NEWS

Salonica: Projects, pledges

In his address to the organizations and businesses based in Thessaloniki, Prime Minister Costas Simitis took the opportunity of the opening of the annual International Trade Fair to, as he put it, evaluate the steps we have taken so far, to ascertain new needs, to highlight the potential for the development of northern Greece and Thessaloniki. The prime minister pointed out the important role that the northern Greek port and its businesses are playing in the stability and development of the region and to the large number of major projects that are being constructed across northern Greece in general and in the Thessaloniki region in particular. Simitis took pains to spell out his government’s commitment to the city and its people because, just as each year the government uses the forum of the international fair to present its economic policy for the following year, local agencies and organizations also take the opportunity to complain that the government, with its heavy concentration on Athens, ignores the needs of the country’s second city. Initially, Mayor Vassilis Papageorgopoulos was even planning to coordinate the protests by scores of local groups that were to coincide with Simitis’s visit. But in the end the mayor backed down, and it was only Communist Party-led groups and anti-globalization activists from the Genoa 2001 movement who took to the streets on Saturday. A strong police presence kept the protesters from getting near the Ioannis Velidis conference center where Simitis spoke, leading to a minor scuffle with about 200 protesters. Simitis met with local organizations on Saturday and listened to their complaints. Mayor Papageorgopoulos got things off to a tense start by welcoming Simitis with the words, If I were the mayor of Athens I would thank you. Thessaloniki’s representatives asked for decisions and projects to be sped up. They complained in particular over the lack of progress on the ring road at the city’s western entrance, and asked for development projects and incentives for industry. I feel your anxiety and know our responsibility, Simitis told them. The basic projects will be completed. We are battling toward this and we believe in them, he said. Later, in his speech, Simitis spoke about the city’s role in the broader region. At a time of significant changes in the Balkans, we have managed to keep Greece from being part of the problem, making it instead an agent of peace and stability. With a series of bilateral and multilateral initiatives we are promoting the peaceful solution of our neighbors’ differences, the economic development and gradual accession of the Balkan countries to the European Union. Greece is playing a key role in the reconstruction of the Balkans as most European and international initiatives intersect in Thessaloniki, he said. Thessaloniki is the base for the EU’s offices for the reconstruction of the Balkans and the alternative base of the Stability Pact. Greece has also promised to provide 180 billion drachmas over the next five years for development projects in Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Yugoslavia. Critics say that Athens has been announcing these funds for years now without having done much to implement the plan. Simitis pointed out that Greece will hold the EU’s six-month rotating presidency in the first half of 2003, and that the Union’s summit will be held in Thessaloniki. This, he said, can establish Thessaloniki as the European center of Greece, the European heart of the Balkans. He said that three major events – the EU summit, Thessaloniki’s participation in the Athens 2004 Olympics, and Expo 2007-2008 – will heighten further Thessaloniki’s international role. Turning to construction projects, Simitis spoke of the Egnatia Development plan, which includes the construction of the Egnatia Road from west to east and other infrastructure words, the Thessaloniki metro and employment projects. This is a strategic project of viable development centered in metropolitan Thessaloniki. The prime minister said that 80 percent of the EU’s Third Community Support Framework will be spent outside Athens, with 30 percent being spent in the regions of Macedonia and Thrace. Regarding the Egnatia Road, he said that 460 kilometers will be completed by early 2004. We know the difficulties we face, Simitis said of the projects that have been undertaken. But we have the steady will to make everything go more quickly. Any delays are not a reason for disappointment, they are a reason for us to continue with greater determination, he said. Regarding the Thessaloniki metro, whose delay has drawn the most complaints from residents of the traffic-clogged city, Simitis said: The metro has passed through many periods of doubt, both in Greece and the EU… I remind you that all the preparatory studies and work have been conducted and according to a recent letter from the European Investment Bank to the Public Works Ministry, the project is in the final phase of financial decisions. Immediately afterward, the contract for the metro’s construction will be enacted. He said also that an international tender for the construction of a tunnel under Thessaloniki’s bay to lighten the city’s traffic load would be published in 2002. That situation was different. The residents were exploited for political purposes; they joined para-state and paramilitary organizations and fought against us.