A Marbles mop-up

The government yesterday tried to overcome the embarrassment generated on Thursday by a brief conversation between Prime Minister Costas Simitis and his British colleague Tony Blair – in which the former appeared to request the return of the British Museum’s Elgin, or Parthenon, Marbles for electioneering reasons – by going on the offensive against the opposition. On Thursday night, opposition New Democracy attacked Simitis about his alleged intention to use the return of the marble sculptures, taken to Britain by Lord Elgin in early 19th century, to attract votes in elections next spring. Yesterday, New Democracy spokesman Theodoros Roussopoulos said that «all Greeks want the return of the Parthenon Marbles in order to right a historical wrong. Mr Simitis wants their return, as he declared (on Thursday) for petty party political gains. All those who saw the video with the Simitis-Blair conversation have understood.» Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos used New Democracy’s statements to engage in some opposition-bashing and to deny that Simitis’s intentions had anything to do with his effort to win the next election. «It is not the first time the Prime Minister of Greece has spoken about the issue with his British colleague, and it is very important that this issue is discussed at Prime Ministerial level… I have repeatedly told the British media than only the British prime minister can undertake an initiative and overcome (legal and historical obstacles) that are two centuries old,» Venizelos said. He said that New Democracy had committed a «historical mistake» by «essentially declaring that it prefers that the Marbles are not returned… ahead of the Olympic Games.» Venizelos said this «sends the wrong message» abroad and likened it to a hypothetical opposition on the part of New Democracy, on Cyprus’s accession to the European Union, just because it happened to take place under the socialist government. Venizelos also denied rumors, published in the British press, that the Greek government was offering, in response to the return of the Marbles, its support for London’s bid to host the 2012 Olympics. What embarrassed the government most, however, was not New Democracy’s attack, but the scoffing tone that prevailed even in government-friendly media. Some radio program hosts joked that Simitis was about to demand from French President Jacques Chirac the return of the Venus de Milo or the Victory of Samothrace, both sculptures displayed in the Louvre museum.