By Irene Preisinger
MUNICH (Reuters) - Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras visited Bavaria on Sunday, charming former critics of Greece in the southern German state who once wished to eject his country from the euro zone, and departing with pledges of solidarity and support.
Samaras' visit to Munich and dinner with Bavaria's State Premier Horst Seehofer on Sunday night was another sign of the new thaw in Greek-German relations that started when Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Athens in October and was convinced of Athens' commitment to painful reforms.
"We want to support the Greek government and the Greek people, and help them gain economic growth and competitiveness," Seehofer said at a press conference with Samaras.
Seehofer added the Greeks deserved deep respect for their achievements. "They are on a good way to overcoming the causes of the crisis."
Samaras' trip was partly a charm offensive in one of Germany's most conservative and affluent areas, as well as a plea to international creditors to keep the faith in Athens' reforms.
"To force an upswing, we need blood and air, which keeps the economy alive, and that is liquidity," Samaras said.
His visit to Bavaria came little under two weeks after Greece's international creditors clinched an agreement on reducing the country's debt, allowing the release of urgently needed loans to keep the near-bankrupt economy afloat.
The Greek Prime Minister added that a debt buy back that is key to the bail out was going very well.
"I believe that by Monday or Tuesday, I will be able to say with great certainty that things went very well," he said.
Merkel and her centre-right government have taken a much more conciliatory tone on Greece - a country which had been branded a "bottomless pit" by some of her lawmakers - focusing instead on the progress made by Greece and the suffering of its citizens as tough reforms bite.
Seehofer and his Christian Social Union (CSU), sister party to Merkel's conservatives, have fallen into line behind the Chancellor, acknowledging that bailing out Greece is less costly than the chaos that would follow if it left the euro zone.
Previously CSU deputies had taken a tough stance, repeatedly calling for Greece to be thrown out of the euro zone, suggesting its civil servants be paid in drachmas and likening bailing out Greece to "watering flowers in the desert".
Seehofer pledged that a "more open, sensitive and sensible tone" should dominate in the debate on Greece.
Bavarians consider themselves passionate Europeans and readily admit they have benefited hugely from the euro zone, with the larger part of their goods and services exported to the region. Yet the affluent state, where traditional values are held dear, is also proud of its balanced budget and has little time for profligacy.
Samaras told the Muenchner Merkur local newspaper in an interview published in its weekend edition Bavarians and Greeks shared the same values and ideals.
"We have nothing to hide from each other, but a lot to gain when we talk. I'm looking forward to a new start in our relations."
Behind the scenes Germany has long been trying to promote projects and corporate networks that can bring German business acumen to Greece as well as twinning towns to try and bring Germans and Greeks closer together.
(Reporting by Irene Preisinger; Writing by Alexandra Hudson; Editing by Alison Birrane and Rosalind Russell)