GREEK Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou pays his first state visit to Washington next week under circumstances that are a bit strange and embarrassing. He will be speaking with President Clinton as both the Greek president, and as the president of the European Union. And as of this week, the EU is taking legal action against Greece in the European Court of Justice to end the two-month blockade of Macedonia, an action the EU as a whole says is illegal.
The EU proceeding is a bold and somewhat risky step that will test not only already strained EU-Greek relations, but the strength of EU institutions as well. Greece has made something of a laughingstock of itself in the international community for two years by demanding that the enfeebled former Yugoslav republic on its northern border not use the name of Macedonia. But the Greek blockade and the manner in which the issue has stoked nationalist feelings in Greece, is not a laughing matter. It is a factor in the overall Balkan crisis, in which Greece is sympathetic with Serbia as a fellow orthodox state. This week, moreover, there were border shooting incidents between Greece and Albania; the two countries expelled each other's senior diplomats.
The United States can play a role in improving Greece's increasingly isolated and extreme position in Europe and world affairs. Athens blames US recognition of Macedonia for its own problems. Yet Washington recognized Macedonia months after the leading European powers did. There is a sober minority in Greece, and many in both leading parties, that recognize the ``name issue'' over Macedonia was blown out of proportion by the former Mitsotakis government. They know Greece could have played an important brokering role in the Balkans but chose to play an ethnic nationalist card instead - at great cost. Why Mr. Papandreou would say last week that Macedonia, a country of 2 million, represents a ``real and present danger'' to Greece, a country of 10 million and a NATO member, is not clear. He certainly knows better.
A way must be found for Athens to escape the corner it has painted itself into. On a smaller scale, Papandreou, long a nationalist, could himself play a ``Nixon in China'' role on Macedonia. Greece must be given a way to move toward Europe, rather than revert into a regressive Balkan mode. Washington can work for some concessions from President Kiro Gligorov of Macedonia. But the administration ought not to play whatever tune the Greek lobby in Congress wants to hear.