ATHENS/LONDON (Reuters) - The Greek government’s sacking of its military brass at the height of the debt crisis may signal that the cabinet sees its own days as numbered, but the outside world need not worry about the army installing a junta as it did four decades ago.
Greeks have largely shrugged off suggestions that appeared in foreign media that the firing on Tuesday of top generals might have been aimed at thwarting a coup. The military is nowhere near the formidable political force that seized power in 1967 and held it for seven years.
Nevertheless, experts on Greek politics say the move could signal haste on the part of Prime Minister George Papandreou’s cabinet to make sweeping changes before it loses office amid the deepening crisis over debt.
“To reshuffle the top brass is (something) typically done by outgoing governments, which appoint some of their own to top position before leaving power,” said Pepe Egger from the London-based consultancy Exclusive Analysis.
“We do not think that the move was indicative of increased coup risks, simply because the Greek army of today is not likely to even mull coup ideas,” he said.
Papandreou has come under mounting criticism from all sides after calling for a referendum on an EU bailout package intended to keep the country afloat.
He faces a confidence vote in parliament on Friday, and some in his own party have called for him to quit. Repeated waves of austerity have exacerbated Papandreou’s problems, with protesting Greeks disrupting a national day parade on October 28.
Papandreou’s embattled Socialist government late on Tuesday replaced the heads of the army, navy, air force and the joint chiefs of staff while ordering another layer of senior army and navy officials into retirement.
Defense ministry officials described the move as a long-planned one to shrink the army at a time of spending cuts, but opponents said the timing was suspicious.
The axed military leaders were themselves appointed shortly before the last conservative government was ousted in 2009. The conservatives accused Papandreou of trying to stack the armed forces with loyalists before a possible government collapse.
“Yesterday as the government was being rocked by turmoil over the confidence vote and deputies were deserting it to become independent they thought it was the best time to make party appointments in the sensitive area of the armed forces,” said the opposition New Democracy’s leader Antonis Samaraas.
Defense Minister Panos Beglitis told parliament on Wednesday there was no political motive to the timing of the shakeup. It had been due to take place in August, he said, but he had delayed it because of a flare-up in tensions with Turkey.
“When the tensions eased, we had an obligation to change the military leadership.”
Greeks have been deeply sensitive about any suggestion that their army is taking a political role since the seven-year rule by a junta of colonels who seized power in 1967. Papandreou’s grandfather, a veteran politician and former prime minister, died aged 80 under their house arrest.
These days, military chiefs are replaced in Greece every couple of years, usually on the basis of party loyalty as politicians trade favors in a system of political patronage.
Squeezed by budget cuts, the military now flexes its muscles mainly during floods and earthquakes. Last month it was summoned to help collect garbage piling up in Athens due to a strike.
In its smaller role, it has won public favor: a 1996 survey showed the army beat out the church as the Greeks’ favorite institution. But few see it operating in a political capacity.
“The army is not even mentioned in polls anymore, because we don’t think it affects the political scene at all,” said Costas Panagopoulos, head of the ALCO pollsters.
Budget cuts imposed by Papandreou during the debt crisis have led to street protests and unrest, but these have been tackled by the police, rather than the army.
Constantinos Loukopoulos, a retired Greek major general, dismissed fears of a coup as “total fantasy” and “ludicrous.”
Giorgos Karkatis, 42, an insurance broker, summed up the view of most Greeks: “There is no possibility of a military coup in Greece, that time is gone forever.”
Military sources said the move to replace the chiefs may have been hastened by a protest against austerity measures that halted a major national parade last week.
The annual military parade in the northern city of Thessaloniki is one of the most symbolic events in Greece’s political calendar, honoring its fight against fascism in World War II, and it was the first time it had been canceled.
President Karolos Papoulias was forced to leave the parade abruptly after being called a traitor by angry crowds.
The previous day, Defense Minister Beglitis was booed by a crowd of students in Thesssaloniki. On Wednesday he described his reception as a “tragic experience.”
The new appointments include Lieutenant General Michael Kostarakos as the new head of the joint chiefs of staff and Lieutenant General Konstantinos Ziazias as army chief. Rear-Admiral Cosmas Christidis was appointed navy chief while Air Marshal Antonios Tsantirakis took over the air force.
They will be taking over a time of disgruntlement in the armed forces, which have suffered large payroll cuts as part of austerity measures, and face the prospect of even deeper cuts.
Because of its long rivalry with Trukey, Greece has long had a Defense budget that is a large share of its national output by European standards. It has been cut by about 20 percent every year since 2009. The 2011 Defense budget is set at about 2 percent of GDP, down from 2.8 percent in 2010.
The government wants to reduce the armed forces by about 30 percent and make them more flexible. Beglitis has complained in the past that the military leadership he sacked on Tuesday was too bureaucratic to push through the changes needed.
“The army is part of the people, they also suffer from austerity,” said Mary Bossis, professor of international security at the University of Piraeus, but she added: “In a western democracy, a coup is unrealistic. This is not Egypt, this is not the Arab Spring.”
Additional reporting by Lefteris Papadimas; Writing by Deepa Babington