'Red Betty': a woman making Europe tremble
The most powerful player in the debt crisis is now Greece's enigmatic first lady
Published 21/06/2015 | 02:30
While Greece has been teetering on the brink of defaulting on its debts and exiting the euro, its first lady has been busy learning the hard way a lesson that other wives, husbands and partners of headline-making politicians could have taught her long ago. No matter how fiercely you insist on staying out of the limelight, you inevitably end up being the news.
Slowly, Betty Batziana, the partner of Alexis Tsipras for almost 30 years, has been forced to emerge from her self-imposed purdah by a combination of events: namely, Tsipras's landmark election victory in January, which saw him rise to the Greek premiership, and now his pivotal role in the future of the European single currency.
Batziana, a 41-year-old electrical and computer engineer, had done well to hold the line, avoiding all major state functions and preferring the family home - a modest apartment in a scruffy modern block in Kypseli, a down-at-heel Athens suburb - to the prime minister's official residence, the Maximos Mansion.
But, this week, her cover was blown. Not only has she found herself on front pages all over the world, she has become the woman in whose hands the future of Europe lies.
How so? Because France's president, Francois Hollande, told a newspaper about how his henpecked Greek counterpart has confided in him that he cannot cave in to EU demands for greater austerity measures because, if he does, Betty will leave him.
"[Tsipras] informed me," Hollande is quoted as saying in the French weekly Le Canard enchaine, "that if he gave in to too many of the Troika's demands [the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the IMF], he risked not only losing his party but also his partner, who is a militant and is much farther Left of him".
This image of 'Red Betty' coincides with what many Greeks have long thought about Peristera Batziana, to give the first lady her full name. When she and Tsipras - both born in 1974 - first fell in love at their Athens high school in the 1980s, Alexis was passionate only about playing volleyball and supporting the local football team, Panathinaikos. Some fellow pupils have even recalled him as a "young Elvis" lookalike.
Betty took her politics much more seriously. She had been born near Kardista, in an agricultural region of mainline Greece known for its left-wing leanings. Once in Athens, as a teenager, she joined the KNE, the youth wing of the pro-Moscow KKE communist party. And it was she who converted her boyfriend to the cause.
When a knee injury stopped Tsipras playing sport, Betty started taking him along to meetings. Soon they were leading a student sit-in together against educational reforms.
Those previous Moscow connections prompted a few comments earlier this year when Batziana, who has made a point of eschewing all prime ministerial events, broke her own embargo and accompanied Tsipras on his state visit to Moscow. Was she returning to her spiritual home, some asked?
While Tsipras graduated from the National Technical University in Athens straight into front-line politics, Batziana concentrated on academia, at the University of Patras, Greece's third largest, where she graduated in electrical and computer engineering.
Her PhD studies there were interrupted in 2002 by a bruising clash with her supervising professor, Dimitrios Lyberopoulos. The two had been working together since 1999 on a research programme funded by the Greek telecommunications giant OTE, when Batziana decided to transfer to another university. Her professor then accused her of stealing a hard disc. She denied it and counterclaimed mismanagement.
It eventually ended up in court and dragged on for five years, before Batziana emerged victorious. "She may appear quiet," said one Greek commentator this week, "but she can be dogged when her rights are in jeopardy."
Tsipras and Batziana have never married - quite a statement in a largely conservative society, where the Orthodox Church remains powerful, but one that chimes well with younger voters. Both are atheists and Tsipras was the first Greek prime minister to take a non-religious oath of office when elected. Their sons Phoebus (5) and Orpheus (3), middle name Ernesto, after the birth name of his parents' hero, Che Guevara), are being raised without religion.
Those who know the couple well like to describe them as "Mr and Mrs Average", preferring dinners at home with close friends to fancy restaurants and hangers-on. They slip away at weekends to the island of Aegina, an hour's drive from Athens, where their taste for modest accommodation is in marked contrast with the lavish holiday home of the finance minister, Yanis Varaufakis, and his heiress wife, Danae Stratou.
Adding to Tsipras and Batziana's image as a modern couple, in tune with the new realities in Greece, is their commitment to sharing parental duties.
Betty continues to do some work in the computer industry, while even the looming European financial crisis has not been enough, it is said, to prevent the prime minister from getting home in time to read their sons a bedtime story.
The apparent stability of the partnership has an obvious appeal to a country where everything else appears to be falling apart. Comparing Tsipras with Andreas Papandreou, another left-leaning, charismatic leader who wooed the Greek electorate in 1981 to become the country's first socialist prime minister, Emmanouela Seiradaki of the Greek Reporter has written: "While Papandreou had been a restless womaniser with a string of marriages and divorces, who had an illegitimate child and countless mistresses, Alexis Tspiras has stayed faithful to his high-school sweetheart."
There is, of course, an inevitable degree of political calculation in such an image. In leading Syriza, his disparate left-wing coalition, to victory this year, Tsipras made much of his man-on-the-street background, in contrast to previous leaders of the established parties who were accused of being hand-in-glove with the wealthy elite that had caused so many of Greece's problems.
Yet critics point out that both partners come from comfortable middle-class backgrounds - Tsipras's father ran his own construction business - and that since leaving university, the prime minister has never needed to find a job outside of politics.
However, Batziana's style is certainly frugal. "A natural beauty," according to those who have seen her close up, she appears, in what few photographs have been snatched of her, in modest clothes, without make-up or a designer haircut. So much so, indeed, that Vogue recently advised her to ditch what the magazine described damningly as her penchant for "rich colours and bold prints", in favour of the more "refined palette and sharp tailoring" sported by Angela Merkel.
But even when you ignore the dictates of fashion, you can still get it wrong. The Greek magazine Espresso reported last July that Batziana had outraged conservationists when she attended an arts event at the ancient theatre in Epidaurus in high-heeled sandals. Such footwear is banned because of the damage it does to the centuries-old marble floors. It was a rare slip.
Yet despite all her efforts to remain firmly in the background, she has long generated fevered speculation about her alleged influence on her partner, not least because of her early role in leading Tsipras into politics. "The woman behind the Greek who makes Europe tremble," read one recent headline.
The allegation of being a radical back-seat driver is often levelled against the spouses of powerful men and women. Cherie Blair was forever framed as being much further Left of her middle-class, privately educated husband on account of her Catholicism and her roots in working-class Liverpool.
More recently, Diana Carney, wife of the governor of the Bank of England, is a noted environmental activist in Canada and has, in the past, labelled global financial institutions as "rotten".
Since arriving in London, Mrs Carney has managed to avoid all efforts to coax her into the limelight. And that, it seems, is the course that Betty Batziana is still determined to follow. She is keeping her mystery.
Under intense scrutiny, there has been just one widely reported slip of the mask. She was on holiday in Naxos with her small children when she spotted a photographer trying to sneak a snap of her. "You're doing a dirty job," she is reported to have said in rebuke. "A refuse collector does a dirty job," he corrected her. "No," she snapped back, "their job is an honest one."
Learning not to bite back when provoked is a skill Batziana is evidently still learning. How much longer she can remain an enigma - especially when her partner lets slip that she holds the financial future of Greece and much of Europe in her hands - is hard to predict.