George A. Papandreou - President of Socialist International - Former Prime Minister
George A. Papandreou - President of Socialist International - Former Prime Minister
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Odyssey-The Son also Rises - George Papandreou's subtle power play

Odyssey, 1 September 1998

The Son also Rises - George Papandreou's subtle power play

ODYSSEY by Gregory A. Maniatis Photos by Haris Papadimitrakopoulos

Alternate Foreign Minister George Papandreou, the son and grandson of prime ministers, has a formidable political pedigree - and he's been using it in rather unexpected ways to promote a new image for Greece abroad. Odyssey spoke to him recently about the dangers in the Balkans and the Aegean, and about one of this most important briefs: the Hellenic diaspora.

In Greece, there exists a peculiar cabinet-level position: that of an "alternate" minister. There are, of course, deputy ministers as well. What's the difference? Well, for one, an alternate minister is a step up from deputy. But an example at this point might be instructive.

Let's take the foreign ministry, which is headed up by the walking quote-machine. Theodore Pangalos. Just as we were going to press in late July, Pangalos single-handedly triggered a crisis in Greco-American affairs by declaring that United States President Bill Clinton had told "gross lies" by making pre-elecroral promises to solve the Cyprus problem. Called intemperate and undiplomatic by Clinton spokesman Mike McCurry, Pangalos replied by elaborating on the many ways in which the US had deceived Greeks.

It's at times like this that you're grateful for an alternate minister. In this case George Papandreou, the 46-year-old son of the late prime minister and founder of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement. When CNN calls, you give them the Minnesota-born, California-bred Papandreou-who, with this gentle features, his flawless American accent, and his chronic niceness, is certain to say all the right things - and make like be's you guy (Pangalos? Who?). In fact, Papandreou-through his media appearances and front-man role with foreign leaders and at venues like Davos - has played a significant role in helping to create a new, contemporary public face for Greece that is Western-friendly and free-market hungry (the irony of this, given this father's friendly socialist legacy, need hardly be pointed out).

But Papandreou, whose political consciousness was forged in the years of this father's exile and subsequent rise to power, can afford to be nice because his political savvy is genetic. In addition to his father, his grandfather - after whom he was named counts among the most important Greek leaders of the century. His mother Margaret, meanwhile, must be given credit for having awoken the feminist consciousness in Greece.

Born in 1952, Papandreou sports a multicultural pedigree. He spent much of his childhood in California, where his father was a professor at Berkeley, before attending secondary school in Toronto. He picked up a bachelor's degree in sociology from Amherst College, also studying for a year in Sweden. He later was awarded a masters from the London School of Economics.

Papandreou, who is married with two children, went into politics straight out of Amherst , serving on an array of PASOK political committees Papandreou, who is married with two children, went into political committees beginning in 1975. He was first elected to Parliament in 1981 when his father swept to power, and has held a seat there ever since. He served as minister of education and religious affairs in 1988-89, and again from 1994 until September 1996, when he became alternate foreign minister.

Papandreou is also something of an alternative foreign minister: His conversation are peppered with new-ageism's, and his list of favorite projects includes efforts to denuclearize the greater Mediterranean and to re-establish the Olympic Truce.

Papandreou has few outright enemies. His rap is that he is too soft, that he could never aspire to a higher leadership role than he has now - and even that he owers to his father's legacy. But sceptics would do well not to underestimate his ambition.

One man who has felt the impact of Papandreou's political acumen is Prime Minister Costas Simitis. Many observers believe it was Papandreou's tempered, eloquent speech at the June 1996 socialist party congress - in which he skillfully endorsed the prime minister's bid for the PASOK presidency without alienating the other candidates - that was the linchpin of Simiti's political survival.

Odyssey spoke to Papandreou, in July about the growing tensions in the Balkans and the Aegean, and about one of the alternate minister's critical briefs - the Hellenic diaspora.

In the situation in Kosovo an immediate threat to Greece?

Immediate, no. But conflicts like that in Kosovo put back the prospect of integrating the Balkans into Europe many years.

There are also specific problems-of refugees, for example. And there'll be political ramifications in FYROM and Albania; they are our neighbors and this will affect our ability to help them become more democratic and European.

Do you believe Greece will be drawn into a combat situation in Kosovo or the broader ?alkan theater?

?? ? don't. American analysts have harped ?n this quite a bit, but ? think their scenarios of a Balkan war are overblown.

Regional cooperation has developed a lot. There may be bilateral problems, but ? d?n't see axes developing that would create a Balkan war. As a matter of fact, at a recent Contact Gr?u? meeting in ??nn, ? took an initiative with my Turkish counterpart Ismail Cem to call all the Balkan countries together. We came up with a common statement in two hours - whereas the Contact Group took six hours, and they had problems.

It seems you believe there's too much foreign meddling in the region from Americans and Germans and others.

History in the Balkans shows we need regional cooperation, and this should be respected by the so-called larger powers. ?ut it's also very important that these larger powers have a common view of the Balkans. Because in the Balkans, when larger countries ?ie for influence, we become the small change " in the big deals between them. And that pits us against each other. ??? have local proxy actors warring against each other, and behind them are larger powers, or the Muslims, the Mujahadeen helping them.

With the Bosnian war, we almost moved into spheres of influence - the Catholics, the Orthodox with the Orthodox, the Muslims with the Muslims. But I think we've senn how dangerous that can be for world peace.

So if we have a common approach from the world powers, and at the same time we have regional cooperation, then we can more this area out of instability.

Greece is perceived internationally as backing the Serbs because of the Orthodox. Is that true?

Greece is backing up what we feel is international law and what we feel is right. Our ties allow us to understand the psychology of the problems in the region. Our ties with the Serbs allow us to understand their psychology ; but we also have very good ties with Albanians and we understand their psychology. This place us in a unique position to be important go-betweens, and this is what we've been trying to do.

But we don't base our friendship on, This is our team and we like them. We may be friends, but if someone fouls up, we' ll tell them that and we'll say you have to get your act together.

We tell the Serbs that they've got to make changes in Kosovo and give the Albanians more autonomy and democratic rule. But we also say to the Albanians that they can't change the borders, because that will create havoc in the Balkans. The solution has to come about within the borders of Yugoslavia.

Is the Orthodox religion a basis for creating military or economic alliances?

Orthodox is important for two equal reasons: First, we can use Orthodoxy as a means of communications to develop our relations with other Orthodox peoples.

And, through Orthodoxy, we can develop our relations with other Orthodox peoples. And, through Orthodoxy, we can develop an interfaith dialogue with other Orthodox peoples. And, through Orthodoxy, we can develop an interfaith dialogue with Muslims, Catholics, and others and thereby create a multicultural, multireligious world. In no way do we see Orthodoxy as something that creates exclusivity.

Is the influx of refugees - reportedly there are 750,000 legal and illegal workers in Greece, and over a million non-Greeks in total - having an effect on how Greece conducts its foreign policy? And are my numbers accurate?

It's difficult to say - the numbers seem a bit high, but in any case they're in that range. But I think it has a positive impact, in that we've been helpful to our neighbors. We've been a venue of understanding and economic support. And I'm talking in particular about Albania: Through the Albanians here in Greece, the economy of Albania has been very much helped.

It's also changing attitudes of Greeks toward foreign policy. Some have reacted negatively, nut in general people now understand that we're living in an much more multicultural world, and that we have to create a more multicultural society.

What’s the key to improved relations with Turkey?

The internal situation in Turkey. Many other countries and the Turks themselves feel this as well. They’re in a transition period with many dangers. It all depends on whether the political elite can advance internal reforms: democratization, respect for juman rights, a peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem, putting the army where it belongs - in the barracks and not in politics. These moves are very important if Turkey is to modernize and play a decent role in the region. In this transition period you get extremist voices and peculiar reactions from mour neighbor, ehich often create further tension, both on Cuprys and also in the Aegean.

What’s the driving principle behind your government’s policy toward the Greek diaspora?

In the past, the state looked at the diaspora with the attitude: They send their checks to their relatives, which helps our balance of payments, or, when we’re in need we’ll call on them, or, we have to show them what being Greek is.

All this has changed. We don’t see them as a checkbook. We don’t see them as simply there to rally around an issue when in need and then we forget about them. And we don’t think we have a total monopoly on what the correct Greek is.

Instead, we recognize that they have their very specific view of what being Greek is and what Greece should be, and we respect that and they can contribute to our identity. We like to see Hellenism as a galaxy-we’re just a somewhat larger star in that galaxy. We see it as an equal relationship in which we work together and respect their ideas. And we want to see them feeding us with their ideas and helping to change Greece.

We’ve been working to create a systematic, two-way relationship. It’s a dynamic relationship that will be a major factor for creating a new identity for Hellenism in the next century - one not simply restricted within the borders of Greece.

Our heritage is recognized as a world heritage. We don’t simply want to remind people of our past; we want to show we are working on these ideas to keep thme alive and useful in a modern world, in a way othe cultures acan identify with and use. For instance, the Olympic Truce is an ancient idea that we’ve made current and relevant to the world in which we live.

Greek abroad can help develop the Greek identity by bringing to it their experience of what a multicultural world is.

I think there’s a unique opportunity to create a world Hellenic identity with all the new technology that exists, like the Internet, as an ethnos and not as a state.

Have Grece’s relations with the diaspora changed now that the majority of Hellenes worldwide were born abroad?

The Greeks of the diaspora who played pivotal roles in the 1821 Revolution weren’t necessarily born in Greece. But they felt Greek. In a sense, there’s some silimarity with today. There were many Greeks that had a very different culture and had lived for many generations in other countries. But they brought new ideas to Greece-they brought the French Revolution, the Greek ideas of ancient times, the Rennaisance - which had been lost from Greece because of the Ottoman Empire.

This reinforces the idea we should be working on universal ideas. Take the Olympics. A fifth-generation Greek can identify with thme, so we’ll use this. It’s a great opportunity to mobilize Greeks of that generation who have never lived in Greece and don’t even speak Greek, but who can identify with the idea of the Games and who may want to come here as volunteers.

Are the Games enough to mobilize the diaspora?

I think the mobilization is around a goal. And to use a crude marketing term, it’s an important time for Greece to be rebranded in this new century, this new millennium.

We want to show that Greece is a modern, developing country, with much to contribute to world peace and to the important problems of humanity. We want to be a center for dialogue and intellectual work and cross-cultural discussion, and also a vital place for economic and other types of activity.

So we may not have a rallying cry or one slogan, but certainly there’s a very clear-cut idea of how we want to promote Greece, and in the Olympics we’ve got an important event we can use for this and which will then create all kinds of other activities than we can continue. It doesn’t mean we don’t have political issues such as Cyprus and our relations with Turkey, which do keep people rallied around Greece. But we want to solve these problems, we don’t want to keep them there so that people can rally around them.  

What concrete efforts has Greece made to strengthen its ties to the diaspora?

We have created two institutions. The World Council of Hellenes Abroad, which represents the organized communities of Greeks abroad - and therefore, in most cases, it represents the first and second generations. But it can’t express all the Greeks around the world.

This is why we’ve created the idea of a world Hellenic symposium. Greeks from all walks of life will be able to come together, will be able to network, discuss, learn from each other. In the year 2000, Greeks can sit down together to see what their future is and what their new identity is in this new millenium. And in 2004 they can come to celebrate together and discuss again. We could do this every four years, maybe momre frequently.

Why should someone born in America, to parents also born in America, care about Greece?

Having a special identity in the world is important. Even if you’re third or fourth generation, you learn about a part of yourself of which you may have not been that conscious. And once you do, you can understand yourself much better. It will make you a better citizen of the country you live in, it will give you more self-confidence, it’ll make you look into yourself.

But there are also some more practical reasons. Neworking would mean that a person in LA would connect with people around the world, people who’d be very interested in meeting each other and possibly, working together on common projects, exchanging views, making new relationship, having fun, falling in love, or doing joint business ventures in Greece for example.

Just think, for instance, of a camp where you have kids from Australia, Russia, Germany, South Africa, the US, Canada, Latin America: They all have something in common, but they’re learning about so many different cultures. It’s a unique opportunity to become part of the world, but through a venue that is specifically your own and much closer to your heart.

How American do you feel?

I went through this period of, Who am I? - sometimes feeling more American, sometimes feeling more Greek. But I realized that I am a micture of cultures and that I should feel happy about that. And that I can choose what I want to be - and I chose to come back to Greece. It was a conscious choice.

In some sense, I’m more Greek for that fact, because I chose to be Greek, it was not something that I just sort of naturally accepted. I chose to come back to Greece and to live here and become part of this life. Many people have done so. I’m a mixture of cultures, not only American, but Canadian , Swedish .... but I think that’s something that I cherish.

Gregory A. Maniatis

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