Foreign policy poses a major headache

National issues may not be high on the list of things that attract public opinion, but experience has shown that when they go wrong, they can cause massive political damage. Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis had the opportunity to observe as much a few days back when the United States recognized the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) under the name of Macedonia. The issue of FYROM’s name, which had been on the back burner for years, abruptly came under the spotlight, putting the New Democracy government in a difficult position. The letter from American President George W. Bush brings to mind a Greek proverb: «I’ll burn you, Yiannis, so I can daub you with oil.» Karamanlis needs that oil to dispel the unfavorable impression the public has formed and to ward off criticism from the opposition. It is understandable that the party spokesman expressed the government’s satisfaction when Washington said that it would accept any compromise name that was chosen. But what really counts is that Washington had undermined such a prospect by its actions. The PASOK government clearly bears the main responsibility for the issue becoming bogged down. From 1996 to last March, it made several attempts to find a mutually agreeable name – to no avail. Those who have been dealing with the matter claim that both sides were within sights of an agreement, but time has proven the Slav-Macedonians were never prepared to accept any compound name. In the intervening eight years, they made a pretense of discussing the matter but were not inclined to find a solution. And why not? Not only was there no price for them to pay, but they were also deriving benefits from Greece itself. And this is precisely where the government of Costas Simitis bears the responsibility. The Karamanlis government has taken the same line during its seven months in office. And it has paid for it because the «bomb» exploded in its hands. The political cost has grown, as leaks from Washington indicate that during the Greek premier’s visit there, he had been warned of the Americans’ intentions. Even if that were not the case, there were many eloquent signals of what was to come. The recent visit by US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to Skopje and the signing of a bilateral defense agreement in which FYROM was referred to as Macedonia should have alerted Greek diplomats. Instead, they were unnecessarily surprised, even though it is by no means sure that they could have averted the controversial recognition had they mobilized. The only positive aspect of this negative development is that the unilateral manner in which the US acted has upset our partners in the European Union, and thus made them view Athens more favorably. In fact, Greek diplomacy gained some time and perhaps the option of playing the European card on better terms. Karamanlis has let it be understood that he will not change tack. If Skopje persists in its obstructive tactics and refuses a compound name, it will face obstacles that Greece might set in its path toward both Europe and NATO. This option exists and may bring results, but the ND government has another open wound on the foreign policy front. The increasing number of Turkish violations of Greek air space over the Aegean, the confiscation of the Greek minority’s property in Istanbul, the non-fulfillment of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s promise to allow the Halki seminary to begin operating again and Ankara’s insistence on not recognizing the Republic of Cyprus have all created much concern and raised questions. The public justifiably wonders about the effectiveness of this Greek foreign policy. The Turks are behaving in a provocative, offensive manner at a time when they need a «yes» from Athens and Nicosia. How will they behave when they have got their entry ticket and are on their way to EU accession? One need not be an expert to realize that the policy of supporting the Turkish claim without any tradeoff not only has not prompted any act of goodwill from Ankara, but has also sharpened its expansionist demands. Athens has become trapped in an unconditional «yes» that has been announced in advance. The government speaker argued, unabashed, that air-space violations this year were fewer than in previous years. In order to dispel serious public anxiety, they have reached the point of systematically understating Turkish aggression. It is clear that Athens has also had an unpleasant surprise on this front. For its part, PASOK is exploiting that fact that the Karamanlis government relinquished the opportunity granted it by the Helsinki decision (of 1999) of asking the European Council to take the initiative of referring any disagreements to the International Court of Justice at The Hague. PASOK is firing its shots but is keeping quiet about the fact that such a procedure entails certain risks concerning sovereignty. This does not relate solely to certain rocky islets, but to the fact that the delineation of the continental shelf under the present limit on territorial waters (up to 6 miles) is equivalent to selling out the right of extending them as provided by the Law of the Sea. Obvious embarrassment These dangers played a decisive part in the renunciation of the Helsinki provision, but the return to the bilateral framework does not clear the way for any positive prospects. In other respects, it favors Ankara, which for that reason is trying to keep the EU out of Greek-Turkish issues. The Karamanlis government does not appear to possess an effective strategy, hence its obvious embarrassment over Turkish provocation and the turn that events have taken. It is not by chance that the December summit will discuss the inclusion in its conclusions of general principles and reports that might be interpreted as securing Greek interests. But that is an old game, and an ineffective one. The claim that if Turkey gets its ticket in December, Athens and Nicosia will again have a chance to impose their rules is grossly misleading. They will have two votes out of 25, and that is all.