Letter from Thessaloniki

The bleakness of the morning had just melted away. A warm winter sun smiled down upon me as I walked from the seaside promenade – you’re never far from the sea here – toward Egnatia Street last Saturday. Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece with a population of 1 million, and one of the oldest cities in Europe, was one of the 600 cities around the world to participate in protests against the war. Aristotelous Square was full of protesters, mainly white-haired, holding banners with slogans opposing a war in Iraq. It was obvious that much of the work of organizing this specific demonstration in that part of the city had been delegated to the hard left, that is the «orthodox» Communist Party. However, as I headed north the crowd ranged from traditional protesters to younger people, peaceniks, large numbers of ordinary mom-‘n’-pop folks, and veteran activists and anarchists to Greenpeace activists and members of student and religious networks. Of course, there were also local celebrity headliners –  glamorous, creative Thessalonians, mainly Macedonian politicians – who seem to share model lives with their model wives. But there was more on display than smart showmanship by the rally’s supporters in the political-entertainment industry. Peace supporters were quietly protesting what the local Sunday press openly called a plotted war. Unquestionably, this was one of the largest rallies in recent history for Thessaloniki. The protesters holding banners and signs against a war against Iraq, converged outside the US Consulate – safely located on the sixth-floor of a red-brick shopping center in the heart of the city on Tsimiski Street. They might not have hit the 100,000 mark, but the tens of thousands of demonstrators who showed up in Thessaloniki last Saturday were impressive by any historical or political standard. Hours later an octogenerian, and extremely right-wing, bourgeois aunt of mine, wanted to know: «How was it, dear?» I described the protest march as well as I could. She sighed. And with a mischievous smile she said: «Oh how I would have liked to be there! Well, anyway I made both of my servants go and march for me…» In decades of pushing and pulling between the «left» and the «right,» this demo made it possible – at least for a few hours – for one to feel that everything has changed. Indubitably, there was unity here. And undoubtedly, creating this sense of a common cause has been the Greek presidency’s goal from the very beginning. At a press conference on December 18, Prime Minister Costas Simitis declared that he would seek to forge a unified EU policy on the question of a US-led military campaign in Iraq. «Based on the discussions I have had,» he said at the time – how little did he know – «I believe there is a common will to tackle the problem, and the Greek presidency will try by all means to forge a common stance toward this problem.» This task, he maintained, would be helped by the fact that Britain and France are permanent members of the 15-member UN Security Council, while Germany will take up a non-permanent seat next year. «These three major players will be on the front line of decision-making at the United Nations and will be forced to reach an agreement, bringing an EU-wide agreement within reach,» he said in the second year of our disagreeable century. Once more, on this very Monday, the Greek EU presidency is issuing a – desperate? – appeal for unity to the EU member states on the issue of Iraq. Was ever a summit so likely to be a prologue for disaster? Presided over by Greece, today’s extraordinary summit meeting in Brussels and in a world which is – let’s face it! – already deep in recession, can hardly be merely about finding a peaceful solution to the Iraqi crisis. In fact, amid this apparent polarization among the EU’s larger states, many of us, that is of the smaller EU countries, have yet to express clear stances. Well-wishers may say that a divergence of opinion between the US and the Europeans is an expression of democratic debate, yet in actual fact the less prominent states, such as Greece as compared to Turkey, can be, alas, so easily shrugged off. (Commercial Break: Reacting quickly to the events, the Greek Foreign Ministry spokesman calmly and categorically ruled out the likelihood of sending Greek forces to Turkey in the event of a military attack on Iraq, stressing that the Greek EU presidency is unwavering in its effort to find a peaceful solution to the crisis. Mr Beglitis clarified that Greece is politically in favor of the activation of the collective solidarity mechanism within the framework of NATO but it will not – repeat NOT – send troops or weapons systems to Turkey for the defense of the neighboring country in the case of a war in Iraq.) When Plato was asked about the first thing that he would do if he were to lead the state he said… Oh, to hell with what Plato said! The fact is that the world is tending toward economic and political centralization. The actual global economic crisis continues to deepen on both sides of the Atlantic. The only way out, whether we like it or not, is for the US of Europe to make common cause with the US of America. Not necessarily with any specific president, but with the USA itself. Bringing together natural and technological resources, plus tradition and culture, could be of huge benefit to each society, and eventually to the world. Ultimately, caution and restraint should also be encouraged. Israeli-style retaliation can only engender more terrorist attacks.