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Another TV Pitchman Makes Mark in Greek Politics, But With Russia?

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Kyriakos Velopoulos, leader of the nationalists Greek Solution (Ellikini Lysi). (Photo by Eurokinissi/Vasilis Papadopoulos)

ATHENS - With New Democracy’s Vice-President Adonis Georgiadis famous for selling books and Union of Centrists leader Vassilis Leventis pitching politics and getting elected to Parliament, another Greek TV personality has caught on with voters.

Kyriakos Velopoulos, who seems like he’s on 24 hours a day and has a relentless, hammering cadence like a carnival barker or snake oil salesman, heads the ultra-religious, pro-Russia Greek Solution party that surprised with a 4.2 percent showing in the May 26 elections for Greek municipalities and winning a seat in the European Parliament.

In a feature for AlJazeera, noted Greek journalist John Psaropoulos wrote about the shock showing of Velopoulos, who’s famous for selling “letters written by Jesus,” on his ubiquitous TV show. You can’t flip channels without seeing his face pop up.

Velopoulos gives non-stop populist rants but shot past Leventis’s fading party, the once-promising To Potami centrists who pulled out of coming July 7 snap elections, and the Independent Greeks (ANEL) of former defense chief Panos Kammenos, who vanished in the polls, paying the price for joining a coalition with the ruling Radical Left SYRIZA.

A former journalist, Velopoulos attributed the populist party's sudden uprising to his strategy of going around the country in a grassroots campaigning, surprising people who opened their doors to see him standing there asking for his votes.

It could bring his party into the Greek Parliament, where a 3 percent threshold is needed, with other parties now there - To Potami, ANEL, Union of Centrists - set to fail or giving up the race entirely after dismal showings on May 26.

"I crossed the country three times, door to door," he said in a television interview the day after the election. "Politicians today are too far from the people. If everyone had done their jobs, we might not be here today,” he said.

Greek Solution took voters from every party, exit polls showed, but mostly from the far-right, which could account for the fall in favor of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, all of whose 15 lawmakers and dozens of members are in the fourth year of a trial on charges of running a criminal gang, one accused of murdering anti-Fascist hip-hop artist Pavlos Fyssas.

Greek Solution also drew from ANEL’s disenchanted, bringing that party down to a miserable showing of 0.8 percent, and also got voters who had backed SYRIZA before Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras went on a four-year run of reneging on anti-austerity promises.

Greek Solution’s platform is enticing to the disenfranchised and disillusioned, Psaropoulos noted: greater transparency and meritocracy in the public sector; law and order on the streets; journalistic objectivity in television coverage; investment in key national industries and a reversal of Greece's population decline.

The party also wants an international campaign to make Germany pay World War II reparations, an idea that SYRIZA came to late, and to lure back Diaspora Greeks with tax breaks if they move to less populated areas.

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But it as a serious ultra-national bent too, wanting to build a Trump-like wall along Greece’s border with Turkey to keep out migrants, although most refugees reach Greek islands by boats supplied by human smugglers in Turkey.

Greek Solution would ban Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) which provide many services the government can’t or won’t and wants immediate deportation of the 70,000 refugees and migrants in Greece except for those genuinely needing asylum after the European Union closed its borders to them and reneged on promises to help take some of the overload.

With Greece barely escaping an exit from the Eurozone after Tsipras backed off a confrontation with the country’s creditors he was certain to lose, Greek Solution wants a private parallel currency - but also keeping the euro.

Velopoulos also wants to impose his taste on Greece, deciding what music could be heard and what shows could be presented on TV and radio as part of his self-declared “good Greek music and theater” idea.

"Some people find him an affable clown ... a ranting telepersona," journalist and political analyst George Gilson told Psaropoulos. "He sells herbal cures that supposedly come from Mount Athos," Gilson added, referring to a peninsula of thousand-year-old monasteries in northeast Greece, one of Orthodoxy's holiest sites.

Gilson said he thinks the party has received financial backing from the Kremlin. "(Velopoulos) has bought tons of time from small local television stations around the country, a very expensive proposition, and there's no transparency as to where this money is coming from ... He often mentions Russia and that (Russian President Vladimir) Putin is basically the saviour." Polls in Greece show the party might take as many as a dozen seats in the 300-member Parliament, still politically irrelevant and unable to make any influence but give Velopoulos the stage of national TV on serious matters unrelated to magic herbs or selling Jesus.

"The mother of all battles is the national election and that's where I want to focus. If you have one vote in 700-odd in the European Parliament, things are a bit difficult. But if you have 18 to 20 MPs in the national parliament, you can perform miracles," Velopoulos recently said.

Gilson said Greek Solution could be Putin’s revenge on Greece for Tsipras and SYRIZA selling out the ancient Greek province of Macedonia by giving its name away to a newly-renamed North Macedonia.

"Greek Solution is a Russian party… It's a major step in Russia's effort to gain influence in Greece, and in a sense, it's Putin's revenge for the North Macedonia agreement," he said.

Velopoulos's spokesman, Vangelis Fanidis, denied that. "We go with Greece's interest wherever that lies - Russia, America, China. We go logically towards Christian Russia, but it's not a sure thing given Russia's current alliance with Turkey," he told Al Jazeera. That was in reference to Greece and Turkey feuding for sovereignty over the Aegean and East Mediterranean, and with Turkey sending warships and energy research vessels off Cyprus to look for oil and gas in areas licensed by Cyprus to foreign companies.

Fanidis also denied there was any outside funding or secret money. "Velopoulos's private money is the only source of (party) funding. And he's been audited by the financial crime squad and the tax authorities about this,” he also said.