Unwelcome symbol of a greater Greece

Click to follow
The extraordinary spectacle of the former Greek monarch, King Constantine II, being buzzed by the Greek air force and menaced by two torpedo ships as he cruised the Aegean with his family last week reminds us all what a special people the Greeks are.

The lengths to which Athens was prepared to go to keep its deposed monarch away from his supporters in the southern Peloponnese mystified many who saw it all live courtesy of Sky and BBC breakfast television. But, for those Greeks who have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the wave of extreme nationalism sweeping through their country, the antics of the deposed king and the media circus he orchestrated around his 'holiday' were an amusing counterpoint to unhappier developments at home.

Living on the edge of the Western world, the Greeks are more insecure now than they were when theirs was the only non-Communist country in Europe east of Vienna. Now, as the poorest country in the European Community, Greece receives dollops of EC aid (some pounds 2.7bn a year, soon to be increased to half as much again). But other Europeans are unhappy about Greece's basket-case economy and even more annoyed about its hostile behaviour towards the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia - to the point of not allowing the newly recognised country to choose its own name. Athens's apparent disregard for the basic principle of freedom of expression has further embarrassed and annoyed the EC.

Greek intellectuals who express any dissent from the government's hard line on Macedonia are being systematically victimised and persecuted, as is happening to the respected columnist Takis Michas. Ordinary Greek citizens who object to the government's vicious propaganda line on Macedonia have already been convicted and face jail sentences. The public prosecutor is now preparing a case against some of the 169 artists and intellectuals who signed a petition on behalf of four activists.

Greece's treatment of migrant Albanian farm workers has been even harsher. Some 25,000 penniless migrants were hustled back across the border earlier this summer, in retaliation for the expulsion of a Greek Orthodox clergyman accused of campaigning for the unification of southern Albania - where there is a large and unhappy Greek population - with Greece.

There was another ominous turn this month, when the Athens newspaper Eleftherotypia bravely published a classified Greek security service document which said only Orthodox Christians should be considered true Greeks. It added that all those not of that faith should be banned from the media and kept out of public life. 'It would not be too much to say that any Greek who is not Orthodox is not completely Greek,' it stated.

Macedonia provides the common link between Constantine's visit, the security service's hare- brained proposal to purge Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and Jews, and the expansionist aspirations of extremist politicians. While the government was quick to denounce the report as the work of a fevered mind in the EYP (Greece's equivalent of MI6), the suspicion lingers that it reflects the thinking of many in power in Athens. Its author has been neither fired nor otherwise punished, to anyone's knowledge.

Politicians who dream aloud of expanding the country to unite the lost tribes of ethnic Greeks - be they in Macedonia, Albania or Turkey - are gaining ground, to the alarm of the government. In this environment, Constantine doubtless sees his return visit as an opening gambit in a campaign to get back into Greek politics, from which he has been barred for 26 years. Armed with all the political forecasting advice the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller could put at his disposal, he probably calculated that the time was right to test the waters.

The alternative for Prince Charles's 53-year-old second cousin is a life of permanent exile in his leafy north London abode, glumly whiling away his days, much like the late King Zog of Albania, who died in Paris in 1961.

Constantine may have miscalculated, however. His visit did not trigger a wave of popular support. On the contrary, he appears to have been ignored by locals wherever he showed up. What he did manage to do was dominate the national media, which besieged him with requests for interviews from the deck of his yacht and followed him everywhere he went. Newspapers were filled with articles about the trip to the busy holiday island of Spetsai, which was against the wishes of the government, and about his children spending most of the night at a disco.

For the already widely discredited political leadership in Greece, the danger remains that the anti- politician mood of the country will grow and that Constantine, a symbol of both Greek expansionist aspirations and the union of the Orthodox church with the state, will go on to establish a political base. This no doubt explains why the Prime Minister, Constantine Mitsotakis, was so put out by the visit, despite initial suspicions that he had invited Constantine home in the first place.

Conspiracy theorists, and there are many in Greece, thought he may have cleared the way for the visit as a trade-off in which Constantine would discourage his royalist supporters from supporting the extreme right-wing Political Spring party, recently founded by Mr Mitsotakis's former foreign minister, Antonis Samaras. A more likely scenario is that Mr Mitsotakis and Constantine will make common cause for an expanded Greece, one that embraces Macedonia and southern Albania.