In October of 2016, I found myself in Thessaloniki, Greece for an academic conference and was doing some sightseeing around the city with a Greek friend before it began. To visit the historical Ano Poli (“Upper City”), we had to take a taxi when I had the pleasure of practicing my Greek with our driver, who was an older man. As we talked about mundane usual topics, the US election and the two front-running candidates had eventually come up. Unsurprisingly, the taxi driver began to tell us about his shock that, out of all people in the country, the best that Americans could choose were Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. I had to do a double-take as he then began to say how Vladimir Putin didn’t seem like that bad of a guy and was a strong leader. Initially I thought this was probably just an isolated opinion; however, when we took a taxi back to the conference hall, a younger man than our other driver began to talk to us about US politics again. His words were eerily similar to our first driver, expressing dismay about the two candidates and expressing an equal affection for Putin. We walked around the city again later that night, and I couldn’t help but notice Russian and Greek crossed flags or Cyrillic writing in several locations. Finally, my interest was fully peaked – why does Russia have such an influence in this city, and does this extend to the rest of Greece?
Post-World War II, Winston Churchill had agreed with Joseph Stalin on how much influence the West would have versus the Soviet Union in certain countries. It is surprising, then, that Greece, a country that Churchill fought to keep in the Western orbit, has such a strong pro-Russian, anti-EU sentiment today – with 63% of Greeks favoring Russia and only 23% holding a positive view of the EU, in a poll highlighted in the BBC in 2015. In addition, Russian names are still very popular names for parents to give their children in Greece.
Both sides of the political spectrum had and still have reasons to like Russia. Greece fostered a popular left-wing sentiment after being suppressed by the British once Churchill had gained this influence in the country, while right-wing politicians identify with the shared Orthodox heritage between the two countries. A secondary reason that could be just as important is that Greeks have a long history of immigration to Russia and the former Soviet Union, resulting in a now sizeable population of ethnic Russian-born Greeks currently living in the Russian Federation. These facts serve as a fairly solid base for understanding why Russia might now have effective tactics for public diplomacy in Greece today.
Russo-Greek relations are currently overwhelmingly positive and have forged cooperation on many different issues. Thessaloniki is particularly attractive due to its railway system and its port, Greece is flirting with Russia for potential help with its debt crisis, and more recently the two countries have been in talks about energy cooperation. The most striking feature of Russia’s popularity with Greece, however, is their command of public diplomacy. Already earning respect among the Greek left-leaning Syriza party, Russian diplomats such as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov make frequent visits to Greece and put their host country in a positive light, emphasizing the importance of civil society and bilateral cooperation. One can see these tactics as part of Russia’s overall PD goal with Greece, as the Russian Embassy often posts praising summaries of events such as the Greek Civil Society Forum. Likewise, the language used in the Greek Foreign Ministry’s descriptions of history with Russia is affectionate and innocent. Because of the shared Orthodox heritage, the Greek Orthodox Church is a powerhouse for diplomacy and has more influence than many non-governmental institutions in the region, establishing connections and influencing foreign audiences in what is known as “Church Diplomacy.” Russia uses similar tactics and plays on their faith to gain additional favor from the Greek public and government.
Russia’s real motivations are nevertheless underhanded: prying Greece away from the EU. Unlike much of the rest of Europe, thanks to Syriza, Greece’s tone towards Russia is much more amicable, which makes them more prone to be Russia’s ally against NATO and EU influence, a Russian objective. This also helps Russia economically, as Greece, with the backing of its citizens, would be an open advocate within the EU for lowering sanctions against Russia. Vladimir Putin, through appeals to civil society, common identity by immigration and religion, and a friendly façade by flirtation with the idea of easing Greece’s economic burden, has made his country appear to be the strongman who fights for the security and sovereignty of his country, unlike the consequently weak US and Europe. This is significant for the West because it could lead to an EU-member state fighting against sanctions on Russia and supporting Russian military expansion as was seen with the annexation of Crimea, which puts the NATO Alliance at risk of losing crucial influence.
There is a slight, recent caveat: the changing nature of Greek domestic politics. Very recently the Syriza party has been gradually overtaken in popular opinion by the right-leaning New Democracy party and its President, Kyriakos Mitsotakis. As Prime Minister Tsipras’ popularity falls, this could mean a possible change in the future after Greece’s next election and a different course being taken with Russia. Nevertheless, it should be kept in mind that Greek public opinion is still on Russia’s side compared to the rest of Europe. Only in July 2016 by the organization ProjectEU, it was shown that 71% of Greeks disapproved of continuing sanctions of Russia, and 65% disapproved of using military action to stop Russia in Ukraine. Likewise, in a poll researched by Pew Research Center in July 2016, 69% of Greeks had an unfavorable opinion of NATO compared to 19%-35% in other EU nations.
What is left for the US and EU to do in response to Russia’s successful public diplomacy strategy and winning over the hearts and minds of the Greek public? A useful first step would be for the State Department and foreign ministries of Europe to understand the reasons why those taxi drivers in Thessaloniki feel the way that they do about the US versus Russia and how they can be brought out of Russia’s sphere. In order to counter the seemingly natural bonds that Russia and Greece have established with each other, the West will need to continue pushing with their own brand of public diplomacy involving a relational framework of cultural exchange and partnership to push common goals and mutual interests in such a way that can outweigh the potential benefits of moving closer to Russia. For example, the US has had a long history of Greek involvement in programs such as the Fulbright Scholarship and the Transatlantic Innovation Leaders Initiative (YTIL). Moreover, the high number of Greek Americans currently living in the US may serve to push a narrative of success stories and support for American interests, which could then rival the similar influence that Russia has in Greece. The goals that current American PD is aiming to reach can also be achieved in tandem with other means such as the economic – sweetening the partnership with perks that Russia perhaps cannot provide with its sanctioned state, such as when the US themselves contributed in the negotiations of Greece’s debt crisis. If the West cannot continue on this path and even increase their efforts, then they must ask themselves what is worth more: a pro-Russian anti-NATO advocate in the EU or extra leverage against Russian interests in Europe.
Caveat: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or the George Washington University.