Resisting the Siren's Song?

After a strident nationalist campaign, Greece's new government is torn by foreign policy choices

THE ice creams sold this past summer on the streets of Skopje, capital of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, were Greek. But since Greece refuses to recognize an independent Macedonia under anything resembling that name, the confections were forced to skirt the Greek-Macedonian border and pass through Bulgaria.

The tale of meandering ice cream illustrates what analysts here say will be a central choice over the coming months for Greece and its new government under Socialist Andreas Papandreou. It can play a fully engaged role in southeastern Europe's economic and political development, thereby boosting its own economy and stature. Or it can fall back into old insecurities, further dampening a weak economy and abetting the region's instability.

Discussing that choice with many Greeks can lead one to suspect schizophrenia. Place the discussion in an economic framework, and one hears assurances of Greece's determination to play a guiding role in the Balkan region's development. Some go so far as to compare Greece's role in Southeastern Europe with that of Japan in Southeast Asia.

But shift the discussion to security and one senses a hunkering down: Now the focus is on potentially expansionist Macedonia (a phrase in the republic of Macedonia's Constitution suggests reuniting ancient Macedonia, more than half of which is in Greece); and then there's Turkey, the militaristic, next-door giant that launched the 1974 invasion of Cyprus. Despite Turkey's own growing challenges on its eastern borders, it is still seen here as busy plotting trouble for Greece in Bosnia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Albania.

Analysts here are skeptical of a so-called ``sunshine'' scenario, in which Greece plays a key role in regional economic development. For them, the ``lost opportunities'' of the past few years remain fresh memories.

``[The Greeks] put their passion before their good commercial sense,'' says one.

Business leaders who would like to be bolder in their initiatives complain of little or no government support. Will that change under Mr. Papandreou?

At first glance one might think not, since in his election campaign he attacked the former conservative government for going soft on Macedonia, and trumpeted nationalist notes that sounded frighteningly right-wing to fellow socialists around Europe.

But Papandreou also has said he would pursue a new realism in Greek foreign policy, downplaying emotional issues and focusing on the country's regional role. During the campaign, he was quoted as saying that Greece's handling of the Macedonia issue was ``tragic,'' adding that it had tarnished Greece's international image.

Most analysts here, perhaps with some wishful thinking, consider Papandreou's more extreme, nationalist public statements over the past month as ``requisite campaign rhetoric.'' Both Greek and foreign observers say Greece needs ``reassuring'': that its balance of power with Turkey will not be allowed to become skewed; that the region's borders will not be subject to change.

This is where the European Community and NATO come in. Papandreou once opposed Greek membership in both organizations, observers here say, but now the EC and NATO are the key to encouraging Greece to play a more confident role in the region.

Greece under Papandreou ``is something like Ulysses tied to the mast,'' says Theodore Couloumbis, head of the Hellenistic Foundation for Defense and Foreign Policy here. ``The sirens are singing a [nationalist] Balkan policy, irredentism, and an outdated economic song. But a struggling Ulysses is tied to the mast, which is the European Community and NATO,'' he adds. ``That's what holds him back and will keep his ship moving.''

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