North by northwest
The week saw two interesting governmental openings towards Southeastern Europe, in the wake of the Skopje summit.
The Minister for Thrace and Macedonia, Georgios Paschalidis, led a delegation of Greek business chiefs to Belgrade, where they had useful talks (27-28 February) with Yugoslav Minister for International Trade Relations Goran Pitić, PM Zoran Đinđić, and deputy PM Žarko Korać. It was pointed out that just over half of Yugoslavia's 188 joint projects directly involve Greece. The visit was an initiative of the Thessaloniki Chamber of Commerce, and should be seen in the perspective of economic assistance of GDR 70 bn (EUR 205 m) due to come to Yugoslavia under Greece's Reconstruction Plan for Southeast Europe.
Described by the Speaker of the Hellenic Parliament as "the north and south tips of Europe's southeast wing," Croatia and Greece, two countries as different as chalk from cheese, have come into substantially closer touch. A two-day state visit to Athens by President Ivica Račan (27-28 February) enabled the Greek Government to act as broker for the ongoing Stabilization Agreement between Croatia and the EU, and to sign an Athens-Zagreb pact. PM Simitis called for Greek business to be more active in Croatia and for Croatia to align more closely with European and American institutions. The idea of an Adriatic coastal highway was also aired.
The talks were attended by FM Papandreou and his alternating Minister Elisabeth Papazoi, and by Croatian Minister of European Integration Ivan Janković and deputy FM Vesna Cvjetković-Kurelac. Their success was partly guaranteed by the fact that Kurelac is also a teacher of Greek. Račan also had short meetings with opposition leader Kostas Karamanlis and Mayor Avramopoulos.
Hard on the heels of the European Socialist Party rendezvous at the Zappion Palace, Swedish PM Göran Persson arrived in Athens (28 February) on his round of capital cities during his country's EU presidency. His briefing from PM Kostas Simitis included the Skopje Inter-Balkan summit and the progress of Cyprus towards EU accession.
Persson was also advised of the Greek Government's support for the idea of EU intervention in the Middle East. When Simitis, after a recent meeting with Yasser Arafat in Athens, criticized the Israeli embargo of Palestinian areas, there was strong protest from the Israeli government to the Greek ambassador at Tel Aviv.
The week's Swedish flavour was maintained with an article published by FM Papandreou in the Belgrade daily Politika (27 February). In it, he recommended that cooperation between Balkan countries should follow the model of Scandinavian cooperation.
Audience with Powell for Papandreou
Though local FM George Papandreou and US Secretary of State Colin Powell appear to have hit it off well at their maiden encounter in Brussels (26-28 February), their discussions were described by a Government spokesman as "not very detailed." Greece's regional role in European security provided the meeting's keynote, and Albanian extremism in Kosovo and the 17 November terrorist group are also said to have been briefly considered.
The Greek FM was followed in by his Turkish opposite number, and it was Ismail Cem, not Papandreou, who got the return invitation to Washington for 30 March. Having put her eggs in the Democrat basket, Greece finds her once considerable clout in Washington still further reduced by the election of a Republican president. The situation was accurately described by Makris with a two-frame cartoon for Kathimerini: "I saw the new US Minister!..."/"...I'm not sure if he saw me."
Mayor on the campaign trail
The charismatic mayor of four million Athenians, Dimitris Avramopoulos, made some conspicuous moves around the political chessboard this week.
His slashing article in a Sunday paper appeared to accuse the opposition of manufacturing the ongoing "sleaze" debate so as to mask its electoral defeat last April. In the now mandatory mayoral walkabout on Filopappou Hill on "Clean Monday," he called for "modern public morality" and "service to the needs of citizens" in politics, and distanced himself yet again from the New Democracy mainstream.
On Thursday he was helping AHEPA [the American Hellenic Educational Association] plant trees on Mount Ymittos. On Friday, to an international conference on resource management, he attacked both the government and the opposition parties for "keeping the electorate in a state of passive dependence."
Avramopoulos, flagholder at the Sydney Olympics, was voted "most popular politician" in a January 2001 poll for Kappa Research, 11 per cent clear of the leaders of the two main parties. He would resign as mayor in order to lead a new progressive centrist party into the next election, hoping to win anything from six per cent to 13 per cent of the vote, and making gains principally from the opposition party New Democracy.
Out of luck
The merriment of Carnival in Athens and Patra ended on Sunday, and kids' Evzone costumes, crinolines and Batman outfits went back to the hire shops. Families who planned to fly their kites next day ("Clean Monday") were frustrated by rain in the north and fickle breezes in the south.
It was an ill Lenten wind, too, for senior citizens. Queuing may be proof of social organization, but this could not have been the thought uppermost in the minds of the pensioners who stood around in the cold on Tuesday, vainly hoping to collect their cash from branches of the Agricultural Bank. They were variously described as "about 28,000," by the Athens News Agency, and "a small part of a total of 850,000 pensioners" by the Government spokesman. He explained that the bank's computers had been unable to "read" the electronic payslips.
Payment, for those with surnames from K to O, became possible again on Wednesday—when there was also, as it happened, a stoppage by Social Security employees. The hiccups could not have come at a more embarrassing time for PM Simitis, who is due to take part in a Stockholm summit (23-24 March) on European social policy, including (wait for it!) pension programmes.
Pension contributions in Greece are paid into one of 22 Social Security funds, which have an indifferent record of releasing the money as and when needed. About 70 per cent of pensions are presently worth less than GDR 130.000 (EUR 382) a month, despite recent increases of 5.5 per cent for salaried persons and six per cent for the self-employed.
There is better news from the Tax Offices (DOU). They are now providing a much-needed service, with the scramble to beat the looming tax return deadline, by experimentally opening from half past two in the afternoon to eight in the evening, two times a week.
And in other news...
- The bill privatising Olympic Airways and its subsidiaries was passed on Thursday, by 138 votes to 119, amid continuing controversy. Seven late amendments, one tabled only 30 minutes before the count, were greeted with anger. On what had not been intended to be a free vote, there were pointed abstentions, both by 19 PASOK deputies and by senior figures in the Mitsotakis grouping within New Democracy. The state's 51 per cent share in Olympic will be abolished and replaced by a "majority package" of between 51 per cent and 65 per cent for the eventual buyer. The first customer to inspect Olympic's data room will be Cyprus Airlines. Also queuing on the runway are Axon, the shipping magnate Stamatis Restis, and an Australian company, Venture Capital Integrated Airline Solutions.
- Laid-back Zorba, dancing as mineshafts collapse around him? Forget it! One in 20 Greek teenagers, and half of the 60 to 65 year olds, are suffering from hypertension, reports the seventh Panhellenic Congress on High Blood Pressure.
- The Greeks in Russia exhibition (until 10 April) has opened in Moscow, at the Museum of Russian History on Red Square.
- The chapter on Greece State Department's yearly Report on Human Rights (2 March) is too detailed to summarize here, but can be read on the Web. It gives a fair and illuminating picture, sometimes rather too optimistic as regards institutions. On the one hand is the native Greek instinct for justice and the "tradition of outspoken discourse and a vigorous free press." On the other are the conflicting pressures of society as they affect immigrants ("an increase in xenophobia"); people of religions other than Orthodox; exploited street children ("60 per cent...are from Albania and must have been separated from their parents"); and Roma ("Government policy is to encourage the integration of Roma"). Violence against women, female prostitution ("mostly from the former Soviet republics, Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania"), and harassment are further topics covered in depth. The Report contains numerous telling statistics, such as the 30 per cent year-on-year increase in use of the ombudsman's office during 2000.
Richard Witt, 5 March 2001
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