Greece's Quest for Respect: Great Past Counts for Little Vis-a-Vis Current Problems

Article excerpt

ATHENS - Modern Greece appears to be a country that wishes the outside world, particularly the Western democracies, had a better understanding of its present problems, not just an abiding appreciation of its classical past.

In a round of recent interviews with foreign reporters of Greek descent, high officials of the Greek government virtually all struck the same theme, perhaps playing the ancestral chords. From the top down, they were not shy about what they wanted.

"Greece needs people who understand its views, since it is located in a part of the world which faces many crises," Prime Minister Costas Simitis told the visiting journalists. He succeeded Andreas Papandreou, the mercurial leader of the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK).

Mr. Simitis was, of course, referring to the perennially volatile Balkans, Europe's "soft underbelly," as Winston Churchill put it.

Foreign Minister Theodore Pangalos expressed the same need for outside understanding with an anecdote about an unidentified U.S. official who, after praising Greece's historic achievements in democracy, philosophy, art and science, explained politely that the United States could not support Greece in its disputes with Turkey because of "overarching strategic considerations."

"It was like him telling me, `I think the world of you, but you have to cut off your arm and give it to me. I need it,' " Mr. Pangalos quipped.

A spokesman for the Turkish Embassy in Washington strongly denied Mr. Pangalos' conclusions.

"It is not true that the United States sides with Turkey," Akif Oktay said. "The administration tries to follow a balanced policy, while in Congress, under the leadership of Paul Sarbanes, the Greeks get their way." Sen. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat of Greek ancestry, is a chief defender of Greek causes.

Mr. Oktay cited specifically the halt of an agreed sale to Turkey of three U.S. frigates.

Greek Defense Minister Apostolos Tsohatzopoulos, attempting to justify Greece's current defense buildup, prefaced his argument with the remark that "it's difficult for outsiders to understand the priorities in our region."

He then charged that "Turkey considers a change of the status quo in the Aegean a national priority. It declares that there are no borders in the Aegean" between Greece and Turkey.

"We have to increase our defense capability in order to pre-empt aggression under our policy of deterrence," Mr. Tsohatzopoulos said.

This posiition also was challenged by the Turkish Embassy.

"It is Greece that seeks a change of the status quo in the Aegean by unilaterally insisting on its right to extend its borders from six miles to 12 miles out," Mr. Oktay said.

DEALING WITH AFTERSHOCKS

He said Turkey is "ready to enter into talks with Greece on the issue."

In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its East European communist satellites, Greece has had to deal with a series of aftershocks that have rocked the Balkans.

They include political disintegration and civil war in Yugoslavia, a major trading partner of Greece; economic adversity in Bulgaria, another key trade ally; the emergence of a separate Macedonian state, whose very name and national emblem have stirred controversy in Greece; and, most recently, anarchy in Albania, which necessitated the deployment of a contingent of 700 Greek soldiers along with the Italian-led international peacekeeping force.

A Macedonian official said, "The dispute over the country's name is well on its way to resolution." He emphasized that "bilateral ties are progressing rapidly."

On top of all this, Greece is in a continuous adversarial relationship with Turkey over Cyprus. Turkey has kept troops in the northern third of the island since 1974, when it invaded the island to safeguard Turkish Cypriots after a Greek Cypriot extremist overthrew Archbishop Makarios. …