Waiting for a solution

The global financial crisis is like a giant flash that tore through the grey and lit up unseen details of our world – from dysfunctional international systems to secretive pyramid scams. The longer we examine the photograph, the more things we discover in the hidden corners of our everyday world, helping us understand what went wrong and allowing us to plan how we will deal with the new situation. Whatever the photo shows, however, it remains a snapshot of a particular moment, one that is already passing: The longer we delay to act, the greater becomes the danger of our missing the opportunity to bring our society in step with the challenges of the time

The crisis has shown how vulnerable the global credit system was and how irresponsible those who served it (or who – ostensibly – were burdened with regulating it) were. It has also shown how our perceptions depend on the psychological state of all involved in the economy, from governments to consumers. It is now obvious that the worm of destruction was slithering its way through the economy’s guts for many years, but, in the general euphoria, no one noticed – or if they did, they chose not to speak lest they spoil the party. Now the United States, the EU countries and other economies are looking for a way out. Now we all understand that no one knows the way. The reactions to news, to proposals and so on, depend on the psychological state of people at that moment. One day US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is the subject of angry ridicule because he did not cancel the bonuses of executives of AIG, the tottering insurance giant (a minor but meaningful detail in the deluge of our days), the next he is instantly beatified for the trillion-dollar stimulus package – the same package that the inimitable Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek described as “the road to hell.” The Americans and the British are printing money to deal with the crisis – and analysts who should be worried about the possible consequences hardly mention the dangers involved.

The Americans accuse Europeans of not allocating enough money to support their economies and boost demand, after decades of ridiculing the “inflexible” economies of the Old Continent with their extensive social security network for citizens – the same networks which need much less money to keep the unemployed and the underemployed in the economy, allowing them to keep consuming and thereby supporting demand. Traditionally, in Europe – with the exception of Britain – more money goes to citizens and less to banks – whereas in the United States the opposite is taking place. Time will tell who is right. Theories and dogmas are of no use – and at least we are no longer under the illusion that they are. In this atmosphere of confusion and subjectivity, the leaders of the 20 most developed economies will meet in London this week to try and chart the global economy’s future.

For Greece, the flash shows what we already knew: Our economy is unproductive because we waste our people’s energy, just as we waste our natural and cultural wealth. The situation will not improve as long as our politicians do not feel the need to cooperate in order to set the foundations for change in the economy, education, public administration, social security and for an all-out war on corruption. Such cooperation, if sincere, would be an earth-shattering event, a revolution that would set our country on course for the future. But as long as “progressives” care only about maintaining the status quo and conservatives worry only about remaining in power, at a time when the only urgent calls for change come from abroad and sound like commands, then it’s clear that we have decided that the revolution must start without us. We will observe the G20 conference in London in the same way a beached ship observes the rising tide, waiting to see if it will lift it or sink it.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 30 March 2009

Tigers and whipping boys

It gets a bit tedious, this continual carping in the European media about Greece’s problematic economy. Not a week goes by without some smart Alec somewhere giving vent to his rancor in an analysis regarding Greek profligacy. We keep getting lumped together with Ireland because of our deficits and the expensive money that we have to keep borrowing because international lenders are leaning on us as if we were the last suckers in a world that has suddenly gone cynical. Guys, we didn’t steal, we just borrowed. Expensively.
It’s grossly unfair to keep being lumped with the Euroskeptical Irish because – regardless of our personal admiration for them as a nation and as talented, artistic individuals – we are not in the same league: they are facing a hangover after having enjoyed a boom. From the bottom of the heap, Ireland jumped to the top through such daring innovations in their economy that they became the envy of the world. So much so that in more optimistic times we in Greece would hold conferences at which our prime minister and top aides would hold forth about how they would perform a miracle and turn our country into the Balkan equivalent of the Celtic tiger. Perhaps in their minds the Balkan equivalent meant going directly bust without wasting time on the boom part, without undercutting our competitors by abolishing corporate taxes and by creating an efficient economy with a trouble-free labor climate. Now the Irish are paying the price for old-fashioned, ancient Greek hubris: they thought that they were too good to fail, that their property prices would just keep rising. The tiger’s stripes now look like cuts and scratches.
No, we in Greece cannot be blamed for having taken anyone else’s business – we simply borrowed money in order to hide our weaknesses. But how weak are we? We have assimilated the lessons of boom and bust, knowing that history moves in cycles, great and small, important and trivial. Our history features leaders ranging from Leonidas, Pericles and Alexander the Great to the dismal constellation around the rusting hulks of today’s political dynasties. We know, through a great collective unconscious, that it’s not the boom nor the bust that matters, but the “getting by” on a daily basis – the cutting of corners, the hiding of taxes, the borrowing as if there is no tomorrow, the “let sleeping dogs lie, don’t rock the boat, this is how things have always been” approach. The country’s problems are too big and deep-rooted, our lives too short, Fortune too capricious for anyone to presume to try and sort out the mess. So let’s muddle on, with each forming his own sphere of influence at the others’ expense. At least we know that if salvation is to come from anywhere, it will be from workers in the private sector. They earn less than their counterparts in other parts of Europe, pay higher consumer prices, have worse health, education and welfare benefits, and yet they keep the country on its feet.
Being among those who have seen the country’s future mortgaged by crooks and useless politicians, our shouts drowned by the silence of futility, we can only wonder what it takes for a victim to rise up in anger – like a tiger.

Milestones & Footnotes comment in AthensPlus, 27 March 2009

Power to the people

The issue of renewable energy in Greece has run into the same set of obstacles that prevent the country from solving old problems and from preparing for the challenges of the future: intractable bureaucracy, government indifference and public suspicion. Greece, with its abundant sun, wind and water power, could be a leader in the use of clean, renewable energy. Instead, it is the most heavily dependant on oil and gas imports of all EU member states. The reasons are many, but perhaps the most decisive one is that people at the grassroots level have not understood the benefits of harnessing their country’s innate energy-producing capabilities for their personal gain.

This indifference does not come cheap. Last Tuesday, the Public Power Corporation announced that despite two tariff hikes and a 13.2 percent increase in sales to 5.82 billion euros in 2008, the company showed a loss of 305.9 million euros last year. This is the result of 53 percent of revenues going toward paying for fuel imports, for energy purchases and for CO2 emissions trading. The country’s biggest company is dependant on oil and gas imports – with their great price fluctuations – or on locally mined lignite, whose use forces PPC to make hugely expensive payments. As PPC President and Managing Director Takis Athanassopoulos noted, if it weren’t for the fuel and energy import prices and the CO2 emissions, the company would have shown a 400-million-euro profit. In addition, PPC shares dropped 7 percent over the past six months and has seen its long-term credit rating drop. None of this is good for taxpayers, who will be called on to foot the bill sooner or later.

And if consumers are unable to see the benefits of the country’s freeing itself from the grip of imported and domestic “fossil fuels,” one would expect government – at the national but also at the local level – to be making every effort to promote the use of renewable energy sources. So far, however, Greece is a long way off from its target of meeting 18 percent of its total energy needs with renewable sources by 2020. The target figure implies that 35 percent of electricity production will come from renewable sources. This figure now stands at 10 percent, most of which is from hydroelectric projects and not from new sources.

A major reason for the slow adoption of renewable sources is the paper chase that investors must embark on to get permits from state departments which are either ignorant or at odds with each other. Then there is the corruption that slips in whenever such confusion of laws and responsibilities stands in the way of investments. Billions of euros in investments planned by local and foreign investors remain untapped, thanks to bureaucracy, lack of interest and corruption.

The government must simplify procedures for investments and educate a public that likes to profess its environmental sensitivities but would rather live with current problems than commit itself to solutions. The production of energy through renewable sources will pick up only when municipal and provincial authorities realize that they can improve their finances and provide for their citizens by taking an active interest in producing energy at the local level. This will lead to wiser waste management (through the use of biomass as fuel, for example), an increase in local government revenues through the production of energy that will go into the national grid, and citizens’ understanding that they have a direct, personal stake in energy production through renewable sources. Only if people understand the direct benefits to their pockets and their quality of life, will they force the change that too few people seem interested in seeing.

Editorial in AthensPlus, 27 March 2009

Rich, poor and precious land

Last Tuesday, after months of violent demonstrations, the president of Madagascar, Marc Ravalomanana, was overthrown when the island nation’s army threw its weight behind the young leader of the opposition, Andry Rajoelina. The new president moved immediately to cancel a deal with South Korea’s Daewoo Logistics for the 99-year lease of one million hectares of land for crop cultivation. «The land of Madagascar is not for sale nor for rent,» the 34-year-old president declared, closing an issue that had provoked an outpouring of rage among the Indian Ocean island’s 20 million people. Most of the world, beset by the consequences of the global economic crisis, took little notice. But the developments in Madagascar will have caused serious headaches wherever rich countries are thinking of exploiting large tracts of land in other countries for their own benefit. In the past year, several countries that have a cash surplus but a shortage of arable land and water have been looking for ways to guarantee their food supply. The chief reason has been 2008’s sudden rise in the price of staple foods, which, though 50 percent off their peak, remain about 28 percent higher than in 2006. Worse, however, is the fact that the tight supply of food prompted many exporting nations, such as India, Ukraine, Russia, Vietnam and Argentina, to curb exports so as to safeguard their own supplies. Countries that depend on imports began to worry that they might face social and political unrest if they could not find food on the open market. Saudi Arabia, which subsidizes the price of rice for its people, started looking into the possibility of cultivating land in Sudan, Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt, Brazil, South Africa and elsewhere. A few weeks ago, the Financial Times reported that the first rice grown abroad by Saudi Arabian investors was presented to King Abdullah. The rice was grown in Ethiopia, which is experiencing serious food shortages of its own, with 11 million of its 80 million inhabitants being directly dependent on food aid from the United Nations.

Saudi investors, subsidized by their government, have concluded a similar deal with Sudan – another one of 32 countries that need direct food aid from abroad. The United Arab Emirates is examining the possibility of cultivating land in Kazakhstan and Sudan; Libya is thinking of doing the same in Ukraine; China is exploring possibilities in southeast Asia and Africa. The idea makes sense: If countries that have money but little arable land cooperate with those that have land but are short of cash, both sides stand to gain. But already we can see the danger of rich countries making deals at the expense of the population of poorer ones. Jacques Diouf, director-general of the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, used to be a strong supporter of such foreign investment in food cultivation, but he is becoming concerned. ‘The risk is of creating a neo-colonial pact for the provision of non-value-added raw materials in the producing countries and unacceptable work conditions for agricultural workers,’ Diouf said last August. The nightmare scenario is that rich countries will exploit the land at the expense of the native populations, which are usually closely tied to the land both emotionally and practically through subsistence farming. Tensions will therefore be high. Also, such farming is likely to focus on maximum production with minimal environmental safeguards. Furthermore, if large amounts of foodstuffs are taken off the free market through such bilateral deals, then supplies for the rest of the world will be even tighter, leading to even stiffer price hikes, at a time when 963 million people are already malnourished.According to the FAO, the increasing global population and socio-economic development demand a doubling of food production by 2050. For food prices to remain reasonably stable, this entails a 50 percent increase in irrigation and an additional 100-200 million hectares of arable land. (To appreciate these figures: In Greece, some 1.1 million hectares are under permanent cultivation.) Arable land, like water, is fast becoming a strategic asset. Every nation will have to calculate the value of its land anew and give it the protection that it deserves, showing it respect as the ultimate renewable source of wealth, power and sustenance. In the extensive redistribution of wealth being carried out across the globe these days, the value of land and its potential must be part of any new dispensation.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 23 March 2009

Hoods and revelations

It should come as no surprise that as our country is buffeted by the waves of the international financial crisis, our “political and news media elite” (an oxymoron if ever there was one) is consumed with passionate intensity over an effort to clamp down on the use of hoods by violent demonstrators. We have grown accustomed to internecine strife over irrelevant matters whenever there is a far more serious danger to deal with. Citizens have just been hit with a one-off tax and public sector wage freeze that is expected to net close to 500 million euros, global conditions are expected to slash tourism revenues by between 10 and 30 percent (which means a loss of 1.3-3.9 billion euros), the country will need to borrow close to 50 billion euros this year (at a cost about 3 percent higher than more creditworthy countries, meaning more billions down the drain), and the image that Greece projects to the world is that of anarchists rampaging through the streets and Culture Ministry employees blocking access to the Acropolis and other sites and museums.
If the anarchists and strikers cause a further drop in tourism and an increase in the cost of our borrowing, this will mean even more billions of euros lost. One would reasonably expect the country’s political and economic representatives to be poring over plans to increase productivity and competitiveness, with a special emphasis on attracting tourists through superior services (seeing as we can’t compete with cheaper countries outside the eurozone). Before we even begin to think about the structural reforms that no government has dared to implement, we might think it logical to prevent any further damage to our economy and to our country’s international image. Instead, the government’s belated effort to impose law and order has been overshadowed by a furious discussion over its decision to make the wearing of a hood an aggravating circumstance when this takes place in conjunction with the commission of a violent crime.
The debate reveals the superficiality of the government’s thinking, because it pits the authorities against a symbol of disaffected youth (whether violent or shy), and, like the war against long hair, bell bottoms or rock n’ roll, it is bound to fail. Nothing can conquer teenagers’ fashionable fetishes. The roots of crime are elsewhere, not in the criminals’ dress. And the opposition parties, for their part, seize on a secondary issue – that of the hood – so as not to be forced to take a stand against the rising tide of criminality – and the widespread tolerance of this – that is destroying the very foundations of our society. So who is wearing the hood?

Milestones&Footnotes in AthensPlus, 20 March, 2009

Coming back down to earth

For at least a generation, Greece has operated as if the laws of economics do not apply – not the criminally complicated, mad laws, which turned out not to apply anywhere across the global economy, but the simple, good housekeeping rules, such as spending as much as you can afford. Greeks, as individuals, were not the biggest borrowers, having gotten into the game late and only after entry into the eurozone made loans affordable. The problem was elsewhere: in a naive, stupid or convenient inability to understand that when we demanded things of the state someone would have to pay – and that someone would, some day, turn out to be us. This ignorance was evident in polls, where we would see society overwhelmingly in favor of the demands and protests of specific groups (whether farmers or civil servants), when they confronted the state. Deficits went wild as governments caved in to everyone’s demands.

The government’s decision to levy a one-off tax on high earners and to freeze civil servants’ salaries if these are over 1,700 euros per month, is the first sign that reality is catching up with us. Society will now feel the pain caused by our overspending as a nation. And yet, the total amount expected to enter state coffers is a little less than 500 million euros – less than the amount promised to farmers a few weeks ago to get them off the roads and allow the country to function again. Perhaps the next time a group goes on the warpath, the rest of society will consider what it will cost each citizen to placate them. In that case, the government will have to weigh the cost of angering the rest of society and not just look for ways to appease the protestors so as to buy their votes.

However, even as society begins to realize that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, various groups are still behaving as if their acts can be tolerated forever, no matter how much damage they may cause the rest of society or the economy. Banks are still depriving small and medium-sized businesses of loans, despite a 28-billion-euro rescue package; hooded youths still rampage through Athens’s center in narcissistic hysteria; Culture Ministry employees repeatedly block visitors from the Acropolis and other sites and museums. Everyone acts as if the damage they cause is not their concern: Someone else will foot the bill.

Banks are banks: They will try to get away with anything that furthers their own interests. Anarchists’ raison d’etre is mayhem. But how can Culture Ministry employees and their bosses – the politicians who work out their pay and work regime – believe that their interests are served by damaging the country’s tourism industry? Whether the employees are right or not, whether solving their problem will cost a mere 10 million euros or so, the standoff with the government is likely to cost Greece a lot more. If we consider that tourism, which brought 11.3 billion euros into the country in 2007, could drop by between 10 and 30 percent this year because of the global economic crisis, we can make a safe bet that the danger of finding important sites closed will push many people to visit other countries instead. A 10-million-euro dispute could thereby turn into a billion-euro loss.

Perhaps the only way that protestors, the government and society as a whole can find a healthy balance is if we stop believing that our demands will by taken care of by divine providence – i.e., the state or the EU or both. If every demand were met by an additional tax levied on the rest of us, maybe the government, the political parties and the population would be moderate in our demands and thrifty in our spending so that we could emerge from the crisis stronger than we entered it.

AthensPlus editorial, 20 March 2009

Society’s dangerous passivity

Nothing is more precious, nothing more precarious than peace. At this time, Greece is going through its most difficult phase since the restoration of democracy in 1974. The evidence of a breakdown of law and order is present everywhere, from the resurgence of domestic terrorism to a multitude of armed robberies taking place each week. The immediate cause of this is the collapse of police operations over the past few years. The underlying cause is the astonishing public apathy in the face of the mounting danger.
Northern Ireland knows very well the dangers and tragedy of a society consumed by violence. That’s why, straight after the murder of two soldiers and a policeman by rebel splinter groups of the Irish Republican Army, thousands of people gathered in silent protest in the streets of Belfast, Londonderry, Newry, Lisburn and Downpatrick. Many such protests had taken place during the three decades of intercommunal strife that preceded the 1998 agreement that lead to peace. But whereas those protests expressed hope in their demand for peace, reports from Northern Ireland this week betrayed a sense of desperation among most people lest their hard-won peace be destroyed.
In Greece there is neither hope nor despair, only a deafening silence. True, our country is not in danger of sliding into intercommunal violence. But every day we are witness to how violence is becoming a part of our lives. Much of the blame lies on government and state authorities for allowing people to get away with breaking the law all the time: allowing cars to park wherever drivers choose; turning a blind eye to violence at sports events over many decades; being too timid to deal decisively with urban guerrillas or extremist political groups; allowing no-go areas such as Exarchia in Athens or the village of Zoniana in Crete; being incompetent or indifferent in dealing with common, everyday criminality. The effect has been that people feel they can commit crimes with impunity, whereas those who are outraged by the crimes know that they cannot seek recourse anywhere. This leads to increased brazenness of criminals and resignation among members of the law-abiding public.
Right now we are in a state of apathy, perhaps not understanding the threat that violence poses to our society. But if civil society does not press the government into action, things will get worse, creating a chain reaction of violence. Either the state will be forced to take strong, anti-democratic measures, vigilante groups will spring up or criminals will triumph.

If the people do not cherish peace, they will have a harder battle to restore it once it is gone. And not only our politicians, but our very society will shoulder the blame for the catastrophe.
Milestones&Footnotes comment in AthensPlus, 13 March 2009

The contagion of chaos

Perhaps the most alarming bit of news in the past few months – which were already frightening enough – was a report in last Sunday’s Kathimerini that the police have decided to reassemble their intelligence gathering capabilities in a bid to cope with the resurgence of domestic terrorism. “It is impossible for us to devote the resources needed to protect every possible target,” said a high-ranking source, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Therefore, we have to concentrate our efforts on trying to collect information.” This begs the question: If police were not trying to infiltrate the nascent terrorist groups, what on earth were they doing? How can they now present the basics of police work as a strategic decision?

The report provided the answer: the department responsible for collecting information on terrorism suspects was dismantled after the Athens 2004 Olympics, when an unprecedented security blanket had been cast over Greece, with the cooperation of foreign intelligence and security services and with the most sophisticated – and expensive – technology. After 2004, however, the government appeared to take its eye off the ball of public security, either through complacency or incompetence – or fear of being accused of authoritarianism. With the November 17 gang behind bars and the Olympics over, Greece let its guard down.

The bad omens, however, were quick to appear. On October 24, Revolutionary Struggle, a group that appeared a year before the Olympics in the wake of November 17’s capture, launched a bomb attack on police buses. Several attacks followed, including an anti-tank missile being shot into the US Embassy. Last Wednesday, the same group claimed that it had planted a bomb at Citibank’s offices and at a branch of the same bank. If the first bomb (60 kilograms of ammonium nitrate) had gone off, it would have brought down the whole building and ushered in a new era of blind, mass terrorism, as opposed to the largely symbolic attacks of the past.

All this time, no one appeared to take anti-terrorism operations and general police work with the necessary seriousness. This created a climate of impunity for criminals and insecurity for citizens. A policeman’s fatal shooting of a teenager in December set off riots in which the police force appeared either indifferent or impotent, thereby encouraging all forms of lawlessness: Police became a target and an excuse for further criminality. The result has been an increase in domestic terrorism, violent protests that sometimes verge on terrorism (such as setting fire to a train), a rise in violent crime (including gangland killings and kidnappings) and the brutal assault on a woman labor organizer. Sports hooliganism, too, has been spinning out of control, adding to the sense of insecurity across society.

When things begin to go awry it is very difficult to set them right, especially after a long period of neglect. With civil disobedience becoming entrenched as part of political protest, any vigorous police action is likely to lead to clashes and a further radicalization of youth and political groups. Despair over the worsening economy will lead to more tension on the streets, making police officers’ work even more difficult. As a remedy, the government is talking about the need to consolidate police stations, reducing the number of precincts from about 1,000 to 400, thereby reducing administration and sentry demands in a bid to free more officers to do real police work. This, however, will have no effect if the police do not quickly take effective action against organized crime – which includes domestic terrorism and underworld gangs – while at the same time intensifying foot patrols in neighborhoods. Crime spreads like a virus. And the government has allowed pockets of chaos to spread for far too long. Now it must curb crime without jeopardizing the nation’s hard-earned civil liberties. But only victory against crime can guarantee those liberties.

Editorial in AthensPlus, 13 March 2009

They agree only to clash

Our political parties have decided that the global economic crisis and domestic developments in the economy and society are not so great as to shake their confidence in each party’s ability to lead the Greek people to security and prosperity. No one expected the prime minister’s appeal for consensus to lead to an abrupt reversal of decades-old policies. That would demand that each party and each party leader abandon the illusion of infallibility and thereby also undertake responsibility for the state of the country. New Democracy and PASOK would have to shoulder the blame for the years they have traded places in power, while the leftist parties would have to face up to the fact that as opposition parties they have not only failed to make life better for the working people but have also contributed to a lack of flexibility in adapting to changes and to a trade union mentality that has held the country back in several spheres. The consequences are clear, for example, in the education system’s impasse and in the fact that vulnerable groups of workers and the unemployed do not enjoy the representation that workers with full rights do – lest unions’ recognizing the existence of workers in precarious occupations be misconstrued for blessing those occupations at the expense of the fully employed…
The main parties which have been trading places in office operate as if they have no responsibility for Greece’s plight, doing nothing but blame each other; the smaller parties act as if they live in a perfect world where they can make maximalistic demands without dirtying their hands by any contact with reality. Such “idealism” – the demand for a perfect result and nothing else – often leads to blindness and to the opposite result of that which is desired. The concept of university asylum, for example, was adopted with the best of intentions but lead to universities becoming hothouses of violence and intolerance. Also, precarious jobs are here to stay, and as the economy worsens more and more people will accept fewer rights as long as they can get work. It helps no one when parties and unions pretend that they do not exist.
The lack of consensus, however, is much more serious than the parties’ inability to cooperate in order to deal with the current crisis. However serious this problem may be, however necessary it is to tidy up public finances and carry out structural reforms, the country’s basic problems are much greater.
Where consensus is truly necessary is in any effort to overturn the client-patron system that has plagued modern Greece since its establishment. But which parties will abolish themselves, abandoning the system of favors-for-votes on which they base their existence and their pursuit of power? Which parties will clash with informal centers of power that control the parties and determine developments? Which parties will cooperate for real educational reform? Which parties will work toward fixing the National Health System? Which will agree to the creation of new conditions in the labor market, which will reduce workers’ and employers’ contributions to social security while saving money by simplifying the social security system? Which parties will lead farmers, artisans, businessmen to adopt new technologies and create an economy based on the model of “green” development? Which parties can invest seriously and carefully in our cultural heritage, establishing strict rules of behavior and cleanliness with the aim of providing the highest possible level of services?
Only such substantial changes could create new jobs and new sources of wealth. But this would take work, patience and sacrifice; it demands that we abandon the prejudices of decades. Our parties, however, neither dare to take such steps nor to demand them of the people. They behave as if being in power still provides opportunity for political or material gain. They do not understand that reality has left them behind. Agreeing to continue their disagreements, they agree only on their common retreat from the battle for survival that this nation must wage.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 9 March 2009

Symbols and stupidity

The Greeks and their neighbors, through endless trials and tribulations in their shared history, are accustomed to grand symbolic gestures that are aimed at bolstering the home side’s morale while striking a blow against the enemy. We see this in the seriousness with which symbols are taken. The Macedonia issue has been an especially rich battleground for all kinds of symbol-rattling by both sides. Greece has had to fight a vanguard action since the early 1990s, as the residents of what is still formally known as The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia pushed to be recognized as Macedonians – and residents of Macedonia. Nearly two decades have passed, and instead of the two countries managing to work out a mutually acceptable compromise, things have gotten worse.
Until a couple of years ago, the political issue regarding the country’s name may have been a long-running sore in relations between the two countries, but there was still much good will and very extensive trade, commerce and tourism between the two. But the lack of a solution after so many years lead to the growth of extremism. And so, in recent years we have seen our neighbors do things that will embarrass them when they one day see things in their historical context. Among these is the now extensive use of Alexander the Great and Philip of Macedon as somehow related to the modern residents of the area north of our border and so on. Even a tribal leader from Pakistan was feted in Skopje as a descendant of the Macedonians, who marched into Central Asia with Alexander in the 4th century BC, as if this made him a brother of the Slav-Macedonians.
With presidential and local elections scheduled for March 22, and with the current government chiefly responsible for the growth of extremism, it is no surprise that things have been getting worse. On March 1 we crossed another line: Buses carrying Greek tourists were set upon with rocks in the town of Ohrid and nationalist slogans – including “Fuck Greece” – were spraypainted on them. The war of words, names and symbols has moved to the throwing of stones and the striking of fear in precisely those whom one would expect to spread the word of peace and cooperation between the two countries – tourists.
But we are repeatedly victims to the same mentality in Greece. What else but symbolism gone mad was the burning of train carriages in ISAP’s Kifissia station by masked hoodlums on March 3? Wishing to make a statement in solidarity with low-paid workers, they destroyed state property (which will be paid for by workers’ taxes) and put out of action the means with which most workers get to their jobs. Nice work.

Milestones&Footnotes in AthensPlus, 6 March 2009