This year’s Thessaloniki International Fair holds special interest for two reasons: First is the dynamic presence of the United States, which suggests the potential for “the day after,” when Greece finally escapes the habits of the past; secondly, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s policy program will show whether there is any likelihood of such an exodus from the crisis or whether the pursuit of votes will condemn the country to more years in the swamp.
For the past 10 years, the brief annual visit of Greek politicians to Thessaloniki has often presented a great challenge to those in government. While those in power remain in Athens, propped up by the framework of familiar structures and routines, they can control the message and the image that they want to present. The annual rendezvous in Thessaloniki, though, brings them into direct contact with journalists from all news media and with demonstrators of all types, forcing them to answer questions that they would rather avoid.
In the past, the trip to Thessaloniki constituted a victory lap for governments, allowing them to put on a magnanimous show of sharing some of the glory of power with the residents of what is patronizingly called the “co-capital” of Greece. But when governments were in the throes of scandal, or when the economic, social and political problems became overwhelming, then the unavoidable appointment in Thessaloniki loomed like an iceberg in the government’s way. When, under foreign supervision, governments were unable to share out favors in the economic policies that they announced in Thessaloniki, opposition parties were free to undermine anything that the government did by making wild promises to all sectors of the population.
As leader of the opposition, Tsipras exploited the vulnerability of previous governments and the power of the Thessaloniki pulpit. That brought him to power, along with his partner Panos Kammenos. In the past, he was on the front line of demonstrations against government policies; for the last three years, as prime minister, he has had to avoid demonstrations and to defend his policies. Highlighting this is the fact that even the anarchist group Rouvikonas, which has enjoyed a wide degree of government tolerance, staged an event in Thessaloniki yesterday condemning the government’s policies. It has been clear that Tsipras has not enjoyed his recent visits to the city. This year, however, he can brag about the country’s “exit” from the bailout agreements and he can present an ambitious package of handouts, seeing as this is the last International Fair before local, European and national elections are held. Tsipras’s past suggests that he will choose the easy way, placing party interests above those of the country.