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April 22, 2015

In Blog News

Faces behind Greece’s radical government

Alexis Tsipras and, below, three of the hardliners in his government. From left: Nikos Voutsis, Aristides Baltas and Panayotis Lafazanis

©AFP/Getty Images; EPA; Wikimedia CommonsThe government of Alexis Tsipras, Greek prime minister, includes powerful figures from the hard left of the Syriza party

To people outside Greece, the most familiar faces from the country’s leftwing Syriza-led government are Alexis Tsipras, the tough-talking prime minister, and Yanis Varoufakis, his finance minister.

But behind this pair are several ideologically driven politicians who are dedicated to using their spell in power to push Greece in a leftward direction.

As fears resurface about the risk of a Greek debt default and possible exit from the euro, three of the most prominent personalities involved in Syriza’s radical experiment are profiled below.

Panayotis Lafazanis

His wire-rimmed glasses and closely trimmed beard give Panayotis Lafazanis a deceptively mild appearance. However, the powerful minister for productive recovery, energy and the environment is a strident enemy of capitalism.

Mr Lafazanis was a member of Greece’s Stalinist communist party for 30 years before he switched to the group from which Syriza was formed.

Within hours of taking office, Mr Lafazanis had cancelled several privatisation sales agreed with bailout creditors, including a cluster of power stations, water utilities and the national electricity grid.

He has also taken aim at foreign investors, putting on hold a €1bn investment by Eldorado Gold, a Canadian mining company.

“He is a hardliner but everyone in the party respects his sincerity,” says one Syriza official.

Visiting Moscow last month, Mr Lafazanis accepted enthusiastically Gazprom’s proposal that Greece should join “Turkish Stream” — a pipeline project to ship Russian natural gas to Europe.

He also let slip that Athens hoped to receive as much as €5bn in advance transit fees to ease a desperate cash crunch.

A mathematician by training, he heads Syriza’s Left Platform, the official internal opposition that includes a dozen far-left factions that are fiercely opposed to a fresh deal with the EU and International Monetary Fund, even at the cost of Greece exiting the euro.

“My way is no memorandum [Syriza’s term for the bailout agreement], no euro,” he told parliament last year.

Prime Minister Mr Tsipras is acutely aware that if it comes to a vote, Mr Lafazanis and his pro-drachma lawmakers are ready to split the party and bring down the government.

Nikos Voutsis

Two years ago Nikos Voutsis, a militant Syriza lawmaker, was caught on camera among a crowd of protesters outside the shuttered state television building, pushing back against riot police armed with shields and truncheons.

Syriza’s “hard man” is now minister for the interior and administrative reconstruction, holding sway over the security services and several hundred thousand civil servants.

A bulky figure in his trademark grey suit and open-necked black shirt, the 63-year old has been an activist since his student days.

“We are not in favour of violence, but we like having people in the street protesting,” he told the Financial Times this year, explaining Syriza’s disruptive approach to politics.

In his role as interior minister he has wasted no time reversing a host of reforms enacted by his centre-right predecessors at the behest of Greece’s international creditors.

This has included scrapping civil service reforms, including hiring restrictions and measures to evaluate performance, and pushing plans to reinstate the municipal police force disbanded previously as ineffectual and corrupt.

But what has most alarmed Greeks are his plans for softer policing and more humane treatment of lawbreakers, including a draft bill to close high-security prisons for convicted terrorists and other high-risk offenders and to allow selected prisoners long-term parole.

There is particular concern that the new law would entitle Savvas Xiros, a member of the notorious November 17 terrorist group which killed more than 20 Greek businessmen and police officers and US diplomats, to serve out five life terms for murder at his family home.

Mr Xiros’s supporters occupied the main Athens university building for two weeks — undisturbed by police — to press for his release. But to George Momferratos, son of a newspaper publisher killed by November 17, the legislation is “shameful and misguided.”

Aristides Baltas

A respected mathematician and Paris-trained philosopher, Aristides Baltas has filled Greek professors with despair over his plans to scrap hard-fought reforms of the state-controlled system of higher education.

The 72-year-old minister of culture and education and emeritus professor at the prestigious Athens Polytechnic — where Mr Tsipras emerged as a leftwing student leader — shocked teachers by declaring immediately after his appointment that education in Greece “should not be governed by the principle of excellence . . . it is a warped ambition.”

Aristides Baltas, minister of culture and education©Wikimedia Commons

Now his ministry is drafting a new law that will again allow undergraduates to take as many years as they want to complete their first degree, with university entrance exams also being abolished.

According to one former colleague, the plans of the Syriza co-founder will “restore an unhealthy system of deeply politicised universities run by students not professors”.

Under the draft law, police will again be banned from university premises, a measure blamed in the past for widespread lawlessness on campus. Students will also play a decisive role in elections of chancellors and other university administrators, with the weighting of their votes counting for as much as 70 per cent.

University advisory councils, which include high-profile foreign academics and Greek professors working abroad, would also be abolished just three years after they were set up.

“It took us years to get the modernisation of universities started,” said Thanos Veremis, a history professor at Athens university. “Now we are going backwards to the 1970s.”