Wings of Greece's New Leader Singed After Flap With Turkey

Peace deal over Aegean island sunk Simitis's popularity

From the region that gave us the Balkan strongman and not a few euphemisms for chaos, now comes Costas Simitis, the Greek prime minister, a man with a very different problem.

The Greeks call it atolmos, loosely translated as the wimp factor. The phrase has clung to Mr. Simitis ever since he allowed the United States to prevent a Greek-Turkish clash over a disputed Aegean island.

The very day Simitis took office, Turkish commandos slipped past Greek patrols and raised their own flag on the Greek-held islet, known as Imea in Greece and Kardak by Turkey. It brought the two NATO members as close to conflict as they have been since they fought over Cyprus in 1974.

The potential conflict over the disputed islet was defused when Simitis agreed to a plan proposed by then-Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke to demilitarize the islet, located just off the Turkish coast.

Mr. Simitis won praise from the US and the European Union for his moderation and for pledging publicly to settle all disputes peacefully, a refreshing change from past Greek governments. But few in Greece echoed the sentiment.

Miltiadis Evert, leader of the conservative opposition party, New Democracy, called for the prime minister's resignation and denounced him for "treason."

But as in most Balkan nations, Greek nationalism cuts across party lines, and there was talk in the Army and even the Cabinet of Greece's disgrace.

It was an inauspicious beginning for Simitis, a moderate member of the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Party (PASOK) who in January succeeded Andreas Papandreou, the wily populist who had dominated Greek politics since 1981.

The Papandreou legacy

Simitis narrowly won his job when Mr. Papandreou resigned during an illness this winter, and the new leader promised economic austerity measures and a more moderate foreign policy. It was the kind of talk EU officials dared not hope to hear as long as Papandreou remained in office.

In many ways, Simitis's dilemma is a direct inheritance from Papandreou. During Papandreou's two terms in office - 1981 to '89 and 1993 until January - his government practiced the kind of patronage Euro-socialism that was abandoned as ruinously expensive by one European country after another during the 1980s. Many Greek economists blame Papandreou for the country's miserable economic performance.

Since Papandreou took power, Greece's economy has grown at a snail-paced annual rate of 1.6 percent, less than half the EU average and badly trailing the robust growth of rival Turkey, which moved away from state interventionism with the rest of Europe in the 1980s. Its inflation rate is higher than any of its EU partners, and its productivity level lower. And wage disputes plague the large public sector, often bringing Athens to a halt, as it did earlier this month during a strike by the country's bus drivers.

"I don't care for Europe," said Constantine Lakis, a driver whose big Hungarian vehicle was part of a blockade of the city center. "If it means I get low wages, then we don't want it."

Loose-cannon foreign policy

While Simitis has vowed to bring Greece into the modern world, it's unlikely he had hoped to start with foreign policy. In this respect as well, Papandreou made a reputation for Greece as the odd man out, exasperating its American and European allies. Whether it was an alleged CIA plot, a pan-Slavic cabal, interference from Brussels or the hated Turks, Papandreou always managed to blame his country's problems on others.

Besides the continuing squabbles with Turkey over Aegean islands, Greece angered its allies with pro-Serbian leanings during the Balkan war. It manipulated the EU's consensual decision-making process to veto recognition of Macedonia's independence, which Greece saw as a threat to its own northern province of the same name. But many outside Greece saw the veto as an irresponsible invitation for further ethnic rivalry and Balkan bloodshed.

NATO officials would like to see many of these disputes settled at the European Court of Justice. And this month, for the first time, Simitis accepted the idea, only to have it turned down by Turkey, now in the throes of its own political crisis.

"It's not that Greece doesn't have its reason for these complaints," said an official of the European Court of Justice, who requested anonymity. "It's just the reflex involved, bordering on the paranoid and always, always twisted for domestic consumption. It makes it difficult to tackle these kinds of disputes."

Despite his troubles, many believe Simitis may survive to keep that promise to resolve Greece's troubles at the European court. But to do so, he will have to overcome his image of atolmos and win election as executive chairman at PASOK's party conference in July.

That post is still held by Papandreou, who since this winter has made a remarkable recovery.

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