The fate of this na­tion-on-the-brink will shift into the hands of Greek vot­ers.

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - michael.birnbaum@wash­ griff.witte@wash­

“We are sur­rounded by a tri­an­gle of cri­sis and desta­bi­liza­tion,” Greek For­eign Min­is­ter Nikos Kotzias said in an in­ter­view, not­ing the con­flict in Ukraine, the bloody gains by the Is­lamic State in Syria and Iraq, and the civil war in Libya. “Ev­ery­body has to ask him­self what will hap­pen if this cen­ter of sta­bi­liza­tion, Greece, will be desta­bi­lized.”

Both sides have painted the vote as a de­ci­sion that stretches be­yond the ques­tion on the bal­lot, which asks Greeks whether they want to take Europe’s tough aus­ter­ity terms.

Those Greeks who want to ac­cept the of­fer are des­per­ate to se­cure their place in Europe, mind­ful that Athens is closer to Damascus than to the E.U. cap­i­tal of Brus­sels. Many who want to re­ject the bailout, in­clud­ing this na­tion’s lead­er­ship, vow that they want to trans­form E.U. struc­tures al­to­gether, mak­ing them more demo­cratic and re­spon­sive to the de­mands of vot­ers. A small but grow­ing mi­nor­ity com­plains that the E.U. has brought them lit­tle but woe and that Greece ought to make a clean break.

The se­cu­rity risks of the tur­moil will per­sist re­gard­less of how the ref­er­en­dum turns out, al­low­ing both sides to claim that the other choice would en­dan­ger the na­tion. Hun­dreds of refugees from Syria are land­ing on Greek shores ev­ery day. Rus­sia has its eye on Athens, try­ing to break Euro­pean unity to put an end to eco­nomic sanc­tions im­posed over its ac­tions in Ukraine. And Greeks of all stripes have an ever-present fear of Tur­key, their neigh­bor and bit­ter ri­val, tak­ing ad­van­tage of them dur­ing times of in­sta­bil­ity.

Lead­ers of the rul­ing left­ist Syriza party ar­gue that Greece’s cru­cial role on the fron­tier of a refugee cri­sis means that Europe could not pos­si­bly oust it from the euro club, po­ten­tially un­leash­ing chaos that would spread far be­yond Greece’s borders.

“The whole re­gion smells like gun­pow­der,” said Alexan­dros Bis­tis, who leads the party’s po­lit­i­cal plan­ning com­mit­tee and is a top ad­viser to Prime Min­is­ter Alexis Tsipras.

For pro­po­nents of a yes vote, those chal­lenges mean that it is far too per­ilous for Greece to gam­ble with its Euro­pean ori­en­ta­tion.

“This is the in­abil­ity of a Western coun­try in a very dif­fi­cult neigh­bor­hood to con­trib­ute to col­lec­tive se­cu­rity ef­forts,” said Thanos Dokos, the di­rec­tor gen­eral of the Hel­lenic Foun­da­tion for Euro­pean and For­eign Pol­icy, who said that Greece’s se­cu­rity ca­pa­bil­i­ties have eroded dur­ing five years of eco­nomic cri­sis. “We are the weak link.”

Even in the past week, there have been hints of what could be in store for Greece if its banks re­main closed and the gov­ern­ment stays in­sol­vent with­out new life­lines. One strug­gling hos­pi­tal in cen­tral Athens ran low on food. De­liv­er­ies of ex­pen­sive im­ported drugs have slowed be­cause money can no longer be trans­ferred out­side of the coun­try. Butch­ers in the cen­tral mar­ket — who mostly sell im­ported meat — warned that they weren’t able to make their pur­chases.

The most im­me­di­ate con­cern for Greece — and by ex­ten­sion, Europe — is its ac­cel­er­at­ing refugee cri­sis. About 68,000 mi­grants crossed to Greece by sea in the first six months of 2015, far more than in all of 2014, ac­cord­ing to fig­ures re­leased Wed­nes­day by the U.N. refugee agency. Most were flee­ing the war in Syria.

But there is lit­tle await­ing the mi­grants once they reach Greece’s shores, a prob­lem that has only ac­cel­er­ated as the eco­nomic dif­fi­cul­ties have mounted in re­cent months. With Greek un­em­ploy­ment rates at 25 per­cent, there are few if any jobs for mi­grants. And there are vir­tu­ally no state ser­vices avail­able. The United Na­tions has called the gov­ern­ment’s re­cep­tion fa­cil­i­ties “deeply in­ad­e­quate.”

Since com­ing to of­fice in Jan­uary, the rul­ing Syriza party has ef­fec­tively with­drawn sup­port from the fa­cil­i­ties, be­liev­ing that mi­grants should not be de­tained on ar­rival and should in­stead be free to jour­ney on­ward.

But huge num­bers of mi­grants end up ma­rooned in Greece be­cause of the cost and ar­du­ous travel in­volved in mov­ing on to other parts of the Euro­pean Union. In Athens and on hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion is­lands lapped by aqua-green waves, in­for­mal camps have sprung up, with mi­grants sleep­ing in parks and on side­walks.

Zoe Apos­tolopoulou, who di­rects immigration pol­icy for the cen­trist Po­tami party, said the in­flux is likely to in­ten­sify if Greece re­jects Europe’s bailout of­fer and eco­nomic con­di­tions de­te­ri­o­rate. The op­po­si­tion politi­cian said she fears that the cash­starved gov­ern­ment will di­vert funds away from mar­itime pa­trols, mak­ing the coun­try an even more at­trac­tive des­ti­na­tion for the peo­ple-smug­glers who or­ga­nize boats to take mi­grants across the Mediter­ranean.

“If they know that ev­ery­thing is more or less par­a­lyzed, they’ll take ad­van­tage,” she said. “And the hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis will only get worse.”

Rus­sia, smart­ing un­der the weight of Western sanc­tions af­ter last year’s an­nex­a­tion of the Crimean Penin­sula from Ukraine, has dan­gled the pos­si­bil­ity of loans for loy­alty. Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin feted Tsipras in St. Peters­burg last month as bailout ne­go­ti­a­tions took place in Brus­sels. Greece be­longs to NATO and the Euro­pean Union, pow­er­ful al­liances that have taken an anti-Rus­sian stand.

An­a­lysts in Moscow and Athens say the flir­ta­tion is more show than sub­stance. But NATO had suf­fi­ciently strong con­cerns about the loy­al­ties of the new Greek gov­ern­ment that top of­fi­cials talked about how to keep sen­si­tive dis­cus­sions out of Rus­sian hands shortly af­ter Syriza’s Jan­uary vic­tory, a se­nior NATO of­fi­cial said at the time.

Greek Deputy De­fense Min­is­ter Costas Isi­hos said that wor­ries about his na­tion’s deal­ings with Rus­sia are overblown. But he said that E.U. lead­ers risk breed­ing a gen­er­a­tion of young peo­ple with anger to­ward Brus­sels if they keep push­ing aus­ter­ity with no hope for the fu­ture.

“The Greek peo­ple have a proud history as a sov­er­eign na­tion,” Isi­hos said in an in­ter­view. “When you hit peo­ple be­low the belt, you get a dif­fer­ent re­sult than you ex­pect.”

“We are sur­rounded by a tri­an­gle of cri­sis and desta­bi­liza­tion.”

Nikos Kotzias, Greek for­eign min­is­ter


A woman in Athens holds the Greek flag in her left hand and the rul­ing left­ist Syriza party flag in her right. Syriza lead­ers say Greece’s cru­cial role on the fron­tier of a refugee cri­sis means that Europe could not pos­si­bly oust it from the euro zone, po­ten­tially un­leash­ing chaos that would spread far be­yond Greece’s borders.

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