Letter From Thessaloniki

Whoever becomes our next president will be like Karolos Papoulias – folksy and democratic in appearance, very warm and talkative and will say a lot about peace – just like our current president, who has recently returned from a visit to Russia. Last week in Moscow, speaking during a dinner held in his honor by his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, Papoulias appeared to pick up on his counterpart’s comments. Shortly after meeting with the Greek president in the Kremlin on Thursday, Putin spoke at a news conference about bilateral ties – and condemned US missile defense systems in Europe. Russia’s surge of economic growth should not be underestimated. Russia has one of the world’s best educated populations and, for all the restrictions of 70 years of communism, there is no reason to assume that these people would not respond enthusiastically to the chance to make, keep and spend more money. «We are not the initiators of this new round of the arms race,» Putin told the joint Kremlin news conference. «They are inundating Eastern Europe with new weapons – a new base in Bulgaria, another base in Romania, a (missile interceptor) site in Poland, a radar system in the Czech Republic,» the Russian president said. «We cannot just observe all this and continue to keep our obligations under the treaty.» The aforementioned treaty was connected to a previous Conventional Forces in Europe treaty. No NATO members have yet ratified the redrafted CFE pact, demanding that Russia first withdraw from Soviet-era bases in Georgia and Moldova under previous agreements. Russia – concerned about Europe’s refusal to ratify the redrafted version of the accord and about the acceptance by certain EU states of US missile shield plans on the continent – proposed holding an emergency CFE conference in Vienna on June 12-15. «We have reduced our armed forces by 300,000 personnel in the past few years but what about our partners?» Putin said. Papoulias swiftly responded, «Political dialogue through the NATO-Russia Council is the main vehicle for clearing up and reaching agreement on current security matters.» Furthermore, he said: «The strategic alliance between the EU and Russia is one of the foundations of the world’s stability and peace. We support the strengthening of the cooperation between NATO and Russia, while also displaying extra sensitivity to your concerns.» However, as far as our common concerns go, they are identical to those of the Russians – at least on Kosovo. Putin and Papoulias seemed to agree on the situation in the Albanian-dominated Serbian province of Kosovo, which is vying for independence in the face of strong Serbian, Russian – and discreet Greek – opposition. Of special concern to Russia is the increasing pressure to accept a UN plan for Kosovo, which calls for the province’s independence. Russia has rejected the blueprint as unworkable and warned of the dangerous precedent it would set for other independence-minded regions in former Soviet states. As for US policy, Putin declared, «It is nothing different from diktat, nothing different from imperialism.» The Russian president appeared to compare US policy to that of the Third Reich and suspended compliance with a major arms-control treaty to protest the missile defense. «There is a clear desire by some international players to dictate their will to everyone without adhering to international law. International law has been replaced by political reasons,» said Putin. This is unjust toward America. Washington has repeatedly assured that us that it wants nothing, ever, for itself, only to keep bad people from acquiring effective tools with which to hurt good people. Before beginning his European tour to the Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, Italy, Albania and Bulgaria (his chief purpose is to attend the G8 summit from this Wednesday to Friday in Heiligendamm, Germany), President George W. Bush gave an interview to five European newspapers praising America, for all its faults, and harshly condemning Moscow for diverging from democracy, its aggressive attitude to its neighbors and, for the first time, accused Russia of «instigating cold war.» There it is. Head shakes in sorrow. Will they never learn? After all, wasn’t it a great Greek-American, vice president to Richard Nixon and bribe taker to many (an honored Greek tradition, perhaps?), Spiro Agnew, who once said, «The United States, for all its faults, is still the greatest nation in the country»? Bordering on oil-rich Central Asia, Russia – along with China – is one of the two main powers threatening American hegemony in that area. True, Putin does give Russia a different feel – the way George W. Bush gave America a different feel after the 42nd president of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton, and that matters. Far from being a show of unity by some of the world’s richest nations, observers fear the G8 summit could fast deteriorate into a slanging match between the US and Russia. That, at least, was what happened when the G8 foreign ministers gathered in Germany last week. At the press conference in Potsdam, the site of the historic conference between the victorious Allies at the end of World War II, Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov struck out at US plans to erect a missile defense system in Eastern Europe. He also criticized US policy on Kosovo and Lebanon. No doubt tensions will continue to grow. Putin said last week that criticism of its human rights record is an attempt to make Russia «more pliable» on other issues. «The death penalty in some Western countries – let’s not point fingers, secret prisons and torture exist in Europe, problems with the media in some countries, immigration laws which in some European countries are not in line with the general principles of international law or democratic order – these things, too, fall under common values,» Putin said after meeting with Portugal’s prime minister. Will the suspects please line up.

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