Letter from Thessaloniki

Next Friday, December 9, a border-crossing tunnel is to be inaugurated between Greece and Bulgaria by Greek – or rather Hellenic, as he prefers to be called – President Karolos Papoulias and his Bulgarian counterpart Georgi Parvanov. The two heads of state will meet halfway inside the tunnel. The underground Iliden-Exohi border crossing, which will link the city of Drama with the Bulgarian city of Gotse Delchev, has been dug deep into the mountain in order to facilitate the mating of a rare bear species. «One might presume that the 20th century has gone away here in the Balkans, just as it did in Europe. It wasn’t so. In the West, it went away in one way and, here in the Balkans, in a completely different way,» says Boiko Bogdanov, who together with Vecheslav Parapanov has created the play «Gledaloto,» or the «Eternal Balkan Tavern» for the oldest professional Bulgarian theater Salza I Smyah, established in 1892. And the French-educated director continues with several rhetorical questions: «What has gone away and to where? What are we waiting for? What will follow? Who is going to visit us in the eternal Balkan tavern?» As Bulgaria hurries to meet the requirements to join the EU as scheduled on January 1, 2007, Bulgarian ministers have to accept at least two EU-related measures daily during the coming year. Certainly no easy task to undertake in a Balkan tavern. Another Bulgarian author, Georgi Markov, observed in his book «The Truth That Killed:» «We are subjected to the impact of far more factors and forces than the Western citizen can imagine. While the citizen in the West is constantly striving to acquire even more, our main instinct is to preserve what we have.» Sadly, we Greeks have not succeeded in preserving this basic Balkan instinct. Well, at least we will be coming to visit the Bulgarians in their eternal Balkan tavern. As the snow season approaches, skiers from the south will once again visit in masses the – by far less expensive – Bulgarian winter resorts. Not that they do not cross the northern border on other occasions as well. On weekends, Sandanski, a nearby city of 30,000 inhabitants, is filled with Greek shoppers. The whole region is full of Greek factories and small businesses. Once – before the two big wars – the Greeks were the majority in what is now called Melnic, a region famous for its red wine in southern Bulgaria. Most of them later left for Greece.   The Bulgarian inhabitants of the many villages that ended up on the Greek side of the border did likewise after both the treaties of Bucharest and Sevres. Those who left Stenimachos in Greece founded Nov Loftsa in Bulgaria. Now there is a Petrich in Bulgaria and Neo Petritsi in Serres. However, relatives who have remained in those villages have now reestablished contact. Now that the wars are over and nationalist fever has abated, people from both countries have begun to travel again. One would say that the good old times are back. Well, not really. Among other perils, the Balkan countries have virtually become a transfer point for Mideastern terrorists on their way to Europe. Just to name one case, it was determined that the explosives that were used for the explosions in the London Underground had been stolen from military warehouses of the Yugoslavian army and delivered to the UK from the southern Serbian province of Kosovo. And it seems obvious that the intense situation in Kosovo, the status of which is set to be identified in the very near future, may exert serious influence on the current events in all Balkan countries that are facing the dilemma of demarcation. Less than a century ago, a US reporter named C.L. Sulzberger wrote about the Balkans: «It is, or was, a gay peninsula filled with sprightly people who ate peppered foods, drank strong liquors, wore flamboyant clothes, loved and murdered easily and had a splendid talent for starting wars.» There are those who fear that the international recognition of Kosovo’s independence may give rise to a chain of dramatic changes in the Balkan region. It could even start another war. There are also others who very strongly fear that the recent dispute over CIA detention centers in the Balkans – the Mihail Kogalniceanu base in Romania’s southeast has been mentioned – threatens to open a fresh rift within our region, a region that might have been used by CIA aircraft in some capacity between November 2001 and the summer of 2005, including places such as Larnaca in Cyprus as well as unmentioned Greek airports. The debate on such «black sites» – as similar locations are referred to in classified White House, CIA, Justice Department and congressional documents – is not just because of reasons of legality or morality but mainly because the disclosure of such practices could make us, Balkan peoples, targets of possible terrorist retaliation. Because as The New York Times’s illustrious foreign affairs columnist Sulzberger – certainly  no stranger to intelligence circles – wrote in his memoirs (1934-1954): «Less imaginative westerners look down on them (that is: on us) with secret envy, sniffling at their (our) royalty, scoffing at their (our) pretensions and fearing their (our) savage terrorists.»