Athens mayor begs residents for patience

The road to the Athens Olympics passes through some rough terrain. Dust clouds and traffic jams from an unprecedented construction blitz; strikes and protests by labor groups as the city’s 4 million people wonder if it’s all worth the hassle. The mayor’s advice? Just hang on until August. «We will go through a period when people will say: ‘To hell with the Olympics,»’ Dora Bakoyianni told The Associated Press. «But then, afterward, when… Greece is the center of attention, these people will be there again.» Bakoyianni, the daughter of a former conservative prime minister was voted Athens’s first woman mayor by a landslide a year ago. In Greece, mayoral posts are considered possible stepping stones to national political stature. But the August 13-29 Olympics have raised the stakes. Successful Games could transform Bakoyianni, 49, into something Greece has rarely seen – a woman commanding huge popularity and political clout. Bakoyianni is openly ambitious. She has repeatedly insisted on her desire to complete her four-year term, but has left open the option of leaving early if she’s needed by her party, New Democracy. For the moment, the challenge is just trying to tame ill-tempered Athens with the little real power she holds. The Socialist government controls virtually every important sector, from police to public works. Construction crews are working round-the-clock to finish delayed road, rail and venue projects. A wave of strikes this fall has added to the disruptions. The Olympics provided a necessary jolt for a city that often seemed a poor relation to the other European Union capitals, she said. «For Athens, it was crucial that infrastructure was speeded up. We needed it,» she said. Security is still the major concern for the first Summer Games following the September 11 attacks. Organizers have recently boosted the budget by 25 percent to $755 million (almost 900 million euros). Yet some countries, led by the United States, have pointed out potential problems in coordination and planning that could hinder counter-terrorist efforts. A recent confidential US State Department report, obtained by a Greek newspaper, said Greek security forces are not fully prepared for possible chemical or biological terrorist attacks. But Bakoyianni sees it another way: Terrorists favor easy targets and may be deterred by the vast security web planned. «Every city is vulnerable. But it is less vulnerable during a red alert,» said Bakoyianni, whose husband, a New Democracy spokesman, was killed by the domestic November 17 terrorist group in 1989. She remarried in 1998. Last December, Bakoyianni was wounded by a gunman who opened fire on her car. Police say the attacker was apparently mentally unstable and Bakoyianni survived only because she reached down for her purse at the moment of the shooting. «Why shouldn’t (the Olympics) go well?» she asked. «Never, ever has any country paid so much for security. Nobody, not the president of the United States or the mayor of Athens, can assure the world that at some place and some time that nothing will happen. But what we can say is that we are doing everything possible to prevent it. «For me, what is very important is the participation of the Athenians… Yes, we need security but people must also feel welcome.» When it’s all over, the mayor says she is looking forward to a long holiday. «I’ve already booked it. I don’t care what happens, I have promised my husband.»