In this issue: The Kosovo war and Greece
Philhellenic Perspective, Issue 10, June/July 1999.
I'm back. Sorry for the two year haitus. My interest in Greece hadn't dimished, indeed I made a third trip there in 1998. Perhaps I'll share some about that later, but for now, Kosovo is more important. In the meantime I now have a new e-mail address and a new location for my Greek web site, The Plaka.
As the war in Kosovo proceeded, people in the United States were told, over and over again, that "NATO was unified," that there were "no cracks in the alliance," and that everyone was "standing firm." Those who had access to a different set of information knew that was less than completely true: Greece was constant in its opposition to ground forces and had regularly called for a halt in the bombing. In this issue, I'll review some of the Greek perspective on the war.
At the level of the street and the press, there was vocal opposition to NATO and the war. Demonstrations, and anti-American articles in the press abounded. The mayor of Thessaloniki launched a "peace offensive" to protest the use of the city's port by NATO troops in transit to FYROM (Macedonia). The Associated Press reported on April 29th that a NATO convoy heading through Northern Greece wound up lost in the vegetable market in Thessaloniki. Despite the comic potential of this incident as yet another in the long list of NATO blunders, it did not receive much play in the United States. Nor did anyone inquire as to why the locals had so resented the NATO troops that they had gone to the trouble of readjusting the road signs to produce maximum confusion.
At the level of the government, parties only differed in the extent of their opposition. Prime Minister Simitis and other top officials regularly called for a halt to the bombing, offered Greek assistance at a negotiated solution, and reassured the country that Greece would not participate in any military action, and would not allow its territory to be used for air strikes. Officials were in a constant shuttle among Balkan countries, attempting to launch one diplomatic initiative after another, all which seemed to sink without a trace at NATO. Simitis, describing the European Union's policy as "completely wrong" (ANA, May 29) regularly warned of the impending humanitarian disaster a long bombing campaign would produce by its destruction of the infrastructure of the country, and raised the specter of further destabilization of the region.
Opposition parties attacked Simitis and the ruling PASOK government for allowing the country to be co-opted into the NATO alliance, claiming that the opposition was at the level of rhetoric only, and pointed to the ineffectiveness of the various diplomatic initiatives.
It appears that Greece may have struck some sort of deal with NATO or with the U.S.: Greece would express opposition, but not too loudly, and the U.S. wouldn't push Greece to be to actively involved. For example, the refusal of Greece, despite its location, to allow military operations to proceed from its territory was, as far as I noticed, uncommented upon in the American press, at least to any extent. Whether that was simply the common ability of American media to ignore other countries, or the result of a U.S. administration decision not to complain about such opposition, is unknown.
That such a deal was the line the Greek's were attempting to walk was more clear. Simitis, in defending his policy, claimed that "Greece has successfully and without becoming internationally isolated opposed the military operation. Is there anyone in this chamber [parliament] who thinks that Greece would be servings its interest or the interests of the region in cutting its ties with its partners and allies?" (ANA May 29)
As plausible as the idea of a deal, implicit or explicit appears, the ability of Greece, the stealth country of Europe, to avoid detection by the American media cannot be underestimated. Despite the extensive reporting of various NATO errors, the bombing of a Greek humanitarian relief column, reported on May 6th by the Athens News Agency, went unremarked (no one was killed). Nor did the anti-American press and demonstrations produce any reaction in the U.S. not even the ritual assumption that such opposition would have been motivated by sympathy for fellow Orthodox in Serbia, the one "fact" American media seems to use to explain Greek Balkan policy.
More information was there for the asking. Not only would the Greek media have been available, but also Foreign Minister George Papandreou appeared in a high-profile "Newsmaker Interview" on the PBS News Hour and gave a clear, well-articulated and nuanced statement of Greek concerns. He couched Greek concerns in a long-term perspective, emphasizing that Greece was going to be there "on the day after," and thus was concerned about reconstruction and stability of the entire region. These are concerns that America seems only now to have discovered.
Far from some simple or irrational affection for Slobodan Milosevic or co-religionists, observers on various Greek Internet mailing lists identified other factors.
First, there is the remaining strand of anti-Americanism. There is deep resentment in Greece of the American role in supporting the junta of 1967-74 (and thus significant notice was taken of new U.S. Ambassador to Greece Burn's oblique indication of regret for the U.S. role in that time). That resentment was fueled by the Papandreou government of the 80's and feeds on the feelings of many in Greece that Greek foreign policy is always at the behest of one superpower or the other.
Secondly, there is a sense of resentment at the arrogance of the west which does not even disguise its view that it has a divine mission to bring democracy, progress and enlightenment to the world, and that it is the arbitrator of what constitutes those virtues. This doesn't play well in Greece, for whom the ancients and the creation of those virtues is taken as a key gift of Greece to the west. The west regularly speaks of the Balkans as a sort of pit of degeneracy, a place of darkness and peoples in thrall to dark forces who have been fighting each other for generations. That many of those conflicts were created or exacerbated by the great powers themselves who fought over influence in the region seems unnoticed by the west.
Thirdly, the selectivity of the vision of the U.S. about human rights abuses arouses endless frustration in Greece as well as other countries. What about Cyprus? What about the Kurds? The human rights violations of Turkey over the years certainly equal what Milosovich has done recently, the number of Kurd's "ethnically cleansed" more than equals the Kosovar's deaths, yet Greece can never get the U.S. to pay attention to Turkey, or to Turkey's regular assertion of territorial claims over various pieces of Greek real estate. The right of return for the Albanians is regarded as vital by Washington, and even must be done before winter sets in, yet the Palestinians have no such right in Washington's eyes. So the question is asked, why so much concern about the Kosovar's now?
While some sympathy for the Orthodox Serbs is undoubtedly part of the equation, it may be of less significance than the factors listed above. Certainly, Prime Minister Simitis has had no hesitation in condemning the abuses of the Serbs.
Policies of the U.S. in regard to Kosovo seem improvised at best and careless at worst. The almost unexpected retreat of the Serbs has pitched the area into a new phase. Greece has been among the leaders in extending humanitarian aid to the region. Greek officials were active in visiting FYROM, for example and offering assistance at the beginning of the crisis. Greece will be sending 1,000 troops to participate in the peacekeeping efforts now being started.
This is all a part of Simitis program of a more positive and conciliatory foreign policy effort to other Balkan countries than previous Greek governments. It is not clear if that program has yet yielded any significant benefits, either in terms of influence for Greece in the region, economic openings to those countries or credit in the international community. Some deals, such as the purchase of a FYROM oil refinery by Hellenic Petroleum have been noted.
But the next phase in the Balkans will be as hard and as full of suffering, with the added danger of no longer being the "war of the month" in the western media. Another clash between the U.S. and regional countries may be in the offering. Greece is already pointing to the need for a Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Kosovo and Yugoslavia. They see this as urgent to prevent further destabilization, to provide a future for Serbs and to open a path for economic and political peace. The U.S. seems inclined to treat the entire Serb nation as a rogue state and is talking of no-fly zones, economic sanctions and further efforts to impoverish and punish the entire citizenry. Greece feels this will lead only to more refugees and more extreme nationalism.
The other suggestion, that Kosovo should become independent or a part of Albania also arouses no sympathy in Greece. This is because of what Greece is seeking to do with Turkey. Greece has long argued for placing Greek-Turkish disputes in a framework of international law. Thus they are not pleased at the prospect of NATO and the U.S. continuing to operate largely outside such a framework in its policies towards the Balkans. Related to this is the adamant position of Greece that boundaries in the Balkans should not be changed. They do not wish any precedent to be set in that area that Turkey might use. All nations have minority populations living in their borders, should they all get their own state?
But Greece will likely remain invisible to the west.
ANA: Athens News Agency, various daily news bulletins
Hellenic Star, June 10th, 1999
New Europe, June 7th-14th issue
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