Letter from Thessaloniki

” Do you think that your minister of culture would grace us with his presence at this year’s theater festival? He happens to be in Istanbul right now, you must know. Incidentally, today (May 31) we have ‘Phaedra,’ performed by the Wooster Group from New York. It is an excellent performance!» Ustungel Inanc, the international press coordinator at the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, e-mailed me all this the other day. I kept it strictly to myself that Mr Evangelos Venizelos is not known to be an ardent theater lover. Therefore I answered furtively: «Go and ask him personally. He stays at the Conrad Hotel.» Not being knowledgeable of the current Greek political scene, poor Ustungel could not have known that the so-eloquent Greek minister of culture is better known in his homeland as one of those zealous activists who have lined up as a successor to the prime ministerial post. As a man who is never lost for a few appropriated words, he prefers speaking to the compulsive silence of an auditorium; the prototype of a minister lusting for promotion. As such, he traveled to Istanbul on Friday – on the exact day the Turkish lira currency hit a 2002 low against the dollar – and simultaneously found himself amid the mounting expectations of wannabe Turkish successors that ailing 77-year-old Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit might be forced to step down. He certainly did not go there to see plays! For on this trip Evangelos Venizelos had one more chance to nourish his aspirations for the premiership while on foreign soil. Embodying a senior-party-cadres ideal of «prime minister is best,» he inaugurated on Friday the fifth meeting of the Greek-Turkish Business Council in Istanbul jointly with Mesut Yilmaz, the Turkish deputy prime minister who is responsible for European issues and also a wannabe PM. Displaying most of his political talent and aspiration for the high post, Mr Venizelos declared to the Macedonian Press Agency that he discussed with Mr Yilmaz no more and no less than «the whole spectrum of bilateral relations and mainly the common European future of Greece and Turkey.» He also reminded us that Cyprus’s accession to the European Union is a precondition for EU enlargement. Responding to the question concerning the measures decided the other day by the Turkish National Security Council regarding Greek-Turkish relations and the Cyprus issue, Mr Venizelos stated, essentially, that Turkey will not take any measures because it does not want to create problems for its European course. After the «’Giorgakis’ (Papandreou) – Cem dyad,» now we also possess a counterbalance: a Venizelos-Yilmaz «strange couple.» Moussaka and baklava do not seem to be the only cherished common tastes between Greece and Turkey. When it comes to political behind-the-scenes lobbying, practices look very much alike. We each have one economic wizard: Athens has Finance Minister Nikos Christodoulakis and Ankara has Kemal Dervis, Turkey’s «economic savior» since March 2001. Also, in both capitals economic pundits agree that the current uncertain atmosphere is only harming their respective economies. We both agree that both stand foursquare with President Bush in the war against terrorism. The 2004 general election campaigns in Greece and Turkey seem to have begun more or less officially a long time ago. As the problems pile up in both countries, Mr Simitis’s and Mr Ecevit’s immediate successors (in both cases no one has been hand-picked by the leaders themselves) keep themselves busy by elbowing each other and telling local party apparatchiks to stop getting in the way. In Turkey, concern is being expressed as to whether the ruling coalition can continue without Ecevit. In Greece, ministers are waltzing to different dance steps. Defense Minister Yiannos Papantoniou said on television last week that he does not rule out a military incident with Turkey with regard to Cyprus’s EU accession, blithely implying criticism of Foreign Minister George Papandreou, who seems to have a diametrically opposing view. Yet the «casus belli» expression used by Defense Minister Yiannos Papantoniou was not a threat. Under a real threat, according to The Economist, is Simitis himself. On Friday, the magazine said there were worries that the «survival of Greece’s modernizing prime minister cannot be guaranteed». Meanwhile, last weekend Turkish columnist Ali Birand, reporting on the NATO summit in Rome, pointed out that the question asked most often by those closely following Turkey concerned the state of Ecevit’s health. Unsurprisingly, the disintegration of Greek as well as of Turkish parties has gone so far that all kinds of extremists, weirdos, rapscallions and worse can pop up on both coasts of the Aegean anytime now. Iraklis Doukas, a well-known, sometimes-female impersonator in Thessaloniki announced on Saturday he is running for mayor. One must never underestimate Greek – or Turkish – wit in politics. One of the most prestigious present-day politicians in Greece, Minister of Health Alekos Papadopoulos, announced yesterday in an interview with Kathimerini that he intends to stay away from politics in the near future. He also plainly expressed his disdain for our gutter press and our trash TV. «What, anyway, is the point of campaigning when he who can spend the most money to ‘buy time’ on television wins…?» Prime Minister Simitis reacted to the interview during a stopover in Tashkent. One should expect more prime-ministerial comments in Beijing. Didn’t we so often repeat that we have so much in common with the Turks? Not long ago, at a press conference organized by the Turkish Embassy in Beijing, senior coalition partner, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader and Deputy Prime Minister Devlet Bahceli of Turkey stipulated five preconditions for Turkey’s European Union membership. With PM Simitis in China, President of the Republic Costis Stephanopoulos in Australia, and leader of the opposition Costas Karamanlis in the US, the place runs itself. Or whatever. Should you be wondering whether our minister of culture went to see the «Phaedra» play after all, the answer is no. He could not possibly miss the dinner in honor of the Greek guests hosted that same night by Turkish magnate Sarik Tara in the Raquette Restaurant at the Sadi Gulcelik facilities. Incidentally, Evangelos Venizelos, the very embodiment of scholastic knowledge, must surely know that at Byzantium’s end the court rituals and diplomacy were so monumental and perplexing as to paralyze the emperor. His four-day stay in Constantinople may have inspired him in this direction. He could certainly use some of these paralyzing techniques when he is back home, as he will be going up against some very tough competition on the way to the top. And isn’t it true that, as William Randolph Hearst wrote in a 1933 editorial, «a politician will do anything to keep his job – even become a patriot»?

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