Greece's new finance minister Yanis Varoufakis: Contrary, radical and a reluctant politician

An economist who has worked in universities in Greece, Britain, Australia and the United States, Yanis Varoufakis gained a wide following for his trenchant criticisms of the euro zone policy. -- PHOTO: EPA
An economist who has worked in universities in Greece, Britain, Australia and the United States, Yanis Varoufakis gained a wide following for his trenchant criticisms of the euro zone policy. -- PHOTO: EPA

On Jan 27, Greece's newly-elected anti-austerity Syriza-led government named Yanis Varoufakis its finance minister.

The 53-year-old left-wing economist has always been contrary.

An economist who has worked in universities in Greece, Britain, Australia and the United States, he gained a wide following for his trenchant criticisms of the euro zone policy.

Also known as Dr Doom, Varoufakis was one of the first to warn of the risk that Greece could default on its massive debts, which have now swelled to more than 315 billion euros. The approach earned him his apocalyptic nickname.

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He is a vocal critic of the conditions imposed by creditors in return for the 2010 bailout and he argues the country's shattered economy will never recover until they are relaxed.

He has also been urging Greece to default on its debt since the beginning of the financial crisis, and is likely to take a hard-line stance when he haggles with international creditors over Greece's €240-billion (S$367-billion) bailout.

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The prolific blogger, who has a child with his partner in Australia, adapted famous lines from poet Dylan Thomas to describe his party's victory: "Greek democracy today chose to stop going gently into the night. Greek democracy resolved to rage against the dying of the light."

Quotable quotes like this are a dime a dozen for the media-savvy polyglot:

On the bailout

Varoufakis once called the bailout terms imposed on Greece by its international creditors "fiscal waterboarding" that risked converting Europe into "a form of Victorian workhouse".

On joining the Euro

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He says it was a mistake for Greece ever to join the euro but that it is too late to leave now: "The last line in Hotel California explains where we are: you can check out any time, but you can never leave."

Radical 'accidental' economist

He has described his approach to economics as that of "an atheist theologian in a middle-ages monastery".

He says on his blog that he is an 'accidental economist who switched from studying economics to mathematics because the mathematics used in economic models was "third rate". He later did a PhD in economics.

Reluctant politician

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He describes being in a position of power as "scary" in an interview he gave to BBC's Channel 4 on Jan 23, but says this is a good thing.

"Even in universities...I always believed that any colleague of mine who wanted to be head of department or dean should be disqualified immediately. Because you should only be doing this reluctantly as a public service. So we are reluctant candidates for power; unfortunately history and this crisis has forced us upon centre stage" he said.

Also a reluctant "gamer"

Varoufakis' appointment has even caught the attention of gamers and technology websites. He was the economist-in-residence at computer game company Valve, the maker of digital games platform Steam, from 2012-2013.

The economist admitted that the last time he played a computer game was "Space Invaders in 1981 or so", but was drawn by the promise of being able to study "an economy where every action leaves a digital trail". He wrote on his blog that this could sharpen his understanding of "how real economies tick".

Refuses to stop blogging

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After being appointed as finance minister, he announced on his blog that he would not heed advice to stop blogging: "The time to put up or shut up has, I have been told, arrived. My plan is to defy such advice. To continue blogging here even though it is normally considered irresponsible for a Finance Minister to indulge in such crass forms of communication."

And even promised 'juicier' posts: "Naturally, my blog posts will become more infrequent and shorter. But I do hope they compensate with juicier views, comments and insights."

chuimin@sph.com.sg