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Jewish World Review July 8, 1999 /24 Tamuz 5759

Don Feder

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Econophone

Greece could be key to Balkans stability

http://www.jewishworldreview.com --
ATHENS -- Greece could provide an anchor for the Balkans, if America is willing to listen to folks who've lived in the neighborhood for a few thousand years, and now are a model of economic and political progress.

Most Americans don't think of this sunny land as part of a famously fractious region. In the American mind, Greece is a Mediterranean country associated with Zorba and sailors dancing in circles.

Yet Greece borders Albania, Macedonia and Bulgaria. By air, it's an hour from Athens to Belgrade. Greece accounts for more than half of the region's productivity and exports 12 percent of its manufactured goods to the Balkans.

The Greek economic boom could lift lifeboats throughout the region. The governing center-left coalition is committed to privatization and growth -- a far cry from the stagnating socialism of the ‘80s Andreas Papandreou government.

Businesses nationalized then are being privatized now. Utilities, telecommunications and transportation companies all went on the auction block. The annual budget deficit dropped from 13.8 percent of its gross domestic product in 1993 to 2.4 percent in 1998. Inflation fell from 14.4 percent to 2.1 percent.

In 1999, the economy is expected to grow by 3.5 percent for the third consecutive year. This compares quite favorably with the average European growth rate of 2.1 percent.

If present projections hold, the value of shares traded on the nation's stock exchange will increase from 50 billion drachmas last year to 200 billion in 1999.

Tourism, up 15 percent in 1998, is only part of the picture. Today, Greece exports more than olive oil and feta cheese. A growing range of medium technology products, medical equipment and quality clothes compliment traditional exports.

Of course, there's room for improvement. Thanks to long-festering problems with Turkey (the Turkish occupation of nearly half of Cyprus for a quarter century, disputed islets in the Aegean), military spending is between 5 percent and 7 percent of GDP, against the European average of 1 percent.

The top individual tax rate of 45 percent kicks in at the drachma equivalent of $50,000. It takes 28 signatures from various bureaucracies to start a manufacturing firm.

Still, as Athens looks forward to hosting the 2004 Olympic games, joining the European Monetary Union sometime next year (it's the only Balkans nation that belongs to both NATO and the European Union) and signing a new status of forces agreement with Washington in the fall, Greece is confident of its future.

What worries the Greeks is the future of their neighborhood, after recent renovations by the Kosovo Liberation Army's surrogate air force.

True to its NATO commitments, the Greek government supported the war on Yugoslavia, no small thing when 97 percent of public opinion went the other way. This is not to say the nation's leadership was overjoyed by the alliance's efforts to once again redraw the map of Yugoslavia.

Constantine Arvanitopoulos, an insightful young Ph.D. who heads the Institute for International Relations, Greece's pre-eminent strategic think tank, told me that America -- once seen as the savior of Europe -- now is viewed as a destabilizing, self-aggrandizing force.

“People are saying the U.S. isn't doing this for the Kosovars; it's doing it to break up European nations,” Arvanitopoulos observes.

Lyssandre Migliaressis-Phocas, who heads the foreign ministry's North American desk, is dubious of what Tomahawk missiles have wrought. “What we have in Bosnia is artificial. God knows how long it will last. What we have in Kosovo is artificial. God knows how long it will last. What will be the end game? Will other national boundaries change?”

Every country in the region has large ethnic minorities that would love to hang with their homies in a neighboring state, or have a state of their own.

There are 300,000 Albanians in Greece, sizable Greek communities in Albania and Macedonia, Hungarians in Yugoslavia, more Albanians in Macedonia, and so on. The Clinton-Albright formula (bombing for ethnic harmony, NATO as Europe's cartographer) is a recipe for continual strife.

Clinton bombs, does photo-ops with refugee children and goes home. The Greeks have to live with the results.

As the Founding Fathers looked to ancient Athens for republican inspiration, America should seek the advice as well as the consent of Greece, to bring stability to the Balkans.

With its robust economy, secure democracy and ties both economic and cultural to other Balkan states, Greece could be the key to regional progress.

JWR contributing columnist Don Feder can be reached by clicking here.


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©1999, Creators Syndicate