Germany, Greece put tension in rearview mirror during Angela Merkel's visit
Merkel and Tsipras discussed Greece's return to economic stability as well as immigration and Macedonia. Protests, banned in hopes of avoiding scenes similar to her last visit, were quelled by police using tear gas.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel traveled to Athens on Thursday to meet with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, her first such trip in four years. Her 2014 visit was marred by massive protests, as many Greeks held her responsible for the hardships they endured as part of austerity measures imposed during the European debt crisis.
Speaking after their Thursday evening meeting, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said: "The stereotypes of the lazy Greek and the strict German are over. We are entering a new era. Cooperation between Berlin and Athens will be decisively important in the coming years."
Asked if she thought Greece would return to the global financial market, Merkel replied, "Yes, of course, my visit and my work aim at helping Greece get back on its feet so that it can finance itself on the open market."
Germany was the biggest single lender in the Greek bailout at the time, and her government's demands of fiscal belt-tightening drew the ire of many Greek citizens, who took to the streets in droves to protest her policies.
In an effort to avoid a repeat of such scenes the Greek government has banned all protests and has deployed more than 2,000 police officers around the capital during the chancellor's visit.
On Thursday evening, however, police fired tear gas into a group of roughly 700 leftist protesters demonstrating against Merkel, in an effort to keep them from reaching government headquarters.
Merkel's two-day visit has been the focus of much media attention, with she and Tsipras giving pre-visit interviews and the landing of her airplane being broadcast live on Greek television.
A personal success
Merkel, who sees Greece's rescue as a success for herself, praised the country's progress when she spoke with Tsipras in an informal televised chat before their official meetings began: "Difficult years have passed, but we have succeeded in strengthening the European spirit. The Greek people went through a very difficult phase and I would like to offer thanks for what Greece has achieved despite the financial difficulties and the tough [austerity] measures, and for what Greece is achieving even now."
Tsipras struck a much more conciliatory tone than the one he was famed for the last time Merkel was in Athens: "The last time you visited was at the height of the crisis. Now you are coming to a different Greece, which, after great difficulties, managed to overcome the [financial] crisis."
Tsipras did not lead the government during that last visit and was elected prime minister in 2015 on a hard anti-Merkel and anti-bailout platform. As prime minister, it has fallen upon Tsipras to push through a number of unpopular reforms.
The financial crisis and subsequent bailout have taken their toll on Greece, causing its economy to shrink by one quarter, its unemployment rate to swell and leading to tax hikes and cuts to salaries and pensions in return for foreign loans.
Although not entirely recovered, Greece's unemployment numbers have fallen substantially and the country has emerged from its third and final bailout. Nevertheless, it remains under scrutiny and has been forced to promise further reforms to ensure that it can remain economically viable.
The two leaders also discussed the pressing issue of immigration to Europe, in which Greece, along with Italy and Spain, is on the front line. Unlike Italy's staunch anti-immigrant government, Tsipras is largely in agreement with Merkel on immigration policy.
After the meeting, Merkel said that the EU must push forward with its current refugee agreement with Turkey. She noted the need to improve refugee camps in the eastern Aegean, as well as lamenting the fact that returns of refugees from Greece to Turkey were not going as quickly as originally hoped. The chancellor said, "We will work constructively with Greece to improve the situation."
What's in a name?
Another issue of great importance to Tsipras, and even threatens to topple his government, is a dispute with neighboring Macedonia over its name. A current compromise agreement would see the former Yugoslav republic taking the name North Macedonia in exchange for Greece dropping opposition to Skopje joining NATO and the EU.
The issue has proven highly contentious among Greeks, and Tsipras' junior coalition partner, the Independent Greeks party, has threatened to leave if the prime minister signs off on the compromise. Critics say that Skopje's use of the name Macedonia infringes upon Greece's ancient heritage, as Greece already uses the name to identify its northern territories of the same name.
Although Merkel implored Greek politicians to accept the compromise, which she said would benefit all sides, she added, "I am not going to inject myself into the country's domestic politics."
The topic will also likely be discussed on Friday afternoon, when Merkel meets with conservative opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who has opposed the move in an effort to win support from right-wing voters.
Greek crisis takes form
On the heels of a global financial crisis, Greece's then-prime minister, George Papandreou, revealed in 2009 that the budget deficit was over 12 percent, double what it was previously thought. It was later revised to 15 percent, far exceeding the eurozone's 3-percent limit. The revelation prompted credit rating agencies to downgrade Greece's status, making it hard for Athens to get financial help.
Austerity sparks unrest
In a bid to help Athens out, the EU and IMF agreed to bailout Greece in 2010. The program required austerity measures to cut the budget deficit, a move that didn't sit well with many Greeks. In response, anti-austerity protesters organized nationwide strikes and demonstrations to protest the measures and, at times, clashed with police. Mass protests took off in 2011 and continued for years.
Rise of the fringe
Resentful of growing unemployment and poverty, a majority of Greeks in 2012 voted for fringe parties that opposed the bailout and the austerity measures that came with it. The first election resulted in no clear winner and set the stage for another vote. After the second election, the center-right New Democracy was tasked with forming a new government. The party was committed to the bailout.
In 2015, Greeks handed the left-wing Syriza party an anti-austerity mandate in snap elections, putting Athens on a crash course with Brussels. In June, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras controversially announced a referendum on EU bailout terms. On June 30, Greece became the first developed economy in the world to default on an IMF bailout. Athens imposed capital controls to stop capital flight.
The bailout referendum resulted in a rejection of EU terms, with 61 percent voting against a new rescue program. But that didn't stop Tsipris' government from agreeing to new terms with Brussels after Greece's then-Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis stepped down. It allowed Greece to avert an exit from the eurozone and paved the way for a new bailout program amounting to €86 million ($98 million).
Road to recovery
As part of the 2015 bailout program, Greece adopted economic reforms, including cutting public spending and privatizing state assets. Two years later, the IMF urged Brussels to ease its bailout program terms and provide extensive debt relief, describing Greece's debt as unsustainable. In order to help Greece meets its bailout terms, Tsipras agreed to extend tax and pension reforms.
End of an era?
In August 2018, Greece officially exited its bailout program, with EU officials calling it the "beginning of a new chapter." EU Commissioner Pierre Moscovici said Greeks "may not feel that their situation has yet improved much," but the EU would continue "to work with you and for you." However, with high unemployment and rampant poverty, some observers have cast doubt on the bailout's success.
Since we are talking about debt …
Merkel is also scheduled to meet President Prokopis Pavlopoulos on Friday. He is expected to broach the issue of reparations stemming from World War II. Greece has repeatedly called for Germany to pay for damages suffered as a result of the war, which Greece has estimated to total at least €279 billion ($321 billion).
Germany, however, says that chapter of history ended with the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany resulting in German reunification in 1990. Speaking after Thursday evening's meeting, Tsipras said the issue was open as far as Athens was concerned.
Hitler's army invades Greece
A turning point in the history of Greece: The German Wehrmacht invaded the country in April 1941. German field marshal Walther von Brauchitsch (center left), commander in chief of the army, is seen here visiting the Acropolis. Liberation of the mainland came in October 1944. Not all Greeks were opposed to the Nazis. But first, a look further back...
A Bavarian prince as the first 'Greek' king
In 1453, Constantinople (now Istanbul), the capital of the Byzantine Empire, fell to the Ottomans. Greece thereby came under a centurieslong Ottoman rule. The liberation struggle of the Greeks began in 1821 in the Peloponnese, and the Greek state was established in 1830. Otto von Wittelsbach, second son of the Bavarian King Ludwig I, became its king (1832-1862).
A bitter defeat
Greece joined the Allies during the First World War. In 1919, with the approval of the victorious powers, they tried to use the Turkish defeat to bring Eastern Thrace and the area of Izmir and its Greek inhabitants under Greek control. In 1922, the Greco-Turkish War ended with the defeat of Greece.
Turkish-Greek population exchange
A large-scale exchange of minority populations was agreed upon in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. Some 1.5 million Greeks left Turkey for Greece, while around 500,000 Turks left Greece for Turkey. Social unrest also began in Greece after WWI. From 1924 to 1936 the country was politically very unstable.
From authoritarian regime to the Wehrmacht
On August 4, 1936 General Ioannis Metaxas suspended the Greek parliament and constitution to install an authoritarian regime that ruled until April 1941. On October 28, 1940, Metaxas rejected Italian dictator Mussolini's ultimatum to grant Italy access to Greek territory, leading to the Greco-Italian war. After Italy was defeated and pushed back, the German Wehrmacht invaded Greece in April 1941.
German regime of terror
From June 1943 to June 1944, the German occupiers reportedly killed more than 20,000 suspected partisans, imprisoned nearly 26,000 more, and shot nearly 5,000 hostages. Altogether 81 percent of Greece's Jews were murdered in the extermination camps Auschwitz and Treblinka. In October 1944 the Nazi-German Wehrmacht was forced to withdraw from Greece.
Civil war in Greece
The Greek Civil War started shortly after World War II, lasting from March 1946 to October 1949. It was the continuation of a conflict that had started in 1943 between the leftist Democratic Army of Greece and the right-wing Greek conservatives and monarchists. The consequences were catastrophic. There were nearly 57,000 dead among the civilian population alone.
After the civil war, it was mainly the Americans who helped the Greeks rebuild the country. Political instability continued into the following years. On April 21, 1967, right-wing army officers (above) seized power in a coup and set up a military dictatorship that lasted until 1974. Politicians, trade unionists and intellectuals were arrested by the thousands, imprisoned and tortured.
Return to democracy
After seven years of dictatorship, the junta resigned in July 1974. Former Prime Minister Konstantinos Karamanlis, who lived in exile during the dictatorship, was sworn in as a transitional premier. Free elections were held within the following year, a new constitution was enacted and junta officers were arrested. Greece has been an EU member since 1981 and a member of the Eurozone since 2001.