Usually Feisty Greece Lowers Its Voice as It Assumes EU's Top Post

ARE the sirens of nationalism losing their grip on Greece?

Ever since the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, Greece has offered loud displays of nationalist fervor and flirtations with a paranoid isolationism that risked further destabilizing the troubled Balkan region. Recently, however, both the government and people of Greece have shown signs of pragmatism on regional issues and a willingness to put more stock in international partnership.

The trend, which one Greek scholar calls ``a tapering off of supernationalism in public opinion and in turn in the government,'' is uneven, disputed by some observers, and contradicted by some recent official pronouncements. For both Greek and European analysts, a clear picture of Greece's mindset and the true test of its intentions will come over the next six months as the country assumes, from Jan. 1, the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union (EU).

But for some Greek analysts, the direction desired by the three-month-old government of Andreas Papandreou has already been indicated. ``The Papandreou government wants to project a communitarian voice, and that is what they will be trying to prove over these [next] six months,'' says Theodore Couloumbis of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy in Athens.

The Papandreou government is already indicating that it will resist the temptation to use the EU presidency to press its own ``parochial'' interests in regional issues, particularly the issue of Macedonia, Mr. Couloumbis says. ``They want to isolate that issue and prevent it from poisoning relations with Greece's major partners in the [Union] and the United States,'' he says.

Greece refuses to recognize the former Yugoslav republic as Macedonia, preferring to call it ``Skopje,'' after its capital. They worry about what they call their northern neighbor's ``irredentist'' claims to parts of the historic empire of Macedonia, including much of northern Greece.

Earlier in December, the Papandreou government rejected a call by a prominent nationalist parliamentarian to use the EU Presidency to win European acceptance of the Greek position on Macedonia. ``We are first a country working for the European Union,'' said Greek European Affairs Minister Theodoros Pangalos, in a recent interview.

Mr. Pangalos caused a stir in November when he called Germany a ``giant endowed with bestial force and the mind of a child.'' He said he was referring in part to the strong-arm tactics Germany had used to push its European partners into a precipitous recognition of Croatia and Slovenia in 1991. Mute on Macedonia

Since then, Pangalos has apologized to Germany. But more important for some observers was the relatively muted response of the Greek government and Greek people when several EU countries, including Germany, moved to recognize Macedonia - as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia - on Dec. 16.

``There were none of the calls for boycotts of German or French products that we surely would have seen a year or two ago,'' Couloumbis says. ``If you read between the lines in editorial comments, you begin to see an assessment that Greek policy over [Macedonia] has been a badly handled mistake.''

Another recent incident, this time involving the US, points to a more pragmatic, less pyrotechnic Greece. In mid-November, two US diplomats were arrested in Athens for undercover intelligence gathering. The two men, involved in antiterrorist surveillance, promptly left the country after quick consultations between US Ambassador Tom Niles and Greek officials.

But what caught analysts' attention was the way the Greeks handled the incident. ``Under a previous Papandreou government, this would have been played up for all the anti-American passion it could muster,'' one Greek analyst says.

In a post-Soviet Europe, the Greek government realizes that confrontation with the US is no longer in its interest, analysts agree. And even though Papandreou's PASOK socialist party declared in election manifestos that Greece ``refuses the role of the nice little country,'' some European analysts figure that Greece understands its strong stake in a smooth EU presidency. Big and small politics

That may be especially true right now. With the EU facing the challenges of integrating four new ``small'' members, tensions are growing within the union between its ``small'' and ``big'' countries. Big members like Germany, France, and Britain increasingly speak of a coming tyranny of smaller members and are expected to push for governing changes after 1995 to reduce the smaller members' influence.

But observers say nothing would bolster the big countries' point of view like an unproductive and confrontational Greek presidency of the Union.

``If we have a catastrophic presidency from a small country now, it will play right into the arguments of the bigger members,'' says one official from another union member. ``[The Greeks] have to behave for the good of all the smaller countries, including themselves.''

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