Letter from Thessaloniki

Expecting to attract some 300,000 visitors during the next eight days, the 67th annual Thessaloniki International Fair opened its gates to the public on Saturday. Recompensed for 40 years of loyal and continuous presence here, France has been chosen as this year’s guest of honor. Luckily enough, the city of Thessaloniki braced itself in time for a wave of public demonstrations which coincided with the inaugural festivities inside the Vellidion Hall. While Prime Minister Simitis on the podium triumphed over the fact that «democracy has crushed terrorism, thus instilling a sense of security in our society,» 7,000 police officers, brought in for the occasion from all over the country, were deployed outside to control mass protests pressing for an array of demands, from higher subsidies for the farmers, less tuition for students, to a termination of the tenure of office of PAOK football club’s present board of directors. Some observers counted 30 uses of the word «security» in the PM’s speech. Needless to say, security firms in the city have enjoyed a boom as nervous companies constantly ask them to vet new staff or test their safety procedures. On Saturday afternoon on the glittering waterfront avenue, Leoforos Nikis, protesters marched to the square outside the fair, damning the high cost of living, Athenian hegemony, US imperialism and, presumably, the fact that the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia won’t change its name to something more decent and convenient. The mostly left-wing and Communist protesters did not turn violent, at least until some rough fringe leftists started throwing stones and water bottles at TV teams and riot police. «This inauguration is decidedly a dress rehearsal for the EU summit here in June 2003,» said a local journalist observing the «Genoa Initiative» Movement followers marching. Some of them held sarcastic signs denouncing globalization, the American president as the «King of the World» and hailing sustainable development. «The role of Thessaloniki and northern Greece is not restricted to inside the Greek borders,» Prime Minister Costas Simitis said in his address delivered at the formal dinner at the Ioannis Vellidis Convention Center. He was, by this, openly insinuating a blurred Balkan dimension to this region. Never slow to jump on the bandwagon, Thessaloniki-born Minister of Development Akis Tsochadzopoulos stated on Friday, perhaps not so eloquently but surely characteristically: «We found terms for cooperation and Greece’s choice to support the European market in cooperation with Turkey and the countries of the Black Sea for the transfer of natural gas toward the EU.» Consequently, at exactly 11.55, the local, state-financed Macedonian Press Agency duly reported: GREEK-BULGARIAN COOPERATION EXPANDED. A few hours later, however (at 18.54), the Bulgarian Press Agency BTA diplomatically informed us from Sofia that this subject has just «topped the agenda of a meeting between Bulgarian Energy Minister Milko Kovachev and Greek Minister of Development Apostolos-Athanassios Tsochadzopoulos» and that the two ministers only «discussed Bulgaria’s proposal for building a Regional Energy Policy Center.» Nothing was final. Furthermore, they merely agreed that the countries in the region should be equally represented in this process, ending the dispatch with a most pointed, if somewhat malicious, addition: «As a member of the EU, Greece receives aid for coordinating such activities and the involvement of other states of the region may prove useful.» A helpful reminder that the money we «give away» is not, precisely, ours. Clearly, energy issues are always hotly debated when there is some kind of international crisis, particularly when there is a war lurking in the Middle East. And we are not such a long way from Iraq, are we? «How will you react in case of an American intervention in Iraq?» our Thessaloniki correspondent, Stavros Tzimas, asked the prime minister, during a press conference yesterday. And Costas Simitis – in a manner of speaking – answered that when in the EU, do as the Europeans do. «If it is decided by the UN Security Council and the European Union, then, well, yes.» However, during the same press conference, although the appropriate questions were posed, a coherent account of what has gone wrong with the Greek economy, and what should be done now to restore stability and «security» was still lacking. President Bush’s intention of forcing a regime change in Baghdad was the main topic last night during the America Day reception in honor of the American companies participating in the US pavilion, which was scheduled to be held in the gardens of the American Farm School in the suburbs of the city but, due to the weather, took place at the Hyatt Regency hotel. The US ambassadorial couple from Athens were receiving, together with the Koenigs, the couple-consulaire in Thessaloniki. Since I had decided to be well-behaved for the occasion, I did not mention Woodrow Wilson’s question after World War I: «Is there any man, is there any woman, let me say any child here, that does not know that the seed of war in the modern world is industrial and commercial rivalry?» This was said in 1919 as US citizens watched a shredded Europe scraping up its own remains. Nevertheless, someone at the party – was it journalist Pandelis Savvidis? – reminded me of a commentary published in this very paper (on August 14) signed by G.G. De Lastic, written definitely in this spirit: «Iraqi oil is cheap and there is a lot of it… The problem is that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has conceded operating rights to European firms. Hence, European companies make huge profits at the expense of their American competitors. As former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said, Europe will have to come to terms with the coming order in Iraq if they want to keep a foothold in this pivotal region. As to the US investments in Greece, at a press conference here the other day, Athens US Embassy adviser Walter Hage sounded relatively optimistic, predicting a moderate but steady increase. Counting the US companies participating in this year’s fair, he found them to be – bliss – five more, compared to last year. Too good to be true? Listen to this: Responding to the question as to whether the successful efforts against terrorism in Greece will attract more tourists from the United States, Mr Hage responded that he himself, for one reason or another, sees the developments positively, stressing, however, that US tourists in Greece had never felt themselves to be the targets of terrorists anyway.

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