George Papandreou bounces back

George Papandreou bounces back

The last time I saw George Papandreou was here in Istanbul exactly two years ago. He had come to Turkey to be a guest speaker at the annual meeting of the Global Relations Forum (GRF) and delivered a speech in the offices of Rumvader, the association of Greek-Orthodox foundations, in the vicinity of Aghia Triada Church in Taksim.

He was enthusiastically received by his audience, among which were the leaders of other Christian minorities in Turkey. He spoke to them about the richness of religious diversity; he called them ‘cultural bridges’ and ambassadors of peace between Greece and Turkey. Everything said was in the spirit of reconciliation and optimism that things are on the right path. Everybody was happy and he received a warm applause.  

Nothing in his demeanor during that gathering showed that this man, only months before, had to bow out from his post as prime minister of Greece in a most dramatic way, under extreme political pressure from the opposition, from his own party and from a large part of the electorate. Why? Because, upon his inauguration, in 2009 he had openly revealed that the situation of his country’s economy was much worse than originally thought. This caused a huge blow to Greece’s credibility and the nightmarish trip of bailout agreements with the EU, ECB and IMF on conditional to tough austerity measures, began lasting to date.

“Why is he still popular here?” I asked one of the leading figures of Rumvader, who had organized the event with “Little George,” as Papandreou is often referred to. “For us, for the Rums, he is somebody who contributed the most to changing the atmosphere between our two countries,” the Rum dignitary replied. “We do not care what the Greeks in Greece say. We like him.”

He was referring obviously to what is now known as the “earthquake diplomacy” period of the twin earthquake disasters in Greece and Turkey at the end of 1990s, when Papandreou and the late Ismail Cem as the Greek and Turkish Foreign Ministers had launched a new reconciliatory approach to the bilateral political dialogue.

Yet that visit, as friendly as it was among the Rums, would have hardly attracted the attention of the Greek media, for the majority of which Papandreou was a prime minister with a record-low popularity, who had failed miserably in his job and who had lead his country to a disastrous course. And perhaps I would not have had the chance to meet him personally during that cold January day, if the then Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan had not decided to call him suddenly to his offices in Dolmabahçe Palace for a private talk. It was an announced visit, obviously organized ad hoc, and I was sent to cover it in a great rush. So did dozens of Turkish journalists, for whom all of their prime minister’s meetings were newsworthy and also for whom Papandreou was a popular political figure.

Eventually we learned that Erdoğan talked with his former Greek colleague about Syria, the Middle East and Africa, as well as the prospects of economic cooperation between Greece and Turkey.

All of the above would have been nothing more than the personal recollections of a foreign correspondent in Turkey that didn’t justify a published article, if not for a recent twist of events in Greece that brought Papandreou “back from the politically dead.”

Last Friday, on Jan. 2, before a packed audience in Athens, Papandreou announced his decision to launch a new party, the “Movement of Democratic Socialists” which will compete in the coming early general elections on Jan. 25. He explained to his diverse and enthusiastic audience that he aims to form a “new social contract” for social justice against a clientelist system.

Several deputies from his old party, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) - founded by his father Andreas Papandreou - have already registered in the “Movement.”  He rejects any claim that he is breaking up PASOK by this action. His decision, he says, was purely a reaction to the destruction of our values; it was “a self-evident revolution.”  

The current leader of PASOK and vice premier in the Samaras coalition government called it a “sad event,” and already Papandreou is seen as a threat to both PASOK and the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), widely seen as the leading party in the coming elections.

And for the ones who see this as a treacherous attack against his old party, maybe we should remind them that his famous father did exactly the same thing: rejecting the centrist party founded by his father, where he was a government member in the mid-1960s, he chose to form his own socialist party in 1974 after the fall of the military rule. Then, the old Centrist Union party eventually evaporated and PASOK went on to dominate Greek politics for a long time. Whether this latest “Movement” will have the same fortune is debatable, but so far it has managed to add another imponderable factor into the complex equation of current Greek politics.