Letter from Thessaloniki

In the glory days of ideology – I know it was a long time ago, but try to think back to 2002 – there was a Left and there was a Right. In those times, there were clearly drawn dividing lines. Nowadays, one characteristic of the 21st century is that distinctions between ideology and social movements have grown increasingly blurred. Those were the days! It was a time when, if you were looking for someone to blame for the slippery road conditions in the wake of icy weather, you could look either east or west. You would easily find those culpable. As Athens’s side streets remained blocked with snow two days after a record-setting snowstorm, and while Thessaloniki froze to death, one knew only too well that both cities’ efforts to clear neighborhoods were slowed not just by equipment failures but by ongoing, indeed radical, inefficiencies. That’s a joke, of course! Because it would be wrong to think that the new PASOK administration, with George Papandreou as it’s chief, operates without a political ideology. To start with, there is that new ideology of continuous, real-time information. «We are living in a new age where we have to overthrow things… The new government will be smaller and more effective, it will reinforce transparency.» Rejecting slavish devotion to any ideology, and wearing the label «humanist» like a badge, the US-born chairman went on addressing the friends and members of his party at the recent PASOK emergency congress: «I feel responsible for all that we have done right and all we have done wrong. But we now have to change and go forward.» Last week, reactions to George Papandreou’s decision to place neoliberals Stefanos Manos and Andreas Adrianopoulos on PASOK’s list of state deputy candidates, as well as adding representatives of the liberal Left, Maria Damanaki and Mimis Androulakis, have greatly confused voters here in the north. The issue is no longer former party ideology. The new PASOK chairman seems to rest not just on ideology but on how each candidate presents himself as a man – or as a woman. «We have reached a situation where liberals can understand everything, but people don’t understand them…,» muses local political commentator Pantelis Savvidis. It is as if Mr Fidel Castro has wedded Mrs Margaret Thatcher, joked ex-leader of New Democracy, Miltiadis Evert, two days ago. «Now, they are getting engaged. The marriage will take place just after the elections!» read a title in Elefterotypia daily the other day, commenting on the Karamanlis-Samaras rapprochement. «Well, I am with Adam Marx, that is I am a heir to both Smith and Karl,» jested left-liberal Androulakis during an interview yesterday on TV. He also added, «George (Andreas Papandreou’s son) works as a sedative. Imagine having to support another term with Andreas (Papandreou)…» Others crack jokes of this ilk: Andreas brought Mimi (ex-air stewardess, now his widow) to PASOK. His son George brought Mimis (Androulakis). There is no unifying ideology here. Now that ideology is gone, one can still find Thessalonians who aver that George Papandreou’s risk-taking decision to emerge from within his own party’s dominant groupings was the only way forward. «What we need are politicians who continue to recognize the sterility of certain aspects of their own beliefs,» said a PASOK party official who asked to remain anonymous. But doesn’t such a candid political acknowledgment demand the decommissioning of political loyalty? So who is going to take risks now? The neoliberal political ideology – so eloquently expressed by Andreas Adrianopoulos, ex-New Democracy minister, now on PASOK’s list – proposes, logically, that «the market» must be given fee rein. Logically, progressive politicians – ie in PASOK – have to disagree with that. What an age! Ethical and political stereotypes are being turned upside-down and shattered. People are getting high on the word change, but changes can also be for the worse. Take Lithuania, for instance, this small Baltic country which is to join the EU and NATO this year and whose National Day happens to be today, and where more than a year ago a 46-year-old former prime minister and stunt pilot, the right-winger Rolandas Paksas, defeated President Valdas Adamkus by a stunning 10 percent margin. Today, 13 months later, Mr Paksas’s popularity has not been improved by rumors that there are links between him and a Russian businessman named Mr Borisov, who allegedly donated some 400,000 euros to Mr Paksas’s campaign last year, and who is suspected of trying to blackmail the 47-year-old president for political favors. People demonstrate against him in the streets of Vilnius. There is no ideological clash in that case. It is, basically, a question of just how you want to live. As a matter of fact, the Lithuanian president actually faces the threat of dethronement. Another dethronement took place over the weekend. The most prominent Greek film director, Theo Angelopoulos, a «sure winner» at the Berlinale, has greatly disappointed cinephiles around Greece. In conception and execution, his latest film «The Weeping Meadow» has been so ambitious that Greek egos were gravely bruised when judges at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival ignored the film completely. The most expensive Greek film ever, based on a love story that takes the audience through the historical events of the Asia Minor disaster, has been filmed mainly in Northern Greece. Thessalonians almost feel it as their own work. Just a few steps from the shores of the Thermaic Gulf, on the preserved site of the former Fix beer factory, one can still see the remnants of the one 100-odd one-story wooden and stone houses specially built for the film. Another 100-home village was built on the shore of nearby Lake Kerkini. Angelopoulos’s style – long takes, brilliantly executed traveling shots, plus an emotional intensity that builds to a somber climax set in the aftermath of the 1922 Asia Minor disaster – did not move the Berlinale jury, renowned for its unpredictability. Worse. The Golden Bear went to «Head-on,» a joint German-Turkish production which chronicles the life of Sibel, a young German born to Turkish parents who escapes her conservative Muslim family by marrying a heavy drinking punk. Finally, now that the snow has stopped falling, weather forecasters are warning of the danger of flooding as temperatures rise and rain is expected later in the week. Therefore take care.