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The Globe and Mail

Greece's political odd couple serious about averting default

Greek Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos, left, shakes hands with Prime Minister George Papandreou.

Yiorgos Karahalis/Reuters/Yiorgos Karahalis/Reuters

Don't let the Laurel and Hardy image fool you. Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou and his new Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos may look an odd couple but they are dead serious about averting default on Greece's debt.

The Prime Minister and his new No. 2 are worlds apart in style, experience and skill sets, but they have set aside their differences to rescue Greece from its deepest crisis in decades and keep their socialist party in power.

Mr. Papandreou is a soft-spoken, athletic 59-year-old who is comfortable in the corridors of Brussels. Mr. Venizelos, 54, is a stocky party stalwart who can easily bully rogue Members of Parliament.

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"We have two prime ministers," far right LAOS leader George Karatzaferis told Parliament after the June 17 reshuffle that thrust Mr. Venizelos into the Finance Ministry hot seat. "One is good for roaming the parlours of Europe and the other for staying home to do the dirty work."

His tough-guy image may have lost Mr. Venizelos the battle for the PASOK party leadership to Mr. Papandreou in 2007, but the Prime Minister is now counting on that reputation to corral rebel deputies behind a mid-term austerity plan that must pass Parliament this week to avoid a financial collapse with potentially dire consequences for the global economy.

Mr. Venizelos is already meeting and trying to dissuade deputies who have threatened to vote against the fresh set of austerity measures. If the plan is rejected, Greece will not get the next, crucial €12-billion ($17-billion) tranche of a €110-billion bailout it won last year from the European Union and International Monetary Fund.

"They are an odd couple. They are similar in only one way and that is ambition," said Nikos Dimou, commentator and author of the book The Misfortune of Being Greek.

Mr. Dimou said that even if the "good-cop, bad-cop" act worked, and all socialist MPs were convinced to toe the line and pass the mid-term plan in votes on Wednesday and Thursday, deeper problems remained. Without reforming a dysfunctional state, there was little hope for a long-term solution to Greece's problems.

"Any defections will be minor and Mr. Venizelos will be triumphant on Thursday but it will be a Pyrrhic victory," he said. "However well the duet performs, there remains the chaos of the Greek state beneath them."

Mr. Papandreou is the son and grandson of famous prime ministers. A sociologist born in the United States, he likes dabbling in international diplomacy and still speaks the faltering Greek of the Hellenic diaspora. He has held the Education and Foreign Affairs portfolios.

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Affable and mellow, he loves to talk about his vision for "green growth," of turning Greece into an environmentally friendly economic paradise, even in the middle of the worst crisis in nearly four decades.

Mr. Venizelos, the son of a provincial lawyer from the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, has bruiser looks that belie one of the sharpest intellects in Greek politics.

A law professor and one of Greece's top constitutional experts, he is famous for his rhetoric - as government spokesman in the 1990s, he revelled in verbal fencing with journalists.

After cutting his teeth in the leftist student movement, he was first elected to Parliament in 1993 before going on to hold a series of ministries, including Transport, Justice and Defence. As culture minister, he was in charge of preparing the successful 2004 Olympics in Athens.

"They are the antithesis of each other and not only in terms of appearance," said Yannis Varoufakis, economics professor at Athens University. "Papandreou has a much more ecumenical view of things, he understands the world better than he understands Greece. Venizelos understands Greece but not the world."

Analysts say the two may have agreed an uneasy truce to weather the crisis and take the party to elections in a few months, with Mr. Venizelos anointed as PASOK's heir apparent.

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"This a government Papandreou created to avoid collapsing but there is little hope he can continue beyond autumn and the duet will end then," Mr. Varoufakis said. "If this was done two years ago, it might have worked. Now it's too little, too late."

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