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Interview with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras: "Give us six more months, and we will be another country"

The future of Europe depends on Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. In an exclusive interview with stern-magazine he rejects any ultimatum and finds warm words for Angela Merkel.

Tired and without a need for Plan B: Alexis Tsipras, Greek Prime Minister

Tired and without a need for Plan B: Alexis Tsipras, Greek Prime Minister

It is midday in the Maximos Mansion in Athens, the official seat of the government under Alexis Tsipras. The newly elected Greek Prime Minister has agreed to his first interview with a foreign media outlet. He wears a blue suit and a chequered shirt, while his cabinet spokesman appears in jeans and a sweatshirt. Although Tsipras seems a little tired, he is in a cheerful mood. The new office of the 40-year-old leader of the radical leftwing Syriza party is about the size of a basketball court.

When Tsipras strides through the vast hall, it is almost as if he is still struggling to find his way around. Behind his desk hangs an oil painting of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. "That's going," says his media consultant. Too many of his hapless predecessors have been photographed under this very painting. During the interview we sit at the huge conference table overlooking a small garden with orange trees. 45 minutes have been set aside for our meeting. Yet we are still deep in conversation one and a half hours later.

Prime Minister, do you think the German Chancellor fully comprehends the concerns of Greek citizens? My talks with her were too brief for me to say. But I found her to be most courteous and not as stern as the press would have us believe. I consider her to be a pragmatic woman who is committed to advancing the European cause. And thus to finding a solution with Greece.

You should issue an invitation to Mrs Merkel.

Why not? We're known for our hospitality. The doors are always open.

Have you actually been sleeping well since becoming Prime Minister?

Not particularly over the last few nights. And to top it all I caught a cold from my children.

Your government swept to power with all the speed of a coup d'état. The coalition with Panos Kammenos, leader of the Independent Greeks, was formed in less than 24 hours. Had it all been pre-arranged? No, the negotiations were simple. Mr Kammenos didn't impose any conditions. He recognised that we were two seats short of a majority and joined the government to comply with the will of the people: an end to austerity.

Kammenos is considered a rightwing populist. He advocates lower corporate tax rates and would prefer to dispatch all immigrants to Germany and Scandinavia. Sounds a lot like anti-Syriza propaganda.

Of course we have our differences. But he's always been an opponent of strict austerity measures. It was one of the reasons he left New Democracy and founded his own party. I admire that level of steadfastness.

Have any of your friends or relatives been affected by the crisis?

With 1.5 million unemployed among a population of eleven million, it's unlikely you'll find anyone who isn't acquainted with a victim of the crisis. That goes for my family too. My brothers are civil engineers, but nowadays most of the workers in this sector are going abroad to seek their fortune. People who took out a loan before the crisis are now up to their ears in debt, and others are barely making ends meet. The key problem is that the middle classes have been devastated. Even in my family we've had to change our consumer habits. I know people who can no longer afford to pay extra tuition for their children. Our healthcare system is on the ropes because a growing number of people have lost their health insurance coverage. Entire families are being forced to live off their grandparents' pensions. That's a direct result of the politics of recent years. And it's not just about money. It's also a matter of humiliation and degradation.

You made many promises to your electorate: civil servants who had been dismissed were to be reinstated and the minimum wage was to be raised to 751 euros. You want to pay a Christmas bonus to people on low pensions and provide free public transport to the unemployed and subsidised electricity to 300 000 households. It's simply a human response to the problems we face, irrespective of whether one holds leftwing or rightwing political views. It's also what I told the EU Council. You can't compare Greece with other crisis countries. Our citizens were hit much harder. We have to heal these wounds, but that doesn't mean repeating the sins of the past by spending money we don't have.

Your emergency social spending programme will cost twelve billion euros. Where are you going to get that kind of money?

We won't have to take out any new loans. Instead we'll get the money from elsewhere. We will put an end to the injustice in Greek society. The past years have seen scores of people failing to pay their contributions to the community. Instead, they used the crisis to line their pockets – illegally. Some are evading taxes, others are smuggling oil and tobacco on a large scale, and it's costing the state billions of euros. We're certain that there's a lot of money to be found there. But we need time to accomplish this.

How much time?

I'll make a bet with you. If we get six more months, Greece will be another country altogether. Although our previous government had the opportunity to combat these dubious activities, it lacked the political will. The reason being that they were far too closely entrenched with big business. Our advantage is that we have no obligations.

In other words: Syriza is declaring war on the oligarchs. There is no need to fear us if you abide by the law. We harbour no feelings of revenge. But it is quite unacceptable that a self-employed person is forced to close his business because he can't repay a micro loan, while others, who owe their bank millions of euros, are constantly being given cheap loans. And all because they have contacts to politicians and control the mass media. But that is the real face of Greece.

What will happen if you fail to deliver on your promises?

No Greek person is expecting me to wave a magic wand and catapult our country back into the year 2009. People want a renewed sense of hope, and they expect justice. Anyone who continued to party throughout the crisis will now have to pay the price. We'll see to that. For the first time in modern Greek history, we have an anti-corruption minister. He's a former public prosecutor who successfully tackled money laundering. With his help, we expect to recover at least two billion euros.

But two billion euros wouldn't solve Greece's problems. A few hours after your election victory, you received a visit from the Russian ambassador. Did Putin promise you money?

If only it were so easy to accumulate the funds. But it's true: Russia's ambassador was the first diplomat to congratulate me. However, prior to that I received a phone call from President Obama. And later on from President Putin and the Chinese premier. It just goes to show how much global interest there is in Greece continuing on its path to stability and returning to growth.

Do you want money from Russia or from China? For the time being, we only have a European solution in mind. We as a country belong to the eurozone. It would be a mistake to jeopardise this political unity. We are fully aware of the key geopolitical role Greece plays in the world, and we will continue to be a stable anchor in a fragile tri-border region.

You are referring to Syria, Libya and Ukraine. But you did cause some confusion in the Ukraine conflict when you were the only EU head of government to criticise the sanctions imposed on Russia.

Now hold on! I'm not the only one. Austria's Chancellor Faymann and the Finnish government are also sceptical. I condemn any violation of international law, and I deplore the escalation of violence in Ukraine. Let us not forget that there are many Greeks living in the embattled city of Mariupol. But waging an economic war against Russia makes no sense. Furthermore, sanctions against Russia are hypocritical. If you punish Russia, then you'd also have to punish all those countries in which Russian multi-billionaires have invested their assets.

So you would vote against extending or tightening these sanctions?

I want the EU to come to an agreement in dialogue and to speak with one voice. After all, Greece is also suffering from the sanctions. Russian tourists are staying away, and our agricultural industry is affected.

You need every cent. Wouldn't it be better if you came to some arrangement with your creditors? Why did you allow the negotiations with the eurozone creditors last Monday to fail?

To us, the old austerity programme is dead. The proposal to extend it by six months is paradoxical. Anyone coming up with ideas like that is wasting their time.

The euro group has presented you with an ultimatum to agree to the proposal by Friday. There should be no place in the EU for such an ultimatum. Nobody can command us to take over from where the Samaras government left off. As if there had never been an election. Syriza currently has approval ratings of 80 per cent. It might sound amusing but these are almost Soviet conditions. Should we ignore it? The disappointment would drive people into the arms of the fascist Golden Dawn. It is clear that Greece can no longer fulfil the conditions of the current bailout deal. That is why it must be modified.

Your Finance Minister Varoufakis said that he is not afraid of an Armageddon.

He said in parliament: if you enter into negotiations, you are not seeking a breakup. But you have to keep a breakup in mind as a contingency. I share this view.

So you have a Plan B in case Greece does decide to exit from the single currency?

We don't need a contingency plan because we will stay in the eurozone. But we won't achieve this objective at the expense of the weak – like our previous government.

Your predecessor Samaras slashed the budget deficit. If Greece didn't have to pay back its debts it would now be earning more money than it spent.

We don't want to destroy what has already been achieved. But the price we paid was too high. Our economic output fell by 25 per cent. That's like being in a war-time situation. Our economy is crushed. We have no air left to breathe.

What are you asking for? Without outside capital you will be bankrupt in a few weeks. First of all: we don't want any new assistance loans. We want time to be able to press on with our reforms. That's why we need a bridge programme. It would also allow us to raise additional financial resources through short-term government bonds. We want money from the EU support frameworks to address the humanitarian problems. Furthermore, we demand the central bank profits we are entitled to, totalling 1.9 billion euros. And the eleven billion euros from the bank-rescue fund to reform our financial system.

Most of this capital would only be available under strict conditions.

Then the conditions simply have to be amended. It's not about economizing more but about promoting growth. And our partners should support us in this.

You just threw out the troika's inspectors.

You mean those briefcase-wielding people from whom our previous government received their orders by email? We can do without them.

What about the task force that was founded in 2011 to make the Greek administration more efficient?

We have no issues with your compatriot, Horst Reichenbach, who headed up the task force. Anyone who counsels us is welcome.

Wolfgang Schäuble offered to dispatch 500 German tax investigators. He should send 5000 if they can help us to combat tax evasion. And while he's at it, the German government can help us to bring some clarity into the Siemens corruption scandal.

Economic growth will only come about if you attract investors. But Syriza is doing all it can to scare them off. You want to halt the privatisation of state property and even want to rescind contracts that have already been signed. That's not the way to establish trust.

What we experienced over the past few years was not privatisation but an unbridled buy-out of state property to friends of the system. Initially, it was said that we would take in 50 billion euros through privatisation. After three years, it's amounted to all of five billion.

So the privatisation authority is being dissolved?

We will see. But we want the state to control key sectors of the Greek economy so that we can reap the benefits. Up to now, the revenue from privatisation was earmarked for the reduction of the national debt. But that is a bottomless pit. And you can't rescue a country with five billion euros.

The Frankfurt-based Fraport AG is involved in the acquisition of 14 regional airports. Is that up for discussion? The price tag of one billion euros was fair. But airports are a part of our tourism industry. That's how Greece earns its livelihood. It is something we also need to examine.

Let's turn to your relationship with Germany. The Syriza party newspaper printed a cartoon which depicted Wolfgang Schäuble as a Nazi who was prepared to make soap from Greek bodies. In an interview with stern.de you described it as "unfortunate".

Of course I don't identify with that. But satire is satire. And it doesn't fall under any rules. Anyway, Germans aren't exactly squeamish in their treatment of the Greeks. We were denigrated as a nation of slackers. What we have to accomplish now is a new understanding of the European nations for one another. I respect Germany. It's not only the land of the Deutsche Bank. It's the land of Goethe, Kant, Einstein and Günter Grass.

And not forgetting Marx.

And Bertolt Brecht.

Your first official act as Prime Minister was a visit to a memorial for the resistance fighters in the Second World War.

I was the first Greek Prime Minister not to take the oath of office on the Bible. Instead, I wanted to evoke the memory of our peoples' roots. These men and women died for freedom, independence and justice. For all of Europe. Our continent has a common history, one which everyone should face up to. I am convinced that Germans and Greeks have more in common than that which divides them. Germans love the Greeks. And the Greeks love the Germans. And yet, there are still issues that need to be reappraised.

Are you referring to your demand for reparations from the Second World War? That has loomed over our two nations for 70 years. It's not a matter of getting our hands on financial resources which would help us overcome a difficult situation, but more about fulfilling a historical obligation.

Syriza has set up a task force that is scouring German archives looking for documents to enforce your claim.

And there is a well-founded study on forced loans under the NS regime.

On the subject of a loan of 476 million Reichsmark, which the Central Bank in Greece was forced to issue the Third Reich. In today's money that would be eleven billion euros. 70 billion with interest.

It's not a matter of tangible assets but of moral issues; the fact that Germany settles its debt. Even if it is only one euro.

Will you be taking the matter to court?

That would a last resort. I am a man of dialogue. It's the only way to solve conflict.

Those are definitely good starting points for negotiations with your creditors. Precisely. I want a win-win solution, one which benefits all sides. I want to save the Greek people from a tragedy and prevent a division in Europe.

At the onset of the crisis, the former Finance Minister Papaconstantinou likened the Greek economy to the "Titanic" heading straight for the iceberg. Do you also feel as if you are standing on the bridge of the "Titanic"?

No. The "Titanic" sank a while ago. We're steering the lifeboat and throwing lifebelts to those drowning around us.

Interview: A. Albes, F. Batzoglou, A. Petzold / print