Monday, June 1, 2009

Visit to Thessaloniki (1)

After having spent ten days in the USA and a six-hour stopover in London -both quite remote from the intricacies of Greek politics- I arrived in Thessaloniki just after midnight today to speak in a Roundtable on Nationalism in Greece and Turkey hosted by the Thessaloniki International Book Fair.

The taxi ride from Macedonia Airport (previously known as Mikra Airport to people of my generation) provided a reminder that Greece -just as every other EU country- was preparing for this year's European parliament elections but also an abrupt warning that nationalism was a potent force in the shaping of the debate surrounding the election. Giant posters inviting the voters to support one of the two largest parties were hard to miss as they dominated nearly every visible space in the few kilometers that separate the city from the air terminal. Among them, also hard to miss, were posters of a third suitor of the electorate's preference: the Panhellenic Macedonian Front (Πανελλήνιο Μακεδονικό Μέτωπο).

The choice of the term 'front' is not surprising as its founders, Stelios Papathemelis, president of nationalist Democratic Renewal (Δημοκρατική Αναγέννηση) and Professor Kostas Zouraris, a prominent philosopher that initiated the marxist/christian orthodox dialogue back in the late 1970s and 80s and ran for office with the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) ticket, have stated that their initiative 'is not a one issue or localist movement but seeks to rally people of all political hues and from all political parties around the defence in the European Parliament of (Greece's) national interests'. This particular initiative is thus represented as being part of a move towards the realm of antipolitics (if we can use the term coined in the course of East Central European transitions almost two decades ago) or, perhaps, post-politics. This Front is thus above and beyond the mundane concerns of political parties, is about the transcedental values of national sovereignty and rights!


The new organization is the product of the cooperation of Democratic Renewal, Macedonian organizations in Greece and the Diaspora and personalities 'from the broader patriotic community' as one of its press releases points out. The leaders of the Front have repeatedly stressed that the organization remains open to the patriotic community who share their primary objective to 'secure the copyright of the term Macedonia for Greece in the European Parliament' and a broader concern for the country's national interests.

But beyond the fact that the front constitutes another voice in an increasingly overcrowded 'patriotic space' within Greek politics, what is interesting is the coming together of two prominent political figures that have defined themselves or been defined by others as belonging or related to the neo-orthodox political tradition and claimed a place in the broader left (one in ΠΑΣΟΚ, the socialist party that has dominated Greek politics after the transition to democracy in the mid-seventies and the other in a perpetual dialogue with the broader left and the Communist Party of Greece. They have both traditionally adopted a nationalist discourse that linked inextricably orthodoxy and Greekness, with Papathemelis claiming to be translating this intellectual outlook into a practical political agenda (calling, for example, in the early nineties for decisive action on the Greek-Macedonian name and flag disputes) while Zouraris adopted a much more critical introspective nationalism, attempting to preserve Greece's 'soul' against the tide of mediatization, organized politics and globalization.

It seems that, over time, the latter's positions have converged with the former's in the form of an ideology stressing Greece's territorial integrity but denying others the right to self determination in territorial as well as symbolic terms, integrating the interests of the Greek minority in Albania, Cypriot Hellenism in a broader agenda coloured by the ugly colours of racism and prejudice towards Greece's migrant and indigenous minorities permeates the discourse of both leaders. It is now evident that the fine lines that most neo-orthodox figures wanted to draw between their outlook and that of what they looked down upon as the primitive nationalist Right have finally been revealed to contain no substance other than providing an alibi for their affliction: a narcicism of a minor difference.

Although the polls indicate that there is very little chance for this, and indeed the two other ultra-nationalist and racist contenders for a share of the popular vote (the vociferous fascist, yet still marginal, Hrisi Avgi and the more 'respectable' LAOS which should not expect more than two MEPs) gaining representation in Brussels/Strasbourg, the fact remains that these forces remain vociferous and force into public discourse issues that are central in their agenda. The apparent organizational fluidity and political openness of the Panhellenic Macedonian Front may very well be the product of the survival instinct of the Front's leaders but also reflects the ease with which nationalism and the moral panics that sustain it permeates Greek society.
more on my Thessaloniki visit in my next post