OPINION

Letter from Thessaloniki

The world is full of cantankerous states and people. But so are most Shakespeare plays – a heady challenge for a contemporary audience, aren’t they? Last week, on Thursday to be precise, «The Comedy of Errors,» given a dynamic kick by actor director Giorgos Kimoulis, visited the open-air Dasos Theater in Thessaloniki. On Friday, at the residence of US Consul-General Alec Mally, I met two American officials worthy of note: Ken Kero, who will be serving at the Greek Desk in the State Department, and Ms Robin Lerner, who belongs to the office to monitor and combat trafficking in persons. I recall the name from the time – last November? – she had chaired a panel discussion on human trafficking in southeastern Europe at the Sokratis Kokkalis wing of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Yesterday, the Sunday Makedonia newspaper published (along with suggestive opinion polls and amid all the «ifs» that now litter Greek politics) a short comment on how rudely the government in Skopje is treating employees of the local OKTA refinery, which is 80 percent owned by Hellenic Petroleum. (Commercial Break: Readers of Kathimerini English Edition did not have to wait until Sunday for what the polls said. Reacting quickly to a nationwide telephone poll, our Saturday’s front page calmly stated «ND’s lead trimmed.») So, these will be the topics of today’s column. Therefore, «I will debate this matter at more leisure, And teach your ears to list me with more heed.» (Anthipholus of Ephesus in «The Comedy of Errors») Twins have been a very common subject in plays, from good old Menander to our time. In Shakespeare’s «Comedy of Errors,» two pairs of identical twins are constantly mistaken for the other twin. Now, back to Greek politics and its twins. Opinion polls suggest that New Democracy will be the biggest single party in Parliament. Nevertheless, they also give Simitis a personal lead as the best candidate for prime minister. Are we here facing a cohabitation? A pair of political twins? Some observers see Simitis as the future president of the Greek Republic. Yet «The conservatives are not a united body,» as my journalist friend Pantelis Savvidis implies. They will never vote for this. On the other hand, foreign affairs have long been virtually bipartisan. Well, if that is not some sort of semi-convergence of policy, then what is? Indeed, Shakespeare offers some intriguing parallels with the 2004 election. The editorial in this paper’s Saturday edition read: «Entangled interests and the rising tide of corruption have brought about a marked moral decline as well, which undermines our society’s value system.» Now, what would Duke Solinus in «The Comedy of Errors» have said? Surely something like, «Nay, forward, old man; for we may pity, though not pardon thee.» So, in fact, he did. In other cases, such as in the OKTA one, the situation could again call for some unprejudiced judge like the Duke Solinus in the aforementioned play. Could that be the EU? Both sides are asking for it. Last week, in an article in the Skopje daily Devnik, ex-Interior Minister Pavle Trajanov – minister under Georgievski – denounced the current government for having the DBK (state security) use old-fashioned communist methods such as «… tapping, informative talks that last eight hours without the presence of a lawyer, physical abuse, hitting with a baton over the head, tearing out pages of passports in order to prevent the individual from crossing the border, etc.» He warned the current FYROM government («What’s in a name? That which we call a rose…, etc.» – the bard again!) that such measures «… could easily take us to the European Parliament and send a negative message to all democrats, as well as foreign investors who still see Macedonia as a country where democracy is making a progress. A country where the fundamental human rights and freedom are respected, and a country that is a good place to for investing.» (Their translation.) Now, the other side claims that Greek-dominated refinery OKTA – with a pipeline 214 kilometers long, and a total of 2.5 million tons of crude oil per year transported from the Hellenic Petroleum plant in Thessaloniki to the OKTA refinery in Skopje – has a privileged position which violates the Interim Trade Agreement of the country with the European Union. The first agreement gave OKTA the right to import oil with just one percent charged as customs duty. Other importers face a 20-percent duty. On July 3, the European Commission entered the fray, issuing a statement calling on the FYROM government to respect the terms of the Stability Pact and to offer importers equal conditions. All lawyers’ stuff, it sounds like a reworking of Shakespeare’s «Merchant of Venice» as a Balkan crime drama. Enough. My primary profession being a theater critic, I am more at ease talking about Shakespeare and his brilliant insight than politics. All the same, I must confess that politics is more interesting. Here, things are not like the bard’s world, where everyone – well, nearly everyone – knows how his plays will end. (Romeo kills himself, Hamlet gets stabbed, Othello throttles his wife, etc.) One can make only wild guesses when looking ahead. Will Prime Minister Simitis be successful in his determination to stay where he actually is? Will President Bush’s «call to action» to UN member states tomorrow («all the world’s a stage…» a metaphor Shakespeare made pretty enough but which Kofi Annan perfected) to help out with postwar reconstruction in Iraq be effective? Will the Balkans continue to be a difficult region, although the interest of the international community may have turned to the Middle East, as stated the other day by Foreign Minister George Papandreou after his meeting with his US counterpart, Colin Powell? We’ll see, for «All’s Well That Ends Well.»