Karamanlis in midstep

The conservatives have been moving in slow motion since they came to power last March, taking their time to come up with a new audit of the country’s finances before beginning to lay out their strategy for the future. But New Democracy’s leader, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, showed in no uncertain terms this week that he is as radical as a Bolshevik storming the Winter Palaces when it comes to words. «We will not allow five pimps and five interest groups to push us around… They can easily be dealt with,» Karamanlis told a gathering of about 30 of his party’s members of Parliament in a Monastiraki restaurant best known for its kebab and ebullient owner and namesake, Bairaktaris. The meeting on Wednesday, in which generous portions of food and wine are said to have been consumed, was a private affair. It was, of course, not as private as a chat in his home or office, meaning that what was said could find its way into the public domain. And so the next day Karamanlis’s purported declaration had been leaked to the media. The government commented half-heartedly that the prime minister does not use such language and actually confirmed the gist of what he had said. In a country where politics never sleep, where words are cheap and where memorable and colorful statements become slogans, Karamanlis’s purported words soon took on a momentum of their own. It was not only as if he had actually used these particular words at the dinner at Bairaktaris but as if he had declared them in full view of the public. He could, of course, always deny paternity but the statement will stick to him and will be part of his legacy. What now remains to be seen is what he meant by this statement. But what is even more significant is whether this signaled the start of a clash of titans or whether it was a verbal flare sent up into the dark sky to illuminate public life for a while before disappearing into the sea of grand, meaningless gestures. On the surface, the meaning of the declaration is clear. Karamanlis was telling his troops that they should be ready to kick some enemy butt as part of an irresistible force. That makes sense in terms of where he said it – a downtown dive – and also explains the color of the statement. Here it is worth noting that the word he used for «pimps» (davadzides) is the heaviest, most insulting form, with Turkish origins. Of course, Karamanlis was being admirably frank, as there is probably no nice way to describe a pimp. But there is something additionally insulting to likening the behavior of someone else to that of a pimp. Perhaps that is why Karamanlis, who is by all indications a serious and well-mannered man, chose not to name names while making his belligerent intentions absolutely clear. This is where the story gets even more interesting. If a group of people or interest groups are pushing their weight around to such an extent that the government or state has to declare war on them, it would be in everyone’s best interests to know that the government is taking care of business. That would mean that the state mechanisms and government officials had gathered enough evidence to stop the illegal activity. One may argue that it would not be obligatory for the prime minister to start listing the «pimps» at a friendly dinner with some of his party’s MPs. It would be assumed that the fact that the problem would be dealt with would be enough, not making it necessary to set out in detail who the culprits were. Whether this was intended or not, it led to a situation where Karamanlis’s proscription of unnamed individuals or groups allowed every individual or group to start calling others «pimps.» Karamanlis had brought to the game a deck with many jokers, allowing everyone in the game to use them as they wished. Again, whether this was intentional or not, in the usual Greek way of exaggerating things, every television and radio chat show, every private conversation, spent the rest of the week discussing the issue. But, like the abuse of all dirty words, the word «pimp» soon became something of a joke. What became far more serious was the way in which reporters and even politicians began to throw out names as those whom Karamanlis was targeting. This throwing about of names without any concern for propriety, coming after Karamanlis’s cagey reference, began to dilute the power of the whole concept of the prime minister’s dragon-slaying intentions. If everyone could be Karamanlis’s target then maybe no one would be his target. Obviously, Karamanlis’s statement was aimed not only at encouraging his troops but also at striking fear into the hearts of his enemies. One might argue that the targets of his dire intentions would surely know who he was referring to. Describing them in such a disparaging manner would lead, inevitably, to their preparing for all-out war with him while at the same time making it of paramount importance for them to hide their identities. While sharpening their metaphorical knives they could not very well jump out and say, «We are not pimps.» So Karamanlis has declared war against an enemy that he does not name and which has every intention of keeping itself invisible. He has provoked a guerrilla war. And everyone in Greece is keeping close watch at what is, at least for now, the best show in town. What everyone is guessing is that Karamanlis intends to beat down the big business interests that have media groups which allow them to push their way into gaining public contracts that they would not otherwise get. These «entangled interests» are, through their media ownership, in a position to influence politicians both with money and by providing them with vote-getting, positive exposure. This triangle of money, media and politicians leads to ever-greater power and more lucrative contracts. And the cycle goes on and on. It cannot go on if it is broken. That is what makes such organizations implacable foes. This is why, for the public good, Karamanlis has to win this war. Whether or not these were the targets of his intentions, he is now certain to find them in his way. We will soon see whether the PM was ready to cross the Rubicon or whether he just threw himself into it because it was there. He has repeatedly spoken against such interests and suffered for it, but he has never had the opportunity that he now has to take the battle to them. If he does not soon show that he has a strategy for dealing with the many-headed monster, not only will he keep facing the danger that it represents, but he will have to struggle on with the heavy burden of his words hanging around his neck.