An explosive start to 2016


The year began with a bang. On all fronts, uncertainty is testing frameworks and upsetting balances. In Greece, where insecurity has become a way of life, our problems seem manageable when compared with the storms rampaging across the planet. But the situation is extraordinarily dangerous.

In Europe the year got off to a bad start. Women in Cologne and several other German cities reported to police that they were molested – and in at least one case, raped – by groups of migrants at public New Year’s Eve celebrations. The German leadership and police tried to handle the charges in a way that would prevent reactions against migrants and refugees, but Germany is in shock. The country took in an estimated 1 million refugees and migrants in 2015 and if they don’t fit into German society quickly and easily this will have a negative effect on all the other EU member-states, whose relations with each other are already frayed.

In the Middle East, the battle for influence between Saudi Arabia and Iran, between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, intensified after the Saudis beheaded a prominent Shiite cleric on Saturday. Saudi Arabia and Iran were already involved in proxy wars in Syria and Yemen. In Syria and Iraq their rivalry benefited Sunni fanatics, who proclaimed unilaterally their “Islamic State,” multiplying the dangers in the region and exporting a new breed of terrorist to Europe. Now the Saudi regime has to deal not only with Iran but also with Sunni groups’ terrorism and an economy that is in trouble. The drop in oil prices resulted in a deficit put at 100 billion dollars last year. The Shiite cleric’s execution led to mob burning the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the break-off of diplomatic relations. This will hinder the peace process in Syria, in which both are involved. After decades of predictable behavior, Saudi Arabia is acting spasmodically, apparently shaken by the fact that it has lost the monopoly of American backing, after Washington brokered a nuclear deal with Iran that is breaking Tehran’s international isolation.

Events are tied to each other. Whatever sustains bloodshed in the Middle East will create new dangers for the region’s countries and will drive more refugees out toward Greece and the rest of Europe. If Saudi Arabia’s risky behavior is affected by its need to appear dynamic because of economic problems and possible public dissent, events in the Far East will worsen this. This past week, Chinese officials twice shut down trading on the Shanghai Stock Exchange, whose drop dragged down other markets. The price of oil fell 12 percent in three days. If this instability continues, there will be problems not only in Saudi Arabia but in the world economy.

Greece has to remain steady in all this, knowing that the great powers have other things on their mind. It is imperative that there be at least a measure of political consensus so that we may overcome our own pressing problems and stay standing in the global storms.