OPINION

Fear and unknown strength

Looking at how Greece has been caught up in interminable and fruitless negotiations on a name for the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), one can only wonder how our country got trapped into a situation which has cost it great diplomatic and political capital without any gains so far. We don’t know where the situation will lead, but it is interesting to look at the issue as a compilation of the problems which – 178 years after its establishment – plague the modern Greek state. Foreign policy is affected excessively by domestic squabbles, personal ambitions and petty political games. This often leads opposition parties to place unrealistic demands on foreign policy, because it is the easiest way for them to look patriotic while the government can be painted «traitorous» or incompetent. The government then pursues the unattainable while doing its best not to agree to any solution that could be used against it. Then, as a nation with a long but often selective and simplistic historical memory, we are in continuous danger of being trapped between the myths of the past and fears of the future, thereby losing the chance to clearly understand the present. This brings us to another deadly sin of our foreign policy (which applies in domestic issues as well): the amateurish way in which our officials improvise in times of crisis. The Ocalan affair, in which senior Greek politicians and secret agents tried to smuggle the Kurdish rebel leader to a secret exile as US and Turkish agents closed in, is a case study of what happens when everyone tries to do everything, without relying on the proper agencies and institutions. It was a disaster. In complicated diplomatic issues, such as the consequences of a country outside Greece using the name «Macedonia,» Athens did not do enough to make other countries understand its position. In the throes of self-righteous anger and self-congratulation for its unyielding position, Greece appeared to be so sure everyone else would agree with it that it sent out a message that – to many – made it look as if it wanted to swallow its northern neighbor. So, closed in our little world, we ignore the thoughts of other countries and current developments; instead of exploiting the international dynamics that would bring us closer to our targets, we keep fighting an uphill battle on every front. In this light, it is very interesting to look at the current triangular relationship of Greeks, Albanians and Slav-Macedonians: Greek public opinion has been programmed to fear «Albanian irredentism» and then, suddenly, the Albanians of FYROM appear as another point of pressure on the government in Skopje with their demand for a compromise with Athens over the name issue so that the country can join NATO without problem. This, on the surface, strengthens Greece’s hand. But would Athens really want to ally itself with the Albanians against the Slav-Macedonians to the extent that this shakes the stability of our neighboring country, with all that this would entail? This happens when we do not have clear objectives, when we do not estimate carefully the interests and dynamics of others – nor what is attainable. We do not know how to succeed, but what’s even worse is that we don’t know when we have achieved the greatest possible gain. In this way, we run the risk of losing what we had in our hands. We allow problems to drag on endlessly, in the hope that we will achieve something better later, rather than take responsibility for agreeing to a solution that may not be 100 percent satisfactory but is the best that we could get. As long as problems go unsolved we feel that no one understands us and no one supports us. So we often succumb to complaining instead of going after what we want with confidence in our position and faith in our own abilities. Very often, in our fear that others will take advantage of us, we tend to forget the strength we have as a country and as a nation. When we open up, when we share the good things that we enjoy, when we help others, we gain a lot more. This was evident after the terrible earthquake in Turkey in 1999 and in the horrific explosions which rocked Albania just over a week ago. The Greeks were the first to arrive in Albania with medical assistance, winning the gratitude of our neighbors and at the same time giving us a small taste of optimism and pride even as we wallowed in garbage during the plague of strikes. At such moments, when we act without complexes, when we put aside our insecurity, we feel the strength of Greece, the «soft power» of principles, of reconciliation, of democracy. As long as we understand that, we have this strength.