Greeks, stop bearing grudges

An arms race with Turkey is no way forward for Greece
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The Independent Online
There is loud talk of the "Turkish threat" in Greece today and a great deal of it. Ever since the quarrel last year with Turkey over the deserted Aegean islets of Imia, which brought the two Nato allies very close to war for the first time in a decade, Greece's psychological temperature and blood-pressure have been running high. Leading articles and media interviews and discussions have endlessly circled the same question: "How are we to stop those vicious, expansionist Turks from washing their boots in the warm waters of our Aegean islands?" This, of course, is not a new question. And today's tensions between Turkey and Greece over missiles in Cyprus are just the latest episode.

All nations are afflicted with a deep sense of their past; the Greeks, however, are prisoners to theirs. Chained to a history that refuses to go away, they have never come to terms with their defeats and occupation under the Ottoman Turks. The mere fact that many ordinary Greek people - 544 years on - are still fantasising about the recapture of Constantinople and the refounding of the Byzantine Empire in Asia Minor clearly shows the depth of our wounded sense of nationhood.

It is scarcely a surprise, then, that the 1974 Turkish invasion and occupation of northern Cyprus made sure that the numerous resentments, prejudices and traumas of the past reasserted themselves. The attack on Cyprus, while it precipitated the collapse of the colonels' fascist regime, also exposed Greece's manifest incompetence to defend its national territory and thus brought back bitter memories of a nation in deep retreat. Worse still, the pathetic attempts by Nato and the UN to break the deadlock merely reinforced Greece's outrage towards her Western partners and deepened her insecurity in the region. This partly explains why Greeks have come to see themselves as a brotherless nation more often betrayed than supported by their allies.

In the early years of metapolitefsi (the 1974 transition to democracy), the Greeks were obsessed by restoring their national credibility and independence of action. Predictably, the process of democratic consolidation was played out against a background of continuing tension with Turkey and the Atlantic Alliance. The Karamanlis government's tactical move to take Greece out of the military wing of Nato's command structure is a strong case in point. At the same time, Konstantinos Karamanlis, the first post-junta premier, waged a campaign pushing for Greek entry into the European Community. This was seen as a political umbrella that could safeguard the country's young democratic institutions from internal enemies and its territorial integrity from external threats. At a deeper level, however, Karamanlis had hoped that full economic and political interaction with the other member states would eventually cure his countrymen of their traditional assumption that Greece is the centre of the world and, therefore, a top priority on every major country's foreign policy agenda.

Then, in 1981, came Andreas Papandreou, the country's first socialist prime minister, who took anti-Westernism to xenophobic extremes. Declaring that "Greece belongs to the Greeks", Papandreou turned anti-Westernism into a national mantra, threatening several times to pull Greece out of every single organisation to which she belonged. Although none of these threats ever materialised, Papandreou's rhetorical violence and anti-American, anti-EC, anti-Nato, anti-Turkish polemics fulfilled the psychological need for recognition and offered security, national identity and pride to a confused and anxious people, increasingly unsure of their place in the world.

But while the Greeks tried to overcome their history through demagogic fireworks and vendetta politics, Greece drifted into economic and social depression. The search for national grandeur brought instead economic stagnation, urban deterioration, terrorism and corruption at every level.

The country entered the 1990s as the European Union's most intractable problem. Worse still, the collapse of the satellite Communist regimes of Eastern Europe and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union weakened Greece's geostrategic significance for the West, thus undermining its eligibility for the special treatment and financial support it enjoyed when the country was a front-line state in the Cold War.

The Yugoslav crisis arrived like a deus ex machina: a unique opportunity for Greece to cut a figure on the post-Cold War international stage. The most stable, democratic and ethnically homogeneous Balkan state, a member of both the EU and Nato, Greece was ideally placed to act as a force of stability in the region and thus become its economic and political leader. Instead, Greece not only managed to pick fights with all its Balkan neighbours, but its paranoid fears over the alleged long-term expansionist ambitions of small and weak Macedonia, coupled with diplomatic ineptitude, seriously threatened, for a time, the stability of south-eastern Europe as a whole.

The damage done is there for all to see. The us-against-the-rest-of-the- world attitude has led to Greece being treated more often as a leper than as a friend. And for years now, domestically, it has been less important to get the deficit under control, fill the holes in the budget, tackle high unemployment, resist tax evasion, defeat corruption, and increase the status and credibility of our country than it has been to postpone the moment when each of these might be confronted.

The election of Costas Simitis as Prime Minister last September was a considerable step forward. Simitis is a man of great intelligence, energy and political depth, not a man to confuse feeling with doing. Yet his government's intention of spending, over the next five years, the astronomical sum of approximately pounds 8bn (pounds 11bn in total by the year 2007) on new weapons purchased in response to what it sees as a growing Turkish military threat in the Aegean, gives a strong indication that the larger political picture has remained unchanged. The chronic failure of Greece's political class to overcome its parochialism and narrow obsession with external "enemies" continues to block the route forward.

One cannot choose one's neighbours. Rightly or wrongly, Turkey is, and always will be, our neighbour. Running a full-scale arms race with Turkey in the name of national security and patriotism means running away from European economic and monetary union for at least a decade. There is absolutely nothing patriotic about a country permanently locked in a spiral of stagnation, debt and low growth or in further undermining our already depressed social and cultural institutions, our schools and hospitals.

Today the premier challenge facing Greece, the poorest member of the EU with the worst record on inflation and a colossal national debt, is not to redress the military balance with a country that is five times larger in size and population and with armed forces about four times more numerous than our own. The challenge is to revitalise its economy, modernise its anachronistic institutions, revive its discredited political culture and reach a level where it can start putting something back into a Europe that has given her so much and for so long. A modern, economically viable, forward-looking, European Greece has nothing to fear. Not from Turkey or anybody else.