After the ‘big sleep’

In the conduct of foreign policy, every government commits its country to the international community by its decisions and thus produces real elements of political responsibility for each successive government. Foreign policy is never a suitable ground for the complete satisfaction of national desires, political triumphs, or the confirmation of one political party’s views. In the conduct of foreign policy, every government, even if it represents a very powerful country, moves within a complex of obligations in an ongoing effort to ensure gains, or at least to prevent losses. Unfortunately, in Greece for many years now politicians have found it extremely difficult to manage effectively this highly demanding policy sector. The element of consistency gets scant attention; leaders torment themselves by calculating the domestic political cost of each decision; there is practically no cooperation or agreement among parties; serious issues are transformed into matters of internal political interest and create harmful tensions on the political scene; and the gravest matters are often loaded with emotional freight, which distorts facts and makes them lose their political substance. The management of the FYROM issue is typical of all these shortcomings that make the Greek political system look bad. Ever since 1991 – when a poor beginning was made in a climate of political panic that furnished fertile ground for multiple acts of diplomatic ineptitude – not one government has been able to formulate an effective policy on FYROM at the right time. Hence this issue, now brought onto the political scene by Washington, is being tackled nervously by a government that was caught completely unawares and by an opposition that is pleased to have a prime opportunity to criticize the government harshly. In between them, a large proportion of the Greek public is frustrated as it tries yet again to understand the real facts of the problem, while the usual circles of hardline ultranationalists are once again ready to take action on Greece’s public stage. This depressing scene was complemented last week by sounds and images from television split screens, where dozens of politicians, mainly from the major parties, chattered generously and noisily, supposedly to show that their party had always had the right approach the issue. It is impressive to see how politicians who, for years, were split on the unresolved issue of FYROM are now appearing on various television programs, enthusiastically presenting arguments as though they were experts on the problem. With regrettably few exceptions, these public figures barely conceal their satisfaction, not because they have a chance to express their political views but because the FYROM issue has given them another opportunity to appear on television (which nowadays rates above all else in politics). Therefore it is no surprise that most of the arguments expressed in these peculiar split-screen debates range from elementary to infantile. In fact, the most striking aspect of this whole matter, which has again come to the fore in Greek foreign policy, is that the nine-year repose of all governments upon the comfortable mattress of the 1995 «intermediate agreement.» This hiatus left Greek policy on FYROM seriously exposed to the risk of unexpected initiatives by third parties. And Athens is now being called on to pay, in whole or in part, for that repose. It matters little to the New Democracy government that PASOK leaders bear a large proportion of the responsibility for the «big sleep.» The FYROM name issue has gone very badly, but it is not yet definitively lost for the Greek side. There is room for prompt, intensive diplomatic action by Athens, first of all within the EU but also in the Balkans. In order to secure a positive outcome, the government must first organize itself, but the opposition, and particularly its leader, need to act seriously. The initial statements by PASOK leader George Papandreou, with their heavily populist overtones and lack of political substance, were disappointing to say the least.