Bullying, posturing Greece tries to play its weak hand

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

April 14, 1994|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Sun Staff Writer

ATHENS, Greece -- The street market here is jammed on a Sunday morning with shoppers, cars, motor scooters, vendors and pickpockets, all jostling for space at once, but like much of Greece these days there's a lot more hustle and bustle than selling.

Doma, a refugee from the Georgian civil war who arrived some time ago on a tourist visa and never got around to leaving, sells unappealing clothes from a pile on the sidewalk. She's next to the man hawking cheap sunglasses, and across from a fig-date-pistachio-artichoke stand.

"The problem," says Doma, "is that the only people with any money in Greece are the tourists, and they're not interested in junk like this."

The crowds push and shove their way by, people too poor to get out of town for the weekend. They are here more for the distraction than for the desire to spend money.

The Greeks are good at distraction.

The folk of the steep-sloped islands of the Aegean -- where stiff breezes carry the scent of wild oregano and the clear waters shimmer in the sun -- do almost nothing else these days. They are given over entirely to the care and contentment of the thousands of northern tourists who come ashore to spend a week of forgetfulness.

But the Greeks go at it themselves, too. The economy is in perilous shape -- Greece seems to be plummeting out of the yuppified '80s with not much in sight to ease the fall -- and, of course, there's the nightmare of neighboring Yugoslavia.

Naturally, through all this, the government's most important bill in the current session of Parliament is one that would strip former King Constantine of his citizenship and seize the royal family's estates. Constantine fled Greece in 1967 and has only been back once, for his mother's funeral, but the papers are full of the debate over the government bill. It's a distraction. It's a hustle.

But Yugoslavia sits there like some horrible, horrifying weight on Greece's shoulders. It can't be wished away.

The Greeks are Mediterranean but they're Balkan, too.

Indeed, they've infuriated their Western allies by imposing a blockade on what used to be Yugoslav Macedonia, claiming to see a threat to their own ancient inheritance and to their own province of Macedonia.

The world can't comprehend what the Greeks are up to. The Greeks say it's simple: The Bulgarians would love to mix it up over Macedonia, and behind them there's the hand of the historic foe, Turkey.

Yet even here there's a kind of hustle going on.

Two weeks ago a million and a half Greeks turned out -- 15 percent of the entire population -- to demonstrate in the northern port of Salonika in support of the blockade of Macedonia.

It looked serious -- but the national soccer team can easily pull that many out into the streets after a particularly satisfactory triumph, and with a good deal more frenzy involved, too.

One man who stayed away from Salonika that day was a young teacher named Leonidas, an Athenian who once lived in New York.

The demonstration, he says, was nothing so much as an outpouring of guilt.

The angry young Greeks pounded the streets of Salonika because they know in their hearts that they have no wish to pound the hills of Yugoslav Macedonia. Nobody wants to be a soldier, pay a price, make a choice.

There's a fierce new nationalist political party here, and a terrorist organization called the November 17 group, which plants bombs in Western offices, but most Greeks, says Leonidas, would rather just make a lot of noise and then go home to their soccer games on TV.

Leonidas wants to go back to New York. The whole country is jittery these days. The government's playing with fire in Macedonia, spurning its allies just when fascists are on the rise in Italy to the west, and an Islamic fundamentalist has been elected mayor of Istanbul to the east.

The Greeks themselves had their own fair share of fascists. It could happen again.

Greece is historically, geographically, linguistically isolated. It's looking at some real problems.

For the moment, the Greeks are reacting by bullying and posturing, relying on distraction and a little hustle and bustle to stave off the unfriendly world that seems to be closing in.

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