Letter from Thessaloniki

Once again, privatization is a priority for the government of Costas Karamanlis for the very sensible reason that it opens up more of Greece’s economy to the stimulating forces of the market and competition. For «is,» read «was» – the sale to the private sector of the Olympic Airlines debt-ridden state carrier has been postponed over and over and over again. This will soon change, Karamanlis asserted in Thessaloniki. When New Democracy came to power six months ago, the airline exemplified much of what was bad – or has survived thanks to dubious tax maneuvers – with Greece’s public sector: It was overstaffed and inefficient, and many staff treated customers as a nuisance. Also, Greek bureaucracy may now become, thank God, a little brisker. More high-tech investment (and less arrogance!) in the public sector will help.  To achieve such a change, Mr Karamanlis needs the courage to dismantle large parts of the system that has produced, for the last two decades, stagnation and immobility. The prime minister, who is also the minister of culture, visited the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art on Friday afternoon for its 25th anniversary. It is a good thing that the PM insists, not at all rhetorically, on propagating the fact that modern Greeks have yet to create a civilization, as opposed to a way of life. Later that evening, the prime minister inaugurated the Thessaloniki International Fair, gave a significant speech on mainly political issues – the basic thrust being regional development and the adoption of favorable measures for the farmers – while he also referred to the experience gained from the Olympic Games. On Saturday, he gave his traditional speech on Greece’s economy. And yesterday at noon he held a broad-ranging press conference. By and large, this is not bad at all considering the limited time he had at his disposal. Clear-minded, self-confident and visibly enjoying power, he has impressed crowds with the easy boyish charm that conceals his toughness and purpose. The rumor that he has forbidden the ministers accompanying him to Thessaloniki from visiting famous local night spots with bouzouki music soon circulated in town, gaining him prompt credit. In addition, the fact that there was no formal welcoming ceremony at Macedonia Airport upon his arrival was rumored to be due to Karamanlis’s reluctance to bestow any pardon or excuse on the provincial governor in Thessaloniki, Panayiotis Psomiadis, who recently made nationalistic and anti-Albanian statements.  «Greece is planning its next steps with optimism,» Karamanlis said, stressing that the main target of his policy is growth throughout the entire country and in the countryside in particular. «The economic, social, business and cultural revival of the countryside is the great challenge now.» After the military junta, the mid-1970s were the last period of optimism that things could be done better in this country. Now, after the stagnation of the few last years, against all odds, Karamanlis appeared more sophisticated than Simitis and more modern: more sophisticated because he knows better than to repeat revolving-door promises, and more modern because he is prepared to acknowledge – in words anyway – that economic change requires deep social change as well. The prime minister referred to the solution of citizens’ day-to-day problems as being one of the main objects to be resolved by his government. «Our main aim is to release the creative forces of society so that they have the opportunity to produce as much good as possible. The economic, social, business and cultural revival of the countryside is the great challenge now,» he said before declaring the year 2005 as «the year of competitiveness.» Furthermore, Karamanlis has to find something – call it what he likes – which can do for the Balkan economy what the market usually does under capitalism: create a link between what people in Southeastern Europe want to buy and the most effective means of producing it. «We can have head offices here, and production can take place in our neighboring countries,» he said, stressing the fact that stability and prosperity in the wider region is a vision, with Greece playing a leading role in the heart of the European Union. «Our neighbors must know that we support their European orientation. We support the accession of Romania and Bulgaria by 2007. We support the European orientation of Turkey and the efforts of its government to adapt the country to the European acquis communautaire. We Greeks want a European Turkey. We look forward to the upgrading of bilateral cooperation and the full restoration of Greek-Turkish relations,» he stressed congenially. However, it would be romantic to expect some of our neighbors to entirely abandon the difficulties of clientage and corruption they still face. The message that Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis cheerfully sent from Thessaloniki was one of the utmost optimism. Should things develop in due course, revenues will be soon pouring in so fast that he can pay for the generous public-spending plans that he announced at the formal dinner on Saturday night, cut taxes and still impress the opposition. Once again, on Saturday afternoon on the glittering waterfront avenue, Leoforos Nikis, protesters marched to the square outside the fair, damning the high cost of living, Athenian hegemony and US imperialism. But for once, the mostly left-wing and communist protesters did not turn violent and police did not have to intervene. Even so, everything was going very nicely for everyone until… The first skirmish in the battle to modernize the public sector was that there was no food at the official dinner. And there was a sad reason for this. The guests – over a thousand – sat at tables but the feast was called off because of the wreckage of the Chinook helicopter that had gone missing some hours before in Halkidiki. The most prominent of the 17 victims was Patriarch Petros of Alexandria and All Africa. However, there was a lot of food and booze to be enjoyed at the reception US Ambassador Thomas Miller gave last night at the Hyatt Regency Hotel to honor the American companies participating in the US pavilion at one of the last events he will be hosting in Thessaloniki. He leaves Greece soon. Is he being recalled? There were rumors and some idle supposition circulating at the Hyatt last night that could not be verified.

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