The images were in TV screens all over Greece. The football match, between the two contenders, PAOK and AEK had stopped and players were protesting a decision of the referee regarding whether a goal by PAOK was going to be counted.
They were 89 minutes into the game and this could be the defining moment of the game. The referee was insisting that the goal was not scored because a player was at an offside position. Ivan Savvidis, the owner of PAOK stormed the football field, followed by his bodyguards. According to people in the field, he shouted to the referee “You’re dead”. As he moved around the field, his sidearm in its holster was clearly visible and this was caught on camera.
The match never resumed and the following day, the Greek minister responsible for sports, P. Vasileiadis, met with Prime Minister Tsipras and announced that the Football Championship (Super League) was indefinitely cancelled. These dramatic events came after a series of incidents where PAOK and Savvidis seemed to receive a favorable treatment from the part of both the government and the football authorities. Less than 24 hours before the game, the Appeals Commission of the Greek Football Federation ruled relatively favorably to PAOK. The football club from Thessaloniki
had appealed the penalty imposed to PAOK following the events at the PAOK-Olympiakos match some weeks before, when Oscar Garcia, Olympiakos FC coach, was injured by an object thrown by a PAOK fan.
The appeals commission issued a decision that reduced the penalty (PAOK is not going to lose 3 points) and allowed the presence of PAOK fans in the stadium (in Greece for security reasons in many cases only fans of the home team area allowed).
It is obvious that Savvidis, who has promised PAOK supporters that he bring a championship to Thessaloniki, had taken for granted that PAOK would not be treated unfavorably and thus reacted accordingly. However, treating these events as just another case of a corrupt football scene, where club owners believe that championships are won based on the ability to bend the rules misses the broader social and political context Savvidis is not just a rich football club owner. A Soviet citizen of Greek origin, from the Pontic-Greek community of the former Soviet Union, he started as a factory worker before becoming one of the biggest players in the Russian tobacco market. However, there are some shady aspects in his rapid rise in the first post-communist years, especially those relating to the acquisition of Donskoy Tabak, in Rostov, a city well known for its local mafia.
Currently one of every ten cigarettes sold in Russia comes from Savvidis’ factories and he has investments in other sectors such as food packaging. He is the 30th richest person in Russia and has political relations to the Russian government, having served as a member of the Russian Duma with Putin’s party.
Savvidis’ involvement in Greek politics started with his presence in the various institutions representing the Greek diaspora. When he came to Thessaloniki and bought PAOK, fans treated him as the team’s savior. A club with an exceptionally loyal supporter base, PAOK has always been a point of reference for Northern Greeks, most of them of Pontic or Asia Minor origin who came in Greece after the 1922 population exchange with Turkey. This means that owning PAOK also brings political influence and Savvidis was well aware of it.
Although Savvidis has his main business interests in Russia, he nevertheless gradually opted to invest in Greece. His first major investment was the acquisition of SEKAP, a tobacco factory, but his biggest investment has been his participation in the investment group that acquired 67% of the Port of the Thessaloniki. Savvidis’ role in this transaction raised criticisms from the part of US authorities who are suspicious of any attempt from Russian oligarchs to invest in EU countries. The US Ambassador to Athens, Geoffery Pyatt, a veteran diplomat who has also served in the Ukraine, openly criticized this transaction.
It was also in relation to his business endeavors that Savvidis received favorable treatment from the SYRIZA-ANEL government. When SEKAP faced huge fines related to cigarette smuggling before its acquisition, the Tsipras government introduced legislation that could help it avoid paying these fines, and recently the Thessaloniki Port sale went through despite American objections and protests from the part of trade unions. The current government has shown in many instances its support to Savvidis. Panos Kammenos, the Defense Minister and leader of ANEL, the nationalist right-wing allies of SYRIZA, has been a longtime friend of Savvidis. Euclid Tsakalotos, the Finance minister, and a PAOK supporter, has been photographed with Savvidis. The Russian-Greek oligarch was also granted a free pass at the Prime Minister’s office. Thanassis Karteros, the director of the Prime Minister’s Press Office, wrote paeans to Savvidis.
The reason for this symbiotic relation between Savvidis and SYRIZA had nothing to do with ideology. Savvidis’s ideology is a mixture of neoliberalism, nationalism and Orthodox Christianity, that has nothing in common with SYRIZA’s leftist origins. This ideological divergence was more than obvious recently when Savvidis threw his full support behind a nationalist mass rally in Thessaloniki in opposition to the Greek government’s attempt to solve the so-called “Macedonian issue”.
It was SYRIZA’s desire to change the mass media landscape in Greece that brought closer Greece’s ruling party and Savvidis. The leadership of SYRIZA wanted new players to enter the media market, since existing media, especially national TV stations were considered “systemic” and biased against SYRIZA. Savvidis wanted to invest in Media, as part of his attempt to have a broader business but also political base in Greece, and thus seemed ideal.
The deal seemed straightforward: Savvidis would guaranty that a significant part of the media landscape would be favorable to SYRIZA (he acquired a TV station that is set to receive one national license and he bought the title of Ethnos one of the most historic centre-left newspapers and he also attempted to acquire other media assets). In return, he would receive favorable treatment in his business dealings and PAOK would receive all the necessary help in the championship. This was part of a broader transformation of SYRIZA from a protest movement to a party of government, which included not only policy changes (such as the endorsement of austerity and privatizations) but also “special relationships” with business interests.
However, things did not go as planned. Savvidis behavior, especially last Sunday, means that his no longer a useful ally but a liability for SYRIZA. Alexis Tsipras is trying to walk a thin line between implementing unpopular measures, as part of Greece’s commitments to its European creditors, and trying to offer a vision of an exit from austerity. Part of SYRIZA’s appeal is the evocation of the Left’s “moral high ground”. Savvidis’s erratic behavior and the evidence that until now he received a favorable treatment put the entire electoral and political strategy of SYRIZA in danger.
The images of Savvidis storming the football field carrying his sidearm, the fact that a warrant has been issued for his arrest, and the negative publicity Greek football has received, have forced the SYRIZA-ANEL government to attempt to distance itself from the Russian-Greek oligarch and to proclaim that it is going to embark on a “cleaning operation” of Greek football.
However, it is debatable whether this is possible, given the record of both the football authorities and the government officials responsible who promised such a “cleaning process” in the beginning of a season that has been the worse in the recent history of Greek football.
Moreover, it is even more debatable whether SYRIZA will manage to dissociate itself from Savvidis. For a long time he was the Greek government’s “oligarch of choice” and the Greek government bears responsibility for his arrogant and aggressive behavior. There are too many photos of Savvidis with ministers and the Prime Minister himself to suggest otherwise. When you have signed one of the biggest privatizations in recent history with a businessperson, and then this businessperson enters a football stadium armed and threatens the referee, then you have to take responsibility.
The “glory days” of Ivan Savvidis in Greece are over, but Alexis Tsipras and his government will still face the political cost of their association with him. Greek tragedies end up with the moment of catharsis. Whether this will be limited to Savvidis or it will include the Greek government is something that will be determined in the days to come.