OPINION

Otherwise engaged

This is about as good as it gets. The past week was full of things as interesting as they were important. Greece was very much in the center of the fray, though this was evident only to the Greeks as each other country was very much involved with its own problems. The funny thing is that while we were all involved with the big international issues of Iraq and EU-US relations, Greece was falling apart as winter invaded and occupied our usually sunny, always sloppy country. With roads collapsing all over Greece, with villages and towns cut off by landslides and heavy snow, with property and farmland lost to floods, the government managed to get together yesterday to decide on what to do about the 600 million euros of damage. It is like an earthquake creeping across the country. Let’s take the week a day at a time. Saturday, February 15 Between 150,000 and 200,000 Greeks take to the streets, in a worldwide demonstration against the hasty use of force against Iraq. The only difference with the rest of the world is that which always sets us apart with such regularity: First, we were sure that we were the navel of the universe. («Once again, you have shown that Greece is the center of the democratic world,» World War II resistance hero Manolis Glezos told a crowd of more than 100,000 in Athens in the usual ritual of self-congratulation between the crowd and the speakers.) Never mind that in Rome there were 3 million people in the streets and in London and Madrid 1 million – all capitals whose governments have declared they are squarely of the American opinion that the sooner war is waged the better. Athens and Thessaloniki, true to form, were also about the only cities (along with Istanbul) in which demonstrators clashed with police. This was the usual crowd of a couple of hundred revolutionary wannabes in their late teens and early 20s trying to make their anti-establishment impression, who have nothing to do with the thousands of sincere people demonstrating. l Enter Constantine De Grecia. The former king, his wife and members of their family arrive in Athens for the weekend. Just like any other family, any other family at the center of a media circus. The visit was packed with excitement. First of all, to the Greek officials’ demand that he get himself a surname (a demand issued with the regularity that gives it the ritualized comfort of a mantra), the former king responds by traveling with a ticket in the name of Constantine De Grecia (or so television reports say, it being difficult for anyone to check the veracity of this). If this is true, it betrays a fine sense of humor, answering the demand for a surname by seconding the whole of Greece. Before the 1974 referendum abolishing the monarchy, Constantine was known as King of the Hellenes. Many Greeks have since taken to calling him Glucksburg, after the Danish royal house of his ancestors. Now he comes a-calling as De Grecia, as if «Greece» were a royal house like the Windsors, the Bourbons, the Saxe-Coburgs, or whatever – a house with 11 million kings, queens and princelings trying with varying degrees of success to impose their will on each other. Apart from his sense of humor, the visit also illustrates two things: How absence makes the heart grow fonder and how tailored for TV the former royal family is. Constantine and Co. manage to shove even the mass demonstrations out of the top slot on some private channels’ bulletins, with mostly shots of violence from the protests. Greece’s political caste also makes a spectacle of itself, with comments attacking the De Grecias as if their brief homecoming were some weapon of mass destruction aimed at the political system. But there is something very human in Constantine and his family visiting the graves of his parents. After leaving Greece for exile in late 1967 he had only been allowed back to Athens very briefly in 1981 to attend the funeral of his mother Frederika. We Greeks can be incredibly callous and cowardly in not seeing things for what they are. If the former king wants to try his luck at being something more than a celebrity in a tele-democracy, so be it. Let him try his luck and let the system digest him as it has so many others. The fixation in demonizing him is unnatural and, in the end, suspicious. Sunday, February 16 Tassos Papadopoulos, a prominent lawyer, is elected president of Cyprus, unexpectedly beating incumbent Glafcos Clerides outright in the first round. The leader of a center-right party who had the backing of the Communist AKEL party, the island’s largest, and other leftists, Papadopoulos takes charge in the middle of a diplomatic whirlwind. The deadline for agreement on the basis of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s plan is February 28, the day on which Clerides’s term ends. Annan is due in Athens and Ankara next week, flying to Nicosia on Wednesday for a final push before Friday’s deadline. Papadopoulos too will be in Athens on Monday to meet with Prime Minister Costas Simitis. Interestingly, Papadopoulos, at 69, is much younger than Clerides (83) and Turkish-Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash (78) but has a rich history. The Turkish Foreign Ministry seizes upon the fact that Papadopoulos was a member of the underground pro-independence movement EOKA as a young man to say that he brings with him «fairly heavy baggage.» Turkey’s ruling party leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as usual, takes another tack. «It would be a mistake to say anything before we determine his policy,» he says on Thursday. «We must first see what position he will take.» Papadopoulos addresses a message to Turkish Cypriots and tries to get past the image created by his Greek-Cypriot rivals. «They have been poisoned by slander against me. I ask them to judge me for what I am rather than what they are told that I am,» he says. It is interesting that, on the verge of Cyprus’s signing the EU accession treaty on April 16, its people still have to choose whether they will have their eyes still focused on the 1960s or on the 21st century. Either way, inside the EU, the solution will come, sooner or later. l In Brussels to prepare for an emergency EU summit the following day, Simitis breaks from his customary refusal to deal with domestic politics when abroad, and comments on reports all over the Athens press that he is planning to resign. «These are midsummer night’s dreams of those who want to obstruct the government’s work. I will not do them the favor,» he says. The Shakespearean reference is unfortunate with the country under water, but the message is clear – for a week at least, until the pea-sized collective brain of the body politic returns to the rumor again. Monday, February 17 The European Union’s 15 leaders pull back from the abyss and manage to bridge their differences, coming out with a joint conclusion at the end of their extraordinary summit. Simitis, it turns out, was wise to gamble in calling the meeting. If it had failed to result in a common declaration he would have had all the blame on his shoulders. Now that it has succeeded, he sells the success to his compatriots while the rest of Europe forgets about him, heaves a sigh of relief that the opposing poles of Britain on the one hand and France and Germany on the other, managed to speak with one voice. The statement warning Saddam that UN inspections cannot go on indefinitely may be weaker than some would want, but the effort is being made to save the Union’s unity. There was no guarantee that this would happen, given how far apart the EU countries are on the issue of Iraq. l Back home, over 800 people phone the new government hot line (1521) to complain about potholes and badly maintained roads. It’s a little like putting a finger in the dike when the country has flooded. Tuesday, February 18 Simitis meets with 10 countries that will be joining the EU next year and three other candidates, and gets them to endorse the conclusions of the previous day’s summit. Again he is caught in a crossfire, as his meeting is preceded by French President Jacques Chirac chewing out the candidates, calling their pro-US stance «childish» and «dangerous.» «They are on the one hand not very well brought up and a bit unaware of the dangers that a too-rapid alignment with the American position could bring with it,» he says. «They should have kept quiet.» Then there is British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who sends letters to the 13, telling them how unhappy he is that they were not invited to the summit. Again Simitis manages to achieve consensus. If only he could do this with his own party more often. Friday, February 21 Athens 2004 head Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki is grilled by IOC officials in Lausanne. «It is a serious situation,» says IOC President Jacques Rogge. «It is getting really urgent.» At least someone has his eye on the ball while we are otherwise engaged.