Through the eye of the needle

We knew that 2004 would be an important year but we could not predict where Greece would be at its end, whether the country and its people would succeed at the enormous tasks that they faced. In the end, Greece pulled off the seeming impossible, passing – like the biblical camel – through the eye of the needle. The greatest achievement was the successful hosting of the Olympic Games. Despite all the problems that had accumulated in the preparations, the Olympics were better than anyone could have dreamed. The Athens Games will probably serve as the measure of success for future Olympics: from the inspired and flawless opening ceremony to the grandeur of the stadiums (ancient and modern), to the dedication of the volunteers and the passion of the athletes who put in countless great performances to the overall sense of discreet security. An unexpected pleasure in June, which sent the wildly competitive Greeks into paroxysms of delight, was the victory of the national soccer team in the Euro 2004 championship. It may have been only a game, but the triumph here was felt more strongly than any Nobel Prize, especially as it concerned the world’s most popular sport and one over which every Greek is a fanatic. But it is not only the mind-numbing catastrophe caused by the tsunamis that hit southeastern Asia in the last week that leaves the whole world with a sense of fear and melancholy as the year ends. In the months since the Games, Greece, like other prior hosts, has been suffering from a lingering malaise, a post-Olympic blues, just as people may lose their way after making some superhuman effort and then finding that nothing has improved. But there seems to be a deeper sense of malaise than a successful Olympiad would warrant. Perhaps this unease is a sense that the world is in a state of great change and that our country is not adequately preparing for the challenges of the time. But 2004 was not just the Olympics and the Euro soccer: This was also a year in which we had to come to terms with ourselves – for good or bad. Most significantly, there was a change of government. After PASOK’s almost uninterrupted 20 years in power, the Socialists lost the March 7 elections to the conservative New Democracy party. The handover was most civilized, with PASOK ministers appearing relieved to be handing over the burdens of power and looking forward to the joys of opposition, which involve a maximum of grousing and the raising of populist causes with a minimum of responsibility. Costas Karamanlis’s aides, also, appeared determined to show that everything would continue without interruption. Here, we thought, was Greece’s eventual coming of age after the last restoration of democracy in 1974: It appeared there would be no public sector pogrom of followers of the former government, followed by the mass appointment of supporters of the new one. Karamanlis and his team made the Olympics a priority and they did ensure a successful and safe Games. But the first sign of trouble was the ease with which many ministers immediately declared how far behind the Olympic preparations were. This created a climate of unease internationally and likely kept many spectators from turning up for the Games (which did, however, achieve record television audiences in America and elsewhere). The new government played down the achievements of the previous one, played up the costs and delays, and then presented itself as solely responsible for the eventual success. The government has been inexplicably slow in presenting proposals for the beneficial exploitation of the many Olympic facilities that have stood idle since August. Also, government officials have put the Games cost at 10 billion euros, without providing a detailed breakdown of what that covers. The domestic and international public began to see the Olympics as a problem again, just as before August, rather than the wings with which Greece now has to fly into the future. The same thing happened with the economy. The government carried out a much-publicized deficit revision, saying it needed to know just where it stood. The previous government had clearly prettified Greece’s indicators and the new government had to clarify the situation, and there are few doubts that too much shady dealing goes on when Greece buys weapons. But the noise over the deficit revision and the decision to hold a parliamentary inquiry into previous arms procurements mainly came across as an attempt to rub PASOK’s nose in its defeat at the polls. The opposition, meanwhile, under the apparently guileless leadership of George Papandreou, has been trying to distance itself from the previous government – apparently forgetting that the eight years of Costas Simitis were eight years in which Greece changed radically. Perhaps none of Greece’s major problems – especially the devastating linkage between business, the media and political power – were solved, but Greece today is far more comfortable with its neighbors and far more at home in Europe than it was eight or 10 years ago. This does not happen by itself and is an achievement not to be taken lightly. And the costly infrastructure projects will certainly make life easier and make business more productive. But these results will be measured over time. Meanwhile, it would be useful to build on whatever good PASOK left behind rather than tear it down to make the present government look better. In foreign policy, the ND government continued PASOK’s policy of rapprochement with Turkey, and PM Karamanlis appears to have forged a genuinely good relationship with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Greece is at the forefront of EU countries that want Turkey to join the Union eventually, resulting in the EU’s decision to begin accession talks with Ankara in October. Last April, Greece watched as the Greek Cypriots voted overwhelmingly to reject the UN plan for Cyprus’s reunification. The Greek Cypriots may have had plenty of reasons to reject the plan in their referendum, but they did not seem to take into account the Turkish Cypriots’ acceptance of it, putting them on the defensive before the international community – for the first time since the Turkish invasion and occupation of part of their island in 1974. In this new world in which there are few certainties (in which the US, Greece’s traditional major ally, is otherwise engaged) any government must deal with plenty of unpredictable situations. Cyprus, and a permanent name for the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (by which only Athens calls its northern neighbor) remain far from closed. Greece will be a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, bringing new challenges and difficulties. The year 2004 was long the country’s horizon. We are now into an unsettled dimension needing imagination, inspiration and dedication, as if every year is an Olympic year.

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