Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Greece's anti-austerity Syriza coalition. Picture: AP Source: AP
HE looks too boyishly innocent to be a "Greek Che Guevara", let alone the country's next leader, but when he opens his mouth it becomes clear why Alexis Tsipras has attained the status of European bogeyman.
He in effect threatened to destroy the European Union last week unless it agreed to let bankrupt Greece stay in the eurozone without applying the austerity program agreed by the previous government in exchange for €240 billion ($308 billion) of bailouts.
"If you sink us we'll take you down with us," said Mr Tsipras, 37, comparing the 17-member eurozone to a chain with 17 links.
"If one snaps, they all fall apart."
His brinkmanship, in an interview with The Sunday Times, will unnerve the financial markets as much as the EU's masters in Berlin and Brussels. Victory by the radical leftist and frontrunner in the polls in an election next month could result in "drachmageddon" - Greece being forced to leave the eurozone and return to the drachma.
Mr Tsipras, who insists that he wants Greece to keep the euro, is playing a high-stakes poker game with the EU. "Whoever blinks first loses," he said.
Despite recent signs that it may have begun to prepare for a "Grexit" - a Greek exit from the eurozone - Mr Tsipras argues that the EU will go to any lengths to keep Greece within the single currency because the alternative could put at risk not only Europe's financial stability, but also that of the entire global financial system.
More worrying than the poker metaphor is his evocation of nuclear warfare.
"We have our nuclear weapon and they [the EU] have theirs," he said, referring to the EU's threat to "cut off our money" if Greece tears up the austerity agreement in accordance with Mr Tsipras's plans. "The cold war finished without implementing any of the threats because they all knew that from such a catastrophe nobody would be a winner."
His gamble seems to be paying off in the opinion polls, his promises of relief from austerity offering hope to a population afflicted by rising joblessness, poverty and despair.
The latest opinion poll showed his Coalition of the Radical Left, or Syriza, ahead with 30 per cent of the vote - more than enough to put him in charge of a governing coalition.
The rise of Mr Tsipras has resulted in several billion euros flowing out of Greek banks since his previously minor party astounded the country by coming second in an inconclusive election on May 6. The two main parties, which had alternated in power for decades, were all but demolished as voters rebelled against the politicians who had supported the austerity package.
Neither the Pasok socialist group nor the New Democracy conservatives could form a coalition and government has been paralysed, prompting warnings from the EU that it will cut off funding unless cost-cutting measures agreed under the bailout plan are implemented by a new government. A rerun of the election has been called for June 17.
The motorbike-riding Mr Tsipras rails against the ravages inflicted on Greece by the austerity programme.
"A people can't be humiliated like this," he said at a meeting with his followers on Thursday in a small Athens square overlooked by balconies laden with laundry. "The EU is pushing us to commit mass suicide. We want to give people back their dignity."
He has called for an "international audit" of the debt figures, questioning whether Greece really owes its creditors so much money: "When you go to the restaurant, you check the bill and ask: did I order all these things? Did I eat them? How did I eat them?"
He went on: "They say the euro is in danger as well as the cohesion of Europe, but you can't eradicate a people without consequences for yourselves (the EU)."
In an interview at his party headquarters on Friday evening, he could have passed for a student, with his rolled-up sleeves and jeans.
He appears to relish his new-found fame, chuckling as he recalled how, on a trip to France and Germany last week, he was mobbed by reporters.
"I felt like a football star," he said. "In France and Germany there's a huge interest in us."
He seems chuffed, too, to have caused a stir on the other side of the Atlantic, noting that Greece had dominated the recent G8 talks at Camp David.
"There's a global interest in what we're saying," he said. "They [the leaders] know very well that if a country leaves the euro, the euro will collapse."
He acknowledged that "the road we are choosing is dangerous", adding: "For a period of time we'll have great difficulties but at least we know that this road will not lead us to complete destruction."
He described himself as a Liverpool fan "since childhood" and laughed again as he confessed to owning a German-made BMW 650 bike. He added, though: "I don't get much of a chance to use it these days."
Coming from a middle-class family, he graduated from university as a civil engineer like his father. He joined the communist youth movement with his girlfriend Peristera Baziana, whom he calls Betty. They have a two-year-old son and are expecting another baby boy at the end of June. By then Mr Tsipras could be prime minister.
Asked who his heroes were, he replied: "It would be easy to say Che Guevara, but I'll surprise you by saying Franklin Roosevelt." He added that he was impressed by the way the American president had dealt with "the crisis in 1929", a reference to the stock market crash that had preceded the Great Depression.
He said he is leading a "peaceful revolution" and invited people all over Europe to join Greece in rising up against the Berlin-backed austerity that risks causing "an incalculable historic catastrophe".
Supporters applaud him for overturning the political apple cart and standing up to the "German boot". He is one of the few politicians to seem genuinely concerned about the plight of the masses.
"He's like a son to us," said Thodoris Disbitis, a 58-year-old former decorator who had joined several dozen disabled people in central Athens last week to protest against cuts in their benefits.
Mr Disbitis, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, said that his disability benefit had been cut from €450 a month to a "ridiculously little" €313 as part of the austerity drive.
"I'd be dead by now if it weren't for my two daughters looking after me," he said, adding that he had voted for Mr Tsipras on May 6 and was tempted to do so again despite fears about Greece having to leave the euro.
Electra Polichraniadou, a retired widow of 67, said she was having trouble surviving on a meagre pension. She also has to care for her 43-year-old daughter, who is paralysed from the waist down because of a bungled operation to remove a spinal tumour.
The daughter's medicine costs €780 a month, which, until recently, had been fully reimbursed by the government. Now the government will pay back only €500 of it. To make matters worse, the daughter's pension from the ferry company she had worked for is being cut by 13 per cent.
The daughter spends all her time reading newspapers on the internet. "She is very well informed about the Greek situation," said Ms Polichraniadou. "But it is making her very depressed.
"We have to get rid of the memorandum," she added, referring to the austerity agreement with the EU. "If that means returning to the drachma, then why not?"
As for Mr Tsipras, he vowed not to back down in his struggle to defend Greece against austerity measures: "The battle will be very difficult, but we will win."