Greek referendum result misleads

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras speaks during a televised address to the nation in Athens late Sunday after voters overwhelmingly rejected terms offered by international creditors.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras speaks during a televised address to the nation in Athens late Sunday after voters overwhelmingly rejected terms offered by international creditors. GETTY

The thumping win for Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in Sunday’s referendum is being celebrated as a moment of clarity – by core supporters of Tsipras’s Syriza-led government in Athens and by hawks in Europe. But almost all the assumptions on which the two groups make the claim are false.

The first of these is that Greek voters have made it clear what they want. No, they haven’t. The government asked a question about two complex documents that amounted to: Would you like to feel less financial pain? Then the government sold an affirmative answer to that question as a route to reopen the banks, win a mandate that would force debt relief and keep the euro. What a shock: Voters said they’d like to feel less pain.

Nor have Greeks made it clear they aren’t prepared to do what it takes to remain in the euro. The vast majority of Greeks still say they want to keep the currency, and if they had been asked to choose between that and the bailout terms, the result might well have been different. That’s the clarifying referendum Greece should have had in 2011, or indeed a month ago. Now it’s too late, and many in the euro area will see this as an opportune moment to cut Greece loose.

Another assumption is that Greeks will be better off once they’re free of the euro, because they can finally devalue and export their way to growth. I doubt that very much, although I sincerely hope I’m wrong. This country got in trouble because its economy was inefficient and its governing elites either corrupt or incompetent. Those conditions remain the same.

The euro area is likewise assumed to be better off without Greece. I suspect this may well be true for the moment. In the long term, though, what happens next may be deeply damaging. To force a Greek exit, the euro area will need to cut off Greek banks. Then, unless Tsipras accepts bailout terms he has been resisting, his country would be so starved of cash it would have to print its own.

The result would be a bitterly resentful nation that believes it was first driven to penury and then deliberately forced into collapse by its supposed partners in Europe. The country would also be politically unstable, run for now by neo-Marxists, but probably soon by someone else. Bloomberg View columnist Mohamed El-Erian warns of the potential for a failed state, and that’s not hyperbole.

The final false assumption is that Russia can’t afford to bail Greece out and thus replace the EU as its primary ally. Russia has never had the slightest motivation to bail Greece out. So long as Greece was getting handouts to honor its debts and sharing a currency with Germany, its interests would always be hardwired to Berlin, Brussels and the U.S.-based International Monetary Fund, not Moscow. Russia has more than enough money to make a penurious Greece financially and politically dependent. It’s already signed a potential pipeline deal with Tsipras. The suggestion by Russia’s deputy finance minister that Greeks might accept rubles from Russian tourists might soon not seem laughable.

Greece is the anchor state of the Balkans, a region prone to conflict whose geopolitical future remains in post-communist-bloc transition. There’s a reason U.S. President Harry Truman requisitioned $400 million ($4.2 billion today) to keep Greece in the democratic camp, and developed the doctrine of the Cold War to justify it. That reason seems to have been forgotten.

The handling of the Greek debt crisis has been a disaster. Sunday’s referendum has only added to the litany of bad decisions. And now, unfortunately, you’d have to be an inveterate optimist to expect a good outcome.

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View.