Looking in — and looking out

Modern countries have become so large and complicated and, at the same time, so open to influences in thought and behavior, that they encapsulate within them many different and sometimes contradictory currents, all racing along simultaneously. In Greece, though, we often have radically different things going on at once in a very confined space. Most of the population is concentrated in Athens and most of what happens in Athens happens within the small radius of Syntagma Square. So sometimes the incongruities are geographic, while at others, it is behavioral or ideological, or whatever. We can take any group of people and analyze them to the point where we find common ground among them (both left and right in Greece, for example, can express anti-American suspicions with the same degree of vehemence for completely different reasons). But perhaps the point that divides the Greeks, as it probably does many other nations, is the division between those who look out and those who look in, those who feel their history is the root of a never-ending number of scores to settle and those who look at history for the lessons it provides in helping to move the country forward. There are those who are obsessed with issues that we could just as well leave behind us and those who believe that Greece has a role to play in the larger body of nations known as Europe. This is the new ideological divide, not the defunct one between left and right, which, in turn, succeeded the schism between republicans and monarchists. Greece is a small country where many otherwise divergent currents cannot help but run into each other and sometimes coexist. This is illustrated by the two main political parties, PASOK and New Democracy – the ostensibly socialist ruling party and the ostensibly conservative, liberal opposition. Both host completely different groups of people (such as pro-European liberal modernizers and «patriotic» xenophobes who would like nothing more than to continue the old statist system and the comfortable politics of patronage that accompany it). These factions would be far more comfortable with each other. But they stay where they are through the sheer force of inertia, happy with the dividing lines drawn in 1974. When democracy was restored after a military dictatorship, new parties were formed, the Communist Party was legalized and Greece, under the late Constantine Karamanlis, set course for membership in what is now the European Union. We will never grow tired of saying that this ushered in the longest uninterrupted period of stability, peace, wealth and progress that Greece has known. And yet, even as the Greeks have shared the bounty of a united Europe, both in the material sense and in the values that make the citizens of Europe (for all its problems) the most privileged and secure group of people the world has known, they also often appear to be very uncomfortable in a world of which they are now very much a part. Striking examples of this contradiction were evident last Tuesday (October 1). On this day, several hundred extreme leftists staged a demonstration in central Athens demanding fair treatment for the suspected members of the November 17 terrorist group being held in Korydallos Prison. Many of the 800-or-so present were November 17 sympathizers. Slogans that were chanted or spray-painted on walls (including those of the venerable Academy of Athens) included shocking insults to the memory of Pavlos Bakoyiannis, a New Democracy MP, and British defense attache Brig. Stephen Saunders, both of whom were among November 17’s 23 victims. The context was unprecedented – a demonstration by supporters of the terrorists in a city where, as Dora Bakoyianni, one of the victims’ widows, duly noted, not a single demonstration had been held against terrorism. But the hooliganism, which was aimed at enraging society to the greatest possible degree through its merciless militancy, was all too familiar. It was the same symbolic violence that the terrorists had expressed with their guns, rockets and bombs for 27 years, that soccer hooligans expressed with their depraved anti-American displays in the days after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the same violence that they use against fans of other teams (as when they throw firebombs at suburban trains or city buses), the same violence that small groups of very violent youths display when, as part of larger demonstrations, they attack journalists, banks and other symbols of the «system.» Because Greece does not have any major problems with crime and other forms of violence, its society appears to have tolerated this kind of «symbolic,» though often deadly, violence, inexplicably, from the end of the dictatorship – as if the state machinery’s collusion with the right-wing dictators dictated, in turn, that the State lie down and tolerate the violence vomited up by every violent minority as long as it was not a right-wing minority. And yet, for once, the demonstrators managed to cross the flexible line of our tolerance. Even newspapers and groups whom we would have expected to be the loudest in defending the rights of the imprisoned suspects ran to distance themselves from the demonstrators. This seemed to imply, again for the first time, that the hyperbole of some of our anti-State orators might be just that, an exaggeration that has suited both the violent minorities and the passive majority as if it were the necessary proof that we live in a democracy. The truth may slowly be coming into focus – that we have a state and we have to put our faith in its institutions, rather than accept every self-proclaimed guarantor – as November 17 had tried to present itself. We do not need to praise terrorism and insult its victims in order to demand that prisoners be treated well. There are guarantees for this, not least because Greece’s two decades as a member of the European Union have created conditions where police brutality is not the norm. There are still some bumps in the road, as a recent Amnesty International report on police brutality stressed, especially regarding the less visible minorities of Gypsies or immigrants. But, on the whole, our society will not tolerate such abuse of power by the police when made aware of it. We believe that those who are entrusted with preventing such occurrences will do their job, so that if ever we need their assistance, we too will have it. This brings us back to the bizarre juxtaposition of events on October 1. This was also the day on which one of the most notorious and colorful figures of the Greek demimonde felt the full weight of the law come crashing down on his brilliantly lacquered head after a lifetime of seeming impunity. Even those who had protested at the ease with which Makis Psomiadis managed to get away with flouting the law (wriggling out of other convictions, driving a luxury car without license plates, and so on) were astonished at the 12-year term he received. Psomiadis – who counts nightclub owner, president of AEK soccer club and former publisher among his many activities – was convicted of forging a bank document in 1996 purporting to show that then Public Works Minister Costas Laliotis had taken a bribe to award the contract for the construction of the new Athens airport. So what we appeared to have was a wild overreaction by the judiciary when it felt it had to stop someone who had made a fool of it before. Instead of Psomiadis being punished at the time of his past crimes, which would perhaps have kept him from overstepping the bounds of the law once too often, he suddenly found himself paying an exorbitant price for one crime. But, this being a civilized state, he can always appeal to a higher court and, in the end, we will all be happy that justice has been served – except for Psomiadis himself, perhaps, as he will have become used to getting away with things (or, somehow, he will get away once more). And then, on this day of infamy in the streets, came a brief little item of news that showed just how contradictory things can be in Greece and, at the same time, how hopeful. A brief comment in the Financial Times’ Observer column presented Greece’s Citizen’s Advocate, Nikiforos Diamantouros, as the favorite to become the next European ombudsman. The European Parliament is to decide in December who will replace Jacob Soederman of Finland in protecting EU citizens against maladministration. As the FT noted, Diamantouros, 60, would be the second Greek (after central banker Lucas Papademos was appointed vice president of the European Central Bank earlier this year) to be selected for an important post in Europe. It might be 20 years after Greece joined the European Union and we might have had a lot of catching up to do, but we have reached the point where we can begin to return the favor. In fact, Greece can recommend its experts because, with the difficulties that they have had to face in Greece, they have learned skills that other Europeans might not have been forced to pick up. Papademos, for example, was instrumental in achieving the miracle of Greece’s entry into the eurozone last January. Diamantouros, Greece’s first Citizen’s Advocate, took on the million-headed monster of Greece’s public administration and, through hard work and inspiration, made the Greek ombudsman’s office a credible force, a comfort to the citizen and immigrant who has no other assistance against the dictatorship of a bureaucracy that lags way beyond the rest of Greek society. With this experience, the Greeks who look out for their country’s future can be useful to Europe too. And those who work for Europe, work for Greece. In these difficult times, we could wish for no more hopeful signs.