BOOK REVIEW / Rotten olives and roads going nowhere, fast: The Greeks - James Pettifer: Viking pounds 16.99

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The Independent Online
'TO BE Greek is to be Christian is to be Orthodox,' claims the author of this accessible yet authoritative book. He is exaggerating, but not much. At a time when ethnic (in reality often religious) cleansing is sweeping the Balkans, it is an embarrassing and unfashionable assertion about the Joker in the multi-cultural European Community pack. Yet it is one which James Pettifer defends with skill.

Orthodox Greece is an anomaly, not bound to the rest of the EC by religious or geographic ties. Out there on a Balkan limb, it is, Pettifer argues, not much into tolerance or political correctness. 'Greeks are not slow to point out the faults of other nations or races in terms that do not usually embody the liberal doubts or euphemisms that race relations bodies in Britain have brought into being.'

Compared with the atrocities in the former Yugoslavia, the racial and religious exclusiveness which Pettifer notes is thin stuff. And, as the author says: 'No Greek government has been tempted to emulate Ankara in the 1950s (when Turkish riots led to the ethnic cleansing of Istanbul) and play politics with the lives of the minority.'

Yet, in recent years, Greece has enforced the law which says that to call yourself a Turk is illegal. People have gone to prison for doing so. Greece still refuses to recognise that there is a Macedonian people, far less that some of members of it actually live in Greek Macedonia. Only a generation ago, the repression of Slav-speaking Greeks was so severe that 'large numbers . . . emigrated to Australia and Canada where they made up hard-core centres of anti-Greek agitation'.

Even today the Greek government often denies the existence of any ethnic or religious minorities whatsoever within its borders. At the very least, the patriotism of Muslims, Catholics, Jews and members of other ethnic minorities is open to question. For most Greeks, to be Greek is, indeed, to be Christian, is to be Orthodox. And, insofar as membership of the multi-cultural EC is incompatible with this view of race, nation and state, most Greeks would, I suspect, ditch the EC, and all the development aid it provides, rather than dilute their heritage.

Yet, Pettifer argues, the Orthodox church is in decline, its strength mainly in its gut opposition to Islam and Catholicism - which is why the Orthodox church is so strongly supportive of Serbia against both Catholic Croatia and Muslim Bosnia.

Pettifer's power lies in the fact that he is a well-informed and affectionate friend of the Greek family. He has the credentials neccessary to air the most embarrassing of Greek secrets, without being deemed an enemy of the people.

In particular he stresses how shallow and opportunistic is the Greek love affair with the European Community. The development money is welcome but the ideology is alien. 'The Community is not loved in the way that it has a distinct hold on public opinion in a small country like Holland'.

To the European tourist, Greece looks pretty western these days. On the surface, modernisation has been effortlesss and effective. You zip, in luxury coaches, from airports, down fast coastal roads (subsidised by Brussels), past fields of olive trees (ditto) to luxury hotels (ditto). But the roads go nowhere in particular because somebody else - in Brussels - is footing the bill. The olives do not need harvesting, they can rot on the ground. The EC subsidy relates to the area under cultivation rather than produce brought to market.

Pettifer's Greece is a country in crisis, 'settling in for a period of prolonged social unrest' with its politics 'a potential quagmire', its economy 'fragile, some might say derelict'. He prophesies a turbulent period culminating in the reaffirmation of Greek life at the expense of 'an increasingly technocratic and conformist culture eminating from the United States and Brussels'.

The ties that bind Greece to western Europe are insecure and could easily come undone. Pettifer's view is that this is likely to happen and that Greece is destined to become a Balkan regional super-power and not part of 'a potential federal Europe'.