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Belgrade Shuns Greek Allies

Serbia's relations with its last European ally turn sour.
By Istvan Molnar

Until recently the Serbian government looked on Greece as its greatest, perhaps only, friend in the Balkans. But times have clearly changed and now Athens too has been ostracised by Slobodan Milosevic.


Just ahead of an official visit by the Greek foreign minister to Belgrade, his Yugoslav counterpart, Zivadin Jovanovic, launched a stinging attack on Athens. The minister berated the Greek government for hosting meetings with Serbian opposition organisations while refusing to invite Yugoslav delegations to international conferences in Greece.


Jovanovic called on Athens to extricate itself from "NATO influence" and asked the Greek government to do "much more in order to have the sanctions against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia [FRY] lifted."


The outburst concided with Belgrade barring a scheduled Athens-New York Olympic Airways flight from crossingYugoslav airspace. On board were Greek Prime Minister Kostas Simitis and his delegation heading to the United Nations General Assembly Millennium Summit. The aircraft was forced to divert over Italy.


Senior political sources in the Serbian capital believe the Milosevic regime is losing its grip on reality and trying to "lecture" other nations on how best to follow Belgrade's lead in the struggle against the 'New World Order'.


"Jovanovic's statement is totally unbelievable and shows the tragic scale of Belgrade's miscomprehension of modern international relations," said one senior Yugoslav foreign ministry source. "It is tragicomic to ask Greece, a member of NATO and the EU, to confront and oppose the decisions of those organisations in order to maintain its co-operation with a regime that's reached its last gasp.


"Yugoslav officials simply cannot accept the fact that Athens finds NATO and the European Union more important than its friendship with Milosevic."


Despite the Belgrade snub, Greek Foreign Minister Gergios Papandreou arrived in Belgrade on September 7 to convey the EU's concerns over this Sunday's elections.


At a joint news conference following his meeting with Jovanovic, Papandreou appealed to the Yugoslav government to ensure the ballot is conducted peacefully and fairly. He added that Greece and the international community would monitor the poll carefully. These comments were excised from the Serbian state media reports.


According to the official media, bilateral relations and the regional situation were at the forefront of the talks. Afterwards, Milosevic said Athens opposed any form of pressure on Belgrade.


During his tour, however, the Greek minister met opposition presidential candidate Vojislav Kostunica and activists from the Otpor (Resistance) student movement, a move which provoked further friction between Athens and Belgrade.


Papandreou described his talks with Kostunica as very constructive. Milosevic's rival, the minister said, "clearly saw the future of the FRY in Europe."


But four Otpor activists, invited to a reception at the Greek embassy in Belgrade, were arrested by plain clothes Serbian police just as they arrived at door. Only after Papandreou personally telephoned Milosevic and Jovanovic were the four released from custody.


Although the Otpor activists were finally able to meet Greek diplomats, the Athens media has interpreted the incident as a serious blow to relations between the two governments. The Greek daily newspaper Ta Nea described the arrests as an unprecedented diplomatic provocation.


Jovanovic, meanwhile, thanked Greece for its humanitarian and moral support during the NATO bombing campaign. But he said the forthcoming September 24 elections were and "internal matter."


The Greek press reacted strongly to Jovanovic's remarks, pointing out that fair elections are not an "internal matter" but the cornerstone of European democracy.


Sources inside the Yugoslav Interior Ministry claim Belgrade is not overly concerned at the chill winds now blowing in from Athens.


The NATO bombing campaign in 1999 provoked mass protests in Greece. That and the large volume of aid donated by Greeks confirmed, the Serbian media concluded at the time, "the traditional friendship between the two nations."


That friendship has soured. Milosevic has switched his attention to "new friendships" with fellow authoritarian and pariah states - North Korea, Cuba, Iraq, Libya and China.


Istvan Molnar is the pseudonym for a Serbian journalist


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