NATO's Achilles' heel

History, geography and suspicion underlie popular anti-NATO sentiment in Greece.

Published April 29, 1999 10:00AM (EDT)

Demonstrators spray the most graphic, anti-NATO
graffiti on the most prominent buildings, and no one bothers to whitewash
it away. "Nazi American Troop Organization" is one of the milder slogans.

Under the indifferent gaze of more than a dozen police, the U.S.
consulate narrowly escapes a "suicide" fire-bombing -- the perpetrator is
never arrested because she comes from "a good family." The U.S. consul
himself is shunned by former friends and associates. Conservative
church-connected parties and the local communists, formerly the bitterest
of rivals, parade around together raising funds to aid victims of NATO bombing.

This is not downtown Belgrade, but the port of Thessaloniki, capital of
the Greek province of Macedonia (which abuts the Balkan nation bearing the same name). This was to be NATO's military jump-off point
but has now, like all of Greece, turned into the Achilles' heel of the
U.S.-led NATO campaign.

The pro-Serbian, anti-NATO sentiment is not just the province of a radical
few. Talk in the streets, kiosks, coffee shops and tavernas in Greece's
second largest city suggests that virtually everyone regards the NATO
campaign as a dark plot ultimately aimed at adjusting borders in the
Balkans -- including those of Greece.

"It's all about the uranium mines in Kosovo," said Thomas Tsitsis, the
manager of a family taverna and restaurant chain, echoing an idea shared
by many. The plight of the Kosovo Albanians -- usually called simply "the
Muslims" -- is dismissed as propaganda and lies.

"I cannot believe what is published or broadcast in the Western media
about the so-called refugees until I see it with my own eyes," said
Costas, a carpenter who spent a decade in New York. He saw no such need
with respect to NATO bombing of Serbian cities.

Dr. Basil Gouranis, a leading scholar on the ethnic politics of northern
Greece, finds this puzzling. "Yesterday, the Serbs were the people who
supported the communist takeover of Greece, eradicated Greek culture and
communities north of the border and foisted the problem of Macedonian
Slavs on us. Today, they are our ancient Orthodox brethren who can do no

Private television broadcasts of a distinct pro-Serbian flavor are one
thing, anti-NATO activities on the part of the government are something
else. While Prime Minister Costas Simitis has stated Greece will not
participate militarily in the NATO coalition, his government has quietly participated in all NATO
strategy meetings and signed all relevant agreements.

The contradiction between these two positions has produced public
outrage. Demonstrators gather daily at the port to protest the
off-loading of military equipment.

There is absolutely no prospect of troops from Greek's age-old rival and
NATO ally Turkey crossing Greece to bases in Albania, however. The two
countries are at odds over the island of Cyprus, and counterclaims to
Aegean airspace and seabed almost led to war last year. They also face
ethnic problems uncomfortably close to those bedeviling the former
Yugoslavia: Ankara supports special status for "Muslims" (Turks) in
Greece, Athens supports separatist Kurds in Greece -- as dramatically
underlined by its harboring the leader of the terrorist Kurdish Workers
Party (PKK) at the Greek embassy until he was captured in February.

Then there is the complex question of Macedonia -- not just the former
Yugoslav republic but also the "Macedonia of the mind," a place of
grandeur dating back to the days of Alexander the Great -- who is himself
claimed by both Slavic-speaking residents of Macedonia as well as the
would-be descendants of Pericles in Greece. Athens was so adamant about
this that it blocked Macedonia's application to the European Union and
the United Nations until it accepted as its official name the unpalatable
acronym "FYROM," literally, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Now, however, FYROM and Greece are almost in an alliance -- if not with
Serbia/Yugoslavia, then certainly not against it.

For those with a historical bent, all this calls to mind the first and
second Balkan Wars of 1912 and then 1913.

The first pitted the Christian states of Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria
against Ottoman Turkey (and Ottoman Albania) over control of Macedonia
and its primary city, Thessaloniki.

In the second Balkan War, Serbia and Greece fought Bulgaria for the
spoils of the first -- meaning Macedonia -- pushing Sofia into the arms
of the Central Powers of Germany, Austria and its old enemy, Ottoman
Turkey, during World War I. Britain and France then came to Serbia's defense by
sending a force to Thessaloniki that eventually pushed into Bulgaria,
leaving the rolling hills of Macedonia littered with obscure war
memorials and the graves of more than 20,000 allied soldiers.

A replay of that scenario, which ultimately led Europe into the Great War
of 1914, may seem a little too rich for now. But it pays to walk among
the graves, read the graffiti on the walls and listen to the voices.

By Thomas Goltz

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Greece Middle East National Security