Just weeks ago, Alexis Tsipras, 37, was an obscure opposition politician. Now, he's unnerving the powers that be in the European Union because he and his leftist party Syriza - a group whose membership ranges from hardline Communists to moderate socialists - have the potential of forming a government after the June 17 elections. A teenage member of the Communist Youth of Greece, Tsipras has executed a dramatic and canny political metamorphosis, transforming himself fromthe leader of a radical leftist coalition to a left-of-center standard bearer for anti-bailout and anti-austerity populism. And in so doing, he has confounded the ossified poltiical class of Greece, which acceded to the strictures imposed by the E.U. in order for Athens to receive the funds it needs to satisfy its creditors. Now, Tsipras may hold the future of the euro and the E.U. in his hands. All he needs to do is win enough seats to govern.Tsipras spoke to TIME's Joanna Kakissis at the Syriza office on Koumoundourou Square in Athens. Following is the transcript of the interview:
TIME: Are you willing to make the necessary structural reforms in Greece to revive the economy?
Alexis Tsipras: It is obvious that Greece - and the Greek economy - has its own particularities that played a role in making this economic crisis deeper and longer. Indeed, we must make structural reforms which will the public sector more reliable, create an effective and fair taxation system, and fight the black economy which has been like a kind of gangrene on the Greek economy. As far as I know, the underground economy represents 30% of the GDP.
At the same time, we will try to restore faith in the law and convince people that the state is equitable and effective. We will destroy corruption and the interconnection of political and economic power from its roots. Without the contribution of the citizens, these reforms cannot take place. But in order to contribute, the citizens want to know that these reforms will not be implemented only to those who have low incomes but those who have high incomes and come from the upper class. There is a Greek saying: "The fish always stinks from its head," (which means, roughly, corruption starts at the top). So if we don't fight the problem at its roots, then we won't be able to establish positive morale that can encourage all Greeks to also fight against it.
But you need a long time to make such reforms...
Some things need time, but some other can change quickly. For instance, I can't understand why the last two and half years we are chasing our tail when it comes to taxation. We taxed poor people again and again, but no one talked about what we really needed, which is an assets register by which every Greek will be obliged to register their properties, their bank accounts in Greece or abroad, as well as their mobile assets, such as the shares of a company they possibly have. Only in this way, we will be able to tax everyone according to their real capability of paying taxes and we will create a system which will share the responsibilities in a fair way. Of course, for these policies to be effective, we should also create a high-penalty system for those who break the law. Whoever makes a false statement about his assets should be punished by having a bit part of these assets confiscated. There is no magical way out of the crisis. However, there are for sure solutions, tough but fair, in order to share in a just way the responsibilities, establish a positive morale and give a boost to the Greek economy.
There are some outside Greece who say Greece wants it both ways...
It's a paradox to think Greece can stay in the euro zone if the austerity policies continue to be implemented. The austerity policy, and especially this extreme policy based on the term "internal devaluation", is exactly what we should have avoided.
It's the wrong prescription, the wrong medicine for the patient, because Greece has a production base with a special characteristic: 90% of the small businesses' production, which are the foundation of the Greek economy, is not exported. It is sold on the domestic market. So, when you make a horizontal cut of the wages and the pensions, inevitably there is an impact on the consumption. Hence, 200,000 small Greek businesses have closed down! As a result, unemployment rates soared - nowadays, one out of two young people under 30 years old is unemployed - and the recession became deeper to the point that it's the fifth consecutive year of recession and GDP lost 20 points, which has never happened before in any European country in a time of peace!
Therefore, we realize that these policies were the wrong medicine for the crisis; they were shocking, ineffective policies, which led Greek people to face the possibility of a humanitarian crisis. When there is a patient, and you give him medicine, and it only makes him worse, it is not logical to insist on giving him a higher dose of the same medicine. You've got to change the medicine. If we continue taking this austerity medicine, and especially at a higher dose, that's when Greece is going to be forced out of the euro. And when Greece leaves, the whole euro zone will starts wobbling.
Because if one country gets out of the euro, the next day the markets will hunt for the next one to follow in this aggressive, devaluing speculation of the bonds, which is speculated by the big hedge funds. We think that this would not be good either for Greece or for Europe. So, the policy that we want to implement - without austerity, but inside euro zone - is the only realistic and - we could argue - the only rational policy which will benefit everyone.
So Greece out of the euro, is that not an option for you?
No, it's not an option. It is not our choice for Greece to exit the euro zone. First of all, it will have a negative impact to low-income Greeks.
We also don't believe that the solution should be the outcome of a competition between European countries - for instance the competition between the Greek people and the Spanish people, which for instance would lead Greeks back to drachma and the Spaniards back to the peseta. We believe in a Europe of solidarity and social cohesion.
So, if we want to talk about solidarity, we should take under consideration where the money of the European taxpayers, which is given to Greece as a financial aid, really goes. Is it thrown in a bottomless pit or is it invested in growth projects to help the cohesion of the society? Until now it was given to cover the black hole of the banks and this must be stopped.
When someone is bankrupt and instead of giving them the opportunity to work in order to pay back their debt, you give them loans to pay back the previous ones, under the condition that they will never work again. You don't save them that way. On the contrary, you make them hostages of a disastrous policy. We think that this must change, and it is already late for it. It should have changed from the beginning, when it became clear that these policies are not bearing any fruit.
[Pro-bailout politicians] saw the first [bailout] package fail and yet they led us to the second one. They should get used to the idea that we will not have a third one.
So since it was so clear that things weren't working, why was there a second memorandum of agreement between Greece and international lenders for billions more in bailout loans?
You should ask the policymakers in Brussels this question. I think it's a combination of an irrational insistence and a neoliberal mantra. Europe is at a crossroad, the same crossroads that it was at during the 1930's in the aftermath of the economic crisis of 1929. Back then, all the world was at a crossroads. At the other coast of the Atlantic ocean, USA followed the New Deal policy by Franklin Roosevelt. Europe, on the contrary, chose the policies of fiscal discipline which led eventually to the rise of national socialism and Nazism at the heart of Europe, at Germany.
The populist movement of national socialism gave a bunch of crazy people the chance to drive Europe to the calamity of World War II. I don't want to be a Cassandra but either we will become wiser from our past experience - we will realize that Roosevelt was right and follow that path - or Ms. Merkel will insist on her policies, which lead to a dead end. She will bear heavy responsibility for bringing down the euro zone and European Union. She may even bear responsibility for widespread instability in the region. Because nowadays the euro is the second biggest reserve currency in the world.
Let's go back to the memorandum. You've talked about renegotiation. What do you specifically do you want to renegotiate?
We will not renegotiate the bailout agreement. This agreement is dead, since May 6 [elections], and it will definitely be forgotten on June 16 [new election]. We will negotiate, on a political level, the relation of our country with the other 16 countries of the euro zone, as well as the possibility of this necessary financing to be continued on different agreed terms. Terms which will lead to results.
We want our European partners to accept what is fair for Greece and adopt a plan for fair fiscal reforms, and economic and social growth. It may take time, but we need to avoid more pauperization of this country. Today a big part of the Greek population has lost its dignity.
And the Europeans say, sorry, Mr. Tsipras, we don't like your plan?
Indeed, we would be in a really difficult position if this was Europe's reaction. However, we have an alternative plan, focused on supporting the most vulnerable and sensitive social groups, that we will implement in that difficult situation. Our European partners should know that if they adopt that position with ease, then the problem will not be just in Greece, it will no doubt expand to the rest of Europe, because the markets have neither moral barriers nor discretion.
If you give one hand to the markets, they will devour the other one as well. They are like flocks of wild animals, driven by their instincts and the smell of blood. Hence, either there will be decisive policies which will calm them down or - if there will be clumsy policies of conciliation - the markets will devour politics in Europe and in the rest of the world.
Let me be more specific: If they stop financing Greece, it will give the green light for the markets to expand their aggressive speculation to Spain and Italy and these countries will be thrown out of the markets as well, at the beginning into the same bailout mechanism and later on out of that too. No one should think in this immature, silly way. Therefore, I believe that the European leaders will have the nerve to acknowledge that it is better to admit their mistake than to risk the well-being of millions of people around Europe.
So you think that they will do it?
I have a feeling that they will do it [i.e., admit their mistake]
You don't think that they will cut off the money?
I have the sense that Greece is in a Cold war-like state with its debtors, meaning that both sides can push a button and destroy everything, knowing that there will be no winners after that. We all lose.
So, I believe that reason and understanding will prevail. SYRIZA, and of course the Greek people, fight for our dignity, but we also fight for all the Europeans, because if we succeed to force European leaders to admit their mistake, then the rest of the European people will not get on this tortuous path that we walked the last two and a half years.
If we are not change the path, then they too will follow us. The austerity policy will be implemented in Spain and Italy, as it is already implemented in Portugal and Ireland. It will be expanded rapidly to the heart of Europe, like in France. Therefore, you must understand that we fight this battle and we want the European people by our side, because it's not a battle between nations and people.
When we confront Ms. Merkel, we don't think that we confront the German citizens. We confront a wrongheaded policy, which has been implemented on Europe by Germany. We want to change this course, all together - all European people together - to succeed in returning to the principal values, democracy, social cohesion and solidarity. Greece is the country which thousand years before gifted the notion of democracy to the world. Today, this country becomes the trigger for reflection and reconsideration: Can a unified Europe go on without democracy and social cohesion? So, maybe nowadays we offer a lesson about the value of democracy for a second time.
Do you consider yourself Greek or European first?
[Sighs] It's a difficult question. Well, I consider myself Greek first, given that Greece is an integral part of Europe and there's no Europe without Greece. Do you know the myth about the abduction of Europe? According to that myth Europe was abducted by Zeus, who transformed himself into a bull. Well, nowadays the markets - transformed into the Troika of IMF, European Union and European Central Bank - threatens to abduct Europe, by abducting the stability, the sovereignty, the dignity of the Greek people. Europe is again in danger and it's not an Olympian god who puts it in danger, but the gods of money. There's the threat of Europe's disappearance and abduction and we want to prevent it.
Did it hurt you to hear what the foreigners were saying about the Greek people?
I think that all those insults we've had have hurt not only me but the vast majority of the Greeks because it is unfair to blame the Greeks when they know that [according to the international statistics] they work more than the European average, much more than the Germans, more than the rest of the European people.
However, they are called lazy, they are called drones and I think this is neither the fault of Ms [Christine] Lagarde nor Ms Merkel. This is the fault of the Greek leaders. Those who were used to attending meetings with the Europeans where they themselves defamed the Greek people. The first to talk about corrupt Greeks was Mr. [George] Papandreou, it wasn't Ms Lagarde. And as Mr. [Evangelos] Venizelos has said, they were used to attending meetings and telling the others what they were ready to hear - not what the Greek people wanted to say, not defending what's just.
And then they (the leaders) would come back to Greece and convey blackmails and threats. The threat for a Greek exit from the euro was not first stated by Ms Merkel but by Mr Papandreou, Mr Venizelos, Mr [Lucas] Papademos, Mr [Antonis] Samaras. Can you recall in the times before the memorandum when a Greek exit was an issue? Who created it? The memorandum itself, this policy and the Greek leaders that, trying to make excuses for not negotiating, for not defending the Greek people's interest, would come back "more royal than the king", as the Greek saying goes.
So you feel that the leaders were passing the responsibility of the problems onto the people?
They used it as an excuse for their own shortcomings. The thing is, neither Papandreou, nor Venizelos and Samaras could negotiate with Ms Merkel and talk back to her because she knew very well that it was the German company Siemens who was financing them for the last 20 years in Greece. She knew very well who was receiving the 3% commission from those contracts. Therefore, to avoid their own responsibilities, they (Greek leaders) instead cut wages and pensions saying that it's the Greek people that are corrupt - not themselves.
Do you think tax evasion is a problem?
Obviously it is problem. I can't make amends with the notion that this is a problem that can be solved in Germany, in Sweden but not in Greece. It's not like we have a special gene that makes us tax-evade, it's clearly due to the lack of political will on behalf of past governments. And maybe we have a big chance now, with a left-wing government and a political entity like SYRIZA that's not corrupt and will try to push it to the limit.
Do you think that tax evasion derives from people not trusting the country that it will spend the money wisely?
The crisis of trust is a very important issue. That's why I said that to restore this trust, the citizens have to see that you're not only after them but also after the big fish. So yes, I agree that a lot has to change so that a small-to-medium income citizen will be honest when filing his tax report. To do that he has to be reassured that he gets the same treatment with those who are more privileged and also that the public money is spent with complete transparency and control.
This big party that took place with the Olympics, the defense contracts, the stock market, the banks that have received more than 180 billion in cash and collateral, with no one to control where this public money ends up. And at the same time they want the state to recapitalize them through common stock without management rights so that those who governed the banks and drove them to bankruptcy would keep their positions, even if they are bailed out with public money.
In the USA, whenever the state was called to recapitalize private banks to consolidate them, it received stock according to the money it spent. There was no banker there that said "my bank has gone bankrupt but I want to remain in my seat even if it's being bailed out with public money". This is what they tell us in Greece, and then they accuse SYRIZA of being irrational.
Their argument is that it's not their fault, but that it's because of the state and the state bonds. In times when they were gaining huge profits, it was them and not the state that was being benefited. They have a peculiar perception, what we call Socialism of the rich - privatizing profits and socializing losses. This is irrational, it can't be allowed to happen.
Do you think average Greek bears responsibility for the problems Greece is facing now?
Of course not. The shortcomings of the past governments' policies are not the Greek people's fault. I acknowledge that they might be responsible for voting for these governments. I also acknowledge that we are responsible for being passive against this regime of corruption and lack of transparency - when we were living in times of growth we didn't ask ourselves where all this money goes. Does it go towards development of infrastructure like schools and hospitals, or does it end up in the pockets of a few people? In this vein, the folk have a small share of the responsibility. But in no case did they feast on the goods together with those that took their money to Switzerland, those who gained incredible wealth - of them only one has been brought to justice and sent to jail. But I am completely sure that there's not only one, they're many. I think it is truly unfair to blame a nation as a whole, moreover when this nation was not entitled to a cut from times of growth and is called now to pay the bill of this crisis.
How do you sell your reform package to the public?
We address the Greek people with honesty. We've never said the path we propose will be strewn with rose petals. It's going to be a difficult one, mainly because at this point, Greece is no longer on the brink - it's fallen off the cliff.
Therefore we must climb back on sharp slopes and our feet will bleed. However, we will start climbing back to the top through a path of social justice and sovereignty, because we don't want to cede the sovereignty of our people which is granted through sacrifices and a lot of blood.
Moreover, it will be a path of dignity, as I said before and I want to insist on it, but it will also be a path with difficulties that we can't predict yet. Let me explain, Greece's fate is linked to Europe's and vice versa. I watched today, before our meeting, that Spain's lending interest rates increased to 7%. If we make it and then Spain falls, the rest of the Eurozone will fall with it.
So, Greek people, as well as the rest of the European public, should know the truth and the truth is that the Greek or the Spanish or the Italian debt are just the symptoms of the crisis, while the reason for it is the structure on which the European monetary union was built; the lack of a Central Bank which can act as a Central Bank, as Fed does in the USA and which - as a last resort - will be able to lend money to a country which faces problems in the markets.
For all these chances, we don't need time, we need political will. European leaders must realize that the fate of millions of people across the continent is on their hands and not insist on this mistake, on these neoliberal policies which led us to the calamity. All these are not easy to achieve, but we must say the truth to the public; they must know that there are difficulties and make their own choices. In our point of view, there are two paths. The one leads to a slow and torturous death and the other one is the path of the recovery and dignity, which is difficult but will lead us out of the crisis.
What is the worst case scenario? Are you ready for it?
Of course, there must be one. This is the reason why I consider the ones who governed the country before to be criminals. The other day we visited the Ministry of Finance and we asked them: "What is the plan B?" and their answer was: "There is no plan B". We are not government, but we have a plan B.
Those who governed left the country penniless, don't have any. They can't tell us what is going to happen if there's a panic attack, a bank run.
Indeed, we have a plan. There's a team of economists who lay out the plans, update and communicate them. I am not superstitious, however, I would not like us to talk about it.
I don't find it useful to speak in detail about this plan, given that a public display of it would suggest that we're leaning towards it. On the contrary, we want to avoid it. We are fully aware of the consequences. We are fully aware of the consequences that it will have on the country and Europe in general.
However, our European partners, our debtors, those with whom we will negotiate, that they will not be an easy and scared opponent on the other side of the table. We are have decided to take what we deserve, because we owe it to the Greek people and the future generations.
How do you reconcile the fact that Syriza has a strong following among civil servants and the unemployed? One group has benefited from the political system in the last four decades, the other has suffered the consequences of the inefficiency and inequity it bred. How can you keep both groups happy?
Look... We don't want apologize ourselves for a public sector that we didn't create. The two parties [PASOK and New Democracy] that shared power in Greece created this image. Because in order to keep their voters as hostages, and especially the young people, they were promising them jobs, they hired them with temporary contracts, in some cases they even gave them a permanent job, without addressing the real needs of the public sector, in order to make it more efficient, more functioning, following instead their own clientelistic needs.
On the other hand however, we have to see the reality of today. What is that reality? Greece has an inefficient public sector, structured in an irrational way. It is not a bloated public sector. As far as size is concerned, it corresponds pretty much to the EU average. What is needs to be done?
We need to see the gaps, the shortages and the surpluses. If for instance you visit a public hospital, you will conclude that the shortages are tragic when it comes to human resources. You will see that for a wing of 40 patients, there is only one nurse that can not cope with their needs.
Therefore, in the public hospitals, more public servants are needed. If for instance you go to a service, let's say, for tax evasion, in a tax collecting service, you might find out that there is a surplus or that those who are there are not efficient.
This is just an example. If you go to the offices of members of parliament or of the ministers, you will see that there are dozens or hundreds of "dispatched" and some of them might even be sinecure jobs [where they're paid without doing anything].
We need to deal with this dysfunction and this irrationality but not with horizontal cuts and lay-offs. Because if you do it this way and not in a targeted way, you will destroy completely the state, you will destroy the welfare state, you will have no hospitals, no schools.
Therefore, the public sector, and how you will bring health to it, how you will make it more effective, and more socially efficient, is a very sensitive issue, that we have to approach with attention. In no way do I want to defend what the forces of yesterday created, the forces of the two parties in power that looted in the last twenty years the state and social wealth of our country.
What do you think about the political cartoons which depict Merkel as a Nazi?
I don't agree. It's unfair and this course must absolutely be reversed. But the reversal of these attitudes must be driven by mutual initiatives. German leaders must understand that they should not insist on the same hard fiscal proposals, and more importantly, they should not insult the dignity of the Greek people. Greece is a sovereign country, not a German colony.
It's unacceptable for Mr Schaueble to indicate us when we will make elections or for Mrs Merkel to tell us when and on what question we will hold a referendum in Greece.
Do you think Greece should look at East, Russia or China....
I'm not naive to believe that there are easy solutions or a deus ex machina. Greece should have a special role, an active and multidimensional foreign policy.
It is and should remain an integral part of European Union, but it is also an important country. It is not a big one, but it is important in East Mediterranean region. It is the pillar of three continents and three different cultures. Moreover, it is the region where the new energy routes will pass. Greece's geostrategic role is important and it shouldn't lose it.
In my point of view, it should develop further its relationship with Russia and China and restore those with other regional powers, as long as there is no dispute of the international law and the sovereign rights of the the country.
We should restore our relations with Turkey, which is an important regional power. Greece should be considered as a country with an important geostrategic role in the region, not as a country given over to the West and a Europe which is led by countries with credit rating AAA. It should be an equal member in European Union and at the same time ready to meet the challenges, which are plenty in our region.
Do you think the Euro zone will survive?
I hope. I hope because Europe should have a special role on global scale, as a stability and security power between USA and the rising superpowers which compete each other.
Also it has an important role on the geopolitical board. I believe that it would be a tragedy if the euro, the second biggest reserve currency in the world, collapsed. Europe can be an important, strong international power only by respecting its traditional values: democracy, social cohesion and solidarity.