Letter from Thessaloniki

During the early 1970s, through boom and bust, the dictatorship in Greece maintained three sources of support: the military, the oligarchy, and the US government. Consequently, in such conditions the reality of political stability could be taken almost for granted. However, in 1973, significant fractures began to appear in the seemingly firm façade of the military regime. It was not just the fact that the rate of inflation, after some 20 years of low numbers, shot up to double figures. In March of that same year students took the lead of opposition and occupied the Law Faculty of the University of Athens. Finally, large-scale student demonstrations in November 1973 culminated in the occupations of the National Technical University of Athens, as the Polytechnic is now known. During the night of November 16-17, armed police, supported by army tanks, were sent to break into the Polytechnic. Events caused heavy casualties, including more than 20 dead. Elsewhere, in Thessaloniki a «sit-in» was organized at the local polytechnic. «We were in continuous contact with leftist student organizations in Athens,» remembers one of the student leaders of the time, journalist Klearchos Tsaousidis, who is today director of the public radio ERT in Thessaloniki. «I remember it well,» he says. «There were more than 2,500 students participating in that sit-in. Finally the members of the Communist-controlled student organizations walked out, denouncing us as provocateurs.» Later, when martial law was restored and all action was brutally suppressed by the army, they were all arrested and tortured cruelly by crazed sadistic zealots. Tsaousidis, meanwhile of a certain age, still suffers physically from those ordeals. Now, although up to this day many erroneously believe that the Polytechnic events brought democracy to Greece, what really happened was the overthrow of a hardly formidable Papadopoulos by an even more hardline dictator: Brigadier Dimitris Ioannidis, the head of the dreaded military police. Today, on the 30th commemoration of the students uprising of November 17, 1973 there will be – as there have been 29 times before – a protest march to the US Embassy this afternoon. Reading the headline of yesterday’s Kathimerini: «Contestation and Masters’ Degrees» referring to the «two faces of the students of 2003,» one could well add that this march could also be «in pursuit of wealth and office.» Sure enough, in the birthplace of democracy, plus in one of the European nations least sympathetic to America, according to international polls, the right to demonstrate cannot but be viewed as a sacred tradition. But why against America? And why now when the world shows more interest in Americans than ever before? Is it, perhaps, because the vice president to Richard Nixon and bribe-taker to many, Greek American Spiros Agnew, was right when he was once inspired to say, «The United States, for all its faults, is still the greatest nation in the country.» Could it be that the relationship between a big and rich power and a small, poor, divided and dependent society in the 1950s and 1960s produces psychological distance, as professor emeritus at the University of Athens Theodore Couloumbis expressed it in this paper some five months ago? The thread that runs through Greek-American relations is that Greeks, and Cypriots, are still stunned by the course of action and inaction followed by the United States, some 30 years ago, during the Cyprus invasion by NATO-ally Turkey. They are even now angered that at the time of the military coup Washington appeared not to distinguish between the military dictatorship and the constitutional governments it succeeded. Yet Professor Couloumbis mentioned some additional reasons as well. These included US aid in helping a right-wing government beat Communist forces, US support for extra-parliamentary forces such as the monarchy and armed forces, a US policy of neutrality which appeared to favor Turkey, and US criticism of Greece for allegedly being soft on terrorism. However, Prof. Couloumbis also noted, «We can overcome anti-Americanism because we are no longer an ‘unstable democracy’ of the pre-1974 variety.» For years now the United States has been blamed – notably every November 17, particularly during the march to the American Embassy – for much that is bad in our world, and this protest march is repeatedly used as an excuse for our own direct and indirect political oppression and economic stagnation. By assigning responsibility for our own shortcomings to Washington, some Greek leaders distract their subjects’ attention from the internal weaknesses that are their real problems. What makes this tactic remarkable, is the reality of past US policy toward our region. Greek politics is essentially a family affair, and if one searches for the appropriate answers to hypothetical questions such as: «What would have happened to Greece without America’s intervention in World War I and World War II, and how would Greece have turned out without the Truman Doctrine and with no Marshall Plan?», in all probability one would never dare to participate in the anti-American march this afternoon. There are several other reasons to protest: abuses of power, economic mismanagement due mainly to our megalomaniac Olympics, plus an unfair electoral campaign, are building up pressures on Greece’s economy and politics. One thing, however, is certain. Although we may not know with complete certainty the identity of the winner, the fact is that our next government will have to choose between liberalization and an even tighter official grip. Although the first is better, some analysts predict that if PASOK wins the elections next year, it will instinctively choose – «if only because of arrogance» they say – the second route.