The Greek word for what he's doing is "katalipsi."

Photographer: Yorgos Karahalis/Bloomberg

Tsipras's 'Occupy Greece' Tactics

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
Read More.
a | A

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras's abrupt turnabouts, flashes of anger and sudden outbursts of inflammatory rhetoric appear irrational, causing the serious men and women who represent Greece's creditors to mistrust him profoundly. Everything falls into place, however, if one accepts that Tsipras is not running the Greek government: He's occupying it, the way protesters occupy a public building.

Alexander Baunov of the Moscow Carnegie Center, who once served as a Russian diplomat in Greece, wrote recently:

The first thing a young Greek politician, a leftist Greek activist learns at university, even in high school, is the katalipsi (κατάληψη) -- 'capture.' Student leaders unhappy with the lineup of the university board, the schedule, teachers, the principal, the cost of rooming at the dorm, the quality of free student meals can declare a katalipsi: seal off entrances and exits, classes and the principal's office, plaster the walls with slogans and announce that there will be no classes, no one will study, teach, read or write until the demands are met. Those who want knowledge are traitors to the common cause.

This is an exaggerated, sarcastic description (Baunov has little sympathy for leftists), but the student protest has a powerful tradition in Greece, and Tsipras's political beginnings are rooted in it.

In November 1973, when Greece was still ruled by a military junta, a three-day student occupation of the Athens Polytechnic under the slogan "Bread, Education, Freedom" ended in a crackdown. By the end, 24 people were dead and 15 "missing." The dictatorship fell the next year and the events at the polytechnic became enshrined in Greek memory. It "came to haunt future generations, as it was looked upon as the ultimate archetype of resistance, militant action and self-sacrifice," Kostis Kornetis wrote in his book, "Children of the Dictatorship."

Tsipras's political career began in high school, where he joined the Communist youth. At age 16, he led the occupation of his school to protest an education reform proposed by a center-right government, which would have required students to pay for textbooks, among other things. He then helped negotiate the withdrawal of the reform. 

Related: Greece Default Watch

After the Athens Polytechnic tragedy, Greek governments were careful not to use force against students occupying their colleges. Greece even enacted laws in 1982 stipulating "academic asylum": Police were banned from entering universities without the principal's permission, and students were immune from arrest on university property. According to a 2009 cable from then-U.S. ambassador in Athens Daniel Speckhard, published by Wikileaks, the necessary permission was only given three times, one of them to uproot "620 six-foot-high marijuana plants" in a field owned by the University of Crete. "Due in large part to constant disruptions to classes, the average Greek student takes six years to complete a four-year degree," Speckhard wrote. "Greek universities spend a whopping 12 percent of their budgets each year to repair damage to university premises and equipment caused by violence on campuses."

Tsipras became prominent in the protest movement as a student at the National Technical University in Athens in the late 1990s. His engineering education must not have been a priority: After graduation, he only made a feeble attempt to earn a living as a construction engineer, at a small firm he set up with his cousin. In 2006 and 2007, the business netted him 9,500 euros ($10,500) and 11,174 euros, respectively.

As a political activist, Tsipras was doing much better. At the university, he became a leader of the student union and of Greece's national council of student unions, as well as of the leftist coalition Synaspismos, a precursor to the current ruling party, Syriza. By 2008, he was at the top of the Synaspismos hierarchy, and by 2009, he had a seat in parliament -- a meteoric career.

If this experience taught Tsipras anything, it was that you just need to demand what you want: If you're persistent enough, you will get it. Any attempt to punish you for this behavior would be, at the very least, unsportsmanlike, and probably illegal.

In 2011, after Greece received its first international bailout, Greek students again started using the slogan "Bread, Education, Freedom," adding, "The Junta Did Not End in 1973" (note the year: It implies that it was the Polytechnic protest that toppled the dictatorship). In 2011, the government had the "academic asylum laws" lifted, but Tsipras was already on the next level. He could now use what he'd learned at school in grown-up politics.

It's important to understand that Tsipras doesn't negotiate in the usual sense. When he concedes a technical point to creditors, it means nothing: he just prolongs his occupation of both the government building in Athens and the negotiating room in Brussels. When he suddenly backs a creditor proposal that he'd asked his voters to reject, and immediately goes on to tell Greeks to vote against it, he's just battling to withstand a siege. If there's not enough money to pay pensions and banks cannot be allowed to give out more than 60 euros a day to Greek citizens, that's because the evil outside world has ganged up on him and his courageous band of occupiers.

It's tough, he understands, so he's asked his fellow students -- sorry, citizens -- to vote on whether he should continue the katalipsi. If they vote to disperse, he will bow his head and leave. If they vote to continue, he is confident that the principal -- personified by the likes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker -- will eventually yield and bring back the free food. That's how it always happened: One just has to hang tough.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net