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Wednesday, December 18, 2002

Book Reviews

“United Like A Fist!” - Part 1

Unholy Alliance: Greece and Milosevic’s Serbia by Takis Michas. College Station, Texas, Texas A&M University Press, 2002, xv and 176 pages, $29.95.

Part 1

At the start of the nineteenth century, national consciousness was probably weaker on the Balkan peninsula than anywhere else in Europe. It is a significant paradox that after the French Revolution gave birth to the age of nations, the nationalism of peoples excluded from history found its first home in two of Europe’s most underdeveloped regions – Serbia and Greece.
– Misha Glenny, The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers, 1804-1999, p. xxvi

Takis Michas is the kind of journalist of which there are preciously few in Greece: contemptuous of group-think, hostile to conventional wisdom, impervious to paranoia and conspiracy theories, and sensitive to the intellectual minefields that surround – and link – the concepts of reportage and advocacy. He also knows that journalism is (or should be) a professional vocation, not a religious one.

I’m not sure that his newest book, Unholy Alliance: Greece and Milosevic’s Serbia, is “courageous,” as it’s described on the flap copy by Roy Gutman, the Newsday reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the war in Bosnia, but it is definitely “essential reading for all…who are concerned with Greece’s role in the Balkans, NATO, the European Union and the world,” to cite Samuel Huntington’s praise on the back cover. In any case, it is an important book, if for no other reason than its descriptive value. While I believe it is flawed analytically, I genuinely hope it provokes and fosters discussion (and debate) on several issues, including Greece’s disastrous foreign policy in the first half of the last decade, as well as Greek notions of identity, culture, patriotism, and civil society – all of which, obviously, add up to its self-definition of nationhood.

A gadfly among sheep
Takis Michas is, in fact, a courageous journalist if a quotidian refusal to join the herd – of one’s colleagues especially – is seen as a type of journalistic courage. He is no I. F. Stone – but who is today, in the United States above all? Very few people have the moral strength (or unalloyed love of country) to dedicate their entire lives to speaking truth to power at the price of being effectively exiled by power from the daily life, and affective community, of their fellow citizens.

But neither is he a Murray Kempton, a journalist whose vision of the world was so intellectually precise, so ethically astute, so utterly unclouded by the fog of official rhetoric, by that “correct opinion” that is the original meaning of orthodoxy, that his calling was closer to moral philosophy than to journalism (while his prose, not at all coincidentally, was more akin to that of Shakespeare or Faulkner than to today’s debased, academic notions of “communications”). From his very first years as a reporter on the police beat, Kempton understood that journalism is not about “society”; it is about individuals. In fact, it is only by cutting through the mendacity of specific men and women abusing, distorting, or otherwise disguising “the facts” – whether an ADA investigating a homicide in Brooklyn or a POTUS explaining why “democracy” requires some new atrocity in a heretofore hardly recognizable part of the world – that any journalist can do anything at all to alleviate any injustice, singular or social, tiny or catastrophic.

It is precisely this tendency to overshoot – and become overly speculative and/or theoretical in an attempt to create a social theory where the evidence only allows for journalistic empiricism – that is Michas’s weakness, and limits his work. It is not a fatal flaw; when Michas focuses on discrete events or persons, his book is not only compelling but completely convincing – and, as far as Greek society is concerned, damning in the extreme.

The reader is probably wondering at this point why I compared a Greek journalist to American ones (dead white males at that). Are (were) there no Greek I. F. Stones or Murray Kemptons? The bald answer is no; the more complicated one, of course, is that Greece is not the United States. This unadorned response in itself hides a universe of difference, but this is not the place for a history of Greek journalism. Suffice it to say that a country that was under military rule as recently as 28 years ago cannot possibly be compared to a nation whose constitutional, democratic polity has been uninterrupted for over 200 years.

Which is why Michas’s professional example is so important for all of us who are so thoroughly appalled, indeed disgusted, by the state of Greek journalism. Not that there are not conscientious, honest, enlightened, and incorruptible journalists in Greece. One of them is one of the two people to whom Michas has dedicated his book, Richardos Someritis. There are others as well, as there are journalists younger than Someritis (Tassos Telloglou immediately comes to mind) who are manifestly and significantly raising the standards of Greek journalism just by virtue of the daily exercise of their professional duties.

The overwhelming majority of Greek journalists, however, are so enmeshed in networks of (political, social, and cultural) power, so embedded in the structures of power, that speaking truth to it hardly occurs to them: they are too busy validating it, flattering it, or, worst of all, conspiring with one of its many cabals against competing ones. Whereas most American journalists dream of money (and social success), most Greek journalists dream of becoming foreign (or even prime) minister – and then of money (and social success). Which is finally to say that while social cooptation is the reality of American journalism, political cooptation is actually the ambition of journalists in Greece.

Part of the problem, naturally, is that Greece is a small country. Greek journalists, therefore, are not merely “organic,” they are the raw, unrefined products of the most rudimentary and shameless intellectual process: nationalism as a (timeless) discourse, and one, paradoxically, of both superiority and (allegedly, because of the latter) victimhood. Greek journalists see themselves as part of a national(ist) intelligentsia in the most nineteenth-century-Russian sense of the term. They are, put simply, men and women on a mission – for many of them, directly ordered by (their Orthodox) God. Adding to this dismaying state is the intellectual collapse of the left. As with most countries until recently, the best – that is, the most critical and socially and intellectually astute – journalism was, much more often than not, the work of journalists of the left. In Greece, which had never known a fully democratic polity (even in the most formal meaning of the principle) until the fall of the military dictatorship in 1974, the significance – and social contribution – of a militant and engaged journalism was even more pronounced.

The intellectual implosion of the Greek left requires a study in itself. Nonetheless, it can be summed up in three events: communism’s collapse, which, even more important for Greece, was anticipated by the emigration in the late Seventies and early Eighties of many intellectuals affiliated with the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) to the Orthodox Church in the guise of seeking a “meeting-point” between Marxism and Eastern Christianity (which, of course, turned out to be a relatively transparent entry-point into neoconservatism and old-time religion); the democratic development of Greece following 1974, which made much of the left’s hoary message (still imprisoned in an earlier sociopolitical and cultural era) irrelevant or even, on occasion, downright insane (and homicidally so, as with November 17); and, most of all, PASOK’s successful cooptation of most of the left in the last 20 years, not only as the natural party of government, but, much more significantly, as the natural party of the left (and therefore of the creation, articulation, and development of its ideology). In many and manifest ways, in fact, the last 20 years in Greece have seen, not merely great success for the left, but almost its intellectual hegemony. In just as many if less manifest ways, this apparent success has thoroughly disoriented, indeed intellectually and socially debauched, the Greek left and its adherents.

Much of this is the tale that Michas tells very well – albeit incompletely and imprecisely. Indeed, Michas is occasionally so awkward in his examination that he essentially alters the story – but I’ll get to that later. For the most part, his analysis of the ideological “alliance” between Greece and Serbia – or, more accurately, as he puts it in his book’s subtitle, between Greece and Milosevic – is directly on target.

One of the most revealing, and emblematic, anecdotes recounted by Michas is in the first chapter, which is entitled, “United Like A Fist!” It describes the meeting between Andreas Papandreou and Radovan Karadzic in Athens in the summer of 1993. Karadzic, of course, is – along with the Bosnian Serbs’ chief butcher, “General” Ratko Mladic – the most wanted man on the list of the UN’s Bosnian war-crimes tribunal at The Hague. In 1993, however, he was the personal guest of honor of the archbishop of Athens and all Greece, Serapheim, at a huge open-air rally in Piraeus organized by the Orthodox Church of Greece. He arrived in Athens to what can only be described as a hero’s – indeed, a conqueror’s – welcome, met (and exchanged warm handshakes, hugs, and kisses) with then-Prime Minister Constantine Mitsotakis, Archbishop Serapheim (who, Michas reports, admonished Karadzic for trying to kiss his hand by pushing him “gently away” and asserting, “It is I who must kiss your feet!”), and the entire Greek political world, including Papandreou (pp. 22-29). It is Papandreou’s reaction to the Bosnian Serb mass murderer, however, that is both the most bizarre and most reflective of Greek pathology. Aris Mousionis, a PASOK minion and president of the Greek-Serb Friendship Association, was present at their meeting. He told Michas:

Papandreou was a great admirer of Karadzic….However, he was not very knowledgeable about what was going on in the war in Bosnia nor did he have any historical knowledge of Yugoslavia and the crisis. It is indicative of his ignorance that throughout the meeting he kept calling Karadzic “Comrade,” as if the latter were a communist partisan! (p. 24)

Michas accepts Mousionis’s characterization of Papandreou’s “ignorance” at face value. It is, of course, ridiculous. The notion that Andreas Papandreou was ignorant, not only of “what was going on…in Bosnia,” but of Yugoslavia’s history, is absurd. Papandreou was a lot of things, but he was not stupid. On the contrary, he was not only brilliant, but learned. He was also deeply cynical, however – to his and everybody else’s detriment. Papandreou knew very well that Karadzic was a chetnik and not a partizan, let alone a “comrade.” This was a patently cynical – and, no doubt, sarcastic – ploy to keep his party’s (huge) nationalist wing “onside.” By christening Karadzic a “comrade,” Papandreou’s PASOK masses could continue to indulge their quasi-fascist allegiances to the fully fascist Serbs perpetrating their ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, while, at the same time, rationalizing their indecency by claiming that they were only lending aid and comfort to a “comrade” in the struggle against American (or NATO or papist or Islamist or Zionist or all of them combined or whatever) “imperialism.”

The Megali Idea redux
The first chapter’s title is taken from a comment by Vladislav Jovanovic, “Yugoslavia’s” – that is, Milosevic’s – foreign minister in 1994, who, after meeting in Athens that year with Greek prime minister Andreas Papandreou (who had defeated Mitsotakis in elections a year earlier), confidently asserted, to the approbation of most Greeks, that “the Greek and the Serb people are united like a fist” (p. 20). So much so in fact that, within a year, the Greek Volunteer Guard was formed – at Mladic’s express request, according to Michas. In a grisly Christian version of the mujahideen, these Greek Orthodox jihadis were soon fighting in Bosnia along with Serbs in order to ensure, according to one of them, “a Greater Greece in a Europe free from Muslims and Zionists” (p.18).

Michas states that 100 Greeks fought with the Serbs, and that they “quickly became a regular fighting unit” in Mladic’s army (p.18). Indeed, in what must be the most shameful and evil exhibition of the Greek flag since its use by Nazi collaborators in the Second World War, the galanoleuki ended up being raised in July 1995 in the town that became synonymous with the worst atrocity in Europe since Nazism’s defeat. I’ll let Michas tell the story.

One could sense the excitement in the voices of Greek television newscasters as they reported the “fall” of Srbrenica [sic] and the “total defeat” of the “Muslims.”…After all, this victory was a combined Greek-Serbian achievement, epitomized, according to media reports, by hoisting the Greek flag alongside Serbia’s in defeated Srbrenica….

The same night the Bosnian village fell, the Greek national television station MEGA conducted a telephone interview with a brave Greek from Srbrenica: “After the military stopped its bombardment we moved in and ‘cleaned up’ the place!” he informed the audience, his voice trembling from excitement.

According to the Greek daily, Ethnos, four flags were raised in the ruins of Srbrenica’s Orthodox Church: the Serb, the Greek, that of Vergina [!], and that of Byzantium.

“They are flying now side by side,” reported Ethnos, “a living proof of the love and solidarity of the two peoples and of the gratitude which the Serb soldiers feel for the help of the Greek volunteers who are fighting on their side.”

The Greek paramilitaries and Serbs…together celebrated the withdrawal of UN forces….After the victory, the Greek fighters raised the flags and sang the national anthems of the two countries at the top of their voices. (pp. 17-18)

The “cleaning up” to which that Greek Orthodox palikari interviewed by Mega ghoulishly referred was, of course, only the beginning. The Serbs would ultimately massacre 8,000-10,000 Muslim boys and men (nobody really knows) in a slaughter of Biblical cruelty. No Greek can read this passage from Michas’s book without feeling revulsion and shame at the very thought of being associated with such “countrymen.” It is a sobering experience – especially because, as Michas states (pp. 40-41), none of these “volunteers” has ever been investigated, let alone prosecuted, by the Greek government for his actions. I cannot believe that, either collectively or as individuals, they did not multiply and repeatedly violate Greek and international law. And yet, they, too, came back to heroes’ welcomes. The possibility that they had taken part in atrocities against the “Turks” (as the Serbs called Bosnian Muslims) probably made their activities all the more laudable in many Greek eyes.

En touto nika
Every Greek – through my generation, at least – was brought up with certain ideological signposts: Marathon, the Dance of Zalogos, “pali me chronia me kairous,” Alexander the Great, En touto nika, Athanasios Diakos, Thermopylae, Ochi, among many others. Although the historical span of the several events or figures mentioned is almost two and half millennia, the cultural span is the blinking of an eye. For Greeks, all these markers of identity – pagan, Christian, modern – constitute one continuous and indivisible stream of ethnic/national consciousness called Hellenism. Which is also why, for so many Greeks, the past is not only not a foreign country, but, quite the contrary, the land in which they were born and live every day – as pathological as that might appear (and is).

One reason – a critical, central one – that Greek “modernizers” from Adamantios Korais through Dimitris Glinos (both of them, by the way, Diaspora Greeks) to, yes, Costas Simitis have unceasingly battled the Church (or, more correctly, have been battled by the Church) is that the Greek Orthodox Church – like most institutionalized confessions, religious and secular – has always been the bulwark of reaction and regression in Greece. Indeed, the condominium between Church and state in the Orthodox world has always been closer to the model of Islam than to that in the rest of the West. One of the salutary and invaluable services Michas performs in his book is to describe – not in great detail but acutely in any case – the leading role played by the Greek Orthodox hierarchy in the Greek mobilization in support of Balkan fascism. Again, I quote Michas, from the opening to his chapter (strangely) entitled, “The Radicalization of the Orthodox Church”:

The attitudes that shaped the reactions of Greek society to the events in Kosovo and Bosnia cannot be understood if one fails to take into account the developments in one of the major institutional strongholds of anti-Western ideology: namely, the Orthodox Church of Greece. While the politicization of religion in Turkey has commanded considerable attention internationally, little attention has been paid to corresponding developments in the Orthodox Church. Yet the politicization of the Greek Orthodox Church may be considered one of the most important recent developments in the country. (p.109)

I must say that I disagree fundamentally with the notion of a “radicalization”(or recent “politicization”) of the Orthodox Church in Greece. Beyond the infelicity of using a term that implies sweeping, indeed revolutionary, change, the fact is that, historically, the Orthodox Church (before, during, and after the establishment of the Greek state) was and remains the country’s single most reactionary institution – and I include here the once but not future kings, whose rule might have been disastrous but whose world-view was never as irredeemably obscurantist as that of the Church. (The Greek monarchy was politically conservative – as was only natural – and constitutionally obstructionist, but it was never truly reactionary, at least in any philosophically coherent fashion.)

It is difficult indeed to describe calmly and dispassionately just how immutably reactionary the Orthodox clergy is in its vast majority. Anyone who has lived in Greece, and has engaged clergymen in even the most quotidian and trivial conversation, can attest to the genuinely shocking things (s)he has heard coming out of their mouths. From their casual, almost innate, antisemitism to their bizarre scorn for science to their acid intolerance of other faiths – including Christian ones (especially Roman Catholicism) – to, finally, their Al Qaeda-like, thoroughly theocratic contempt for secular and democratic values generally established in the West since the Enlightenment. Actually, if one wanted to describe Orthodoxy concisely, the most characteristic definition would be, as with fundamentalist Islam, that it despises the Enlightenment and everything for which it stands.

And the fact that all fundamentalist Christian sects despise the Enlightenment is not a compelling defense of Orthodoxy; we are not talking about sects in any case, but about an established, quasi-governmental confession that dominates much of Europe. Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell do not represent mainstream Protestantism, nor do they have the institutional and ecclesiastical authority of an archbishop of Athens and all Greece (or of a Serbian patriarch). Just as Pius XII and the papacy’s entire ecclesiastical edifice have come under relentless intellectual and moral examination lately (to a great degree by Catholic historians), so the time has come for an equally honest historical analysis of Orthodoxy. Among the most intellectually and morally deceitful apologists of Greek Orthodoxy, however, have been those (putative) leftist intellectuals who have purported to find in it a (very deeply hidden) “social gospel.”

Unfortunately, iconic (and historically disingenuous and disorienting) images of bandoliered clerics aping Aris Velouchiotis, or, more to the point, the clearly individual moral interventions of such hierarchs as Archbishop Damaskinos or Metropolitan Chrysostomos of Zakynthos to save a tiny part of Greek Jewry, cannot in themselves justify (or wipe clean) the history and ecclesiology of Greek Orthodoxy. (Damaskinos was truly a different kind of leader from the ones with which the Church has been cursed for the last couple of generations; he stands out in the modern history of Orthodoxy in Greece in the same way that John XXIII stands out in the modern history of the papacy – in both cases, as the exceptions that confirm the rule.) In the end, what matters is the demonstrable history of the institution, its hierarchy, and its public adherents. I do not understand, in fact, why we should exempt the Church from the historical rigor we would use to examine any other social, political, or ideological formation – regardless of the (manifestly self-serving) claims it makes for itself.

Orthodox nation
Michas describes the Church’s political exploitation of the Balkan crises during the Nineties in enough detail to make the picture unambiguous. While I disagree with his overarching historical and analytical assumptions, as I’ve indicated, I cannot but concur with his conscientious journalism. Again, if anything, I think he is too kind to the Church, and to its current head, Christodoulos, in particular.

Michas’s carefully gathered and soberly presented evidence points to a long history of extremist political involvement (invariably of a rightist kind) antedating Christodoulos’s selection as archbishop of Athens and all Greece. While Michas thoroughly recounts the Church’s participation in and, more often than not, instigation and mobilization of the nationalist hysteria in Greece during the Nineties, the Church’s sense of its “mission” comes down to a succinct, three-word creed enunciated by the archbishop of Athens at a rally in the Greek capital a couple of years ago: “Greece means Orthodoxy” (p. 116).

The complete identity of Orthodoxy with Greece is, of course, a hoary, well-worn ideological trope; lately, however, since Christodoulos’s accession to the archiepiscopal throne, it has become a battering-ram with which to attack civil society and subvert the democratic polity. Indeed, the archbishop’s actions in recent local elections have finally substantiated what has been apparent for some time: that the Church is not interested in merely undermining the government of Prime Minister Simitis, but in destabilizing the entire political establishment. How else explain His Eminence’s open sabotage of the conservative New Democracy party in the campaign for the Athens-Piraeus prefecture and his equally open support of the candidacy of rightist extremist George Karatzaferis, leader of the Popular Orthodox Rally (Laikos Orthodoxos Synagermos or LAOS), which ended up polling almost 14 percent of the first-round vote precisely because of the archbishop’s endorsement?

In truth, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Archbishop Christodoulos is the most dangerous man in Greece today and certainly the greatest threat to its future. At a time of historically unprecedented prosperity, successful integration into Europe, and rare respect for its government by allies and the international community as a whole, Michas reports that a poll commissioned by the Greek National Research Center in 2000 among the country’s high-school students, parents, and teachers showed that the most trusted institution in the country was the Church – with the army coming in second (parliament was way down on the list). In an earlier poll, the archbishop topped both the prime minister and the head of the New Democracy opposition in popularity. If nothing else, this alienated (and alienating) social tunnel vision – which is pathologically disconnected from reality – leads to (and reflects) a perilous negation of values in which the advocates of successful democratic development and social progress are punished, while those who incite fear, intolerance, and cultural autarky are hailed as representatives of the people’s will and genuine stewards of their social cohesion. If this is not the quintessence of fascism, I don’t know what is.

Continue to Part 2

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