ATHENS — Experts have warned Greece's new, radical left wing government not to make further cuts to the country's defense budget, claiming there is very little left to trim following years of biting economic downturn.
Greece's Syriza party won elections in Greece on Jan. 25 with promises to reverse five years of state staff lay-offs, tax hikes and wage cuts blamed for devastating the Greek economy.
The austerity measures were imposed by the International Monetary Fund and European Union in 2010 in return for a massive €240 billion (US $272 billion) bail out designed to help Greece tackle interest payments on its debt pile, worth €320 billion.
While the measures were designed to rein in profligate Greek spending and slim down a top-heavy state, they have instead been blamed for shrinking national output by 25 percent and pushing youth unemployment over 50 percent.
The new government, led by Alexis Tsipras, has promised to walk away from debt payments and cancel austerity policies, threatening a clash with Europe.
What is less clear is whether the party, which is a mix of Marxists and far left thinkers, will fund social spending programs it has promised by cutting defense spending.
"Greek defense has already been reduced so much I am not sure you can cut anymore," said Thanos Dokos, head of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy. "My feeling is that the new government will leave defense alone for a year, possibly undertaking a defense review. In the meantime, there has been a freezing of major procurement programs and we are still paying off previous ones."
During the years of economic crisis starting in 2008, Greek defense spending has come down, albeit from the huge amounts spent previously as the country armed to defend against its old foe Turkey.
In the 1980s, spending averaged 6.2 percent of gross domestic product, against a European average of 2.9 percent, while from 2000 to 2010 it was 3 percent against an EU average of 1.6 percent. That was followed by a drop of around 29 percent in spending between 2009 and 2011.
This year, Greece plans to spend €3.25 billion on defense, down 46 percent from the 2010 figure. Procurement spending in 2015 will amount to €700 million, down 65 percent from 2010
One analyst said that not all the sum would be spent on procurement. "Spending on operations and maintenance, which are not fully covered, will come from the procurement budget," said Periklis Zorzovilis, the president of the Institute for Security & Defence Analysis in Athens.
"And that will still leave gaps in maintenance. €900 million was approved 2-3 years ago for F-16 maintenance and we haven't started it yet. I don't expect to see new procurements for three years," he said.
"Defense spending will not rise," he predicted, "even though we are approaching the minimum possible level."
Zorzovilis said that even if the official head count of the Greek military was 93,500, the actual figure was now closer to 70,000, of which about a half are conscripts.
In the meantime, tension with Turkey still simmers. "Greece will need to look at a next generation fighter soon, given that Turkey is buying the F-35, and the country's frigates are near the end of their life," Dokos said.
If Greece has less to spend on defense, it is meanwhile seeking to rein in the corruption that surrounded procurement during the high spending years.
Akis Tsochatzopoulos, a former defense minister, was jailed for 20 years in 2013 for taking €50 million in bribes for contracts, and new laws now give Parliament extra oversight on spending. "It can cause delays, but it has never been so transparent," Dokos said.
As prime minister, Tsipras' first defense-related move was to hand the defense portfolio to the head of the small Independent Greeks party, which shares Tsipras' dislike of austerity policies and joined his Syriza party in a coalition government.
The similarity between the parties ends there. Independent Greeks leader Panos Kammenos is a noted nationalist known for controversial remarks including his description of Europe as being "governed by German neo-Nazis."
But if that was destined to worry European capitals, Tsipras himself gave them cause for concern within hours of taking office, and it had nothing to do with austerity policies.
Tsipras objected to increasing sanctions against Russia in the light of increasing violence in Ukraine and the first foreign official he met as prime minster was the Russian ambassador, reflecting a pro-Russian stance by the new administration. Last year, on a trip to Moscow, Tsipras said Europe was "shooting itself in the foot" with sanctions.
The Financial Times reported that new Defense Minister Kammenos also visited Moscow in January, meeting the chairman of the Russian Duma's foreign affairs committee and the deputy chairman of its defense committee.
On Jan. 27, Tsipras disassociated Greece from an EU statement blaming Russia for a rocket attack in Ukraine that killed 30, raising suspicions he will use Greece's veto powers to block new sanctions if and when they are proposed next month.
But Zorzovilis played down fears of Greece totally abandoning the European front against Russia on Ukraine. "Greece falls closer EU than to Russia," he said.