The American card

The cascade of arrests of suspected November 17 members has stopped for several weeks now. The excitement of new faces being added to the pandemonium of confessed members and new suspects is subsiding, though we still wait to see if the government and police will fulfill their promise to root out Greece’s terrorist problem in its entirety. The time has come for us to try to work out what November 17 and its demise will mean, whether it will change attitudes and habits and Greece’s relations with, for instance, other countries whose citizens were targeted. The story of November 17, for example, is tied inextricably to the complex relationship between Greece and the United States, as the terrorist group made it its business to try to influence that relationship (choosing the highly symbolic target of a CIA official as its first target and then claiming another three Americans among its 23 murder victims). Consequently, as the Greeks made no progress in ending November 17’s campaign, US officials pushed the issue of terrorism to the top of the bilateral agenda. The more pressure the Americans put on the Greeks – both officially and through the news media – the greater the frustration on both sides. A torrent of unofficial American claims and news reports declared that the Greeks’ inability to capture any members of November 17 could only be attributed to the likelihood of the terrorists enjoying the tolerance if not the support of the long-ruling PASOK party. This claim served, in turn, as a spark in the highly inflammable tinder of Greek public opinion, which retorted angrily that the Americans too had not had any success in dealing with November 17 nor with terrorism on their own territory. And anyway, the Greek argument went, Greece’s terrorism problem was nothing compared to that of other countries, especially when seen in the context of the very low level of violent crime here. It turns out that the Greeks and the Americans were both right and wrong. Unless this story still holds major surprises, it appears that November 17 was neither the brainchild of foreign intelligence agencies (or the CIA, as left-wingers in Greece insisted) nor the executive arm of some PASOK-linked conspiracy, as some American claims would suggest. The group’s alleged leader, Alexandros Yotopoulos, appears to have had the charisma and the obsession to found the group and to keep it going for 27 years, even when it was clear that it could not expect to play the kind of «revolutionary» role that it purported to pursue. Its members, for the most part, appear to be nothing spectacular. They could have been any of the few thousand youths who gravitate toward extreme leftist groupuscules each year when they come to the big city from the provinces. Except that this particular lot found themselves in a kind of boys’ club in which their partnership in crime and blood knots did not allow them to grow up or to leave. The one missing link in all this is Dimitris Koufodinas, Greece’s man of mystery. From the accounts of penitenti November 17 members, the fugitive beekeeper was the gang’s chief of operations and its deadliest gunman. As a youth, he had passed through PASOK’s school union before going underground. According to Athens’s tireless rumor mill, Koufodinas was also connected in some form or another with the Greek intelligence agency. If this claim turns out to be true, the undoubtedly serious issue of November 17 becomes infinitely more serious. Unless this proves to be the case, though, we will have to draw our conclusions only from the 15 men already in custody and the confessions that 13 of them have made. So one would think that with November 17 out of the way for most intents and purposes, a lot of the ill will surrounding the issue could be allowed to dissipate. Instead, it appears that the American card will continue to be played in the foreseeable future and for a variety of reasons. A little over a week ago, Parliament Speaker Apostolos Kaklamanis declared at a meeting of PASOK’s Executive Bureau that he was annoyed by US Ambassador Thomas Miller’s comments to the media regarding the war against terrorism and his use of the plural «we.» The next day (Friday), Foreign Minister George Papandreou raised the issue in a meeting with Miller. A couple of days later, the American ambassador said the incident was over. One can only wonder what prompted this episode at a time when both Greeks and Americans could have quietly enjoyed the fruit of the investigation into Greek terrorism after so many years of frustration. Part of the reason may be that Kaklamanis has claimed in the past that the Americans tread roughshod over Greek sensitivities. The latter conviction led to him to describe the previous ambassador, Nicholas Burns, as a Roman provincial governor because of the envoy’s high public profile. Last January, the CBS television network drew blood for the American side when, in an astonishingly arrogant interview, a reporter asked Kaklamanis whether he supported November 17. None of this happens in a vacuum, of course. Kaklamanis entered politics in the 1960s, a time when the United States was a dominant force in shaping what happened in Greece, a time that left a legacy of suspicion. This was reinforced two weeks ago when the State Department finally released (two years after it had initially prepared to do so) its documents covering Greece, Turkey and Cyprus in the years 1964 to 1968. An initial reading of these showed: first, that many documents (especially those concerning the CIA and any covert action it might have been involved in) are absent; second, that there is enough here to reinforce the conviction of both «anti-imperialists» and objective observers that the United States, serving its own interests, played a huge role in Greek politics; third (and this is not the majority view here right now), one can see that the disaster that befell Greece with the collapse of George Papandreou’s Center Union government in July 1965, right up to the military dictatorship of April 1967, was the result primarily of the extremism shown by the Greek players in their disputes. The State Department files might not be the most objective source of information, but it is interesting to read a July 23, 1965 dispatch in which charge d’affaires Norman Anschuetz described the situation in Greece and added: «Given incredibly sensitive political acoustics in Athens and virtuosity of Greek talent for misrepresentation and distortion, Embassy position is constant subject for local exploitation. For example: King has been quoted as saying I discouraged Stephanopoulos from forming or joining government following Papandreou resignation; rightist elements have charged that US is no longer interested in fighting Communism; Andreas Papandreou told me he knows Americans are saying that he must go. This spectrum of commentary suggests that although our attempt not to become involved may not prove to be completely successful, the effort is at least a valiant one.» Other telegrams, however, indicate the dismay with which US officials beheld Andreas Papandreou, the firebrand (former Trotskyite) son of Center Union leader George Papandreou, as well as their detailed knowledge of the comings and goings of the group of colonels that overthrew the political system in 1967. Many members of PASOK were left with a lasting suspicion of the United States, a suspicion expressed by people like Kaklamanis, a member of the Center Union who then served in several key positions in PASOK governments under Andreas Papandreou. Suspicion of the motives of the only superpower might be a valuable asset in any country, but in Greece too often it appears to be the first reaction, irrespective of the circumstances. This is despite President Bill Clinton’s apology in 1999 for Washington’s less than strenuous support for democracy during the seven-year dictatorship and the fact that the Greeks had plenty for which to blame themselves. The Greek dictators instigated the coup on Cyprus that prompted the Turkish invasion of 1974 and the continued occupation of the island’s north, but that open wound remains the focus of suspicion against the United States. These factors suggest that although the thorn of November 17 is being torn out of the flesh of the relationship between Greece and the US, it will take a while before public opinion in Greece can begin to see things as they are, rather than only as the result of the machinations of foreign forces. It is clear that both Greeks and Americans overestimated the capabilities of November 17 and allowed that mystique to cloud the issue, to foster suspicion between allies and to allow the terrorists to continue without disruption for so many years, even as Greek and American security officials cooperated for the last 15 years. It could be a lesson for all involved that we need to put some distance between the fixations and errors of the past and the present, and that as we move toward the challenges of the future we will be well advised to concentrate on the goals we want to attain and the methodical work that will enable it. November 17 rampaged through Greece for 27 years. But its days were numbered after the murder of the British defense attache, Stephen Saunders, in June 2000. This was because the Greek government decided to make the fight against terrorism its top priority, and with the help of foreign advisers, employed a method to achieve its target. It proved (as if this needed proving) that when institutions are supported and given freedom to function in a democracy all they need is a little luck. This is light-years from the past, when, around the world, tanks ushered in dictatorships left and right, in the middle of the night.

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