Letter from Thessaloniki

The story of Electra – as a participant in the ancient Greek myth of the curse of the House of Atreus and her lifelong desire for revenge – has fascinated dramatists from ancient times throughout the 21st century. Meanwhile, a seemingly parallel story – that of Condoleezza Rice, the current secretary of state of the United States, who underwent an «Electra-ization» of sorts during her visit to Europe last week in an attempt to defuse the crisis over US detainee policy – has repelled most of her European counterparts. Note that I am not trying to force a wholesale comparison between Electra and Condoleezza. Yet there are some inter-textual resonances between the two women. In one sense, both are very passionate about their ideas but also seem disillusioned about the consequences of their actions. Blinded by her revenge, Electra did not realize how she had wronged her family. And Rice, faced by difficult rhetorical and diplomatic challenges during her European trip, could barely explain the wrongs her government has allegedly inflicted on European pride over the possible use of secret jails. Rice’s admission of US errors sounded much like a tragic monologue. «Any policy will sometimes result in error,» she said during her trip. «And when it happens, we will do everything we can to rectify it.» So very similar to Electra’s lament over the urn – often referred to as «acting’s Everest.» In Sarajevo some weeks ago I saw a notable Romanian version of «Electra» at the Mess International Theater Festival. Directed by Mihai Maniutiu, the performance was by the National Theater «Radu Stanca,» which hails from Sibiu, a city in the northeast not far from the Mihail Kogalniceanu military facility, which has become a key focus of a European investigation into allegations the CIA operated secret prisons where suspected terrorists were interrogated. The primary topic of the discussion after the play was violence and whether its use was justified. To be sure, Electra epitomizes modern anxiety but her resistance against dominant political rule applies more to Rice’s predecessor, the good old soldier Colin Powell, than Rice herself. Last week, Condoleezza Rice signed the first-ever deal with a former communist country in Eastern Europe. This deal allows the US to use military bases in Romania, a country that human activists believe has hosted a CIA secret prison. This is a charge the Romanian government has vehemently denied. Halfway solutions are no good. Under the recent agreement, the US military will have full access to the Mihail Kogalniceanu air base, just inland from the Black Sea. The same day (last Tuesday) Rice signed the deal with Romania, Bucharest assured Washington it would not withdraw its country’s forces from Iraq. Every theater season, «Electra» is staged around the world. This story of the young victim distracted by grief but still brooding over revenge recalls the cliche that Greek drama is timeless, a permanent part of Western culture. Or, as Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis told 2005 graduates of Tufts University in Boston last May: «My government intends to use the same (as during the 2004 Olympics) determination and our unique position in Southeastern European, as members of both NATO and the European Union, to help turn the whole region into an area of stability, cooperation, prosperity and peace.» (Karamanlis received his master’s degree in political science and economics and his PhD in diplomatic history from Tufts between 1980-1984.) During the commencement speech, he did not mention how Greece could ever help prisoners, or «unlawful combatants,» a term used to remove suspects from the reach of the law. Of course, he could not have predicted that versions of Guantanamo Bay would emerge in the heart of the Balkans, as Kathimerini reported in a front-page article on Saturday. On Friday, the United Nations ombudsman in Kosovo, Marek Antoni Nowicki, said that the United States Bondsteel military base in the province has a prison that recalls the one in Guantanamo Bay, with no external civilian or judicial oversight. Nowicki also said that in late 2000 and early 2001 Bondsteel served as the main detention center for KFOR, the NATO-led force responsible for peace and security in Kosovo. «As a matter of international law, it has been established that it is impermissible to hold people forever without any review,» said Hurst Hannum, a professor of international law at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. «Nobody is willing to allow any government the right to pick up people and hold them forever. But the administration’s design has been to create a category of people beyond the law’s reach.» Our ancestors believed everything was controlled by the gods. Today, we mortals believe we have the free will to make our own choices. Obviously concerned about developments in our Balkan neighborhood, Thessaloniki Mayor Vassilis Papageorgopoulos last week sent letters to Karamanlis and other European leaders about the controversy surrounding the name for the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The Thessaloniki City Council called on the Greek government to exercise its veto right on every effort by FYROM to enter the EU and NATO and, if necessary, to resort to a referendum on whether it should exercise its veto power on the accession process. Such a referendum, people said, would take place if some international power exerted pressure on Greece to dissuade it from using its veto power against FYROM. Pressures? By whom? Doesn’t Rice consider Greece among the closest US allies? As Hannum of Tufts said: «The greatest failure of Bush policy has been that, these days, the United States cannot be trusted.»