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Greek Finance Minister Becomes A Hero Back Home During Bailout Talks

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Greece and Europe are at an impasse once again. The new Greek government wants to replace its existing bailout program, but Greece's eurozone partners say no. The negotiations in Brussels have been difficult and at times contentious. The man at the center of these negotiations, the flashy Greek finance minister, has become a hero back home. Joanna Kakissis reports from Athens.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: On Monday night after eurozone leaders told Greece to accept a bailout with austerity or else, Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis strode in a packed news conference. His smile was clenched, the collar of his jacket turned up. And he sounded just as defiant as he looked.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

YANIS VAROUFAKIS: In the history of the European Union, nothing good has ever come out of ultimatum. I have no doubt that in the next few days, any notion of an ultimatum is going to be withdrawn.

KAKISSIS: With his buzz cut and untucked shirts and his politically-charged rhetoric, the 53-year-old economist has cut an odd figure in talks with besuited European leaders. The American economist James Galbraith says no academic understands the European Union's corridors of power better than Varoufakis. But...

JAMES GALBRAITH: What you absorb, apparently, by walking these corridors is a certain worldview and a certain set of cliches and formulas, which then can be repeated safely in the open meetings. And that, unfortunately, is incompatible with the reality on the ground in Greece.

KAKISSIS: Varoufakis has talked repeatedly in Brussels about the humanitarian crisis caused by eurozone-imposed austerity in Greece.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: And Greeks have been holding joyful rallies to support Varoufakis and the new leftist government for simply acknowledging their pain. Stamo Lekatsa, whose interior decorating business went bankrupt during the crisis, says Varoufakis has helped Greeks feel less alone.

STAMO LEKATSA: (Through interpreter) Now we feel like we have someone who understands us, someone who goes to Europe to fight for us and someone who is honest with us. Our finance minister tells those leaders in Brussels exactly what he tells us.

KAKISSIS: Varoufakis gets to work on a motorcycle, not in a taxpayer-funded Mercedes. But he does come from an upper middle-class background. He attended private high school in Athens, went to university in Britain and then taught for years in Australia and the United States. He has said he would've been happy to remain an academic, but he's long believed that the eurozone should base its foundations on equality, not the demonization of member states that fall on hard times.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VAROUFAKIS: The contract is a contract between two equals. And this government expects that the only way of reforming Greece is if Greece - the Greek side - is considered to be and treated as an equal of our partners and not as a debt colony.

KAKISSIS: His sheer confidence has even inspired some German media to call him a sex symbol. He's been compared to James Bond and John McClane, the action hero Bruce Willis played in "Diehard." But Varoufakis has yet to win over the most important person at the negotiating table, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble. Without a deal with the Germans, the Greeks could be looking at a default. And Greece is set to run out of money as early as next month. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.