases in Greece as relations with Turkey sour. Meanwhile the Greek Diaspora in the US managed to lobby Congress to lift the arms embargo off Cyprus earlier this summer as Turkey has sent drilling ships into Cypriot waters over oil reserves it claims for itself.
There is no doubt that Mitsotakis is expected to maintain good relations with the US and Israel in order to neutralise Turkey’s aggressive ambitions in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. The State Department has already called for Turkey to avoid any action that could provoke a major incident in the area.
But other foreign policy maneuvers will not be as clear cut, namely with North Macedonia and America’s main adversary China.
To many outsiders the dispute with Skopje may seem trivial but the struggle over “Macedonia” – the name and territorial acquisition, has been central to Greek nationalism since the modern nation-state’s inception. So far Mitsotakis has agreed he will stick to the Prespes Agreement but will apply pressure on Skopje on what exactly can be called “Macedonian”, specifically in terms of culture, language, and products. But how much pressure he can apply is limited to what NATO and the EU allow as they are looking to firmly place North Macedonia in both alliances quickly and smoothly.
Although Northern Greeks represent a large, conservative voting block and care deeply on the name issue with Skopje, Mitsotakis knows that his success will absolutely depend on the economic growth of the country – which is currently projected at an anaemic 1.8 per cent of the GDP this year. The first major investment he promised to unblock regards the area of the old Athens airport, an iconic project that will symbolically represent the resurrection of the Greek economy. Domestic and foreign investors are expected to contribute to the development of the southern suburbs of Athens and the nearby port of Piraeus, while at the same time providing employment opportunities to thousands.
But the investments that America should keep an eye on come from its main economic adversary, China. Greek-Chinese relations have increasingly warmed over the past decade as Greece was the first EU member-state to join One Belt One Road Project. There have already been accusations from the US that China has used Greece as a beach head into Europe. Greece could be portrayed by some as a unitary actor outside of EU guidance to solidify its economic relationship to China, yet other sources disagree. This perspective sees Greece leading on behalf of the EU to foster new economic growth with China.
Dimitra Tzia, a Greek national and researcher on foreign policy with focus on US-Greek relations is eager for action: “Now is the time for Greek political parties of all spectrums to redefine their profiles and show the exhausted populace that they have learned from their mistakes. They must act with decisiveness on the crucial issues for our country – especially Turkey and gathering foreign investments, yet also remain transparent to the average citizen in terms of where money comes from.”
The 51-year-old Mitsotakis has a tough term ahead with ongoing tensions in his geopolitical backyard. He also must play salesman for his stagnant economy to foreign investors yet stay close to Washington as America’s staunch rival in the Far East is making headwind into the EU via Greece.
Jack Dulgarian is a recent graduate of the University of Arizona’s School of Government and Public Policy. He is finishing summer long independent research on foreign policy and strategy of the various political parties of Greece. Jack has work experience with a humanitarian and refugee assistance organization in Athens and on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
The article has been edited by Paul Gadalla, a former Beirut-based journalist who also worked in communications at the Carnegie Middle East Center and is currently with the Central Communications Department at The Brookings.