The odd Greek-Serb bond

Takis Michas is a rarity in Greece, an investigative journalist who has broken ranks with his colleagues to probe beneath the cloak of unanimity that dictates so much of our public debate. Defying the complacent crowd of his colleagues and public opinion, he has crusaded to expose Greece’s support for the regime of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and for the Bosnian Serbs during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. He may often feel lonely as one of a very few independent voices in Greece – but for his work he has won the country’s premier journalism prize, the annual Botsis Award (in 2002), and got an internationally acclaimed book out of it. «Unholy Alliance: Greece and Milosevic’s Serbia,» published by Texas A&M University Press last year (with an enriched Greek version due out in March), has received glowing reviews in international newspapers and journals. Its detailed insight into the Greeks and Greece’s policies in the Balkans during the 1990s fill a gap in trying to explain the inexplicable to a world which could not understand how Greeks could support a man demonized everywhere else as the «Butcher of the Balkans.» Samuel Huntington described Michas’s book as «essential reading for all those Europeans, Americans, and Greeks who are concerned with Greece’s role in the Balkans, NATO, the European Union and the world.» It is understandable that the author of the «clash of civilizations» theory should lavish such praise on the book – it fits perfectly with his concept of the «otherness» of the Eastern Orthodox nations. Michas presents in all its details the solidarity the Greeks showed the Serbs as a nation of fellow Orthodox Christians who also fought for their liberty against the Ottoman Empire early in the previous century. He shows up the sanctions-busting which helped prop up the Serb regime during the breakup of Yugoslavia, and the secret funneling of money out of Yugoslavia by Milosevic and his associates. Michas puts great store in the suggestion by Milosevic that Serbia and Greece divide among themselves the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (though he bases his outrage against Greece mostly on the memoirs of a self-serving former junior aide of the then foreign minister, rather than letting the fact that Athens did not take up Milosevic on his offer speak for itself). Michas also focuses on the single event that really brought home how out of step Greek intellectuals and the general public were with the rest of general opinion – the Kosovo war of 1999 – with its almost daily anti-American demonstrations as the public supported the Belgrade government while showing little concern for the suffering of the Kosovar Albanians. Here too is the great role played by the Church of Greece in setting the country’s domestic agenda and foreign policy. The treatment of minorities (which are either kept under the carpet or have their identity prescribed by the State), are also here. All this is presented in the framework of «ethnic nationalism,» which Michas sees as the determining factor in how Greeks see themselves and their country. Greeks are determined by their national and religious identity and everyone else, especially the insidious West, is a threat. And he presents plenty of the populist statements made by politicians, intellectuals and clergymen to back this up and to entertain the unsuspecting. For this alone, the book is a valuable anthology of mass paranoia which has, to a great extent, held up political development and stunted foreign relations. «One of the distinctive features of Greece’s overwhelming emotional support for Milosevic’s Serbia has been its intolerant and aggressive character,» Michas writes. «The same characteristics also marked the Greek people’s reactions to any attempt by the world community to interfere in the mayhem in the former Yugoslavia. This aggression and intolerance could be seen in all public manifestations: in the media coverage and television talk shows, in the demonstrations against the embassies of NATO countries, in the protests that accompanied President Clinton’s visit in October, 1999 [it was actually in late November], and last, but by no means least, in the wave of terrorist attacks that took place in Greece against Western interests during the war in Kosovo.» In discussing the «new anti-Americanism,» Michas makes the very valid point that whereas anti-Americanism was expressed in the past by the Left, and mainly to denounce what was seen as double standards or American meddling in Greek politics, it has now mutated into something more widespread. «The first thing to be noted is that today’s anti-Americanism is no longer the exclusive prerogative of the Left, as was the case in the 1960s. Today, both in Greece and elsewhere, its main advocates are to be found in equal proportions among the conservative Right, the communist Left and the religious militants. These three streams are converging to form the great river of the ‘new anti-Americanism.’» Michas points out the incongruous similarity in the thinking and declarations of the strangest of bedfellows, the unreformed Communist Party and the Church of Greece under the nationalist, populist Archbishop Christodoulos. He records statements by parties, priests and intellectuals declaring how superior to the West Greece is and how demeaning it is that it has to rely on the West for its well-being and security. The book provides many known and unknown anecdotes to back Michas’s thesis. But such is Michas’s passion and so great is the wall of silence that he feels he must break that his work is seriously flawed by being one-sided and exaggerated. He very often seems to shoehorn reality into his theory, losing the necessary sense of historical context. And, for a book as ambitious and serious as this, the fact-checking and spelling are so sloppy as to undermine its arguments. For example: the former CIA director James Woolsey is presented as «Wolsey;» the Financial Times correspondent in Athens, Kerin Hope, has her name spelled «Karin;» the Greek chapter of Medecins Sans Frontieres (which was kicked out of the international organization for defying a ban on going to Kosovo) is presented as its rival, Doctors of the World (Medecins du Monde). Businessman Evangelos Mytilineos’s name is spelled Mytilineos and Mytilinaios on the same page. But these are misdemeanors. In his most serious omission, Michas has relegated to a footnote on Page 154 the fact that Greek officials (especially Foreign Minister George Papandreou and his adviser Alex Rondos) played a primary role in helping the Serb opposition come to power in October 2000. Absorbing this into the course of the book would have made it a much more difficult undertaking but also much richer. Furthermore, Michas glosses over the fact that the Church was involved in a head-on clash with the government through most of 2000 over the latter’s decision to scrap the mention of religion on identity cards. Several pictures of Church-led protests are presented to illustrate the great role the Church plays in Greece, but most of these are from anti-government demonstrations. Greece’s greatly constructive role in the Balkans in recent years – with investment, reconstruction and political support – also, is ignored, as are the arguments presented by nationalists in Skopje in the early 1990s which sparked the nationalistic outburst in Greece and caused so many of its problems in the Balkans and with its allies. As Greece leaves behind a century that saw national consolidation through triumph and catastrophe, that saw wars, civil war and dictatorship, Michas’s book presents a valuable but exaggerated portrait of a Greece at a specific moment. It is a portrait in which only the warts are visible. For that alone, it is valuable as so few others write about this. But if Michas had tackled reality with all its nuances, his book would have won more converts to the cause of looking at Greece objectively, and helped build the civil society that he appeals for with such passion.