Gorbachev in Athens &amp&amp


By Wayne Hall

ATHENS — The Communist Party posters in the working-class neighbourhoods were unambiguous: "Not Wanted", they said. There were the familiar features of the great man, medals in the form of deutschmarks, dollars and pounds dangling from his chest. The former Soviet president was here to participate in the proceedings of the "Athens Summit", a conference on "The Fate of Democracy in the 21st Century" held September 4-6.

A secondary purpose was to be present at the establishment of a Greek branch of the Green Cross, the international environmental body of which he is president.

At his press conference, much to the general amusement, he introduced as "representative of the ecological organisations of Greece" the slightly disreputable former economics minister of the right-wing New Democracy government, Giannis Palaiokrassas.

Although Gorbachev said that he wished to be asked "ecological questions", he could not avoid a grilling on issues such as NATO's blitzkrieg in Bosnia.

He expressed the view, "We are not about to see another Balkan War. The world has changed." He expressed support for French people opposing their government's decision to resume nuclear testing. His answers were so discursive that little time remained for more searching questions.

The inauguration of the "Athens Summit" was held that evening at the Pnyx meeting place of the ancient Athenian assembly under the Acropolis. It was an idyllic evening, with the floodlit Parthenon looking down as Athens' high society gathered to be lectured on the fate of democracy.

Some of the official speeches were quite radical sounding. Stephanopoulos, the maverick right-wing president of Greece, said that the necessity for institutions of direct democracy to "supplement" traditional parliaments had become obvious.

The Socialist speaker of parliament begged to differ. In modern industrial societies, he said, direct democracy had been and would be a failure. If there were deficiencies in modern-day democracy, they were due to the mass media.

Gorbachev's impatience was obvious during the address by the French academic and banker Jacques Attali, who said that the modern world was characterised not by democracy but by the rule of the market.

The architect of perestroika criticised Attali for being unconstructive. He told some stories about the terrible things he had heard said in France about Russia's future role (or non-role) in the world.

Compared to Gorbachev's Athenian visit of 1993, where among other things he had addressed a chaotic public meeting of the Coalition of the Left, there had been obvious progress. The rank and file of the non-Communist parliamentary left are no longer interested in either flattering or abusing Gorbachev.

The Communist Party did manage to give him some trouble. Hostile crowds on Chios and the boycott of his welcoming ceremony by nine of the 10 mayors of the island cast a shadow over the first day of his Greek visit.

But the more "respectable" layers of Greek society have by now found their place on the post-Soviet European chequerboard. Greek right-wing opinion (and the populist left too) now comfortably embraces characters like Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. At the sumptuous dinner on the last night of the summit, too, a representative of the Bosnian Serbs paid an emotional tribute to his leader, Radovan Karadzic, and to the Greeks, "our only friends in the world".