Don't be beastly to the Greeks: West European policy on the Balkans will create further instability, says Jonathan Eyal

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GREECE, mused one Western diplomat who served in Athens for many years, is paralysed by a struggle between three political movements: an extreme left, an extreme right and an extreme centre. Moderation was certainly never a Greek trait, and the electoral campaign that culminated in the return of the Pasok socialists led by Andreas Papandreou this weekend was marred by familiar verbal excesses.

For European Community bureaucrats, Mr Papandreou's return to power is hardly welcome. The socialist administration which ruled Greece for much of the Eighties was widely regarded as corrupt and often disloyal to EC solidarity. More profoundly, Brussels is just fed up with Greece. Regardless of its government, Athens stands accused of breaking international sanctions against Yugoslavia, muzzling political opposition at home, expelling Albanian refugees and persistently intimidating neighbouring Macedonia. The idea that Greece's admission into the EC was a mistake is widely shared by many Brussels officials, who also fear that the ailing Mr Papandreou will be unable to handle the presidency of the Community from next January.

Some of the criticism is certainly warranted. Yet its repetition serves little purpose, for the EC's presence in the Balkans, with all its difficulties, is both irreversible and a potential source of strength for Europe. Continued and patient co-operation with the Greeks is now the only answer, for the fate of Greece raises more fundamental questions about the purpose of the Community as a whole.

There is little doubt that some EC aid, especially agricultural subsidies, was used for dubious purposes in the past. Yet while former Greek administrations may have been more blatant in their misuse of Community funds than others, the fact remains that the EC's entire Common Agricultural Policy was designed from the start as a vast exercise in electoral bribery.

Butter, meat and sugar mountains allow not only Greek, but also Bavarian or French politicians to cling to power. And when it comes to haggling for fresh subsidies, the Greeks are hardly the main culprits. It was Ireland, not Greece, that threatened to veto the latest Community aid package, simply because the Irish prime minister had won an election on promises of additional EC funds. Regarding the Community as a perpetual gravy train is not an exclusively Greek trait.

Nor is it correct to accuse Greece of ducking its Community responsibilities wholesale. True, many of the economic targets set by the outgoing prime minister, Constantine Mitsotakis, as part of EC assistance programmes have been missed. Greece's budget deficit is widening, tax evasion is rampant and the civil service remains inadequate.

Nevertheless, everyone agrees that Mr Papandreou will have little room for manoeuvre; any Greek premier would have to stick to EC-imposed economic discipline, which should not be relaxed.

At the same time, however, the Community must acknowledge Greece's role in supporting economic reform in former Communist states. While Italy continues to block the conclusion of an EC association treaty with Bulgaria, one of the more disgraceful episodes in recent years, Greece accounts for fully 70 per cent of all Western investment in Bulgaria. Most of this has been made without great publicity and involves private money - precisely what every other Western investor has failed to deliver. Neglect of these facts is a source of irritation to most Greek politicians. Yet everything pales into insignificance when compared with EC policies in Yugoslavia.

In Western Europe the end of the Cold War was regarded as a blessing. For the Greeks, however, the largely hypothetical Soviet threat was replaced by war at its borders and vast numbers of refugees. The Greeks discovered that all the institutions that were supposed to provide for their security suddenly disappeared. The Community rushed into handling the Yugoslav war not because it knew what it wanted to do, but because it hoped that, on the back of the tragedy, it would acquire new security responsibilities. It failed, but EC governments at the opposite corner of Europe continue to issue edicts in favour of principles they have no intention of enforcing, while Greece, the only Community state bordering the war zone, is persistently ignored. This feeling of isolation has contributed to much of Greece's current nationalist fury.

Greece lost all its trade routes through Yugoslavia, but is still pilloried for refusing to accept the independence of Macedonia. Athens has not helped its case by relying on arcane historic justifications for opposing the recognition of this former Yugoslav republic. But the reality is much more serious.

It is not the copyright on the name of Macedonia that is at stake but future security arrangements in the whole of the Balkans. Recognition of Macedonia is not an end in itself. It should come at the end of a process which anchors new states in regional security arrangements and guarantees democratic government. The West's hasty recognition of Bosnia, coupled with its refusal to intervene in the ensuing war, effectively issued the country's death warrant. Sandwiched between sworn enemies, Macedonia cannot fail but attract Bulgaria, Serbia, Albania and Greece into new competition for spheres of influence. The issue is not recognition but security for all Macedonia's neighbours.

Greece, far from representing a threat, is actually Macedonia's only potential ally. Unlike any of its neighbours, Greece has no territorial claims on the new state. By identifying Greece as the principle stumbling block to Macedonia's recognition, however, the West has virtually guaranteed there will be further mischief.

For Macedonia's president, Kiro Gligorov, who is now engaged in an effort to create a new nation, baiting Greece is relatively risk-free, a national baptism of fire without the danger of war. Mr Gligorov elicited a great deal of sympathy when his republic first applied for independence. Today the picture is slighty murkier. Mr Gligorov claims that he cannot contemplate changing his country's name. Yet was it wise for the Macedonian authorities to adopt as their coat of arms a Greek historic symbol, the Star of Vergina, thereby unnecessarily aggravating the conflict further? The reality is that, in a region where history is politics, all Balkan states play with such symbols, and Greece is by no means the worst offender.

By blaming the Greeks for many of the region's ills, Western governments may be paving the way for much greater regional instability. Antonis Samaras, a former foreign minister, has already established a political party with the sole purpose of defending Greece's position on Macedonia. For the moment, Mr Samaras's main achievement has been to topple his former conservative associates. But his position in parliament remains crucial in the run-up to the presidential elections in 1995. Mr Samaras's Political Spring party may still bring a Balkan winter. The problem of Macedonia must be solved by addressing the fears of Athens, not by ignoring them.

Those who suggest that it was a mistake to accept Greece into the European Community are not only adding to the country's sense of insecurity, but also distorting the very purpose of the institution they wish to safeguard. The Community was conceived as an organisation that would transcend national rivalries; the reconciliation between France and Germany is constantly touted as its greatest achievement. Yet now, when the Community is faced with the same task in the Balkans, the reaction of most Western governments is to run away from the region altogether. This tactic will not work.

A Community which has the temerity to call itself 'European' although it represents a mere 12 states on the western tip of the continent cannot remain an oasis of stability if it is surrounded by a wild East. The Greeks may be difficult EC partners. But they changed their government peacefully and democratically (still a luxury elsewhere in their area), and their EC membership serves as the best reminder that a true Europe already extends into the Balkans.

If Greece is ignored, the originators of Pandora's box may well have further surprises in store for the West. Welcoming Mr Papandreou's victory and retaining Greece's loyalty to the Community is now a necessity for the entire continent.

The author is director of studies at the Royal United Services Institute, London.

(Photograph omitted)