Papandreou succession stirs Greek paranoia

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The Cold War may be over, peace in the Balkans may be at hand, but in Greece that old chestnut, the International Conspiracy Theory, is alive and well. It goes something like this.

Andreas Papandreou, ultimate symbol of Greek defiance to the outside world, lies gravely ill in hospital, and manoeuvres to replace him as prime minister are in full swing. But it would be quite wrong to think that his succession will be decided within his party, Pasok, or even within Greece. No, if you believe what you read in the Greek media, the country's future is being decided by shady, scheming mandarins in Western Europe and the United States.

Around 10 days ago, a group of Italian journalists interviewed the Defence Minister, Gerasimos Arsenis, who at the time was considered a solid government technocrat but little else. All of a sudden Mr Arsenis became not only a candidate for the premiership, but a candidate foisted on the country from the outside. "The Italians back Arsenis," ran the Greek headlines.

A few days later a New York Times correspondent noticed the commotion and wrote that Mr Arsenis was one of a number of undeclared candidates apparently under consideration. Ah, the Greeks concluded, this is a candidature orchestrated from both sides of the Atlantic.

And so the game went on. Costas Simitis, the leading anti-Papandreou dissident within Pasok, was anointed the "German" candidate, partly because his brother is a noted academic in North Rhine-Westphalia, although he appeared to be in for some competition from the Interior Minister, Akis Tsachodzopoulos, who has a German wife.

All of this was, of course, absurd. The Italians had written about Mr Arsenis only because nobody else would grant them an interview at this uncertain juncture (and, in fact, the Italian business community is believed to favour the staunchly pro-European Mr Simitis). The New York Times correspondent, meanwhile, wrote the offending piece before she had time even to telephone the US embassy. As for the Germans, they seem genuinely outraged that anyone should accuse them of anything so low as interference in other people's affairs.

The speculation is typical of a country very much wrapped up in its own problems, where hard information on politics is scarce. Pasok is so much in awe of its founding leader that nobody dares challenge his authority, even though he has tubes attached to his lungs, kidneys, stomach and windpipe and cannot breathe without mechanical support. Nobody can quite believe he will ever quit politics or die, and indeed the latest reports are that he is sitting up and whispering the odd word.

With the domestic media thus too timid to talk openly about the future, the country turns to the foreign press for information, all the while tapping into its old paranoias about outside manipulation. A surprising number of people honestly believe that the first thing Bill Clinton does every morning is ask his Chief of Staff for an update on Greece.

Thanks to the whisperings, Mr Arsenis has been catapulted from nowhere into pole position for the leadership. An opinion poll published a few days ago showed him narrowly leading his rivals; and the man acting as Pasok's kingmaker, the Environment Minister, Costas Laliotis, promptly summoned him for a meeting.

Quite how the foreign powers are supposed to force their preferences on to the Pasok parliamentary party, the body required by the constitution to make the actual decision, is something of a mystery. Unless, of course, you subscribe to the conspiracy theory behind all the other conspiracy theories: that the whole suspicion of foreign involvement is in itself a plot orchestrated by Greece's powerful media barons to promote their own favoured candidates.

No doubt there is a grain of truth in all these suppositions - after all, foreign powers and media proprietors certainly have their specific agendas. But the theories reveal above all the special way in which the Greeks see their place in the world. This is how the tourist brochure in my hotel room puts it: "Athens is everywhere. In every point on the map. And every point on the map is Athens. Because Athens is the centre of all the centres of the world." That's quite some responsibility.