US and Greek negotiators yesterday opened talks here on a new pact governing American military facilities in Greece that may provide a litmus test for both Greek-American relations and the domestic political wiles of Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou. Greece has said that negotiations must be completed by July 31. But, in hammering out a new Defense and Economic Cooperation Agreement (DECA), which replaces the current accord at the end of 1988, both sides' eyes will be on Madrid. The Spanish government this past week threatened to renounce its defense pact with the US.
Any Spanish success in squeezing concessions from Washington will surely give Mr. Papandreou additional leverage in the discussions here.
Underlying these talks is the Papandreou government's long-standing public opposition to the presence of foreign bases on Greek soil.
He was elected to power six years ago on a platform of evicting the American military facilities and pulling Greece out of NATO and the European Community. Much of his left-wing support is due to these positions.
Some of that support, however, has eroded because Papandreou has failed to fulfill these pledges while in power.
Both the Moscow-oriented Greek Communist Party and the left wing of his own Socialist Party (PASOK) were outraged in 1983 when Papandreou agreed to the current bases accord. These factions still want to hold the prime minister to his earlier election promises.
Earlier this year Papandreou sought to deflect this growing opposition when he announced that any deal struck with Washington would be put to a referendum. Diplomats say that the uncertainty of the referendum's outcome leaves Papandreou with a number of options:
First, the whole issue of a vote over American bases could be finessed if negotiators agree to pass the facilities from US to NATO jurisdiction.
Secondly, a Western diplomat notes, Papandreou could simply find a way to renege on the bases pledge. One way, he suggests, is to invoke the alleged threat from Turkey and to demand that the US bases are necessary to Greek national security. It is by playing up Greek-Turkish disputes that Papandreou was able to reverse himself on his pledge to pull Greece out of NATO.