Letter from Thessaloniki

It’s not who won or lost that matters but how you played the game. With the deadline of January 20 (the date farmers threaten to close off the Athens-Thessaloniki national highway unless their absurd demands that their surplus cotton be purchased are met) less than 60 hours away, that is the dutiful spirit in which the standard-bearers of EU strict quotas on cotton production seem to be approaching the critical day. However, let’s remember that political cycles tend to be long in Greece, and memories short. And that when the conservatives were in opposition, ND principally backed farmers in protests against the previous PASOK government. Let’s also remember that the EU imposes very precise quotas on production and if Costas Karamanlis’s administration decides to go against Brussels, it will spend 30 million euros from the state treasury. Generosity must have its limits, isn’t that so? Now, it is clear that New Democracy cadres – at least a great number of them, for all their pledges to focus on helping farmers and fighting unemployment – would not try to run the economy very differently from George Papandreou, the Socialist opposition leader. Rebellion in the ranks But ND members in Athens are intent on playing a good game. So it seems. The government appears to be ready to break with the past. It was sporting of Vangelis Meimarakis, New Democracy’s general secretary, to say on a two-day visit to Thessaloniki and Serres that such actions are «a remnant of the time when we were in opposition.» Yet what is well said in Athens is not necessarily welcomed in Thessaloniki. For in this part of Greece, there have recently been several cases of rebellion within the ND party. Union leaders are openly accusing the ruling party of neglecting its blood brothers: the so-called «blue generation.» Yesterday, the Thessaloniki prefect, Panayiotis Psomiadis, who was elected on a conservative ticket, in a spirited speech warned the government he himself would join the rebellious farmers «as a commando combatant.» Only days ago, he declared that the «period of grace would expire in the coming months» unless his district received «instant emergency aid worth 20 million euros.» With his George W. Bush-like insistence on his Christian Orthodox faith, his frank air and his wife and young child, he is a popular figure in the area; more so, polls say, than the city’s Mayor Vassilis Papageorgopoulos. Although he has served in Parliament as an ND member, Mr Psomiadis has not been tested greatly outside Macedonia. Mr Psomiadis knows that that kind of partisan bullying – either-you-give-or-I-will-close-the-roads – is not a vote-winner. However well Mr Psomiadis plays the electioneering game from now on – he is due for re-election in 16 months – the figures do not look like adding up to victory. Parochialism All that may sound dramatic, but on closer examination is not. What is really sad – if not an outright tragedy – is the fact that the ongoing dispute involving cotton farmers, some desperately backward MPs, several «orthodox» party unionists and many bronze-medal hardliners come as a rule from the Greek north. Yet we Thessalonians have always been proud of our cosmopolitanism, of our open-mindedness… Reading history, we discover that our golden age was during the multicultural, multi-religious reigns of two great empires: the Byzantine and the Ottoman. For successive centuries, Thessaloniki was second only to Constantinople. Even after World War II, a long time after the empires disappeared, and as our city’s role in the world diminished at extraordinary speed, our Aristotle University was famed to be far better than the Athens one. At least its philosophical schools were. Not any more. In the era of globalization, in a time when we are all cosmopolitan – we can eat food from all over the world, mix with people of all races, communicate far and wide via e-mail – Thessaloniki has become a deeply parochial place. Sadly, this has also happened in politics. As the wary (and slightly blurry) Costas Karamanlis is intent on playing a good game, that is to go on the offensive in a bid to wipe out old-fashioned wrangles within his party, he could do great service to his constituency: Thessaloniki. Only he needs to act fast for parochialism has already taken over our psyche. One could weep for what might have been.

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