`I WILL tell you something,'' a leading political economist in Athens said after an hour of talk at a busy downtown cafe. ``The sense of belonging is the most important Greek issue. Our unanswered question is, Do we belong to Europe or not?''
In the fifth month of the Papandreou regime in Athens, the government is quietly attempting to go the way of Europe. Pragmatism is in. Gone is the nationalist rhetoric that many feel went out of control during the Mitsotakis regime, when angry crowds in Thessaloniki rallied against international recognition of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, and a young radical was put on trial for stating that Alexander the Great was a ruthless conqueror.
The leader of the opposition New Democrats, Miltiadhis Evert, has broken with Greek political tradition by saying in parliament in late January that his party would ``cooperate'' with the ruling Socialists in attempting to meet European Union fiscal demands.
On the still ultrasensitive issue of Macedonia, diplomatic sources say Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou is looking for a way to settle the dispute. Through June, Athens has the rotating presidency of the EU. And while Greece, popularly pro-Serb, has opposed European military action in Bosnia, there is pride here that Athens has not used the presidency as a platform for its own problems.
But the new pragmatism hides much insecurity. There is palpable worry about ethnic instability in Albania, nervousness about a new EU customs union with Turkey set for later this year, and a feeling among many that its European partners should have leaned harder on Kiro Gligorov, president of Macedonia, to rename Macedonia ``Skopje.'' Greeks believe the name Macedonia implies territorial ambitions on Greek land. Some officials say privately they feel betrayed by Europe's position on Macedonia, which one described as ``a test of friendship.''
Yet an increasing minority of Greeks who deal with world affairs say it is time for Athens to cut its losses over the name issue. Many argue the diplomatic capital spent by Constantine Mitsotakis in demanding the EU to oppose recognition of Macedonia was a mistake.
Given that six EU states recently opened diplomatic relations with Macedonia, the name is not only a lost cause, but has caused ill will in international circles, and prevented Greece from playing an active or stabilizing role in the Balkans.
``We were once the English of the Balkans,'' says one Greek diplomatic source, ``but we have wasted our positive role on Macedonia, whose actual threat to us isn't just a shadow, but a shadow of a shadow.''
The problem is domestic politics. ``Everyone knows the name issue is absurd,'' says a young Athens lawyer. ``But no one can say so politically. It has become a test of patriotism.''
The greatest concern is that Macedonia could be used to further exploit Greek nationalism.
One official told the Monitor privately that despite EU subsidies, NATO membership, and a decade of integration into Europe, Greece could change course. ``Unfortunately, it is possible for this country to throw everything aside over its treatment by Europe.''
A longtime Athens correspondent notes that for Greeks, ``some issues are more important than truth. Ethnicity, national identity, and survival impose an attitude no Greek can go against, no matter the objective case.''
University of Athens Prof. Nicholas Diamandouros argues that the main thrust of politics in Athens is toward Europe, the disciplines of EU membership, and new investments in Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania. ``Greece has to capitalize on its Euro-identity. Despite the albatross of Macedonia, that is our long-term direction.''