Exclusive Interview with Popular Unity’s Costas Isychos

Costas Isychos, former Syriza MP and Alternate Minister of National Defence, now leading member of Popular Unity on the organisation of Popular Unity, what went wrong in Syriza, the differences to KKE, the election campaign and the future of the Greek anti-austerity resistance. Athens, Saturday September 5, 2015.

Would you like to tell a bit about Popular Unity to the ones who do not know you yet?

Popular Unity is not a traditional political party. It is a political front, a movement composed of social and political organisations. It was created five minutes before the ring of the bell in the last session of the parliament when the government decided to go forward for the anticipated elections after it had voted in favour of the third memorandum together with New Democracy, PASOK, To Potami. Forty-four deputies members of Syriza did not vote in favour of the memorandum, many of them voted no and many of them voted abstaining. This created an crises in the parliamentary block of Syriza, as a party and as a government. Alexis Tsipras decided that the anticipated election should be the road taken in order to reaffirm the majority of Syriza in parliament and about fourteen days ago Merkel and some of the mainstream media in Germany welcomed the elections in Greece as a happy course for the continuation of the memorandum program.

So what Popular Unity concerns we are a fresh front, we have not had the chance to have a congress yet and to create organisations all over Greece. But the participation of the people is quite outstanding and all the proposals for the parliamentarians and the new deputies on the new lists come from the base of our Popular Unity committees all over the country. We are trying to combine the very hard strenuous, fast track elections that only last about 24 days with our coming into Greek politics as a new entity. We are of course not very well-known yet, although we as members and deputies of Popular Unity, some of us were former ministers. So, in any case, this is the story, the road map and it´s a quite complex situation, not black and white.

Where you surprised when Tsipras announced that he would resign and to have a new election?

Yes, but we were surprised mostly when he decided to sign the third memorandum. That was one of the biggest surprises, a nightmare. We did not expect that a government that was elected on a an anti-memorandum/anti-austerity program would sign a new austerity for three years and a new memorandum that creates and makes Greece almost a new neocolonial entity within the European union where the creditors of Germany and the others oligarchs within Europe play a vital role in the periphery of Europe today, specially in the eurozone.

Popular Unity gathered a lot of organisations quite quickly, and you made a call for struggle all over the country in the beginning of August. How has the process to get more organisations in continued?

It is still continuing, it’s a process. Greece within the eurozone, the crises and the recession, austerity, the hardship and social exclusion of a large part of its population is facing today two new situations that are quite difficult to describe but I will try. We have two kinds of refugees in Greece today, those who are war refugees who are fleeing from death and destruction in their own countries and we have a second category of refugees which are the Greek youth which have been emigrated from Greece last five years. More than 200 000 young people have left. So these are refugees also.

I´m saying this because this is something new. In the pre-electoral period we are going all over the country trying to explain to people and specially the youth that they did do have a future here, they should not leave the country, but should stay and struggle and fight for their own future, not think so much individually but within a social content. Taking into account that more than 85 percent of the youth in the 5th of July referendum voted against the memorandum, said a very big ”No” to the continuation of the memorandums – it’s astonishing that 85 percent of the youths said no. So we hope that this impede number of young people under 35 will be the fuel for the upcoming elections in order to create a political earthquake once again in Greece.

How will you campaign in the elections?

We will campaign trying to explain to everybody without a lot of resources and not a lot of money. We are trying to tell the people that we have to continue to believe in our struggle that lasted six years in Syriza, within the social movements, within the left, within the broader left. And not to give up, not to give in to sadness and to depression, because depression is part of politics today unfortunately. It’s not just a feeling, it’s politics – we have political depression. People feel that they’re not counted in this kind of democracy we have, I would bluntly say is a dictatorship of the market as far as Greece is concerned. It’s a dictatorship of the creditors and even democracy has been limited to an unbelievable sense. Taking into account that in this third memorandum there will be no sovereignty for Greece within the parliament to vote for anything if the creditors do not approve, anything that has to do with numbers of budget, fiscal figures has to be approved by the overlords and this is very sad for the European union.

How is the organisation of Popular Unity structured?

In the last fifteen dayswe have had a creation of ad hoc local committees of support of members and friends of Popular Unity all over Greece. In every city and in every province of Greece we have this structure, we have social political committees. These committees so far try to organize themselves in the pre-electoral battle. They propose first of all the lists of the candidates. They propose it, it’s not something that comes from the top and we put them in the list, unless it´s something very serious question, that is a very limited number. That is the first thing they do. We don’t have money, we don’t have resources, we have not been credited by the Greek state to take part in this election, we don’t receive any money from the state as it is guaranteed by the parliament.

So of course we don’t want to receive money from the Greek oligarchy. First of all because we are against the Greek oligarchy and the second reason is that most of the money we are trying to get is from friends and people who gather by fund raising events. We are not going to be able to have a lot of spots on television, very limited. We are not a party that has an unlimited numbers of posters to put all over the country. So we limit ourselves to the youths which plays an very important role, because they have an active political role on the social media, on Facebook and on the blogs and other sites where they have dialogues and interact with other people. This is our main weapon let’s say, if I can use this word.

Do you have to pay and supply the election ballots as well?

Yes, we pay for our own ballots, even our candidates has to pay 144 euros which is the money acquired to participate in the election and to pay to the Greek state. Every candidate has to put this money in. We have some people who are unemployed, we have some people that don’t have this money – most of them young people or activists or trade unionists. What we do is to tax them and put a little bit of overcharge, 170 euros, so the money that comes out of that, the deduction, we pay for the people who cannot pay for their own.

When the local committees come with a nomination, what’s the organ that approves it?

We have a political council that is about 55 members that was elected by all our political and social allies on unanimous bases. We did not vote, but everybody equally presented their candidates to the political council. This political council asked for the number of candidates that should be six for a province, or eight or ten etcetera.They themselves present or nominates their candidates. What we asked for was that they have a regulation that consists of having young people, women, not excluding anybody because of political, social orientation or class they come from, or colour or religion. So this is the main directive we give them. They comply with this and then we accept it.

So how was the political council created?

It was created in a university auditorium where we had about two hundred people representing the organisations, both political and social that compose the front. They presented a political program for the elections that already has come out. They all agreed on this and we created an ad hoc political council that has sort of a job to do in the elections. After the elections we are bounded by a decision to initiate a congress, we have to have participatory rules for everybody, create a statute for the front and so on. This is very cloudy because we did not have the time before the elections to do all of this.

Is there representatives from all these organisations in the front?

Yes, from all those who came, except from those who did not agree. I will give an example. We had Party of the Greek Pirates, that asked to come to the front, but they did not fully agree on the program, they do not believe in left and right and believe this is something very old for politics. They just had three types of themes they wanted to put up. But we did not part our ways. They said that we can still talk and we can still be activists in the streets for other things we agree on as one example.

The program of Popular Unity, where was it decided, in the Political Council?

Yes. It was given to all the ad hoc committees we have for them to make changes and to add things. We did these changes and that is the program itself. It is not a total political program, it is a electoral program. Because we did not have time to talk deeply about many things, and it would have been wrong to do that without having the time and the peacefulness needed to study programs, to make decisions, collectively and personally. That is why we have only an electoral program today.

Are Popular Unity building a new Syriza?

No, no. Copy and paste in politics is not a road map for anybody. We can keep the best traditions from Syriza and we should. It includes social movements, youth, coalition, democracy. But we should find a way not to become Syriza, what it has become today, a party where the leadership has distanced and divorced itself from the social masses and the youth that supported them and of course took a very very radical stand against it’s pre-electoral program, throwing it to the basket. So we should avoid becoming a Syriza No 2.

What we should do is to try to be a new social and political force with broadness, with democracy, but with very strict rules to apply what we are voted for by the people. And it should be sanctions within the party for those who do not apply, ranging from the president of the party, from the Secretary, to the last members. We are not part of the tradition of bourgeoisie block of parties and unfortunately Syriza has become that, where the leaders is an undisputed leader and he can decide by himself together with a close numbers of colleagues. For example Mr Tsipras for a couple of days ago announced that he will be the one who decides who gets to the lists or not for the election. This is against the statutes of Syriza. Syriza does not work that way, but we see that Syriza has been abolished already.

In your opinion – what you are telling happened in Syriza – how could it happen?

This is perhaps the most difficult question we are imposed. It was a process within the government, when it went into government and took position as government. It was constantly daily absorbed by the system and its people in the leadership in government. Many of us who were in the ministry went through difficult times. I can give you an personal example. I was a co-minister with Mr Kammenos, the leader of the Independent Greeks (ANEL). He came out three months ago saying that NATO should build an other base on the island of Karpathos. On that same day I came out and said ”this is not part of our program”. I did not say something against him but I just said that anybody has the right to his own opinion but as a minister he has to comply to what we are bounded.

We had difficult times, even more difficult times than that. On the Palestinian issue we did not recognize Palestine. Sweden made a very bold move and recognised Palestine, maybe the boldest move in the European union. Greece been so close and had such a relationship with the PLO and the parties within the PLO. Such a close relationship of decays and decays with tens of thousands of Palestinians living in Greece. How could we not recognise Palestine during the bombing of Gaza that was a humanitarian crime! A crime against humanity. So you see, this is a couple of examples of zig zags and turnabouts on 180 degrees of our program, of our ethical, moral, political and ideological obligation to the people we were voted for.

So as every day came by and by and Syriza became more and more a traditional old party of the old school. Young Mr Alexis Tsipras in the eyes of the people became a very old figure of the past. He made a very bold and political choice and he had a dilemma of signing a new memorandum or going in to chaos, as the creditors said. Of course he said it was no other way, that it was only one solution. But they left its ideology, its history and its current renovation which is day by day an important tool to think more and more broadly and in favour of the masses and the people. Those who advocate a one way solution are followers of the TINA dogma, ”There Is No other Alternative”. How can the left say that there is no other alternatives? This is Ms Thatchers world, it’s not our world.

Why did you not stay and struggle inside Syriza?

An other difficult question. The minority of Syriza, the Left Platform has been part of the party for 20 years, since the creation of Synaspismos – the Coalition of The Left – and Syriza. When we voted against the memorandum – defending our program, which we had signed as deputies entering into parliament, we signed a moral obligation to leave our seats, to free our seats in parliament if we went against the political program of Syriza. And we were asked to resign when the majority was the one not defending this moral obligation they had signed for. This was the first sign of a great division and breakup of Syriza.

The second was that Mr Tsipras openly said that those who not vote in favour of the memorandum will not be candidates in the lists. This was not something for him to decide, this was something to decide for the Central Committee, by the governing bodies of the party and the organisations in the party. So immediately he became the sole leader without having a statues and regulations and democracy within the party. So when we were out of the box, by the leaders position, that was only one road to create a parliamentary block to keep the hope alive, because if the hope were not represented in these elections, then you only have all these parties that voted in favour of the memorandum – Syriza, New Democracy, To Potami, PASOK – and then you have a big coalition which is of course the wish of Ms Merkel and Mr Shäuble, they want a big coalition in Greece. Everybody’s talking today about a big coalition. So Popular Unity has to be in parliament not just only to be the voice of the opposition of the people but in order to give an other chance to the left to govern, not for the left to go bankrupt – ideologically and ethically and morally. Then the people would say ”Oh, you are like all the others, you are all the same”, and what is this, this is the fuel to nazism, the fuel of neo-Nazism, the fuel of the extreme right. This is what they say constantly in Greece: ”Look at the left, they governed and they sold us out. What is the alternative? Golden Dawn and neo-Nazism.” We have a duty to tell to the people of course that leaders sometimes deviate from their course of their ethical and program and their political course, but there is allays a ship a guideline and the tripulation that we should go on and on and struggle.

Quite a few of you have the roots in KKE, what are the differences today between Popular Unity and KKE?

Yes, that is correct. First of all KKE has a very clear and direct view that the dilemma today is not austerity, memorandums and getting out of Eurozone or getting out of the memorandum policies. Their dilemma is capitalism or socialism. Today, this is not our dilemma. Of course socialism is the star, you are always trying to reach the stars, maybe human kind will reach the stars and we hope so. But today 3,5 million Greeks, 40 percent of the population, living under the poverty line. 58 percent of the youths are unemployed and 30 percent of the labour force, 200 000 new immigrants, tens and tens of thousands of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Northern Iraq are in our islands going through the black road of the mafia to central Europe: through the Turkish mafia, the Bulgarian mafia, the Greek mafia, the Macedonian mafia, the Serbian mafia, the Hungarian mafia, and the German mafia – all win from this game. And this is a game of tragedy. So the differences we have with KKE is a difference that we are living today, we are not waiting for the second coming. We have to give answers today and tomorrow and not for the day after tomorrow. And of course, we are in favour of having common activism, common struggle in the streets, within the trade unions, the social movements, but they have a very sectarian line saying that from the last 25 years that everyone who has left KKE is a traitor to marxism-leninism. You know, life has changed, life goes on and it’s not a religion, politics is not a religion. Politics is a belief in the tradition of the left and the present day of the left and the left in the 21st century.

Which possible scenarios do you see after the election?

The most probable scenario is a big coalition between Syriza and New Democracy and some of the smaller pro-memorandum parties. Or Syriza by itself with other smaller pro-memorandum parties without the New Democracy. If New Democracy is the first party, we will have the same tree with Syriza and New Democracy, the big block, the main trunk of the tree and the branches by the smaller parties. The most hopeful scenario for me is that Popular Unity is a strong force and impedes the way of that creation. This is a difficult scenario but we have to believe in difficulties in order to overcome the greater difficulties which are before us. And this is what the creditors want. The creditors want a big coalition that is politically controllable.

How much does it mean for the party that Zoi Konstantopoulou joined the forces?

She is a very important person. A young woman, the youngest women in the Presidency in the parliament in the history of democracy in Greece, an active lawyer for social rights, for international rights. She was one of the lawyers that tried to put Mr Blair and other NATO leaders to court after the infamous bombing of former Yugoslavia where we had thousands and thousands of innocent people being killed by NATO bombings and so on. She is a great assent, not just as a person but as part of a collective, and I think she will contribute greatly not only today in the pre-electoral period but as a member of the opposition within the parliament.

Why haven´t Popular Unity attracted even more people from Syriza you think?

It is difficult because in the divisions of the left there are traumas, personal traumas and it’s not easy for persons who has lived through one division or a second division to go into a third. The left does not need any more political asylums. We need to overcome our traumas by keeping our personal relations and not be cannibalistic or behave like animals in the jungle. I think there’s a large part in the Syriza who are in the grey area between Syriza and Popular Unity and there’s a number of people specially older and mid-age people who are still trying to make up their minds and what they are going to do. It’s a personal, political and collective tragedy to all and we have to see how to overcome it. This is a very difficult question to answer but we all have to do our best. We in Popular Unity are not going to rush on anybody, put a gun to their head and give the a dilemma ”Do this or do that, choose A or B, or go home”. Politics should not be like this.

If the congress, as were decided to September would have happened, what do you think would have been the outcome?

The congress in September was the vote of the majority of the Central Committee, and the Prime Ministers own proposal – but he didn’t even buy his own proposal. We asked for a congress before the voting of the memorandum while the party had to take a decision.

It’s difficult to say what would have happened because political time is different than time itself. Within that political margin it is very difficult to say what would have happened in the memorandum context day by day. That is why we asked for a congress before we took the decisions in the parliament, that was part of the regulations of our party.

How do you see the future for the Greek anti-austerity struggle, what would it look like?

It will grow. It will grow more and more because the situation will be harder for the people day by day. Salaries and pensions will go under 400-500 euros, there will be a cruelty from the creditors to the poor people and to the middle class (which has almost disappeared in Greece). And then it will take people to the streets, and to form coalitions and new social movements and join the existing social movements. Syriza and New Democracy and those parties who are in government will be faced with the majority of the people against them. And the majority of the people is not a digit, it is personal, great tragedy of social exclusion and extreme poverty.

Are you convinced that leaving the eurozone will make it better?

Completely. I am completely convinced. I think that the eurozone is not a question of the sole currency. The eurozone consists of economic values, of moral values. It’s a neo-liberalist jail for the people in Europe. We have been blinded to that.

But it is a white cell, a comfortable cell, and it is a comfortable jail. That’s why we in Europe have many categories as in the football leagues. In the first category is Germany and its closed allies, Holland, Finland and so on. Then you have a second category with the countries in the periphery in the euro zone, and then you have Greece in the third category introduced to the most advanced neoliberal experiments in the eurozone. Leaving the eurozone will not radically change the situation from one day to the other. You need a plan, a short, medium and long term plan for the revival of our economy, the agrarian economy, of our medicinal manufacturing companies. We need to acquire nationalization of strategic spaces of economy. We need to nationalize our hydrocarbon reserves which seems to be quite large. We need to change our foreign policy, not just within Europe but look to the Arab world, the middle east, the Bricks-countries, Latin America, Africa. We are a country that is blessed, as far as the geopolitical, geo-strategical position we are in, because we are between three continents which in the conflicts are great, energy conflicts, economic conflicts, war conflicts. So we can play a role, not only by ourselves but together with other countries join forces to bring in dialogue, and peaceful negotiations in east and west. We need a strategy, and we do have a strategy, the outlines of a strategy.

But everybody who talks about leaving the euro zone in Greece, by the media and the other parties is tabued as the first Christians in the Roman world, ”Put them to the lions”. Anybody who talks about leaving the euro zone is put out in the middle of the street to be attacked in every way you can think of. This is unbelievable. They are not able to talk in calm, logical way and presenting arguments. They don’t want that.

And you experiencing this now during the election campaign?

Yes. I have experienced this myself and other members too of course. If we talk about leaving the eurozone we will get the response ”You are going to bring the drachma, you are going to bring hunger, you are going to bring war, you are going to bring civil war, we are going to be Syria”.

Why is that? Because we are going to leave the eurozone? Poland is outside the eurozone and Mr Tusk is Polish. He was pushing us to remain in the eurozone but his country has made the choice not to join the eurozone for its own reasons. Sweden is also outside the eurozone. The worlds capitalistic crises is a big crises. But who is better equipped to trying to retain social rights, political rights, democratic rights? These within the jail of the eurozone under the German oligarchy that wants to eat more and more? This is not our future. This is not our future and we do not accept it.

Why has Syriza and before that Synaspismos (the largest party of the coalition that became Syriza) already since the beginning in the early 90s been so pro-Europe-oriented? What was the origin of this?

We always had a discussion within Synaspismos and Syriza about the Europe itself. But in the last 20 years, Europe has gone though a deep transformation, a very deep transformation. It’s not the Europe of its people of course. It was not a Europe of socialism before of course. But it was a Europe that had some kind of consensus between the countries in trying to reach common agreements. No more, no more consensus. Instead dictatorship: ”You either buy it, or you are thrown off the ship.” And this is what Europe is today, so we have to see the dialogue that is going through the last 20 years and try to see some of our experiences as a country within the Europe. We were put in the euro with false numbers, false digits, false preconditions under the government of Mr Simitis. Did we ever talk about that? The Germans like to say that ”we were fooled by the Greeks”, but I don´t believe that they were fooled so easily. Because the collaborators that were making the digits were Golden Sachs. Were Germans economists participated together with Finish, French and Italians. The political personal in Greece went in to the euro believing that it will be for better days, maybe to win the next elections. Look at us in the eurozone so many years after that. Everybody talking about being in the eurozone but 50 percent of Greeks today – adults – don’t have any money in the bank accounts. And we are in the eurozone.

Synaspismos played an important role in the creation of the European left party. Do you think that has add something to the ”European conscious” in the minds of the people in the left?

Yes, and I think we are going to have a continuation of dialogue with the European left. Already we have parties within the European left and leftist parties in each country where already the question of the euro is arising. The eurozone itself, what it is and what we should do. We do not believe in unilateral strategies. We would like to have the Frenchs with us, the Italians, the Portuguese, the Spainians. Because it is different if one country leaves the eurozone or if five countries have a strategy or creates a political force which has a different vision of social and political and the architecture of the economy itself in Europe. So that is why Pagionotos Lafazanis had a talk with Jean-Luc Mélenchon. They agreed with the question of the eurozone. He had a talk with Stefano Fassina, from the Social democratic party in Italy that has a different view now thinking Italy should leave. Then you have also the doubt of the eurozone of the extreme right, Ms Le Penn, in The National Front etcetera, extreme right wing forces. We have to be very careful because the left and the European party of the Left (GUE) in the European parliament, have to have a very clear understanding towards the people that it’s not a question of national racism against the Germans, we don’t have anything racist to say about any in people as Popular Unity is concerned. But we do have a deep different opinion and ideological frontiers to the extreme right wing and neoliberal model where the social democrats and the right wing parties living under the same roof.

This is a very interesting question that itself would deserve a whole interview..

I think, If you permit me to say, the question of the eurozone is going to be one of the most important theme question in the coming weeks and months and years for the european left. We have to very boldly say what we believe, even if we believe or don’t believe we have to have arguments. And I don’t think that the arguments in favour of the eurozone is going to be very strong and stable in the months and years to come.

Could an exit from the eurozone favour nationalist forces in Europe? Are Popular Unity concerned about that?

One question was put out by a journalist to Lafazanis recently: ”Ok, let’s say that you leave the eurozone. But what are you going to do if the European union sabotages you, and declare war, economic war against this rebel country?” He answered: ”We will see how they are going to react. Look at the correlation of forces at that time.” But if it is a question for the people to survive, of the survival of our youths, of our workers, of our people who are in poverty, in immigration or leaving the country. If it comes to this dilemma we say very clear and openly that we are going to have a referendum on the question of the European union. If the people wish to leave it they should leave it. But if it comes to that, we will have a referendum for that.

The Plattform of Popular Unity

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