Like ancient Greeks who consult an oracle at Delphi, officials in Greece today keep close tabs on the price of olive oil. Few economic shifts can rock the cradle of democracy more than inflated costs for a basic ingredient of good cooking. And in 1981 especially, Greece's political future hangs in the balance of the marketplace.
Inflation in food prices and other commodities will influence (1) how Greeks vote in this November's presidential election, and (2) how Greek citizens accept their nation's entry into the European Common Market this year.
And ultimately, any Greek resentment over a more open economy with Western Europe could effect the nation's attitude toward recent membership in NATO and toward this year's talks on keeping American military bases in Greece.
Olive oil prices will rise at least 20 percent in 1981, estimates Ioannis Boutos, who retired as Greek minister of coordination last fall, and one-quarter of that increase will be as a result of joining the Common Market.
Last year's inflation measured 24.7 percent, far higher than government estimates of 15 percent. This year, Greece will face new inflational forces:
* An estimated 20 percent government budget deficit.
* Easing of credit for business expansion.
* Increased public wages.
* Agricultural price-setting and subsidies from the European Economic Community (EEC).
The first EEC subsidy -- about $125 million --part of a five-year transition period to ease Greece into other European economies. In April, EEC farm ministers agreed on an average 9.5 percent rise in farm export prices for the coming year commencing in June, but gave Greece even higher prices of about 12 percent for its products.
The new farm support and open market to Europe have already contributed to a 16 percent domestic price rise in the bellwether commodity of Greek olive oil.
"Nobody can conceive in all its details the impact of going into the EEC," says Mr. Boutos. "All you can do is describe the economic climate -- and how we will compete with 277 million people with high incomes." Greece felt compelled to join EEC when its major economic competitors, such as Turkey and former French and British colonies, began receiving preferential trade agreements with the community.
Greece's greatest concern, as yet unrealized, is an invasion of better-quality meat and milk imports from France, the Netherlands, and Germany.
But that problem could be outwei ghed, says Mr. Boutos, by Greece's advantage of lower worker wages.