OPINION

A good year before the storm

The past year was most interesting in a most unobtrusive way. Greece scored several great successes that resulted from strategic thinking and painstaking work. The coming year will offer plenty of opportunities for Greece to show how well it can deal with dramatic developments, both domestically and abroad. From Wednesday, Greece will hold the European Union’s six-month rotating presidency. Despite its great plans to deal with a host of issues aimed at defining the future of Europe – from regulating immigration to shaping a common foreign policy – Greece is likely to find itself the captain of a fractious ship in a frightening storm if the United States goes ahead with its war against Iraq. Last time Greece was EU president, in 1994, the country was still the bad boy of the EU – with the majority voicing very vocal support for Bosnian Serbs in the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Athens imposing an embargo on its neighbor, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Now Greece has undertaken its role as the country that can best bridge the gap between the Balkans and Europe, being part of the solution rather than the problem. The two most significant events of 2002, in order of appearance, were the country’s adopting the single European currency – the euro – on January 1, while the second came at the end of the year with the EU’s invitation to Cyprus to become a full member in 2004, without any preconditions. Midway through the year came a third success – the dramatic blowup of Greece’s laboratory of terror, the November 17 gang. Years of investigation paid off as the group’s first mistake led to its rapid collapse. Although November 17’s long-overdue demise was by far the year’s dominant news story, it will fade into deserved insignificance as time passes, whereas Greece’s membership in the eurozone and Cyprus’s entry into the EU will shape the two countries’ histories for decades. All three came after years of hard work. Greece’s membership in the eurozone was achieved only after the country had met the strict criteria demanded of all other members. For once, it seemed, Greece was getting along by pulling its own weight. Cynics might say that a bit of creative accounting which helped shrink the public debt could also count as using homegrown know-how to achieve the Herculean task of getting into the eurozone. Eurostat’s recent addition of 5 percentage points to the public debt-to-GDP ratio, as well as the understanding that the adoption of the single currency had helped push prices higher, put a bit of a damper on the euro’s shine, but these are all teething pains as opposed to the fact that Greece is in the eurozone and need not fear turbulence in the currency markets any longer. When Cyprus applied to join the union in 1990 this might have looked both far-fetched and distant. But suddenly, as the deadline loomed, the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, the two communities on Cyprus, Turkey and Greece accelerated their efforts to end the island’s division. Secretary-General Kofi Annan produced a proposal for a comprehensive settlement that was the culmination of decades of UN mediation. Neither side got exactly what it wanted, but then neither was alienated to the extent of turning its back on the proposed deal. The deadline presented by the EU summit on Dec. 12 concentrated everyone’s mind on the issue and at one point there was hope that the Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot sides could agree to a revised deal before the summit ended. Unfortunately, Turkish-Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash got sick, checking in to an Ankara hospital for the duration of the Copenhagen summit and so avoiding the need to come to a decision. (He missed an earlier deadline to send his comments to Annan, saying his fax machine did not work). Denktash sent a representative to Copenhagen without giving him the authority to sign anything. Cyprus was invited to join the union as is and Denktash was outraged. Denktash now demands changes that would take away everything which could make the Greek Cypriots’ sacrifices palatable. But Athens and Nicosia have gained a great advantage. Denktash has come under unprecedented pressure both from his own people and from the party now ruling Turkey, which wants to get Ankara a date for the start of its own EU accession negotiations. Also, Athens has managed to strengthen its relationship with Ankara, going to bat for the Turks at the EU summit and calling for an early date for talks – whereas the EU decided to review Turkey’s case in December 2004. This situation is light years away from early 1999, less than four years ago, when Greece’s anti-Turkish reflexes and a penchant for improvising without strategy, had culminated in the Ocalan affair. The debacle, in which the Kurdish rebel leader was captured by Turkish agents as he left the Greek ambassador’s residence in Nairobi, was a turning point for Greece. Not since the invasion of Cyprus in 1974 had Greeks suffered such a humiliating defeat at Turkish hands. Losing Ocalan (whatever the direct reasons may have been) was like losing a proxy war. Prime Minister Costas Simitis saw that the only way to deal with problems such as Greek-Turkish relations was to do exactly the opposite of what had been done before. He placed the problems in the context of international law and institutions and let things develop. Also, dealing with Turkey as a neighbor with a common future has helped improve the climate between the two countries, with people on both sides seeing that it is in their interests to cooperate, pushing extreme nationalists to the fringes. The visit to Athens by the leader of Turkey’s new ruling party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, immediately after the Turkish elections in November showed that this feeling is especially strong in Ankara. Without any dramatic breakthroughs, this too is one of the successes that the quiet year 2002 can claim. Now, as president of the EU, Greece will have an opportunity to work toward Turkey’s closer ties with the union. And Turkey, which is in ferment, needs this. The establishment is in an open clash with Erdogan. President Ahmet Sezer, who vetoed a law that would allow Erdogan’s election to Parliament, is faced with a dilemma. If he calls a referendum on this issue now and Erdogan’s camp wins, Turkey’s military and bureaucratic establishment will have suffered a mortal blow. Sezer is unlikely to risk this, so we can expect to see Prime Minister Erdogan. The biggest problem Turkey faces, however, is the possibility of war in Iraq. The government, the opposition and the vast majority of the public are opposed to this. Turkey, though, not wanting to let down its major ally the United States will have to go through what Greece did during the US-led war on Yugoslavia in 1999. There will be angry demonstrations in the streets while the government, without making loud noises, will give the United States whatever it asks for. What Washington will have to understand, at last, is that no country wants war on its doorstep, especially if it has not been convinced of the reasons nor assured of the consequences. The Turks’ fear of Iraqi Kurds gaining in influence could prompt them to make rash demands of the Americans, who need the help of the Kurds as well as the Turks. This could lead to rupture between Washington and Ankara. So 2003 is bound to be a most interesting and dramatic year. At home, Greece will have to fix its economy, making the necessary structural changes; get the Athens Olympics preparations on schedule; get its public administration to work for the public and not against it and reboot its education system. On the international scene, Greece will be at the center of developments. Its strategy and diplomacy will have a direct effect on our region as it labors through the global recession and deals with the changes that the war on terrorism and the war on Iraq may bring. Taking charge of the EU after the acclaimed Danish presidency, at this difficult time, is – like the Olympics – a splendid opportunity to show that you do not have to be big to do big things. Inspired improvisation in the face of overwhelming challenges has saved the Greeks throughout their history. With the method we have now added to our quiver, we can go into the battles ahead with new confidence.