Sunday, June 27, 2004

Turkey 1 - Greece 0

President Bush is using the NATO Summit in Istanbul to remind everyone of Turkey’s achievements as an officially Islamic but secularist country, as a reliable and valuable member of NATO and as a stalwart participant in the coalition of the willing against terrorism.

The conclusion Mr Bush draws is that Turkey should be rewarded by membership in the European Union. Back in the early post-Communist days President Bush senior and President Clinton both thought that the EU was extremely ungenerous to the East European countries. It was and part of its ungenerosity was the refusal to make any kind of agreements with those countries except with eventual membeship of the EU in mind.

Well, now they have achieved that membership and it is proving to be a mixed blessing, to put it mildly. However, it seems that the Turkish Government and the American President still think that the best way forward for Turkey towards a more westernized, more democratic status is to belong to an undoubtedly western but undemocratic, illiberal union.

Still, it is good to be reminded of Turkey’s positive role in the world.

Across the Aegean Sea, things are not quite so balmy. Greece is preparing for the Olympic Games, which open in two months’ time. It is not a secret that the preparations have been seriously behind schedule and as we write, it is not clear, whether the main stadium will be properly functioning in time.

Other problems have arisen. The original idea was to flood the Field of Marathon, one of the greatest and most decisive battles of the western world, for sailing events. Realizing that doing this would not exactly enhance Greece’s self-appointed role as the guardian of western culture, the government abandoned the plan. But the sailing lake is far from ready.

The new Greek government has abandoned the idea of putting up a pointless museum to house the Elgin Marbles, mainly because this, too, caused a furore. The previous government had overruled several Supreme Court decisions and went ahead with the construction that involved the destruction of a major Byzantine site.

Somewhere along the line the Greeks have forgotten that there was an awful lot of history between Athens (only one of many ancient Greek city states) and modern Greece. The country is having something of an identity crisis and the constant rows surrounding the Olympic Games have illuminated this.

Greece is the recipient of possibly the largest amount of money in one lot of hand-outs or another from the EU and has shown no ability to use that money sensibly. Its agriculture would not exist without hefty subsidies and it has not been able to do away with the tobacco growing that is keeping parts of the country going, despite the low quality of the tobacco produced and the constant health warnings.

Its most productive industry is the tourist industry, which accounts for 8 per cent of GDP, and, apparently, there are problems with that.

Despite more financial assistance for the Olympics, the Games have not attracted the numbers expected. Olympic Games are so expensive to stage nowadays that the only hope of recovering anything at all is a huge rise in tourist numbers.

Fani Palli-Petria, Greece’s top Olympic official has admitted that the country has failed to capitalize on the event. According to her, there is no Olympic atmosphere in Athens and a certain reluctance among foreign tourists to take up hotel reservations.

Some 5,000 hotel beds out of a total 62,000 in Athens have yet to be booked during the August 13-29 Olympic Games, the capital's hotelier association reported.

All kinds of suggestions are being made to attract visitors but there is a feeling that it is all too late. Ms Petralia thinks that Greece should concentrate on hosting a successful Olympics and that would attract visitors in the future.

"For Greece the great profit will be the image that it will project during the Olympic Games," she was quoted as saying. Given the image it has projected during the run-up to the Olympics, I would not put too much money on that.

To add insult to injury many of those visitors are not going to Greece because they prefer the country on the other side of the Aegean: Turkey.

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