There’s been an arrest warrant outstanding for Greek-Russian billionaire Ivan Savvidis since he stormed onto the field he owns of the soccer team PAOK he owns in March, wearing a gun, to protest a referee’s decision in a game in Thessaloniki, much of which it seems he also owns and where US and Greek officials believe he’s a straw man for Russian President Vladimir’s interest in the country and the Balkans.
He hasn’t been prosecuted, of course, as it’s known he’s close to Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tspiras, an anti-nationalist who made a deal to let the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) have a new name and get into NATO and open European Union accession talks – which Savvidis, analysts said, was secretly trying to undo.
It seems like he’s been able to move easily between competing interests, using his wealth and connections, despite not being fluent in Greek, to show up like a shadowy figure in a spy movie, charming and buying and scheming and, critics said, double-dealing for Russia.
That was the essence of a piece in the New York Times tracing his ability to interact with the people at the top of politics and business to get what he wants, even having the Greek government support to write off a big fine for a Greek tobacco company he formerly owned, his roots being in the business in Russia, where he made his money before coming to Greece.
The Times said that US officials in June intercepted communications showing Savvidis was working as Russia’s agent to undermine the name deal with FYROM, which the West strongly backed to get what would be North Macedonia into NATO as a bulwark against growing Russian interests in the Balkans.
As part of the agreement to end a 27-year feud, Tsipras said he would lift a veto Greek used to keep out FYROM after successive governments there kept claiming Greek lands, including the real Macedonia, an ancient abutting Greek province, and Thessaloniki, the second-largest city and major port in which Savvidis has a controlling financial interest even if Greek police can’t seem to find him.
When his role in the FYROM game was found out, the US turned over the information to Tsipras’ coalition government, an odd alliance of Leftists with terrorist and anarchist sympathizers and strong anti-American elements, and Tsipras’ partner, the pro-austerity, marginal, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) of Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, a strongly pro-American figure who wants more US military bases in Greece.
That led to Greece expelling two Russian diplomats from Athens and barring the entry of two more – but Savvidis remained untouched, the Teflon spy who still has the ear of officials the US said he was trying to undermine.
It was an odd move from Tsipras’ government, it seemed, as he and Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias were both involved in the Communist party and had wooed Putin and Moscow for a possible bailout Tsipras took power in 2015 and was unable to keep a vow to break with Greece’s international creditors who forced him to submit to more humiliating austerity measures he swore to reverse so Greece could get a third bailout, this one for 86 billion euros ($99.17 billion) in the summer of 2015.
While the US was joyous that the Russians had an apparent setback, it may yet turn out the other way around. A Sept. 30 referendum in FYROM got 91.5 percent support for the deal but a boycott called by opponents led to a paltry 36.5 percent turnout which the country’s election commission said made the results invalid.
And now FYROM Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who said he had a mandate despite the low turnout, must convince a Parliament where he needs a two-thirds majority for ratification to change the country’s Constitution to remove irredentist claims on Greece even though he got concessions to let his citizens be called Macedonians and have a Macedonian language and culture.
US GETS TOUGH
Even if he does, Kammenos is opposed, said his party would vote against it and that he would leave the coalition if it comes to a vote – at the same time he said he wouldn’t stand in the way of a deal, repeating a pattern of duplicity in dealing with Tsipras and SYRIZA.
“We’re pushing back and showing that we can play hardball too,” said Christopher R. Hill, a former United States Ambassador to FYROM, which the US and 140 countries call Macedonia. “We can tattletale, we can do things that maybe in the past we did not do.”
The Times said the secret maneuverings occurred as President Donald Trump traveled to Europe over the summer and publicly embraced Putin and Russia while mocking NATO, contradictory to what US intelligence and diplomats were working on with Greece.
US officials said they thought Russia would use the FYROM deal as a way to undercut American interests in the notoriously-corrupt Balkans. When the name agreement was moving forward over the objections of Russia and a majority of Greeks, Russia’s Ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov said his country wasn’t happy. “Sure, we will not shoot nuclear bombs,” adding that, “There are errors that have consequences.”
That led to a series of diplomatic cables to Washington from the US Ambassador to Greece, Geoffrey Pyatt, who kept going out of his way to praise Greece as a “pillar of stability in the region,” ignoring SYRIZA’s backing of furloughs for a former leader of the disbanded Nov. 17 terrorist group that killed five Americans attached to the embassy he now leads, their lives lost in apparent vain as the US moved ahead with current interests and new friends.
Pyatt warned that Russia would try to undercut the referendum after being unable to foment enough trouble to stop the deal even with Savvidis’ work.
He has been followed for years by US and Greeek intelligence officials as a member of Putin’s party, United Russia, when he was in the Duma, the lower House of Parliament, and made his fortune in tobacco before heading for Greece and Thessaloniki.
In June, American officials determined from the intercepts of his communications — email, texts, phone calls or a combination — that he had been paying protesters to try to stop the FYROM name deal that now could unravel on its own without him.
THE ELUSIVE SAVVIDIS
One senior United States official told the Times that US agencies were able to easily collect financial data that put Savvidis behind payments to citizens and soccer fans to incite violence against the FYROM referendum.
According to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, an investigative reporting organization, Savvidis paid opponents of the campaign to rename FYROM at least 300,000 euros, or about $350,000, all while he was still facing an arrest warrant that apparently was never executed and while Tsipras did not try to stop him from working against SYRIZA’s deal and Greece, with no charges being brought.
Those who received the money included FYROM politicians, new radical nationalist organizations and Vardar club soccer hooligans, who staged the violent protests in front of the Parliament building in Skopje, the project reported.
Savvidis strongly denied the accusations. “Totally false and highly slanderous,” his holding company said in a statement this past summer.
Pyatt brought the US intelligence report to Greek officials, the paper said, well-versed in dealing with Russia after his stint as United States Ambassador to Ukraine from 2013 to 2016, when Russia seized Crimea and backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.
“There’s not a trick the Russians can pull that Pyatt doesn’t know,” Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview with the paper. Murphy said he had spoken to Pyatt about Russia’s meddling in the FYROM referendum but wouldn’t provide details.
TSIPRAS BACKS US
While giving Tsipras the dope was easy, what he would do with it was a concern to the US given SYRIZA’s antipathy toward American interests and the Premier’s vow to take Greece out of NATO and remove US military interests in Greece.
Instead, Tsipras moved to help NATO by getting what would be North Macedonia into the defense alliance, sent Greek troops to Afghanistan after saying he would never have Greek forces in another country and is working with American military interests in Greece.
Trump hosted Tsipras in October, 2017 at the White House, and the two countries are discussing expanding the American military’s presence in Greece, including access for United States ships and aircraft.
“If you look at geography, and you look at current operations in Libya, and you look at current operations in Syria, you look at potential other operations in the Eastern Mediterranean, the geography of Greece and the opportunities here are pretty significant,” Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a recent visit to Athens.
As it turned out, it wasn’t hard to recruit Tsipras to be an American ally and renege on anti-American promises after three years his reneging on anti-austerity promises and warming to the Capitalists and bankers some in party still loathe.
The US national security establishment is trying to keep Greece in the Western sphere of influence, wary of Tsipras yet, given his Communist background. “We are cultivating Greece as an anchor of stability in the eastern Med and western Balkans,” A. Wess Mitchell, the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs, said in June.
On July 11, Tsipras broke with Moscow, expelled the two Russian diplomats and accused them of trying to bribe unidentified officials and stir up demonstrations against the FYROM deal through Savvidis, who remains untouched.
“The constant disrespect for Greece must stop,” the Greek Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “No one can or has the right to interfere in Greece’s domestic affairs.” Except, apparently, Savvidis.
After the Russian diplomats were booted, Pyatt triumphantly emailed a number of colleagues and former colleagues at the State Department and the Pentagon. Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, posted on Twitter after the announcement: “#Greece expelled two Russian officials and barred entry of two others for attempting to interfere in Greek politics. We support Greece defending its sovereignty. #Russia must end its destabilizing behavior.”
“The kind of mischief that Russia has practiced, from Macedonia to the United States,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters on Sept. 11, ahead of the Sept. 30 referendum, is “always beyond the pale as far as I’m concerned.”
He followed his remarks with a trip to Skopje to “make a specific statement that we stand with the Macedonian people,” he said, referring to FYROM as Macedonia, to the dismay of Greek critics of the deal, including Kammenos – who wants a greater US military presence in Greece. No word on Savvidis though.