Letter from Thessaloniki

All politics are local. Over a month after the municipal elections, that old campaign warning is as true in Greece as anywhere. Without doubt, Thessaloniki is one of the major European urban power bases – at any rate, it has been characterized as such. In July 1999, it was dubbed the «port of hope for the future» by the visiting then-US defense secretary, William Cohen. The city was to be «the hub for the reconstruction activity that will take place for the rebuilding of Kosovo and Yugoslavia,» Cohen told a news conference, also announcing Washington’s decision to set up a trade office in Thessaloniki. In September of that year, Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis said: «The time has come for us to look more closely at this city’s role,» and also announced, «we are going to make Thessaloniki the economic center of southeastern Europe.» Nothing of the sort has happened. Greece’s second biggest port is still in deep water. A city of over a million people, it has been steadily made – with good reason – to feel inferior to Athens, the six-times larger behemoth and administrative center. But not for very long, if one is to believe the Labor Minister Dimitris Reppas who, speaking yesterday at noon to the local press, said: «The government will stand by its promises. By the end of 2003 there will be some 300,000 new jobs. Wait and see.» In June 2003, another major event is to take place: the First Helleniad (the meeting of young Greeks living abroad). The northern Greek port, founded in 316 BC and named Thessaloniki, after Alexander the Great’s half-sister, is also considered the capital for all Greek communities. And the Minister of Macedonia and Thrace, Giorgos Paschalidis, recently announced Thessaloniki’s candidacy for the 2008 EXPO. «With the 2008 EXPO World Fair on ‘Human Networks,’ we are aiming at expressing the whole of Southeastern Europe, and supporting the development of Northern Greece and Thessaloniki,» the minister underlined. Thessaloniki seems to be coping with its troubles better than Western Macedonia, which is in economic decline. Neat, owner-occupied apartments show little of the desolation seen in the better neighborhoods of Florina or Kozani. Here, buses are better maintained than in Athens and run on time. Taxis are easier to find and drivers far less rude. Only PAOK, the city’s soccer team, is clearly in deep trouble. But that is another story of which I know little. What I do know is the desperate «need for Greece to raise its prestige and further its cultural development» as the President of the Republic, Costis Stephanopoulos, pointed out here in Thessaloniki during his speech at a reception held in his honor by the Minister of Macedonia and Thrace not long ago. Well, it seems that Thessaloniki is doing just that. In a country where private (ie shamelessly commercial) television has yielded to market market demands, there is an encouraging exception. Eurocentric, yet without the eat-your-spinach-because-it’s-good-for-you mentality, ERT-3, the public television network, broadcasts nationwide from Thessaloniki, with programs that «shine like pearls in a dung heap,» as Thomas Jefferson said of certain book passages. In its forlorn (?) struggle, valiant ERT-3 has to struggle daily with silly, sloppy or even sleazy competition – which still is a lot of fun to watch! Also locally – and successfully – managed, TV-100, a city-financed, pro-New Democracy station (which always follows the Mayor Vassilis Papageorgolpoulos about town) is not doing badly either. Occasionally showing Thessaloniki City Council meetings and sometimes tame, sometimes explosive or sophisticated talk shows, it has become must-see TV. Although exchanges between city officials and the audience can be dramatic at times, the importance of the broadcasts is that they give TV viewers critical information about public policy. Complaints about state TV have been made for years: Populists think it’s too elitist. Provincial culture mavens complain it’s not elitist enough. Personally, I sympathize with state TV chiefs who are mired in a bureaucratic, underfinanced system and have to serve too many masters and satisfy too many expectations.

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