Letter from Thessaloniki

Here we are, again, in the midst of the name dispute, and the question is: Must statesmen constantly consider the past as they speculate about the future? Reading what is considered by many to be the greatest work of history from ancient times, «The History of the Peloponnesian War» by Thucydides (circa 460-400 BC), one may be drawn to such a conclusion. Advertised as a war of liberation between two superpowers, the book tells the story of a war. It was a conflict that divided the Greek world between Athens, a direct democracy and its allies, and Sparta (the Lacedaemonians), a militaristic oligarchy, and its allies. In the «Melian Debate» (Book V), Thucydides describes a meeting between the envoys from Athens and the leaders of the island of Melos. It happened that the Melians would not submit to the Athenians and they, at first, remained neutral, taking no one’s side in the struggle until the Athenians started using violence and plundering their territory. Thank God armed hostilities are out of the question nowadays in cases of a mere «name issue.» In the 5th century BC, however, when the Melians refused to become a tributary of the Athenian alliance, they were defeated and wiped out. Sure enough, there is no danger of any similar annihilation in our modern times, yet the threat of «negative consequences» is omnipresent if modern Athens refuses to go along with Washington’s – and Brussels’s – wishes. And the Greek government – as well as our official opposition – knows that only too well. There are more parallels to be drawn between the ancient event and many modern counterparts, if one substitutes the word Washington instead of ancient Athens. A negative – for us – outcome in the «Macedonian Affair» could lead to a badly needed outlet for our unexploited energy and frustration: premature general elections – perhaps in April? – to name but one…. Studying the Melian dialogue in Book V – in which the Athenians assert that might makes right and that resistance is futile, while the hopelessly outnumbered Melians are forced to put their trust in fate – we discover a remarkable physical resemblance to today’s events. Say in the case of the name dispute, where sooner or later Washington’s line is going to pass, one way or the other. As was the case in Kosovo. Now, as then, one can hardly remain neutral. Here a chilling and dramatic exchange to remind us of ancient and present threats: Melians: So you would not agree to our being neutral, friends instead of enemies, but allies of neither side? Athenians: No, because it is not so much your hostility that injures us; it is rather the case that, if we were on friendly terms with you, our subjects would regard that as a sign of weakness in us, whereas your hatred is evidence of our power. Isn’t the same logic applied nowadays for retaining the forces in Iraq and Afganistan? Much of what is going on seems like deja vu. The USA and most EU countries recognize the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia by its chosen name. And it’s going to remain at that, despite what the UN mediator puts forward in his new proposals to settle a rather absurd and costly 17-year-old dispute. So are there definite lessons to be learned from Thucydides’ fatal defeatism in the case of our «name issue»? Certainly not. Because, on the other hand, in another book, in Herodotus’s history of another celebrated conflict in which Athens and Sparta joined forces to confront the Persians, Herodotus relates how the great king of Persia, confident of his military superiority, tried to persuade the Greeks that resistance was futile. And yet the Greeks placed their trust in hope and the gods, and they were richly rewarded in their spectacular victories at Marathon, in 490, and Salamis, 10 years later. (More of this in Gore Vidal’s «Creation» and Frank Miller’s film «300.») What if Greece, Turkey, FYROM, Serbia and Bulgaria were to join forces against the modern Persians?  What if the EU’s foreign policy loses its present sheer pettiness, its absence of strategic vision and unwillingness to back grand claims to global leadership and decides to act as a independent power with its own political will? As it should. All a midsummer’s night dream… Meanwhile, as «zero hour» approaches this week, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis has warned that Greece would block FYROM’s bid to join NATO unless a mutually acceptable solution is found. And on the other side of the border, his counterpart in Skopje, Nikola Gruevski, declared pompously: «We’re very fond of NATO and we’re prepared to do almost everything in order to join the alliance. However, everything has its price. The name cannot be that price.» What the government in Skopje hopes is that if talks between the two neighboring countries are not completed before the NATO summit, Greece will not veto FYROM’s membership but will simply refuse to ratify the decision until the matter is settled. And FYROM President Branko Crvenkovski has expressed that after entering NATO under its constitutional name, which is the first choice, the second most favorable option would be to join the alliance under some provisional reference. Once again back to the powerful old Athens (say, some sort of a USA of modern times) and the tiny island of Melos (which would be, perhaps, today’s Greece). Thucydides brusquely relates in his History that after the Melians refused to capitulate to the Athenians’ demands, all the Melian men were put to death and the women and children sold into slavery. Can history repeat itself? Don’t worry. It looks most improbable now. Yet, what has remained from ancient times is that some watershed of another kind did happen: violent internal strife, economic troubles that put terrible pressure on mighty Athens and led inexorably to the final, catastrophic defeat of the most powerful city-state in the world at the time.