Alexis Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis shared a vision once, but the double act of the Greek debt drama’s most colourful characters now appears well and truly over.
When Tsipras swept to power as prime minister in January, hiring maverick economist Varoufakis as his finance minister, both vowed to stand up to Athens’ much-loathed creditors and bring an end to the austerity they blamed for strangling the Greek economy.
With a shared love of motorbikes and a hatred of neck-ties, they were the fearsome twosome who took Greek politics by storm.
But eight months later, with Greece facing snap elections in which Varoufakis refuses to run, the rift between the pair is growing uncomfortably public — even if analysts say it is unlikely to do Tsipras much damage as he seeks a fresh mandate at the head of radical-left party Syriza.
The polls on September 20 will be “quite sad and fruitless”, Varoufakis told Australian broadcaster ABC.
“The party that I served and the leader that I served has decided to change course completely and to espouse an economic policy that makes absolutely no sense.”
Tsipras quit on August 20, triggering new elections, after a major rebellion within Syriza over Greece’s huge third international bailout left him barely able to govern.
Varoufakis had resigned six weeks earlier, a day after Greece’s referendum on the proposed bailout, and as negotiations with the creditors — the EU, IMF and European Central Bank — grew increasingly bitter.
His confrontational tactics had infuriated the creditors for months, and in a blog post announcing his resignation he said he had been “made aware” that his departure would be helpful to Tsipras in continuing the talks.
“I shall wear the creditors’ loathing with pride,” Varoufakis wrote, adding that he would “fully support” the prime minister.
‘This deal won’t work’
But that was before Tsipras’ spectacular U-turn. Just days later, Tsipras agreed to a deal that would see Greece accept 86 billion euros ($96 billion) in exchange for sweeping reforms — more austerity of the kind that voters had just rejected in a referendum.
Since then Varoufakis, never one to mince his words, has repeatedly blasted the deal in his frequent interviews with the international media.
“Ask anyone who knows anything about Greece’s finances and they will tell you this deal is not going to work,” he told BBC radio.
Tsipras has hit back, saying of Varoufakis: “Being a good economist doesn’t make you a good politician.”
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And in a pointed tribute to Varoufakis’ replacement — who is as discreet and tight-lipped as his predecessor was confrontational — he added: “Euclid Tsakalotos has done a marvellous job… If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have achieved a deal.”
Varoufakis has said he now wants to focus on building an anti-austerity network across Europe, a project that analysts say should not directly threaten Tsipras at the polls.
Tsipras “still enjoys a degree of sympathy amongst Greeks. This election is up for grabs,” said Gabriel Colletis, a France-based economist who has advised Syriza.
At least 25 Syriza lawmakers who opposed the bailout have quit to form a new party, Popular Unity. But Colletis said of Varoufakis: “He won’t be joining forces with the rebels’ new party.”
For Michel Vakaloulis, a political scientist at the University of Paris, it was Varoufakis’ failure to embrace compromise that made the split with Tsipras inevitable.
Varoufakis himself later revealed that he had failed to convince Tsipras to back proposals he had wanted to take to the ECB, marginalising him within the government.
His flashy personal style also jarred with Syriza, “a very austere party”, Vakaloulis said.
A photo shoot with a glamorous French magazine was one moment that reflected his habit of “narcissistic one-upmanship”. With a quarter of Greeks unemployed, the shots of him “on his terrace eating fish, against the backdrop of the Acropolis” served to further alienate him from Syriza, Vakaloulis said.
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Both men had charm and chutzpah, but in other ways they were very different.
Varoufakis had zero experience as a politician until January, while Tsipras, who at 41 is 13 years his junior, was on the barricades as a student activist and has barely left politics since.
While Tsipras stayed in Greece, Varoufakis lived for years in Britain and Australia and delivers a stream of eloquent English every time a microphone is thrust under his nose.
But it was partly this difference in gifts that led Tsipras to hire him in the first place, Vakaloulis observed.
“Tsipras chose him precisely for his huge talents at communicating — to show that Greece is not an isolated case in Europe, but that it’s a story that could happen to any country.”