So, the gloves are off. Anyone who thought negotiations between the new radical-left Greek government and its creditors were going to be conciliatory, or even rational, must think again.
It is little more than a week since Syriza's seismic election victory and the installation of Alexis Tspiras as prime minister. Yet discussions over Athens' €350bn debt mountain - owed mainly to other eurozone governments, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and European Central Bank (ECB) - have already turned
Greece and its official creditors are now issuing full-blooded threats and counter-threats, regardless of the impact on financial markets. The Athens stock exchange endured single-day, double-digit percentage falls last week.
Banking fears extend way beyond capital flight - as savers worry about Greece crashing out of the eurozone. There is concern the Syriza-led coalition could take direct control of Greek lenders and write off billions of euro in household loans, destroying bank balance sheets in a frenzy of populist contractual vandalism.
Such recklessness would, of course, make a nonsense of Greek bailout terms agreed in both 2010 and 2012, deals which amounted to a €325bn rescue to keep Greece afloat and the eurozone intact. Yet rewriting those deals, and softening related reform conditions, is the stated aim of both Syriza and the small, right-wing Independent Greeks party with which it is now in government.
Since last weekend, Syriza has blocked the sale of the government's controlling stake in the Public Power Corporation, which generates two-thirds of Greek electricity, vowing to re-employ sacked workers and reverse pension cuts. The privatisation of Greece's main port, another key plank of the sell-off programme which forms part of the bailout conditions, has also been halted.
Since Syriza won, Greek two-year bond yields have spiked towards an eye-watering 20pc. If sustained, such borrowing costs will drive the country into penury. The challenge now is to hammer out a debt-relief package that justifies Syriza's chest-thumping, and satisfies an angry electorate, while not snapping the patience of voters across eurozone creditor nations - not least Germany, which directly holds almost €60bn of Greek debt and implicitly stands behind much more.
The current bail-out package expires at the end of February. After that Greek banks won't be able to borrow from the ECB - which would result in a bank run, a shut-out of depositors and, almost certainly, widespread civic unrest. A new deal simply must be done by month-end. So time is tight- and the rhetorical mud-slinging will get a lot worse before it gets better.
Within a week of taking office, Syriza played the geopolitical card. A formally worded complaint, issued by a spokesman for Mr Tsipras, said the new Greek administration had not approved a European Union heads of government statement on possible further sanctions against Russia.
This amounts to a diplomatic hand grenade, lobbed directly at Brussels. EU sanctions against Russia will expire in March unless renewed by the unanimous decision of member states, giving Greece an effective veto. Amid a breakdown of the ceasefire in east Ukraine, and intensifying Western claims of Russian aggression, the US is exerting enormous pressure on "our European colleagues" to renew, and even tighten, sanctions against Russia. Has Syriza found the leverage it needs to secure serious debt-restructuring?
The question of Russian sanctions renewal will loom extremely large over the upcoming row over keeping Greece in the eurozone. Syriza has carefully laid the groundwork, voicing early support for Russia's annexation of Crimea last March, then accusing the EU of "shooting itself in the foot" with sanctions.
Last May, Syriza's high command met in Moscow with pro-Putin politicians subject to EU travel bans. In September, Syriza's MEPs voted against the European Parliament's ratification of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement.
If these Greek debt negotiations go wrong, and positions become so entrenched and tempers unchecked that the madness of an outright default prevails, or even looks very likely, financial markets across the eurozone and the entire world could endure a Lehman-style systemic lurch. That would seriously damage the still-fragile global economic recovery.
Syriza's intervention on Russia will no doubt be characterised by most other EU governments, and definitely the US, as immoral, irresponsible and outrageous. The reality is, though, that across the EU, support for sanctions against Russia is crumbling.
Federica Mogherini, the EU's Italian foreign policy chief, suggested in a leaked memo that EU governments should start talking to Russia again about global diplomacy and trade.
Amid a hail of criticism from more hawkish members, such as the UK, Poland and the Baltic States, as well as the US, she was forced to back-track.
And last week, an influential group of government-funded German economists argued for a free trade zone between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union - which was formed at the start of this year and currently includes Russia, Belarus and a clutch of Central Asian states.
In March, EU foreign ministers meet to decide if sanctions against Russia will continue. Syriza may have been squared off by then, or maybe not. In the meantime, these debt negotiations will disappear into a fog of obscurantism - as the softened terms, while shouted from Greek rooftops, are buried under technical talk from Brussels.
We must hope rationality, if not civility, prevails. But no one can be sure.
(© Telegraph, London)
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