OPINION

Slogans, slights and diplomacy

Until recently, mass popular sentiment was expressed mainly through demonstrations. These are a means of exerting pressure on a government and, when relations with another country are involved, to send a message to the «other side.» This has always been a double-edged sword, as illustrated by the events in Istanbul in 1955 when, in response to demonstrations in Greece and Cyprus, a Turkish mob destroyed the lives and property of Greeks. It was not the first time that our neighbors made clear that they too know how to play the game of conducting foreign policy through explosions of popular sentiment. Last week we saw a large demonstration in Skopje, which had something of the dynamism and fury of the mass rally held in Thessaloniki in 1992, which forced the then prime minister, Constantine Mitsotakis, to follow a policy on the Macedonia issue in which he did not actually believe. Now the leadership in Skopje is under pressure. And opinion polls (the intellectual siblings of street demonstrations) show that in both countries eight out of 10 people are opposed to any compromise on the final name for our neighbors. This puts the two countries on a collision course and ties the hands of their governments. In the last few years, a new and very powerful means for nations to express themselves has developed. The Internet is an endless street on which anyone can open a store and start peddling their wares – whether these be products or ideas, whether the store is owned by a major company, a country, or an individual. And with similar ease, any passer-by can comment on whatever is on display in each store. When the subject under discussion involves international relations, then the self-appointed representative of each nation and all opinions become suitable ground on which to sow his seed or throw his stones. There are so many voices out there that at times they appear to be participants in a mass demonstration coming from every direction, chanting slogans, hurling insults, promoting their own interests. For a while now, Turks have shown themselves to be most capable exponents of the power that the Internet bestows on each user separately but also on the sum of those who unite to push for a specific cause. A good example of this was the Internet poll that Time magazine ran in 1997 to help select the 100 most important people of the last century. The Turks’ support for their founding father was so dynamic and so organized that soon the magazine commented that of the 5 million votes cast, 1.7 million had been for Kemal Ataturk. In fact, Ataturk was ahead in all five fields of endeavor: Leaders & Revolutionaries, Artists & Entertainers, Builders & Titans, Scientists & Thinkers, Heroes & Icons. (In the end, the editors of Time ignored the Internet voting and Ataturk did not make the cut in any of the categories.) The countless single voices on the Internet can express serious and valuable opinions – which not long ago would have been cast into the ghetto of newspaper’s letter columns – or they can act as piranhas attacking a single target in unison. We see this every day. This kind of attack can rattle the target but it is also a most valuable indication of what others think of us, of how they see us. I got a good taste of this last week. I contribute to the PostGlobal forum that is hosted by the Washington Post and Newsweek and last week I posted a comment on whether or not it was right for the United States and Western governments to recognize an independent Kosovo. The piece quickly attracted comments. Most of them dealt with the essence of the issue, with comments both for and against Kosovo’s independence. But others took aim at the author – not for what he wrote but because of his nationality. «Greeks are brothers of Serbs, that is why your claims as an editor to this article do not stand any ground,» wrote «Christian Albanian.» An «Orthodox Albanian from Korce, Albania,» commented: «I am very disappointed at the level of one-sidedness that Mr Konstandaras has shown with this article. This is definitely not an objective reporting of the facts but a willful subjective interpretation of a clearly emotional and upset so-called «managing editor.» Tony D. added, «I didn’t expect a Greek to be fair and balanced when it comes to anything remotely concerning Albanians.» Nick, «an Albanian living in New York,» analyzed me further before trashing my thoughts: «I don’t see the real reason that Mr Konstandaras is trying to avoid. He has not spoken of the hundreds of years of Serbia’s almost holocaust in Kosovo. I understand that Mr Konstandaras is Greek first, and resentment toward Albanian culture is obviously a part of his upbringing, which brings me to the point that: His comments are irrelevant.» (The article and comments can be found at http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/postglobal/.) In the past, we’d express our opinion to our family and friends and that, basically, was where it would stay, while our governments took care of foreign policy. Today, in addition to demonstrations and editorials, nations are in direct contact with each other. Everyone knows what everyone else is thinking. Often it is upsetting, but it is a dialogue. It will take a great coordinated effort to find a way for all of us to speak the language of reconciliation and compromise.