Alexis Tsipras. Picture: REUTERS/ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS
Alexis Tsipras. Picture: REUTERS/ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS

ATHENS — It promised to turn the page on five years of austerity that brought Greece to its knees, but the first 100 days of the radical government of Alexis Tsipras has seen that hope disappear into the yawning gulf between it and the country’s creditors.

With the state coffers all but empty, the youthful Mr Tsipras came face to face with the harsh financial reality less than a month after his election victory on January 25 shook Europe.

And so just like his predecessors whom he had lambasted for caving into demands from Brussels in return for a €240bn bail-out, he was forced to sign up to a "list of reforms" to stave off bankruptcy.

That last-minute agreement on February 20 was only signed after Mr Tsipras made a tour of European capitals desperate to drum up support, and a long telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Mr Tsipras, 40, had hoped to convince Europe to restructure Greece’s enormous debt, which stands at 175% of its gross domestic product, but other European Union (EU) leaders stubbornly insisted that Greece must "respect its commitments".

Since then Brussels and Athens have been going back and forth on the still unspecified "list of reforms", with Greece refusing funds from the last tranche of its original bailout until a deal is agreed. Up to now, Mr Tsipras’s only real victory has been symbolic, semantic even.

No one talks anymore of the "troika" — the hated delegations of experts from the EU, European Central Bank (ECB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) who many Greeks accused of behaving like colonial overlords when they swept into Athens to check the books.

It has been replaced by the Brussels Group, composed of representatives of the same institutions with the addition of delegates from Greece. Rather than storming into ministries in Athens, the group meets at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels — another small victory for Greek pride.

Despite the financial straits his country is in, Mr Tsipras has managed to deliver on some of his electoral promises, pushing measures through parliament to help those Greeks worst hit by what he calls the "humanitarian crisis" caused by austerity.

He has also restored the public broadcaster after ERT was closed in mid-2013 without warning by the previous conservative government, replacing it with the slimmed down NERIT.

As talks with the experts have become bogged down, Mr Tsipras has tried to find a political way around each impasse, repeating his mantra that Greece and its creditors need to reach a "just, viable and mutually useful" solution.

In March, he even managed to force a mini-summit on Greece with top European leaders including Ms Merkel and French President Francois Hollande on the fringe of the main Brussels meeting. Four days later, Germany’s most implacable critic went to Berlin to meet Ms Merkel, a visit that would have been unimaginable three months before.

Ms Merkel ended up promising to help Greece stay in the eurozone while Mr Tsipras for his part recognised "it was wrong to blame Greece’s problems on foreigners".

Even so, the deadlock continued, with Greece’s credit rating sliding as analysts vied with each other to coin ever more apocalyptic scenarios — "Grexit" (Greek exit from the eurozone), "Grexident" (Greek exit by accident), and even "Grimbo" ("Greece in limbo").

Then last week, Mr Tsipras took the bull by the horns and reduced the role of his confrontational and controversial Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis in talks. He made way for the more "Brussels-compatible" economist Euclid Tsakalotos.

And it seems to have worked — negotiations seem to be back on track even if the "red lines" remain over pensions and labour reforms, which Mr Tsipras cannot cross without alienating the left of his own Syriza party.

This is "apparently the biggest problem stopping Alexis Tsipras" from reaching an agreement with Greece’s lenders, said Thanassis Diamantopoulos, politics professor at Panteion University in Athens.

But time is running out.

"There is no more liquidity in the Greek economy," Mr Tsipras’s own spokesman, Gabriel Sakellaridis, said on Monday.

"The length of the talks pose risks that must not be ignored," the liberal daily Kathimerini warned on Saturday, referring to the danger of hospitals and other essential services running out of cash.

In the meantime, Greece must pay the IMF and the ECB back €12.5bn by the end of August.

AFP

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