TIME russia

Why the Kremlin Is Blaming Putin Critic’s Murder on a ‘Provocation’

Anti-Putin Protest Held In Red Square
Sasha Mordovets—Getty Images Boris Nemtsov, center, and other opposition activists attend a rally at Red Square on April 8, 2012 in Moscow.

The loaded word is intended to hint at foreign enemies

On Saturday the Kremlin trotted out a favorite piece of Russian doublespeak to explain the murder of one of its most strident critics. Boris Nemtsov, a leading figure in the opposition to President Vladimir Putin, was shot dead around midnight on Friday a short walk from Red Square, and within hours the state had deemed the killing a provokatsiya, a word whose translation into English, “provocation,” does not begin to capture its ability in Russian to shift blame and manipulate suspicion.

The first one to offer this explanation was Putin, who remarked through his spokesman in the early hours of Saturday morning, as Nemtsov’s body still lay on the asphalt, that the murder “bears all the hallmarks of a provocation.” The phrase, vague as it seems, then appeared to set the tone for the subsequent coverage of the murder on state-run television and the pronouncements of Putin’s allies.

Sergei Markov, a long-time Kremlin spindoctor, wrote on his Facebook page that “Nemtsov was killed by Putin’s enemies with the aim of framing Putin for the murder.” Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the region of Chechnya, took things a step further: “There are no doubts whatsoever that Western special services organized Nemtsov’s murder,” he wrote on his Instagram account.

But to the average viewer of state-TV, Putin’s use of the term “provocation” would be enough to evoke the invisible hand of Russia’s enemies, while also hinting that the Kremlin, once provoked, could be justified in responding in unpredictable ways. Back in 1983, for instance, the Soviet Union claimed that its downing of a Korean airliner full of passengers was in fact the result of a blatant American provocation.

The term was similarly useful in redirecting blame in Nemtsov’s case, as investigators made clear in their statement on Saturday. Before they could even complete the forensic testing in the case, the sleuths at the Investigative Committee, Russia’s version of the FBI, declared that Nemtsov had likely become a “sacrificial victim” in a provocation staged by those who “want to destabilize the political situation” in Russia.

The Committee’s statement went on to offer a variety of colorful theories, suggesting that anyone from Islamic extremists to “very radical” but unspecified forces from Ukraine could be behind the murder. For good measure, they left open the possibility that Nemtsov was killed due to a personal or business dispute.

But the investigators made no mention of the people most obviously interested in silencing Nemtsov – the state officials he had for years antagonized with his campaigns against corruption. By leaving that out of their initial conclusions, the investigators in effect dismissed even the slightest possibility that the President’s supporters, not to mention his direct subordinates, could be behind the assassination of a man portrayed for years on Kremlin-run media as an enemy of the state.

Much the same has been the case after each of the violent attacks that have befallen Putin’s opponents during his 15 years in power. After every one of these crimes, state officials have suggested that the attackers were not out to kill or hurt their victims, but to tarnish Putin’s good name.

On one occasion in 2007, Putin’s adviser even lumped two of the most notorious unsolved murders together – those of the investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya in October 2006 and the whistleblower Alexander Litvinenko the following month – as a “well-planned provocation” against Russia. “There are strong groups that unite with each other in a constant onslaught against the President,” the adviser, Igor Shuvalov, said in explaining the murders, which seemed to have no clear connection to each other.

It never became clear what “strong groups” he was talking about, as no one was ever charged in Russia for ordering those two killings. Last fall, the Kremlin even refused to cooperate with a public inquiry into Litvinenko’s death in London, where he was poisoned in 2006 with radioactive polonium. British authorities have linked that murder to Russian security services, but have been stonewalled in response.

Given those precedents, the investigation into Nemtsov’s shooting will likely be just as murky, leaving most Russians to choose from the range of theories their leaders have already offered them, and to wonder what else to expect from a Kremlin so crudely provoked.

TIME russia

Kremlin Critic Gunned Down in Moscow Ahead of Anti-Putin March

Russia Opposition Leader Killed
Pavel Golovkin—AP People lay flowers at the place where Boris Nemtsov, a charismatic Russian opposition leader and sharp critic of President Vladimir Putin, was gunned down, at Red Square in Moscow, Russia, Feb. 28, 2015.

The Russian President has pledged to oversee the investigation

The Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down in Moscow around midnight on Friday as he walked within view of the Kremlin walls.

Soon after the gunshots rang out in the heart of the Russian capital, President Vladimir Putin was informed of the murder, which he characterized as a “provocation.” Through his spokesman, Putin told Russian news agencies early on Saturday morning that, “This cruel killing has all the signs of a hired hit and bears the distinctive character of a provocation.”

Though numerous Kremlin critics have been assassinated during Putin’s tenure, none have been as prominent as the 55-year-old Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister in the administration of Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. His killing will likely galvanize the opposition movement and once again test the ability and willingness of Russian authorities to investigate acts of violence against Putin’s opponents. Such crimes have tended to go unsolved since Putin took power 15 years ago.

According to police and investigators in Moscow, Nemtsov was shot several times as he crossed the bridge that leads to the southern gates of the Kremlin fortress. Police said they have launched a citywide manhunt for the assailants, who escaped the scene of the crime in a white car.

Nemtsov’s murder took place two days before he and his allies in the opposition were due to lead a massive march in Moscow on Sunday against the Putin regime. The demonstration, as well as parallel protests in more than a dozen cities across the country, is meant to condemn Putin’s handling of the ongoing conflict with the West over Ukraine and the damage it has done to Russia’s economy.

Outrage poured in from the ranks of Russia’s opposition movement as news of the murder spread. “I’m certain that this scum will pay a high price,” said Nemtsov’s close friend and ally Mikhail Kasyanov, a former Russian Prime Minister. “Right now every member of the opposition needs society’s protection,” he told the state news agency Tass.

TIME Ukraine

How Putin Came Out on Top in Ukraine Cease-Fire Deal

Russia's President Vladimir Putin, France's President Francois Hollande, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko attend a meeting on resolving the Ukrainian crisis in Minsk, Belarus, Feb. 11, 2015.
Reuters Russia's President Vladimir Putin, France's President Francois Hollande, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko attend a meeting on resolving the Ukrainian crisis in Minsk, Belarus, Feb. 11, 2015.

The Russian president just dodged another round of Western sanctions

Despite his famous tendency to keep people waiting, Vladimir Putin arrived early on Wednesday at the latest round of negotiations to end the war in eastern Ukraine, and on Thursday he was also the first to emerge when they were over, looking pale and tired but, on the whole, rather satisfied with himself. “It was not the best night of my life,” the Russian president remarked with a smirk when he appeared before the news cameras in the capital of Belarus. “But the morning is good.”

For him it certainly was. Unlike his Ukrainian counterpart in these negotiations, Putin risked little going into these talks and even less coming out of them. The terms of the ceasefire agreement announced on Thursday were vague enough to seem meaningless on many of the key points of contention—even the central question of whether Russian troops are fighting in Ukraine or not was left undetermined—and as Putin was careful to stress while briefing the media afterward, he did not sign any kind of deal. That was left to Russia’s proxies in Ukraine, the separatist leaders that have been fighting for ten months against the Ukrainian military.

Meaningless or not, the terms of the deal appear to clearly favor the separatists. Under the agreement reached in Minsk, the rebel lines of supply from Russia will remain intact. Only at the end of this year would they even have to consider giving up control of the patches of border they control in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. As Putin was also careful to stress, the rebels would only have to relinquish control of that border when the government in Kiev grants the separatist territories sweeping autonomy, starts paying them pensions and other social benefits, plus the little matter of enshrining their “special status” of semi-independence in an amendment to the Ukrainian constitution. On top of all that, Thursday’s agreement grants legal immunity to anyone who joined the separatist militias, including the fighters responsible for killing Ukrainian soldiers and civilians.

The average citizen of Ukraine will likely find the terms of this deal humiliating, and blame will no doubt fall on President Petro Poroshenko, who sat opposite Putin in Minsk, when the time comes to implement it. Since taking office in June with a promise to make peace with Russia, Poroshenko has already faced attacks from political rivals and allies alike, as well as from protesters in the streets of Kiev, for ceding too much ground to the separatists. Now trying to change the constitution in order to appease more Russian demands will require a level of support in parliament that Poroshenko simply may not be able to muster. Pile onto that the requirement of welfare payments to the breakaway regions, and Poroshenko risks facing a popular revolt much like the one that vaulted him to power a year ago.

Poroshenko did not, however, come away with nothing on Thursday. The news of the deal, perhaps regardless of its substance, allowed the International Monetary Fund to move ahead with an additional aid package to Ukraine, which was announced right after the negotiations ended. “My sense is that someone was telling the Ukrainians that an IMF deal was contingent on a Minsk ceasefire deal,” said Timothy Ash, an economist at Standard Bank in London. “No ceasefire – no IMF deal.” Over the next four years, Ukraine now stands to get an additional $17.5 billion in Western financial support, which should be just enough to rescue its economy.

But even with that bright side to consider, Poroshenko wore a rather more dour expression than his Russian counterpart when he met the press. In his remarks, Poroshenko chose to emphasize the more immediate effects of the ceasefire agreement. All guns must go silent under the deal as of midnight on Sunday, Feb. 15, and all heavy artillery must be pulled back away from the front lines. All prisoners of war must be released or traded to the other side. All “illegal groups” must be disarmed, and all foreign fighters and mercenaries must leave Ukraine.

So what exactly counts as an illegal group in this context? And what is a mercenary or a foreign fighter? According to the Ukrainian authorities and their Western allies, Russia has illegally sent thousands of its soldiers to help the separatists fight the Ukrainian army. But Russia, for its part, denies that any of its soldiers are fighting in Ukraine, and Putin recently claimed that the Ukrainian military is in fact a “foreign legion” of Western personnel. So don’t expect the warring sides to agree any time soon on the definition of a foreign legionnaire or a mercenary in this conflict.

For Putin, though, that’s just as well. What matters to him is maintaining the perception that he is willing and able to compromise, and on that score the peace deal is already paying dividends. Hours after it was signed, the European Union was due to debate whether to impose another round of sanctions against Russia. But the E.U. foreign policy chief, Frederica Mogherini, announced beforehand that the sanctions issue had been taken off the agenda. Instead, the bloc would discuss how to use “all means at the E.U.’s disposal to facilitate the implementation of the agreements” reached in Minsk, she said.

Other European leaders seemed equally eager to take what they could get from Putin in Minsk. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the agreement a “ray of hope,” while her Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier admitted that it was “certainly no breakthrough.”

But Merkel did not leave Minsk empty-handed. The talks, as well as her week of shuttle diplomacy to prepare for them, helped her to silence the chorus of Western diplomats and military officials who only a week ago were calling for the U.S. and Europe to arm Ukraine in its war against the separatists. While the new peace initiative gets a chance to run its course, the debate over arming Ukraine is sure to subside. That’s another reason for Putin to rest easy.

Read next: Here Are 7 of the Weirdest North Korean State Slogans

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Ukraine

Putin’s Push for Peace Renews Hopes for a Ceasefire in Ukraine

A man walks past an unexploded rocket in Kramatorsk, eastern Ukraine on Feb. 11, 2015.
Volomydyr Shuvayev—AFP/Getty Images A man walks past an unexploded rocket in Kramatorsk, eastern Ukraine on Feb. 11, 2015.

Throughout the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has tried hard to keep himself apart from the warring sides. He has neither met publicly with the leaders of Ukraine’s pro-Russian separatist rebellion nor engaged in a formal round of peace talks with their enemies in the Ukrainian government. The Kremlin, he insists, is not a party to the conflict. Which is what makes the latest round of peace talks feel weightier, if not also more hopeful, than the previous ones.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Kremlin confirmed in a statement that Putin would personally attend the negotiations in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, that evening. Previous peace talks held in Minsk have usually seen Putin send a junior envoy to sit at the table, and when those negotiations have failed in the past to produce a viable agreement, he has been able to keep himself at arm’s length from the failure. This time around, any agreement the Minsk talks produce will likely bear Putin’s signature, giving him a greater share of the responsibility in making sure all sides adhere to it.

That leaves some room for optimism. Since it began in April, the war in eastern Ukraine has claimed more than 5,000 lives, roughly half of them after the last peace accord was reached in Minsk in September. The pro-Russian rebels who signed that ceasefire went on to violate it on an almost daily basis, as did the forces of the Ukrainian government, which was represented at the September talks by former President Leonid Kuchma.

This time Ukraine’s current President Petro Poroshenko will be at the table, as will his counterparts from Germany and France, who have already put a lot of pressure on Poroshenko to accept the peace offer that Putin puts forward. The exact terms of that offer have been kept secret by all sides, but Moscow has tried hard to emphasize that it initiated these talks.

“The efforts towards settling the Ukrainian crisis are being undertaken at the Russian President’s initiative,” said Putin’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Feb. 8. Several days earlier, Putin sent his ideas for a peace deal in a letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande. The two European leaders then traveled to Kiev to discuss the terms with Poroshenko, and the following day, Feb. 7, Merkel and Hollande went to Moscow to clarify the terms of the proposal with Putin.

All of that shuttle diplomacy from some of the world’s most influential leaders has given Wednesday’s talks in Minsk even more momentum. The biggest question hovering over them now is whether Poroshenko will be able to sell Putin’s peace deal to his own electorate. Exhausted as many of them are with the conflict, Ukrainians have little appetite for ceding any more ground to Moscow, not after losing thousands of their countrymen and large chunks of territory in a war that most of them see as Russian aggression.

So even if Putin has decided to sue for peace, he will not be able dictate the terms without giving some ground himself. The alternative for all sides, however, will be the continuation, and more likely the escalation, of a vicious and fratricidal war. That prospect might just be enough this time to make the Minsk agreement stick.

TIME Hungary

Hungary’s Experience Suggests Greece Will Follow E.U. on Russia – For a Price

Martin Schulz visits Athens
Orestis Panagiotou—EPA From Left: Martin Schulz (L), President of the European Parliament and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras make statements after their meeting in Athens on Jan. 29, 2015.

Both Budapest and Athens have flirted with support for Russia but have fallen in line with Brussels

If there is one government in the European Union where the new leftist leader of Greece might look for a sympathetic ear, it is probably among his counterparts in Hungary. Both of them have a clear interest in breaking ranks with the E.U. over Russia — as Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras did on his first day in office this week, to the outrage of his E.U. colleagues — and they both built their reputations on standing up to Brussels, especially when it comes to the terms of paying back their loans. (In 2008, Hungary was the first E.U. member to get a bailout amid the global financial crisis, more than a year before the Greek economy had to be rescued.)

But the Hungarians have so far warily regarded Tsipras from a distance, an encouraging sign for the E.U. elites now trying to keep Greece in line. “Our situation was very much like what happened in Greece,” admits Zoltan Kovacs, a spokesman for the Hungarian government. “We were on the brink of financial collapse. Fake financial results were being presented to Brussels.”

No less important, public resentment soared after the Hungarian bailout, not only toward the then-ruling government, but toward the foreign lenders that were trying to impose their own brand of austerity on Hungary. Much like in Greece, that frustration helped bring to power a populist government in 2010, and it’s leader, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, was re-elected to another term last year. But when asked about the new Greek leadership, Orban’s spokesman shifts uncomfortably in his seat. “We would prefer to highlight the contrasts,” says Kovacs.

The contrasts suggest that while the new Greek Prime Minister may seem intent on a disrupting E.U. resolve, especially on the issue of Russia, he will more likely fall back in line if the financial support from Brussels keeps flowing. Europe has been here before. At the start of the conflict in Ukraine last spring, Hungary also questioned the wisdom of the E.U.’s decision to impose sanctions on Russia. Orban even said in August that trying to isolate Russia was like “shooting oneself in the foot,” incidentally the same phrase that Tsipras had used to describe the E.U. sanctions while on a visit to Moscow a few months earlier.

In Orban’s case, the rhetoric did not result in action. “Hungary engaged in a discussion about whether or not they work and their impact, says Jeno Megyesy, a senior adviser to Orban on relations with the U.S., which has led the push for sanctions against Russia. “But when you have equal members of a union, to raise issues does not mean we’re not part of the union. We are part of the union, we voted for every sanction.”

In the coming days, as E.U. leaders prepare to meet on Feb. 12 to debate another round of sanctions against Russia, Greece will have a chance to air its opposition to these measures, and it has already staked out a tough negotiating position. A few hours after the E.U. warned Russia of “swift” new measures on Wednesday in response to an escalation of the conflict in Ukraine, Tsipras’ government came out with a stark rebuttal: “Greece doesn’t consent,” it said in a statement.

But the next day the Greeks backpedaled. “The issue was not whether our new government agrees or not with fresh sanctions on Russia,” the Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis wrote on his blog. “The issue is whether our view can be taken for granted without even being told of what it is.” Later the same day, Greece did not move to block sanctions on Russia when E.U. foreign ministers held an emergency meeting in Brussels to discuss Russia’s renewed offensive in Ukraine this month.

That is because the Greek government’s priority, much like the Hungarian, is not to help Russia but to keep the support from the E.U. flowing. Over the next six years, for instance, Hungary has more than $25 billion coming its way from the E.U. just to create jobs and drive growth in its food and agriculture industries. That aid package was agreed last fall in spite of E.U.’s harsh criticism of Orban’s record on freedom of speech, minority rights and other issues, as well as their disagreements on Ukraine. Greece has even more at stake. In the coming months, it will seek to renegotiate the terms of its bailout and get the E.U. to forgive a big chunk of its loans, which amount to some 240 billion euros (more than $270 billion).

That will likely get expensive for taxpayers in wealthier E.U. states. But the larger issue for them is the weakness of the E.U.’s options in urging members to agree. The political tools at Brussels’ disposal, such as officially censuring an E.U. government or even suspending its voting rights within the union, “are either ineffective or the relevant actors are unwilling to use them,” says Jan-Werner Mueller, an expert on European politics at Princeton University.

As an example, he cites the E.U.’s failure even to seriously discuss suspending the voting rights of Hungary last summer, when Prime Minister Orban pledged to abandon liberal democracy and create an “illiberal new state” modeled on the successes of Russia, Turkey and China. Instead of punishing Orban’s government, the E.U. moved ahead a few weeks later with its $25 billion package of support for the Hungarian economy, once again favoring the carrot over the stick.

Amid the ongoing confrontation with Russia, this is a choice that the E.U. will face more often and in starker terms. Practically any member state that feels slighted by the E.U. establishment can hit back by merely hinting at an alliance with Moscow, an option that was not available to most E.U. members before the crisis in Ukraine, at least not to the same extent, says Mueller. “It adds another layer of conflicting interests.”

But as long as the E.U., and particularly the German engine of its economy, can meet the financial needs of its poorer allies, they should be able to maintain (or purchase) a level of solidarity. The only question is how much they can afford.

Read next: Meet the New Prime Minister of Greece Who Has Shaken Brussels and Berlin

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Germany

Germans Weigh Response to Likely Demands of New Greek PM

Greece's new Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras arrives at Maximos Mansion, the Greek Prime Minister's official residence in central Athens, Jan. 26, 2015.
Lefteris Pitarakis—AP Greece's new Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras arrives at Maximos Mansion, the Greek Prime Minister's official residence in central Athens, Jan. 26, 2015.

The newly elected government in Greece will test the patience of its German creditors with its demands for more financial help

It would be hard to find a place in Europe that feels more cozily insulated from the troubles of the Greek economy than the marbled halls of KaDeWe, the posh department store in the center of Berlin. Its immaculate champagne bar and moneyed clientele practically ooze with the kind of wealth that Greece and other members of the European Union have struggled to regain since the global financial crisis hit five years ago. But as the electoral upset in Greece reminded Europe over the weekend, German fortunes and Greek misfortunes are deeply intertwined.

“We put so much money there, so much money, and for what?” asked Mark Schaefer, a retired German insurance executive, as he waited for his son to join him on Monday for lunch in the culinary hall of KaDeWe.

It is a common question for Germans these days. Since 2010, their country has shouldered the biggest share of the roughly $270-billion bailout program meant to save Greece from economic ruin. But the left-wing Syriza party that won Sunday’s elections in Greece has asked for some of its bailout loans to be forgiven. The new Greek Prime Minister, Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras, is sure to push for a new round of negotiations over the terms of those loans in the coming months, and they will again test the patience of German taxpayers as well as the solidarity and stability of the shared European market.

“I think maybe it’s time for a break-up,” says Kathrin Scheel, who was browsing the cosmetics section of KaDeWe on Monday. But the laugh that accompanied her remark was perhaps as telling as the sentiment behind it. Frustrated as Germans are with their Greek debtors, most of them do not seriously want to risk a break-up of the Eurozone that unites them with Greece and 17 other members of the European Union. They have, after all, profited enormously from their shared currency, and a Greek exit could put that system in jeopardy.

According to the Bertelsmann Foundation, a leading German think tank, the common currency has added an average of about 37 billion euros (or nearly $42 billion) to the size of Germany’s economy every year since its creation in 1992. Through increased trade and investment, that comes to an average of 450 euros in wealth per person per year in Germany, says Henning vom Stein, the head of Bertelsmann’s office in Brussels. “Germany has the biggest interest in keeping the single market together and making it function more dynamically,” he says in an email to TIME.

So it is no surprise that German leaders have shown a grudging willingness to compromise with a Syriza-led government in Greece. “Since the beginning of the crisis, the goal has been to stabilize the whole of the Eurozone, including Greece, and that remains the goal of our work,” the spokesman for the German government, Steffen Siebert, said on Monday.

But German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be under intense pressure from her own electorate not to give in to Tsipras’ demands for a reduction in Greek debt. Her popularity is based in large part on her handling of the crisis in the Eurozone, and any major concessions to Greece could dent her approval ratings, which hit a high of over 70% in August. That much seemed clear from the tone of the German press on Monday. The country’s most popular daily, Bild, mused on its website about how much the “Greek chaos” would cost German taxpayers, and called Tsipras a “Euro-horror” on its front page, asking: “Should Europe really tremble before the new Greek leader?”

But judging by the market reaction on Monday, the answer is probably not. European traders did not respond to the Greek election with a sell-off, and stocks remained flat at the end of the day, as did the value of the euro after a drop in early trading. So investors seem to believe that Greece and its creditors are likely to find a compromise to keep the Eurozone intact.

Somewhat harder to gauge are the limits of German patience. Asked how much more his government should do to help the struggling Greek economy, Schaefer, the retiree, answered: “It is already too much.” Rich Berliners are not the only ones with that opinion. In a nationwide poll published this month by the German state television network ARD, 61% of respondents said they want Greece to be forced out of the Eurozone if it does not meet the conditions of its loans. So as much as Germans have benefited from the common currency, they may not give their Chancellor much slack in negotiating to preserve it.

TIME Greece

Greek Exit Polls Project Election Win For Anti-Austerity Party

Greece Election
Lefteris Pitarakis—AP People cast their ballots in booths at a polling station in an Athens school on Jan. 25, 2015.

The projected landslide would mark a rejection of the austerity measures imposed on Greece by its creditors

Exit polls in Greece’s national elections suggested an easy win for the radical leftwing Syriza party on Sunday evening, which has promised to “cancel” austerity and defy the European institutions that have given Greece some $270 billion in bailout loans since 2010.

Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras earlier summed up the mood of the day with a stark message for the voters taking part in the day’s elections: “Today we decide if we are going forward or if we are going towards the unknown.” Evidently, his electorate prefers the unknown to the five years of economic austerity they have faced under his government. Later on Sunday, Samaras conceded defeat in the election, the Associated Press reports.

A victory for Syriza, whose ranks include an array of leftists ranging from Marxists to greens, would be a stunning repudiation of the course the European Union has charted out of the worst economic crisis in its history. But it would also send Greece, and Europe, into uncharted waters.

In the best case scenario, Syriza’s success promises to initiate a standoff between a new Greek government and its European lenders, particularly Germany, over the terms of Greece’s bailout program. That could potentially bring about a reduction in Greek debt that will force other troubled economies in Europe to question whether they, too, deserve an easing of their loan obligations.

In the worst case, Greece could be pushed toward a default on its debt and a rancorous exit from the Eurozone, risking the collapse of the common currency that unites and fuels most European economies. Global markets could then be thrown into a potentially destructive downward spiral.

While voting in Athens, the 40-year-old leader of Syriza, Alexis Tsipras, said the vote would mark “the return of dignity” to Greece. His party was expected to get 36% and 39% of the popular vote, according to the exit polls, which are seen as a rough but reliable projection of the final results.

In the country’s 300-member legislature, that would translate into between 148 and 154 seats. So the key question that remained on Sunday night was whether Syriza would win an outright majority and a mandate to form a new government, or whether it would need to find a coalition partner.

“For them a coalition might be better,” says Eleni Panagiotarea, a research fellow at the Eliamep think tank in Athens. “They have promised so many things to so many people that they may need a coalition partner to blame when they eventually fail to deliver.”

Many of Syriza’s promises do seem unrealistic. On the campaign trail, Tsipras pledged to drastically raise the minimum wage, hike social spending and cut taxes, all while keeping the federal budget balanced. He has also promised to keep Greece in the Eurozone while defying the terms of its E.U. bailout.

But regardless of whether such promises can be kept, they seem to have appealed to an electorate suffering from the impositions of austerity measures. The size of the Greek economy has contracted by a quarter since the onset of the financial crisis in 2009. Unemployment has soared to about a quarter of the population, with more than half of young people jobless in Greece. Under the spending cuts Samaras’ government has been forced to impose as a condition of its loans, roughly a third of the country’s 9.8 million voters have seen their social security and medical insurance slashed.

So it has long seemed only a matter of time before these deprivations brought about a revolt at the ballot box. As the European nation worst hit by the financial crisis, Greece has now become the first to see public resentment bring an anti-austerity party to the threshold of power. But in the months and years ahead, other E.U. members weighed down by crippling debt will be watching Greece to see whether it manages to rid itself of austerity in a face-off with European creditors.

Success in that effort could encourage the rise of similar political forces in debt-laden countries like Portugal and Italy, piling ever more pressure on European banks and donor countries to write off the loans they have given to their struggling neighbors. The strain on the E.U.’s economic stability would be severe, but not quite as severe as it would be in the case of a Greek exit from the Eurozone. Such an outcome would threaten to unwind the common market that has kept Europe united for a generation. That would surely mark a step into the unknown.

TIME Greece

Greek Elections Risk a ‘Game of Chicken’ With German and E.U. Lenders

The leader of Syriza party, Alexis Tsipras, listens to a question during a televised press conference on Jan. 23, 2015 at the Zappion Hall in Athens.
Louisa Gouliamaki—AFP/Getty Images The leader of Syriza party, Alexis Tsipras, listens to a question during a televised press conference on Jan. 23, 2015 at the Zappion Hall in Athens.

The likely victory of the radical left-wing Syriza party will set the stage for another confrontation over Greek debt and the future of Europe's single market

Last May, during a conference with his left-wing allies in Germany, the leader of Greece’s populist Syriza party offered a warning to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “I regret that I will say it here in Berlin,” Alexis Tsipras told his comrades from the German fringe party known as Die Linke (The Left). “Merkel, who will listen to it, will be upset. But soon she will have to deal with a government of the Left in Greece.”

That message now seems prophetic. Not only is Syriza expected take the most votes in this weekend’s Greek parliamentary elections, but the core platform of its leader is set to pose a major challenge for the German Chancellor. Tsipras, the telegenic populist who, at 40, could soon become the first politician from the radical left to take power in Europe in a generation, has pledged to defy his country’s creditors, particularly Germany, by rejecting the austerity measures they have imposed on Greece as a condition for the 240-billion-euros ($278 billion) worth of bailouts it has received since 2010.

He has also asked Germany and other European donor nations to forgive a large chunk of Greece’s debt. One alternative would be for Greece to abandon the European Union’s common currency, the euro, and slam the door behind by declaring some form of bankruptcy. That prospect, known as the Greek exit, or “Grexit,” could be calamitous for the stability and long-term prosperity of the E.U. economy, in particular the German locomotive that drives it.

For one thing, it would pose the risk of a domino effect, as other debt-laden countries, notably Portugal, Spain and Italy, will start to consider bailing on the Eurozone as well, says Henning vom Stein, the head of the Brussels office for the Bertelsmann Foundation, a leading European think-tank. “It will not end at Greece,” he says. “The single market is the engine of the European Union,“ he adds, and if Greece leaves, the whole thing could start to unravel.

For Greece, however, that would also be a disaster. Abandoning the euro would isolate its economy and force it to return to its former currency, the drachma, which would then plunge in value. Even a partial default on its debt would also sever Greece’s access to more loans for years to come. “There is no scenario under which an exit would make sense for Greece,” says Henning Vöpel, a senior economist at the Hamburg Institute of International Economics. So raising the prospect of a Grexit “is not a credible threat,” he adds.

It is more like the start of a painful negotiation over what to do about the failing Greek economy. What seems clear to all sides is that something has to give. The debt burden of the Greek government is now at 177% of its GDP, the highest in Europe, while the austerity measures imposed on Greece by its European creditors have forced massive budget cuts on everything from medical care to pensions and road maintenance. More than a quarter of the population is now unemployed, and among Greek youth, the jobless rate is close to 60%.

The resulting social unrest has proven fertile ground for populist parties like Syriza, and the result will be clear in this weekend’s elections. Tsipras is already preparing for the day after. In an appeal published this month in the German daily Handelsballt, he asked the German public to help give Greece a “European New Deal” that would release the Greek people from the humiliating conditions of austerity. “Let me be frank,” he wrote, “Greece’s debt is currently unsustainable and will never be serviced, especially while Greece is being subjected to continuous fiscal water boarding.”

There have been signs that Europe is prepared to yield to some of Syriza’s demands. The one-trillion euro stimulus program that the European Central Bank (ECB) announced on Thursday could ultimately, for instance, allow the bank to buy back Greek bonds, giving the struggling economy an infusion of cash and easing its debt load. With that program, “The ECB has made this bargaining solution possible,” says Vöpel, the Hamburg economist, in an email to TIME.

But Europe’s wealthier nations are still a long way off from accepting Syriza’s core demand — a reduction in the principle value of Greek debt. At the World Economic Forum in Davos on Thursday, one of the more recalcitrant voices on this issue was Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb: “It will be very difficult for us to forgive any loans,” he said during a panel discussion. At the same time, a Grexit would be still more difficult, he added: “We need to try to avoid the dirty exit at all costs.”

The key question now is how high those costs will be for Europe. Among the more affluent European nations, the rise of Eurosceptic parties, such as the National Front in France and the UKIP in the U.K., suggests that voters are already tired of bailing out their struggling neighbors, says Vöpel. So it will be hard for Merkel and her wealthy colleagues to convince their voters that, for the sake of European prosperity and solidarity, Greece needs yet another break.

Nor will it be easy for any Greek government to stay the course of austerity without causing a major public backlash. Already violent street protests have become the norm in Athens, often calling for Greece to throw off the strictures of its bailout program and go it alone. “There is quite a serious anti-German sentiment among the Greek population,” says Eleni Panagiotarea, a research fellow at the Eliamep think tank in Athens. “They feel they have been marginalized, and they really put the blame on Germany for imposing these very strict and harsh [loan] conditions.”

The Syriza campaign has played on those feelings, painting the country’s lenders as the source of Greece’s troubles since the global financial crisis began. But after the vote, the left-wing party will still need to compromise with the very institutions it has been demonizing, and the threat of a Grexit will be a useful tool. “They’re basically playing a game of chicken,” Panagiotarea says of the Syriza party. “Their logic is that these lending institutions will blink first, because they do not want to take the blame for a Grexit.”

On that score Syriza is probably right. The winner in a game of chicken is usually the one who has less to lose, and while the Greek economy has nearly reached rock bottom, Germany, like the rest of the E.U., cannot afford to risk an unraveling of the single market on which its economic growth depends. They would sooner preserve it by appeasing at least some of Syriza’s demands, or as the Finnish Prime Minister put it in Davos, “at any cost.”

TIME europe

Europe Appeals to Putin’s Ego As it Seeks Peace in Ukraine

German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a session of the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting on Jan. 22, 2015 in Davos.
Fabrice Cofrini—AFP/Getty Images German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a session of the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting on Jan. 22, 2015 in Davos.

In Davos, European leaders offer to make Putin's Eurasian dreams come true — but only if the conflict in Ukraine ends

Given the amount of blood still being spilled on a daily basis in the war in eastern Ukraine, it may seem premature, if not also in bad taste, to offer one of the more stubborn belligerents in the conflict a long-term path toward integration with the West. But on Thursday, that is what Russia got from some of the European leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. And it was Germany leading the charge.

During her afternoon appearance at the annual confab of investors and policymakers, German Chancellor Angela Merkel began by rattling off some of her typically harsh condemnations of Russia. With the annexation of Crimea last spring and the subsequent support for a violent rebellion in Ukraine’s eastern regions, Moscow had violated the “elementary principles of the European peaceful order,” she said. “It is a clear and flagrant violation of what has made us live and coexist peacefully together in Europe” since the end of World War II, Merkel added.

But when the moderator asked how she saw the conflict playing out in the more distant future, the Chancellor brought up the geopolitical vision (some would call it a fantasy) that Russian President Vladimir Putin has long been promulgating. “Later on, in the bigger picture,” Merkel said, “we can try to explore possibilities of cooperation, and an economic area that President Putin himself called ‘from Vladivostok to Lisbon.’”

This was a reference to the proposed free trade zone that Putin envisions stretching some 14,000 kilometers one day from the western edge of Europe to the eastern edge of Russia – and conspicuously leaving the U.S. out. For years, Putin has been seeking to lay the ground for such a project, most recently with the creation of the Eurasian Union, a political and economic bloc modeled on the European Union but with Moscow at its center of gravity. Comprised so far of only four post-Soviet countries – Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Armenia, with the impoverished nation of Kyrgyzstan next in line to join – the Eurasian Union legally came into being as of Jan. 1.

But three weeks into its existence, it seems to have found a strategic negotiating partner in the far wealthier and more powerful union to the west. Or at least that’s what some of the E.U.’s key leaders now want Putin to believe.

Apart from Merkel, the elder statesman Jose Manuel Barroso, whose ten-year term as the E.U.’s most senior official ended in October, also brought up the idea of the Eurasian and European Unions forming a brotherly bond. “Why can’t we do it with the Eurasian Union? We want to do it,” he said in Davos on Thursday, referring to Putin’s grand plan. “Can we one day have this dream? I spoke several times with President Putin about that, from Lisbon to Vladivostok. Can it happen? I believe it can happen.”

And if Putin still believes the same, these remarks would be music to his ears. Rare is the speech these days when Putin does not slip in a pointed reference to his idea of a “united space” between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In his reasoning, not only would it give Russia’s natural resources unhindered access to a practically limitless market, but it would put Moscow in a grand constellation of European capitals – finally an equal among powerful Western friends. That, along with the prospect of squeezing the U.S. off the continent, would be Putin’s greatest geopolitical triumph.

But the reason E.U. leaders seem to have suddenly warmed to this idea is not because they believe it to be in the cards nor, for that matter, because they think it particularly attractive. (It was hard enough for the E.U. economy to absorb Eastern European members like Romania and Bulgaria in recent years. Now imagine the flows of jobs and migrants if the borders between France and, say, Kyrgyzstan were to drop.) Much more likely, the West simply needed a carrot to dangle in front of Russia, and a way to coax a change in Putin’s thinking on Ukraine.

That much seemed clear from the remarks of Merkel’s deputy and coalition partner, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel. During a panel discussion in Davos on Thursday, he also brought up the idea of integration with the Eurasian Union, but in a slightly different vein. “What can we offer to Russia?” he asked. “What can be an idea for a partnership after we solve the current problems?”

One answer is the fulfillment – or the chance for fulfillment – of Putin’s geopolitical pipedream. “It was Putin’s idea to have a free trade zone between Lisbon and Vladivostok. In a different world than we are in today, it would be a good idea,” Gabriel said.

The suggestion, in Gabriel’s remarks and the others’, was that Putin must first help create that different world – one in which Ukraine is restored to its previous borders and left to live in peace. Up to now, the West has used little more than sanctions to make Putin work toward that reality, but they have not been able to change the situation on the ground. On the contrary, as the slump in global oil prices multiplied the pain of those sanctions on the Russian petrostate, Moscow only increased its support to the separatist rebellion, providing a steady supply of arms, volunteers and ample political cover for the rebel militias in eastern Ukraine.

The peace deal Russia signed in September during a round of negotiations in Minsk, Belarus, has somewhat slowed the fighting but certainly not stopped it. Roughly 2,000 people have been killed in the war since then, bringing the overall death toll to some 5,000 people since April, and a new assault from the Russian-backed rebels this month gave them control of a strategic airport in the city of Donetsk. So eastern Ukraine has continued on its way, with Russia’s help, toward becoming a massive frozen conflict on the E.U.’s doorstep.

Given that context, the idea floated in Davos seems like an attempt to break the stalemate. But it relies to a large extent on Putin being naïve. For one thing, he knows that without the membership of Ukraine – the biggest and most important neighbor Russia has – his Eurasian Union is hardly an equal partner to the E.U. in any trade negotiation. It is at best a shabby incarnation of the Soviet Goliath, still with Russia at its heart but missing most of its essential limbs, not to mention its former prowess in education and technology. Even years from now, if Putin does attract (or coerce) the membership of a few other post-Soviet countries, the Eurasian Union would have a hard time competing with the E.U. even from behind a high wall of protectionist trade barriers, and it would almost certainly wither if those barriers came down between Lisbon and Vladivostok.

Underneath its idealism, then, the proposal that Merkel and her allies offered Putin in Davos on Thursday may not do much more than stoke his ego. But for the sake of peace in Ukraine, they can be forgiven for hoping he goes for it.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser