European Elections: Extreme right tries to make rebel Greeks toe the line

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The Independent Online
CARRYING FLOWERS to hide a knife, two assailants from the extreme right-wing fringe of Greek politics made their way on to a podium in northern Greece last week. Three Communist Party candidates were rousing the crowd with an anti-Maastricht message. One attacker made an unsuccessful lunge before being set upon by party members, and the grisly aftermath, shown repeatedly on television, proved more disturbing than the attack itself.

Newsreels showed tough-looking activists beating the attacker senseless without any police interference. He survived the pummelling - just. In the midst of a humdrum election campaign which none of the main parties was taking too seriously, the incident riveted the public's attention.

Until then, the only interest in the election had been the singer Nana Mouskouri's endorsement as a Euro-candidate by the right- wing opposition New Democracy. The assassination attempt, and its fall-out, added to a sense of vulnerability and isolation among those who challenge the consensus on controversial issues, such as the country's relations with its northern neighbours.

The Communist Party is sceptical about Europe, but it was attacked by the far right probably because of Communist criticisms of the government's belligerent attitude towards the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia.

It is not just the Communists who are attacked by the far right. Anyone who diverges from a perceived consensus can be targeted. Michalis Papaconstantinou, Greece's foreign minister until last year under New Democracy, recently drew the wrath of the far right and has been receiving anonymous written threats ever since. His mistake was to make accommodating noises in Greece's intense war of words with Albania, which is widely reported to be abusing the large ethnic Greek minority there.

Mr Papaconstantinou's offence in the eyes of ultra-nationalists was to break ranks on a question of national importance by saying that 'extremists' in Greece were whipping up problems with Albania and should be controlled. As foreign minister, Mr Papaconstantinou shaped Greece's tough policy towards Macedonia and he has no truck with the Albanian leadership either. But, speaking from his law office in Athens this week, he was unrepentant in calling on Greeks to look for 'errors' on their side, whether on Macedonia or Albania.

A virulent anti-Europeanism has been gaining in strength in Greece since the socialist Pasok government was elected late last year. Many Greeks complain that on a range of issues, from Greece's support for the Serbs to its unilateral trade embargo on Macedonia and the recent Albanian dispute, nobody in the EU is listening to Athens. Greek anger is reflected in opinion polls, which show 55 per cent of Greeks (compared to 45 per cent in 1987) saying that their country should reinforce its 'Greek Orthodox' identity over its European identity.

The Serbs are 'cousins in Orthodoxy', says Dimitria (Mimi) Papandreou, the young wife of the country's frail 75-year-old Prime Minister, Andreas Papandreou. As the head of his cabinet office, Mrs Papandreou wields considerable influence in Athens, and when she recently said that Greeks should resist 'the European way of thinking' and that Serbs should be supported in their fight against 'religious imperialism' in the shape of Islam and Catholicism, people sat up and listened.

'Greece is a torn society caught between Western Europe, to which it is hitched by the European Union, and the Eastern Orthodox world, where it has its cultural values,' said Panayotis Dimitras, a respected pollster. The most recent Eurobarometer poll showed that Greeks were the most satisfied of all Europeans, and other polls show that they appreciate being members of the EU and have no intention of leaving. 'It personifies economic and geopolitical power for insecure Greeks,' says Mr Dimitras, 'but at the same time polls show that the country is losing its Western values on an ideological and cultural level.'

George Papandreou, Greece's deputy foreign minister and son of the Prime Minister, says that the mood of 'insecurity and paranoia' among some comes from the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and should not be seen as a trend. 'Greece was a virtual island for 50 years, bordered by Communist regimes to the north,' he said. 'And when the EU took sides, it allowed the worst possible fears to develop in Greece. Cyprus - 20 years waiting for a solution - is a reminder of what ethnic conflicts and cleansing can do.'

Pasok is expected to register a small decline in Sunday's poll from last year's general elections, to around 47 per cent, with New Democracy also falling slightly to about 39 per cent. The unknown quantity is the ultra-nationalist Political Spring Party, which is expected to grow from 5 to 7 per cent, making inroads into both the government and the opposition.