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Wednesday, June 16, 1999 Published at 19:08 GMT 20:08 UK


Building a nationalist fortress

The Greeks want an independent Europe which is not dominated by the US

By Jonathan Chapman on the Greek island of Kalymnos

The huge wash from the best man's luxury launch melted away as we finally slowed to approach the tiny whitewashed former monastery on the uninhabited islet of Plati.

The wedding bell was already clanging across the narrow sound in this highly sensitive part of the Greek Aegean, so close to Turkish waters.

We'd just zoomed past the groom doing a dance on the prow of his fishing boat, with the bride's bouquet in one hand and his trademark glass of local spirit in the other.

Certainly no Adonis, but 52-year-old odd-job man Michaelis was rather enjoying his moment in the spotlight.

Beyond the reach of the Turks

He's used to navigating his way into that particular bay because he's building the first house on Plati.

In doing so he's unwittingly won the respect of nationalist politicians who boast that Michaelis is putting Plati beyond the reach of the Turks - they could not possibly lay claim to an islet which is now inhabited by a Greek.


[ image: Turkish PM Bulent Ecevit made threats]
Turkish PM Bulent Ecevit made threats
Indeed there had been a flurry of diplomatic activity on the eve of the wedding when the Turkish Prime Minister mistook the island on which this wedding was to take place for another much nearer the Turkish coast.

He issued a statement loaded with dire threats about what would happen if the Greeks went near this place.

But by the time the Italian bride arrived two and a half hours behind schedule on a huge tourist ferry boat with the rest of the guests, the waters were once again calm and crystal clear.

As Antonella stepped onto the makeshift jetty, within sight of her part-built future home, she looked like a porcelain Madonna in an unruly gaggle of widows in black and sweating officials in ill-fitting suits.

A lonely paradise on earth

The church only held 15, so the 200 or so who attended pressed into the courtyard instead. The rich tones of the priests singing the wedding mass were almost drowned by excited chatter, the trilling of mobile phones and a regular round of sshhh.

The bride and groom said this was to be their lonely paradise on earth. For the media and politicians, it meant much more.

It doesn't take much to stoke the fires of Greek nationalism but the war in Kosovo set the country ablaze. The views you hear are of a completely different conflict from the one I have been involved with at Nato headquarters in Brussels.

A sense of isolation

All the talk in Greece has been of a wider Balkan war, where other minorities lay claim to autonomous territory, including the Muslims in the Greek province of Thrace.

But the key to it is the sense of isolation.

They feel abandoned by their Nato and EU partners who they see as being dominated by the United States. They yearn for an independent Europe which will stand up for itself - and for Greece.

There was therefore only one ticket to stand on during the European elections, and that was a nationalist one. One government minister told us that the people judged them on one issue and one issue only - safety.

On the Greek islands in that part of the Aegean and throughout Greece that meant protection from both Turkey and that wider Balkan war.

As we flew with the minister in a military helicopter, he helpfully pointed out the uninhabited island of Imia over which Greece and Turkey nearly went to war. The surly airforce commander was furious that the name Imia had even been mentioned.

The nationalist vote

The European Parliament of course can have little influence on these grave regional problems but its new members must now remember that that is the agenda on which many Greeks elected them.

As we tucked into our feta cheese salads for lunch in the main port of nearby Kalymnos, little more than an hour after the wedding had finished, Michaelis the groom, his fresh white shirt now creased, his eyes bloodshot and his Greek slurred even to a foreign ear, appeared alone at the next door table.

The waiter hurriedly laid a few more places and before we knew it we were surrounded by the impromptu wedding breakfast, which didn't seem to have been pre-arranged.

I wondered how my mother-in-law would have taken to such whimsical organisation on my wedding day.

Michaelis became irritable when pressed about his building plans and in spite of all the hype, local officials joked that the first house on Plati might never be completed. The happy couple wouldn't get their paradise home, and that would be one less brick in the nationalist fortress.



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