Whose Side Are Greeks On, Anyway?

Author: R. C. Longworth

Reprinted from the Chicago Tribune, November 28, 1999 Copyright 1999 Chicago Tribune Company

Greece might be the last truly Balkan nation.

At a time when the ex-communist nations of the Balkans are trying to move closer to the West, when countries such as Romania and Bulgaria are struggling with democracy and the market, when Albanians are wildly pro-American and even Serbs wonder how they can get rid of Slobodan Milosevic and move out of their Balkan isolation — at a time like this, the Greeks seem determined to live up, or down, to the worst sterotype of Balkan emotionalism.

That’s odd, because Greece is the one Balkan country that never belonged to the Soviet bloc. It is the only Balkan country that belongs to NATO and the European Union, and it is by far the richest and luckiest country in its unlucky region. On top of that, there is a large, prosperous and productive Greek-American community that is a credit to both countries.

So Americans could be forgiven for wondering what was going on when thousands of Greeks took to the streets with flags and firebombs this month to protest President Clinton’s visit.

There were threats, which had to be taken seriously because bombing of American targets is a regular feature of Greek life. There were crude graffiti — “Adolf Clinton,” “US = Fascism” — and angry editorials in so-called centrist newspapers equating the United States and NATO to the Nazi regime.

Clinton probably was sorry he agreed to go to Athens. But, making the best of a bad situation, he shortened his planned two-day stay to spend just 22 hours there, safe behind the heaviest security of his trip. But like many Americans these days, he probably left Greece wondering, “Whose side are these people on anyway?”

Good question.

It has been noted that Greece might have invented the West but has never truly belonged to it. At the moment, it seems farther than ever from its allies, both European and American.

During the war over Kosovo, public opinion polls showed 96 percent of Greeks opposed the war and NATO’s action there. Bombs exploded at American-owned hotels and offices in Greece. Nightly demonstrations, complete with pro-Serb signs and cotton candy stands, filled Syntagma Square in the heart of Athens. Television stations and every Athens newspaper, all wildly anti-American, covered demionstrations lavishly, as they did the NATO bombing of Serbia; the Kosovar refugees were all but ignored.

“Your president is a butcher,” one young woman in Athens told me during the Kosovar war, and if any Greeks disagreed, they weren’t saying so out loud.

Oddly enough, the Greek government voted with the other NATO allies to appove the bombing and, throughout the war, provided steady if passive support for the NATO action.

Odder still, Prime MInister Costas Simitis’ pro-NATO attitude was politically popular. You would think that any government that pursued a policy opposed by 96 percent of the people would pay a price, but the public appoval ratings for Simitis actually went up during the war.

That’s a rather cynical method in this oddity, and it tells how far Greece must still travel to leave the Balkans behind.

Greece lives on the southern tip of the Balkan peninsula, where Europe slides into the Islamic Middle East. It is a peasant land with a glorious antiquity, but a more recent past of conquest, loss, bloodshed and bitterness. Its politics, food and music are closer to Istanbul or Damascus than to London or Paris. Passion too often dominates reason, and the Balkan disease — too much history, not enough vision — is endemic.

American author Robert Kaplan, who lived in Greece, wrote that a millennium of rule by Byzantine and Ottoman emperors meant that Greece, like Russia, missed all the great events — the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment — that created the skeptical and cooler Western mind.

In addition, Greece, like other Balkan nations, feels itself the plaything of the great powers, forever contested and abused ny nations stronger than itself. Once ruled by Rome, it also spent nearly 400 years under Ottoman rule. Italy and Germany conquered it in World War II. In the civil war that followed, only American aid — the Truman Plan — kept it from becoming, like its northern neighbors, a communist country.

So it was barely 50 years ago that Greece’s history diverged from the Balkan norm, For half a century, it became allied to the West, first through NATO, then the European Union. Fifty years, apparently, is not enough to shake off the Balkan mind-set — instinctive nationalism, brooding victimization, an obsession with history and a reflexive hostility toward neighbors — that inspired Serbia’s assaults on the rest of former Yugoslavia.

When the civil war ended, the United States became Greece’s protector and benefactor and, hence, the focus of its resentments. Greeks are convinced that Washington connived in the 1967 coup by Greek colonels that brought seven years of crude fascism. They were sure that Washington encouraged Turkey in its 1974 invasion of Cyprus, even though that invasion was touched off by a pro-Greek uprising on the island. They see the NATO war against Serbia not as retribution of Serb oppression of the Kosovars, but as another case of great powers beating up on Greece’s fellow Eastern Orthodox worshipers in Belgrade.

Washington might not be blameless. It certainly did business with the colonels’ regime and could not keep Turkey, another NATO ally, from invading Cyprus. But the conventional wisdom in Greece puts all the blame on the United States and rejects any Greek responsibility for these events.

It is perhaps this refusal to take responsibility for its own affairs, to blame everything on outsiders, that makes Greece the quintessential Balkan nation. It also explains Greece’s schizophrenic attitude toward NATO during the Kosovo war.

As many Greek analysts explain, Greece didn’t join NATO to help provide for a common Western defense, but to get shelter against Turkey, its great enemy to the east. If both countries weren’t in NATO, they probably would have gone to war in the past half-century, and Turkey would have won.

So there is no basic understanding of NATO’s greater mission, and no sense of responsibility for strengthening NATO.

If Greece truly objected to NATO bombing of Serbia, it should have quit NATO. This was never even suggested, even by the hotly anti-Ameican Communist Party that still draws 7 percent or 8 percent of the vote. The reason is that this would leave Greece naked before Turkey, and protection from Turkey is Greece’s reason for membership.

Simitis balanced all this by backing NATO strongly enough to keep Washington and Brussels content while enabling his compatriots to rail against NATO, knowing no one took them seriously. Greeks admired this balancing act and so applauded a policy that, in public, 96 percent of them condemned.

Greece has been the most inconstant of allies, both within NATO (unlike Turkey, it avoids military cooperation with its allies) and within the EU (other Europeans admit they are sorry they let the Greeks in). EU aid accounts for 3 percent of Greek national income, but the Greeks are the only EU nation with an economy too shabby to qualify for membership in the EU’s single currency, the euro.

In an odd way, the West’s success in protecting Greece from communism has only made things worse. From 1981 to 1989, during communism’s dying years, Greece was led by Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, once an American citizen and Northwestern University economics professor, who coddled terrorists, courted Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu, and called America “the metropolis of imperialism.”

When communism fell, Greek citizens traveled north to countries such as Bulgaria and Romania to see what they missed during NATO protection. It was a shock — but not a big enough one to cause any soul-searching.

“They understood that we were lucky to be with the West,” said a journalist in Athens who laughed at this attitude while admitting he wouldn’t dream of criticizing it in print. “But nobody says publicly that we were lucky. Most people here are left-wing and it’s hard to say this.”

Greeks often complain they are the only NATO nation whose boundaries are not secure. Like most Balkan nations, but unlike the West Europeans, Greece both despises and fears its neighbors. Greece and Turkey have a serious dispute over Aegean islands. But Greece also sees territorial threats from Albania and Macedonia, two economic basket cases that couldn’t begin to threaten the Greeks.

hese disputes keep Greeks in a ferment that boils over whenever there is trouble in the region, as there was over Kosovo. Blame is quickly assigned to the cause of this trouble — in this case Clinton and the Muslim Kosovars. Reason takes a holiday and demonstrators take to the streets.

In a post-Cold War world, Greece would be a luxury the West no longer can afford. There are Balkan countries including Bulgaria and Romania that are eager to join the West, in every sense, and gave NATO much more help in the Kosovo war than did the Greeks. It is legitimate for the West to tell the Greeks that it saved them from Stalin and protected them from Turkey and that it expects more in return than tantrums.

Most Balkan states, except Serbia, clearly want to join the West. The Greeks already are there, but only precariously and perhaps temporarily. Poised between Europe and the Middle East, they haven’t really decided where they belong. One day, their exasperated allies may settle the issue for them.

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