Economic wellbeing means nothing provided Athens toes the geopolitical line

Diplomatic and security functions are seen as crucial in maintaining stability

People eat during a new year’s meal for the homeless and poor provided by the city of Athens on January 1st. ‘No one gives a damn about Greece’s economic or domestic wellbeing, provided it toes the line in relation to geopolitical manoeuvring.’ Photograph: Orestis Panagiotou/EPA

People eat during a new year’s meal for the homeless and poor provided by the city of Athens on January 1st. ‘No one gives a damn about Greece’s economic or domestic wellbeing, provided it toes the line in relation to geopolitical manoeuvring.’ Photograph: Orestis Panagiotou/EPA

 

Writing this within view of the Albanian mountains – so close that they seem to spring up in our village street – makes it clear how intricately connected are the Balkan countries: Greece has porous land borders with Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia (Fyrom) and Turkey. Their history and their future are mutually dependent. I wonder how many tourists holidaying in Rhodes or Kos or Samos, in the eastern Mediterranean, realise that their proximity to the Turkish coast is part of a continuing saga of geopolitics: a hotspot for them during the season, a political hotspot 365 days a year.

Geopolitics, to put it bluntly, is interference by greater powers in the affairs of smaller powers, manipulating international interests which are not necessarily the interests of the smaller people. And it is going on all around us here in Greece. Geopolitically, Greece is on the southern edge of the Balkans, on the eastern edge of Europe, on the western edge not only of Turkey but of the whole Levant, stretching down through Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Egypt: historically, the much fought- over gateway to the Middle and Far East, exemplified today by the ongoing, and seemingly insoluble, Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

We live in a world on edge: we are on the edge of other people’s worlds, and they on ours. Like tectonic plates, these edges grind against each other, sometimes with disturbing consequences.

Macedonia is a massively touchy issue, because the historical province is partitioned between Fyrom (former Yugoslave Republic of Macedonia) and Greece. Imagine Northern Ireland becoming officially “Ulster”, when one- third of Ulster is in the Republic. UN negotiator Matthew Nimetz has acknowledged that the name Macedonia is sacred to Greeks, but also that US recognition of the former Yugoslav state as “Macedonia” is part of its Middle East policy. It may be a sentimental irredentist ambition in Greece; outside Greece, it’s about who calls the shots.

Border disputes between Greece and Turkey are one of the keys. Turkey claims a continental shelf which stretches beneath the eastern Greek islands. Why? Oil and gas deposits, of course. The people of the minuscule island of Kastellorizo – all 500 of them – can’t be too happy that Turkey wants to repossess the five square miles that were taken away from it in 1913. But if you are sitting on a massive mineral deposit, you may not have much say in your future.

German chancellor Angela Merkel insists that the domestic policies of a single country are now subservient to those of the EU as a whole. But that, in terms of geopolitics, is a local issue.

While the survival of the euro zone caused the panic that led to Greece’s current austerity, it’s small potatoes compared to the larger picture of who controls the Middle East.

In the 19th century, the western powers were anxious to contain Russian interests in the Mediterranean, especially by blocking access to the sea through the Dardanelles: hence the need to support the Turkish presence throughout the Levant. So much so that in 1914 the Skibbereen Eagle famously stated that it was “keeping its eye on the Tsar”.

One might think the Russian threat was no longer a major geopolitical factor, but Russia still seeks a strong presence in the Mediterranean; if not military, then financial.

Since Cypriot independence from Britain in 1960, Britain still owns 100 square miles of sovereign territory to house its US-friendly base. Henry Kissinger berated the then British prime minister, James Callaghan, to make sure of that, with the result that Britain and the US maintain one of the world’s most sophisticated satellite surveillance stations in Cyprus, doing the Skibbereen Eagle’s job: monitoring Russian messages.

The legacy of the superpowers in carving up spheres of influence in eastern and southern Europe persists: after the second World War, Stalin got Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, and Churchill got Greece. No one realised until much later how devious British and American activities could be in manipulating Greek domestic and foreign policy.

Today, Greece’s diplomatic and security functions are seen as crucial in maintaining stability not only in the eastern Mediterranean but in the Middle East as a whole. That, more than safeguarding the euro zone, was the motive in saving the Greek economy. No one gives a damn about Greece’s economic or domestic wellbeing, provided it toes the line in relation to geopolitical manoeuvring. We still need the Skibbereen Eagle.

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