July 4th, 2012
12:53 PM GMT
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(CNN) – The room was filled with a certain buzz and not an empty seat could be found in the grand ballroom. I counted 14 television cameras lined up across the back of the room, and the center table where I was sitting had chief executives representing about a dozen sectors from advertising to power transmission.

A few minutes later a young, dapper man in a cobalt blue suit, matching suede loafers and a crisp white shirt - minus a tie - takes the center seat to my right. All eyes fix their gaze on Greece's rising star, 38 year-old Alexis Tsipras.

With a calm demeanor, but electric smile, the leader of the far left Syriza party and now the official opposition in the Greek parliament greets the host of the conference Daniel Franklin, executive editor of the Economist magazine. He turns and offers the same warm handshake to me and the first public policy address to the Greek business community gets underway.

Moments later, Tsipras takes the stage and wastes little time accusing the newly elected coalition government, made up of leaders from a previous generation, of rolling over in Brussels since it "could not negotiate to obtain oxygen that was given to others without a fight".

More: Euro salvation plan 'like spinning plates'

Tsipras was referring to the bank recapitalization package outlined at the European Union summit which identified Spain and Italy for direct bonds purchases from the European Central Bank's emergency fund, but noticeably left Greece out of the initial phase. The leader who gained nearly a third of the vote in the second round of elections was just warming up.

"Greece did not gain anything, while Italy and Spain succeeded in cracking the austerity policies," he says, before pausing and tilting his head to the television cameras to deliver the punch line: "When we have a deadly disaster without adequate medicine, the result will always be the same, (heart) failure."

Tsipras skyrocketed to power by promising to tear up the now infamous memorandum that former Prime Minister George Papandreou reluctantly signed with the Troika, made up of the EU, the ECB and the International Monetary Fund.  His back against the wall, Papandreou agreed to what are, by any benchmark, draconian austerity measures, including wage and pension cuts of 20-40 percent and a plan - still not delivered on - to slash 150,000 state jobs.

Tsipras is taking a page out of the playbook of the former prime minister's father, Andreas Papandreou, the founder of socialist party PASOK.  A passionate firebrand, Papandreou believed in a large state sector and the nationalization of industries from airlines to utilities. At the same time he would constantly tug at the emotions of a very proud, often nationalistic electorate, standing up for example to the Americans on key foreign policy issues.

Papandreou Sr.’s legacy is a lasting one. Greece, according to McKinsey & Company, has the largest state sector in Europe. Nearly one in four work for the government – and not very efficiently, according to the consultancy. It identified a labor productivity gap of 29% versus the EU average, and a whopping 40% versus the U.S. average.

During his speech Tsipras called for an immediate freeze on all salary cuts, to get all Greek citizens at home and abroad "properly registered" to reallocate the tax burden and in collaboration with its southern European partners re-write the memorandum, which he describes as a dead end.

A chief executive sitting to my left at the lunch table says Tsipras is in a sweet spot right now. He can still appeal to his core base - state workers who are members of very powerful unions and disgruntled youth, half of which are without a job - while at the same time tacking to the center of Greek politics to be more palatable to business. He is after all, according to one high profile businessman, a communist at heart who takes inspiration from Chavez of Venezuela and Putin in Russia. The re-packaging has just begun in earnest.

Multiple strategists, commentators and executives I spoke with during the elections and while chairing the Economist Roundtable this week said Tsipras was relieved not to score an outright victory. His party, having garnered only four percent of the vote in 2009, was not prepared for its meteoric rise in popularity and the responsibility of actually governing during a full blown, five year collapse of the economy.

After his formal remarks, Tsipras seeing my notes on the back of the menu card, says in heavily accented english that his speech must have had some value.  I managed to have a brief conversation with the opposition leader in between a constant stream of interruptions by businessmen, professors and young followers. They seem to want to mark their cards for the future or genuinely want to touch the man that has captured so much global attention in such a short period of time.

I ask Tsipras how he would navigate negotiations with the Troika if he was already the leader. He says the debt-to-GDP level of 165% is too high - and that getting to 120% by 2020, as outlined by the Troika, is not acceptable. Too much pain on the Greek working class - for very little gain - is the message.

More: Fearful Greeks pull money out of banks

But would Tsipras ask to cut the debt in half to stay in the eurozone and not reduce the size of the state, as he promised during the campaign? The opposition leader adroitly avoids a direct answer and fields another request from an admirer who wants to latch on to this rising star.  He is, it seems, determined to take measured steps and plant his feet firmly on the ground in the rough-and-tumble world of politics, and not to be a shooting star that flames out before his time.



soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. kcapapolous

    It's almost as if these idiots in CNN want communism to spread throughout Europe. Syriza LOST the election, TSPARIS is despised by more in Greece than liked. Get your facts straight and focus on the new admin, not the losers.

    July 4, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
  2. dr A Kruger

    If irresponsible policies like these become popular, you have to question the intelligence of the population voting for such "leaders". Unfortunately when all votes count the same, the lowest common denominator prevails. It is tiime votes count proportional to age, knowledge and the amount of tax the voter pay. Knowledge can easily be measured by a few questions on the ballot.. and all can be anonymized when the vote is brought out electronically.

    July 4, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
  3. Johnson

    He doesn't exactly impress me. He would look better selling Souvlaki. The EU has to get rid of Greece – the Parasite of the EU.

    July 4, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
  4. d. rakopoulos

    I had to read a quite lengthy article, for what??? what to you really say about this man? this was such a supefluous description! if you want to write an article TELL us you opinion of the man you assign as "dapper", don't just be part of the branding-as-a-star system, be a journalis,t take a position. We Greeks need a clear look and a clear opinion from outsiders. This is not about advertising toothpastes, it is about governing a nation with a heavy, HEAVY history of achievements and failures. Be serious as you ought to.

    July 4, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
  5. Sotiris Sotiropoulos

    This is not about Greece, souvlaki, loosers, lazy guys and the rest of small talk issues.

    It is about the fight between people's state and bankers' state. It is about the fight against the latest (last?) phase of capitalism: the irrational casino capitalism (not just ruthless capitalism-that social democracy or even federalism could handle that well). Bankers' interested in short (1-2 years) profit and letting economies collapse. It has always been the privilige of the lazy and well-off to think and revolt (before they become hard-working-for somebody else slaves) and the Greeks are still in a position to do so. It does not matter if Tsipras is a populist as long as he stands against casino capitalism. Bankers of the world no need to be afraid however. He will not prevail, he is just making a statement. Only when the people of Texas, Alabama etc (heart of conservatism in the heart of a war machine) digest these statements (from many more to come) and revolt, this paranoia may end.

    July 4, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
  6. dcmortimer

    Greek politicians are as about as useful as a strainer in a sinking boat .

    July 4, 2012 at 11:12 pm |
  7. dcmortimer

    Who gave them all the money to create a rip off state ,rich European Banks , why? Because of greed big bonuses and inflated share prices no one thinks of the long term consequences only short term gains .

    July 4, 2012 at 11:19 pm |
  8. YS

    Another pretty face destined to disappoint. Oh well.
    For those who take the "let them eat cake" stand, I want to say that Greeks are not the only freeloaders in the world. I think the US is well on the road to its own social utopia-turn hell lead by.... who else?...but another pretty face with a knack for big words.

    July 4, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
  9. Stratos

    Well it seems after all that Greece is not the only parasite in the EU... Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Cyprus have also a banking sector collapsing... And there are some rumors about Slovenia also. Maybe these countries are not the problem. Maybe the monetary union itself is the real problem... I think that Tsipras is not the guy who will pull Greece out of the crisis but some things he is insisting on are right. The austerity measures will not save the euro because they are creating a never ending recession cycle...

    July 5, 2012 at 12:46 am |
  10. pET

    Greece has alot to offer but without any real actual solutions in suight Greece is doomed to fail ..It is only a matter of time...not if...
    It lacks alot of industries and manufactures nothing if at all..Tsipiras is great leader but with no clear policies and floating from one thing to the next...Tsipiras and any Greek leader needs to action and create not just talk..

    July 5, 2012 at 1:56 am |
  11. Anna

    Wrong, Tsipras is not an admirer of Poutin (how could he be?), but of Roosevelt...!

    July 5, 2012 at 1:58 am |
  12. mazestix

    Neo-liberal policies distroy peoples of Europe.
    Tsipras is simply the safety value for the Greek nation in order to defend to bankers' attacks.
    Here, in Greece, we live in an unprecended humanitarian crisis.
    Every day people commit suicide because they cannot afford the load of bank crisis which is loaded on their arms.
    Tsipras is -maybe- our last hope. Not the person. But the ideas he represents.
    We are in front of a corruption like Argentina's in 2001, if you remember.
    If Syriza and Tsipras will not have the chance to govern and take some measures to protect the greek people, then a situation like Libya or Egypt is possible.
    Never forget this:
    "When peaceful revolution becomes impossible then violent revolution becomes inevitable".

    July 5, 2012 at 1:58 am |
  13. jimmy lim

    Guys, some of you got it very wrong. Pasok was the cause of the problem for Greece bcos of its mismanagement. having said that the root of all these problems is the euro n eurozone which does not allow market forces to react and to balance out the inherent inefficiencies within each country as it occurs. This one size fits all policy is flawed and only exacerbates the problem further down until one one fine day when the debt becomes so humongous it becomes unsolvable. Euro only benefits the rich and advanced countries like Germany

    July 5, 2012 at 3:12 am |
  14. john

    Mr.Johnson,
    My country and the ideologists like Tsipras saved Europe and USA from Fascistonazists in the 40's. Better look for parasites in your country. Greece is the ideological cornerstone of today's United European Union, the saviour of democratic values that exist today. And also if you look friends for your expressed opinion comment in the internet site of Chrysi Avgi (they have the dream to make humans Souvlakia burning them or make them soaps). Cnn is too democratic for your ideology...

    July 6, 2012 at 6:55 am |
  15. Dimitris

    Tsipras is a populist politician who takes advantage of the difficult situation. The Greek people decided to have a different governance. Whoever characterizes a whole country as a parasite suffers form extensive ignorance and lack of mature political thinking. The Greek people believes in the European ideals more than other European citizens. At the end of the day Greece will recover and will be stronger than ever. It might take some time but it will happen!

    July 6, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  16. bee

    Why does CNN block my comments?

    July 7, 2012 at 7:46 am |
  17. medhat

    Fun to learn English for free
    http://www.elearning-directory.com/arabic-see2

    July 8, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
  18. panos stroumpis

    i have notice that tsipras has disturb some of you.if you are in the 1% you should be concerned, but in case you are in the 99% you should be happy to have somebody like tsipras to be on your side.the whole world needs people like tsipras to stand against the banksters and wall street.

    August 5, 2012 at 2:48 am |
  19. Paschi

    There is a solution to the problem called Greece. Remove ALL Greeks from public positions, whether that is goverment or public servants and place in those positions, Germans and Scandinavians respectively. If the Germans govern us, they will consider Greece part of Germany, which means they will act patriotically for the good of Greece and not the benefit of their pocket (like the Greek politicians do). As for the Scandinavians, they dont like getting their palms greased like the Greeks, if you know what I mean.

    All in all, its time for the knowledgable and capable t govern and run the paradise named Greece (so that I can finally can come back and live my life close to home and family)!

    November 14, 2012 at 2:44 am |

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