A platform for populists


The Greeks have a strong Mediterranean, and short-tempered, character. This has often become evident in the past, particularly on foreign policy issues. It is a strange thing.

The Cyprus issue, for example, rarely grabs newspaper headlines. Nevertheless, a single wrong move by a political leader can inflict a hefty cost on his career. Greece’s late Socialist prime minister Andreas Papandreou offered his famous “mea culpa” after he was attacked at home for not bringing up the Cyprus issue during his meeting in Davos with his Turkish counterpart Turgut Ozal in 1988.

In the case of the name dispute with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Greek leaders were led astray by sentiment during the 1990s. It was not that they could not see they were in the wrong. In fact, most of the country’s political leaders (former Communist Party chief Aleka Papariga set an example) took a pragmatic stand. But no one wanted to shoulder the political cost or be accused of betraying the country’s interests.

I have always wondered how the historic meeting between party leaders led to the drafting of the statement that was read out by Petros Molyviatis, the general secretary at the Greek President’s Office, which stressed that Greece would under no circumstances accept the use of the word “Macedonia.”

People with knowledge of what took place behind the scenes blame the outcome on Papandreou, who insisted on this maximalist position and for a long time blocked any compromise solution.

All that is history. Now we need to be cautious. The Greek people feel tired and humiliated. The theory that the bailout agreements were a tool for foreigners to force Greece into making concessions on foreign policy issues is outrageous but, perhaps because it is so outlandish, it also is very popular.

Greece’s leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras would never choose to go against the tide, but in the case of the “Macedonia” name dispute he may well prove to be overoptimistic.

The risk is clear. This crisis has for a long time been searching for a genuinely populist, perhaps even nationalist, leader. The name dispute with FYROM could serve as an opportunity and a platform for someone to emerge and take advantage of the circumstances, pushing the main parties aside.

Also, as we can see in other countries, including European states and the USA, the global environment is conducive to the emergence of such figures. We are, after all, living in the age of beasts, extremes and conspiracy theories.