Fotis Kouvelis, the leader of the Democratic Left party, the smaller partner in the Greek coalition government, believes that with the help of essential dialogue between Turkey and Greece, the problems between these two neighbors can be overcome, adding that with strong respect for mutual sovereignty, all the problems could be resolved.
In an exclusive interview with Sunday’s Zaman, Kouvelis stated that he strongly supported Turkey’s bid for membership in the European Union. “I believe firmly that Turkey should be a part of Europe, and it should have European democratic rights,” said Kouvelis.
The smaller partner in the Greek coalition government, the “Democratic Left” emerged from the June 2012 elections with 6.25 percent of the vote, and 17 MPs. Today the party has 16 MPs, after one of its MPs was removed from the parliamentary group. The party played a key role in supporting the coalition that was a result of the union between the government’s main partners, the center-right New Democracy Party and pro-bailout socialist PASOK party. Kouvelis answered questions posed by Sunday’s Zaman on a range of topics.
When the Democratic Left decided to vote abstained-present on the 13.5 billion euro austerity measures package imposed by the Troika (which refers to the European Commission [EC], the International Monetary Fund [IMF] and the European Central Bank [ECB]), it raised questions about the future of the government. However, party leader Kouvelis, whose party voted to approve the 2013 budget, believes that if his country enters into a development-focused period with the intention of emerging from the current economic crisis, a resolution will present itself. Kouvelis, who rejects further austerity measures, has also announced that his party is opposed to attempts by larger coalition partner the New Democracy party to encumber Greek citizenship requirements. Additionally, Kouvelis is calling for the punishment of racist Chrysi Avgi’s (Golden Dawn) legal infractions, while also underscoring the necessity of strengthened cooperative ties between Greece and Turkey, as well as support for ongoing dialogue between the two countries. Kouvelis has announced that he will soon be paying a visit to Turkey.
Very recently, a new austerity measures package was passed by your parliament. Do you believe that these measures will really support the economy? Some state that, in fact, these measures will provide no solution, and that they do not contain any reforms aimed at real development…
These austerity measures really are drastic for the Greek people. We wish to see both an austerity measures package as well as harmony between the budget and real finances. There is no question that what the country needs is a unifying development plan. True, the austerity measures might work for a certain period of time, and might assist financial recovery, but they are not enough on their own. Of course, another topic related to all this is reforms. They are an inseparable part of development and transformation. On the level of the state, reforms are needed for the market and the general functioning of the economy. These reforms should be passed immediately. The government is determined to action these reforms. In fact, the process to implement the majority of them has started already. These are reforms which are actually “executive management” in nature, dealing with regulations of discrepancies in the government, etc. At this point, the state is much more “consuming” than it should be. It really is too large. It is not productive, nor is it producing actual results. It is not able to assist the generally desired stages of development we are aiming for. These measures are the ones people want us to pass and then implement because the austerity measures put into place for financial harmony are not enough on their own to respond to the current conditions in Greece.
2013 will be a difficult year
Is there light at the end of the tunnel?
Yes. Greece is in the position of being able to transcend this economic crisis. It will rise above it by guaranteeing the foundations for a period of development. Of course, we do have other problems and they are problems we must face. Another problem that exists in Greece which consumes much of our time, and which we are taking precautions against, is the unregistered, unofficial economy: the black market economy. This involves tax evasion and corruption. It is reality in our country.
The new measures will be in place from the month of January onwards. People will begin to feel the effect. Do you believe that if the people demonstrate any further harsh reactions to these measures, there could be a political price?
This government has not yet implemented the most recent austerity measures package approved by parliament, except for the “executive reforms,” which were implemented recently. Most of the measures will start being implemented during 2013. There is no question that this will lead to some problems in the sense that society will begin to feel the effects. In my opinion, 2013 will be a difficult year. Of course, our real desire with this tough austerity measures package is to remove pressure from the economically weaker stratum of society. To this end, for example, we created a measure for those who are heavily in debt to banks, with the general aim of creating a safety net that will protect the economically weaker elements of society. We have also created measures to govern unemployment payments, as well as payments to handicapped people. Of course, apart from all this, the austerity measures package is a tough one. The people of Greece have to make many sacrifices. That is precisely due to this data. It makes it a stronger possibility for us to go through this crisis.
These austerity measures, which target the people of Greece, are really tough. Your party’s vote in parliament was present-abstaining, but as the Democratic Left, you have been the target of criticism…
The presence of the Democratic Left in the government was regarded as a movement of responsibility for the country and the people. With the backing of 6.3 percent of the vote from the Greek people, we could have enjoyed a great opposition stance; we could have had the comfort of being in the opposition. However, if the Democratic Left had not supported the government, the country would have fallen into a political dead-end. Greece would have headed into elections for the third time. Once again, it would not have been a government of the majority. This political dead-end would have been reflected in the massive economic problems experienced by the society, which would ultimately cause a cessation of cash flow into the market. The Democratic Left has supported this government in the name of stability, so that Greece can stay in the European Union and the eurozone, and in order to not return to our old currency, the drachma. Leaving the euro and returning to the drachma would be regressing by decades. Our greatest goal is to see Greece continuing to use the euro. The measures we have introduced will allow Greece to do this; they will bring financial harmony to the country. We did not approve of either the first or the second memorandum. There were certain responsibilities given to Greece, and the country had to face up to these.
It has often been said that had the Democratic Left not approved these measures, the government would have plunged into crisis. However, your party abstained during the vote. How do you see the future of this government? What are the parameters you have set out as a party for this government?
We did not vote to approve these measures. We remained with a present-abstaining vote. We did not approve because we had really strong objections on the topic of labor conditions. These would have ultimately made the working factions even weaker. In the end, the changes advocated for by the Troika had absolutely nothing to do with the country’s financial harmony. I would like to repeat that these measures had nothing to do with the problem of financial harmony. This was a stance guided by the ideological nature of the Troika, and we opposed that. We said this quite openly from the very beginning. We voiced this to the Troika, and to our European partners. The government knew this. This drove us to not approve of the measures and changes to the labor conditions. However, we did approve of a 2013 that did not include changes to labor conditions. That budget was approved of by a strong majority of 167 votes.
Do you have a “Plan B” in case these measures turn out to be unsuccessful in 2013?
This is a very important question. The measures have to be successful. Changes can be made to improve them. There should, however, be no new measures, because Greek society will not have the strength left to manage this. Allow me to repeat: Great sacrifices have already been made. Planning has been based on the idea that these measures will be successful, and that development efforts will be implemented. These are the policies that have the highest priority for the government in terms of implementation. We have to take these steps for the country. There are also measures our European partners must implement. They must allow us the next 31.5 billion euro credit tranche. They must, in particular, keep their word regarding credit payments. Due to the summer elections in Greece, the country did not receive the previous payments. When you add these to the others, it’s a total of 40 billion euros. There is also talk of resources by way of an independent credit payment from the European Investment Bank. I reiterate, we cannot guarantee the success we wish to see as a country without bringing about a period of development.
How do you view the stance taken by the European Union towards Greece during this period of crisis? How have they dealt with the situation during this time? Has it been positive or negative? Do they really wish to be of assistance?
Europe must understand that the real problem is not unique to Greece. There is, of course, a crisis in Greece, but in fact, the problem exists in all of Southern Europe. Even France is facing a threat right now; thus even the heart of Europe is being threatened. Europe must act in the direction of creating policies that are in keeping with unifying a European economic framework. If this does not take place, it will create a problem for Europe. Otherwise escape routes will have to be created. This will mean that Europe’s advancement will not be served. Its future lies with an essential unification, and policies aimed at transcending the economic problems that plague so many countries.
What are your views on immigrants? It is clear that the New Democracy party is backing tougher policies on immigrants. There is a demand to change the citizenship laws…
The Greek Council of State, one of the country’s top three courts, ruled that a new citizenship law that had received the backing of the Democratic Left in 2010 had some articles that were in fact anathema to the Greek constitution. When the Council of State renders such a decision, the government is forced to acknowledge it. There must be an examination of how the law conflicts with the constitution. As the Democratic Left, we believe that the changes called for by the Council of State must be carried out in keeping with the constitution, for the sake of democratic functioning. At the same time, pressure exerted by extreme rightist and conservative factions, and those with political, racist and anti-foreigner stances must not lead to concessions being made on this front. The Democratic Left party maintains a stable stance in this area. The law accords individuals the right to Greek citizenship under certain conditions. These conditions must not change. One important change, though, is that the right to citizenship is bestowed upon children born in Greece to legal immigrants. In short, criteria that would allow immigrants and foreign citizens now residing in Greece to gain citizenship must be protected. There is great pressure on this issue from the extreme right. However, we do not believe that any backward steps should be taken. We accede to the bestowing of citizenship upon both legal immigrants and their children, as long as certain conditions are met.
What is your view on whether Golden Dawn and some of its members were involved in the recent violence?
This organization called Golden Dawn supports neo-Nazism and fascism within Greek society. It is not possible to fight against this with executive measures. In fact, the struggle against Golden Dawn and those who want to see societal fascism must happen on both a political and a societal level. What is it that Golden Dawn is exploiting? It is exploiting problems that already exist in Greek society. It is also taking advantage of changes within society. Golden Dawn is attempting to fill an arena according to its own mentality that has been left vacant by democratic politics. This is a problem which will be largely resolved when the economic problems are solved. In the meantime, laws must be enacted concerning points which Golden Dawn is actually exploiting.
No benefit for rising defense spending
For the past couple of years, many have noted that Turkey is not maintaining the level of energy in its journey towards EU membership that it used to have. Does this concern you?
It does truly seem that Turkey is procrastinating somewhat. Perhaps as a strong country in its region, does it wish to move in a different direction? This does concern my own personal political expectations. I believe that Turkey’s journey towards Europe is important not only for Turkey but for the entire region.
How do you view the Arab Spring? Traditionally, Greece has had good relations with Arab countries. But administrations are changing…
It is an evolving situation. It should all end with a process of democratization. The traditionally good relations Greece has enjoyed with these countries must be maintained. In fact, relations with the Arab world should be strengthened within the framework of everything that is taking place. Of course, I really do have concerns about what the results of these developments will be; these concerns are not just for Greece but for the whole region.
How do you see the situation in Syria?
There can be no question that democratization in Syria would guarantee our support for that country. Our view is that Syria should be a democratic country — a country of rights and laws. What troubles me when it comes to the democratization of Syria, and the elimination of violence from that country, is the idea of investments in other countries’ interests being made there. If this happens, even more of a deadlock might occur. Syria should not be viewed as a country that can be swayed by other countries’ influence. When outside countries intervene in the interests of their own political situations, conditions become more intractable.
France, the US and Turkey have all announced that they recognized the Syrian opposition as legitimate. What is the Greek government’s stance on this?
The Greek government has yet to clarify its policies on this matter. We are proceeding cautiously. At this point, we are neutral.
Looking at things from today’s perspective, do you believe the arms race between Greece and Turkey on the Aegean is meaningless?
There is no benefit to any country — and more importantly to the people of that country — that arises from defense spending. Thus this arms race by Greece and Turkey has in actuality stolen a lot from both the Greek and Turkish people. As I mentioned before, we can find solutions to all our problems through a relationship based on strong dialogue, and mutual respect for sovereignty. The solution will not come from an arms race.
You have a standing invitation from Turkey’s Republican People’s Party (CHP). When will you visit Turkey?
Yes, I have this invitation. However, due to a heavy national agenda here at the moment, when I can take it up is not yet clear. I will visit Turkey in the near future, though.
Fotis Kouvelis (64) is a Greek lawyer and politician. He was born in Volos. He studied law and political science at the University of Athens.
A member of Lambrakis Youth, Kouvelis was a founding member of the Communist Party of Greece (Interior), serving on its central committee from 1975 until the party’s demise. He was also a founding member of the Greek Left Party in 1987 and was elected its secretary-general on June 25, 1989, remaining in this post until 1992.
Kouvelis was elected MP (Synaspismos) in Athens B in the general elections of 1989, 1990, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2007 and 2009 with Synaspismos Rizospastikis Aristeras (Coalition of the Radical Left). He is parliamentary spokesman for Synaspismos Rizospastikis Aristeras. In the 1989 government of Tzannis Tzannetakis he served as minister of justice.
Today Kouvelis is the leader of the Democratic Left Party, which won 6.3 percent of the vote in the June 2012 elections. The Democratic Left Party supported the establishment of the coalition government.
He is married to Fotini Palla and has two daughters.
He is honorary member of the organization “SOS Racism” and a member of many peace and human rights movements. Kouvelis has published articles on law and institutions, social rights and individual freedoms in academic journals and in the media.