Date: Wed, 29 Jul 98 16:34:03 CDT
From: Greek Helsinki Monitor <>
Subject: Efforts to Rationalize Greeces Balkan Policy
Article: 40118
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Efforts to Rationalize Greece's Balkan Policy: the Kosovo Case

By Panayote Elias Dimitras, Greek Helsinki Monitor and Minority Rights Group, AIM (Athens), 25 July 1998

In early 1990, in the first ever-televised debate of Greek party leaders, Messrs. Mitsotakis (of conservative New Democracy), Papandreou (of Socialist PASOK) and Florakis (of leftist Coalition) agreed on one thing. In the post-Cold War era, the transition Balkan countries were expected to rely on Greece to help fulfill their dreams of integrating the Western community (i.e. EU and NATO). Logically enough, these political leaders thought that Greece's membership in that community and her, until then, very good relations with all Balkan countries (simultaneously, even during the last phase of communism) made such development unavoidable. Greece could thus become a regional power, they thought, and perhaps they also hoped that such development would enhance her international posture in the only serious foreign policy problem she was facing, the multi-facet conflict with Turkey.

Three years later, part of the Balkans were in flames, torn apart by rival post-Yugoslav nationalisms. The West, often ignorant or blind, was failing dismally in its efforts to mediate the conflicts. So, from the 1990 standpoint, one would have expected Greece to play the crucial role of arbitrating them, thus confirming her regional role. That was far from reality, though. Instead of mediating, Greece was contributing to the explosive potential of the region, as she had managed to be in bad terms with all her neighbors. Besides “traditional hostility” towards Turkey, Bulgaria appeared suspect for her supposed “pro-Turkish leanings:” that is how Greek foreign policy interpreted the reversal of the Zhivkov anti-Turkish policies and the ensuing rapprochement between Sofia and Ankara. Albania's handling of the Greek minority was reported to be terrible and Greek irredentism towards Southern Albania (Northern Epirus) was blossoming even in government circles.

Mainly, though, Greek foreign policy was suffering from what leading Greek international jurist Christos Rozakis called “Macedonization” of her foreign policy. Almost all circles of Greek politics and society had become obsessed with the “name issue” and the alleged “Macedonian irredentism” towards Greece. Hence, every policy decision had to take into account Greece's intransigent attitude towards that latest arrival in Southern Balkan statehood. As a result, Greece ended up with only one ally in the region, Serbia. That was the time when current leading indicted war criminal Radovan Karadjic was being welcomed as a hero by all political forces of Greece. So, when Karadjic disagreed with Milosevic, Greeks supported the former; worse, when he then appeared to be at odds with his even more nationalist Pale parliament, most Greeks sided with the latter.

It may therefore be surprising to see that Greece today is outright critical of Milosevic over the Kosovo crisis. Though one will hardly find in Athens any supporters of Kosovo's independence or of NATO strikes in that province, Greek foreign policy makers have repeatedly backed full autonomy for Kosovo and stated that Albanians there have been the victims of human rights violations. At the same time, Greece is a key player in Albania's reconstruction and a major investor in both Bulgaria and Macedonia. Turkey has become once again the sole adversary, though the name issue with Macedonia has remained unresolved.

How can one interpret such evolution? Two factors contributed to that change. First, Greek policy makers realized that Greece's entanglement in the Balkan conflicts had hurt her national interests and marginalized her influence in the region. At the same time, Turkey's more skillful Balkan policy had won her allies there, consequently weakening Greece's posture with respect to her “traditional enemy.” On the other hand, Costas Simitis, who succeeded Andreas Papandreou both as leader of PASOK and as Prime Minister in 1996, is certainly by far the most pragmatic and less nationalist Greek Prime Minister of the last quarter century.

So, he has gradually convinced his party, which still harbors a strong nationalist wing, that it is in the interest of the country to follow a more balanced and more converging with Greece's allies foreign policy. In that he was certainly helped by the frustrations caused by previous Balkan policy choices: Greece quickly found herself politically isolated on her conflicts with Macedonia and Albania, which on the other hand damaged the potential for profitable Greek investment there. At the same time, the relations between these two neighbors were serving as a model. Theoretically they should have been tense because of the large Albanian minority in Macedonia whose rights have not been fully respected; in practice, though, bilateral relations have been rather good and in fact started improving when Greece imposed the embargo on Macedonia in 1994. At the same time, Bulgaria and Macedonia, at odds over the ethnic and the language issues, have nevertheless managed to avoid conflictual relations. In both cases, Balkan neighbors have achieved good working relations, while “agreeing to disagree” on their otherwise important “national issues,” which, nevertheless, they do not allow to dominate over bilateral relations.

Under Simitis, Greece has followed a similar course in her Balkan foreign policy. This has helped her become a leader in Albania's reconstruction. Inevitably to keep this hardly won position, she could not have remained indifferent to the problem of Kosovo. At the same time, the populist style of Milosevic may have suited that of Papandreou and of Mitsotakis but is not compatible with the modernizing character of Simitis' politics. Greece was thus able to finally try to play the role she could have had from the beginning of the various Balkan crises, that of mediator in the conflicts. The Balkan summit in Crete, in late 1997, culminated with the Nano - Milosevic meeting aiming at dealing with the Kosovo problem. While Greece took a number of additional public or discrete initiatives before and during the recent crisis.

As in other areas of Greek political life, though, Simitis does not have a “free hand” to carry out his policies, even though the opposition is notoriously weak. Greek public opinion has been adapting at much slower pace with the requirements of modernization, thus lagging behind the government. Still bolstered by most media, the populist and nationalist voices put considerable pressure on Simitis, whether it concerns the, so belated, privatizations or the realistic turn in his Balkan policies. When it comes to Kosovo, for example, one would hardly hear or read a journalist calling its majority group Albanians: they remain “Albanian-speakers,” just like Greece's Macedonians are mere “Slav-speakers” and Turks “Muslims” or maybe “Turkish-speakers,” which, in the Greek jargon, means denial of their ethnic identity. Moreover, while the inflammatory reports on the Greek minority in Albania have all but vanished (a fate similar to that of the minority's “Omonoia” organization), recurring references are made to Greece's intransigent position on the issue of Macedonia's name making it impossible to find some mutually acceptable solution.

In such a setting, an objective observer can only be satisfied with the consistent yet cautious change of Greece's attitude towards Milosevic and Serbia. This has made it possible for the Greek government to back Kosovo's autonomy and the full respect of human rights there, as well as to offer its services for possible mediation. At the same time, it has facilitated Balkan convergence on, among other things, security issues, as indicated by the joint statement of most Balkan countries at the outbreak of the recent Kosovo conflict. However, the litmus test of how entrenched such change is may come if the conflict transforms itself into an open war with no immediate prospect for any negotiated solution. In such very unwelcome but unfortunately not very unlikely eventuality, it will require statesmanship of the kind Simitis has yet to exhibit to be able to keep Greece on the right, pragmatic track.