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Ocalan's Greek tragedy

Greece unfairly becomes the West's whipping boy over bungled operation

As violent demonstrations swept across Europe in the aftermath of the arrest of Kurdish terrorist Abdullah Ocalan last week, no nation has suffered as much - or as unfairly - as Greece for being caught in the eye of this storm.

When Turkish intelligence officials arrested Mr. Ocalan at the Greek embassy compound in Nairobi, it exposed a well-intentioned - but grossly misguided - Greek effort to spirit Ocalan to safety in South Africa via Greece and Kenya.

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Overnight, Greece has suffered a political meltdown. Three top ministers were fired, and the head of Greek intelligence resigned. The moderate government of Prime Minister Costas Simitis remains in limbo. And 15,000 Greeks marched on parliament Friday to protest the mishandled affair.

Headlines scream of "destroyed national honor" over the bungling; of betrayal of the Kurdish cause, to which the majority of Greeks are sympathetic; of Europe's extreme anger over Greece's actions; and of America's sudden political distance. Most frightening to Greeks is the renewed vulnerability to Turkey, incensed over Greece's aid to this terrorist.

That Greece acted in a cavalier manner, few here in Athens deny. By law, Ocalan should have been arrested once he entered Greek territory. Even the most ardent pro-state newspaper and political defenders have not exonerated any aspect of the country's involvement in this affair. But, while Greece had to know the dangerous diplomatic waters it was wading into in handling Ocalan independently, consideration must be given to the international forces that placed Greece in the middle of this long-simmering controversy to begin with.

First is the hypocrisy of fellow European Union members, now "demanding" an explanation of Greece's actions. Masking its own political cowardice under the guise of diplomatic caution, Europe had bounced Ocalan from capital to capital since October, all the while preaching righteously about his Kurdish "cause," his "people," and his "human rights." The EU has never summoned any collective political will to address the problem of the Kurds in general and Ocalan specifically. So the EU can conveniently use Greece - already on that body's political outskirts - to absorb the blame for the past week's chaos and its future consequences.

(Kurds, a nationless Muslim ethnic group of 20 million, have historically lived in a region that falls between Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Ocalan's Kurdish Workers Party - PKK - emerged in 1978 out of the Kurdish struggle in Turkey, where Kurds are not recognized as a separate people.)

The second factor is the arrogance Turkey has displayed before, during, and after Ocalan's arrest. The audacity of Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit to laugh at Greece's "blunder" glosses over the 14-year "blunder" his country has committed in its inability to competently deal with its Kurdish question.

Yes, there is a point to Ocalan's arrest - his terrorism was for real. But where "Kurdish question" ends and "PKK terrorism" begins has been too murky for too long for Ocalan's trial and this overall issue to be, as Turkey now insists, "an internal affair." When embassy hostage-taking, airport bomb-threats, and people setting themselves on fire are the continent-wide result of such a problem, it's no state's private matter. The failure of anyone - Europe, Turkey, and even the US, given its strong support for Turkey - to consistently address the Kurdish problem has brought us to the past week's events. Not Greece.

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The Kurds, of course, are also a factor in the creation of such circumstances. Kurds stormed Greek embassies last week because they believed there was tacit Greek complicity - not just incompetence - in Ocalan's arrest. But this is misguided thinking and an overwrought reaction. Greece has hosted a very large activist Kurdish population for decades, with little to gain from doing so.

The long-term repercussions of this debacle will be great for Greece: Kurds will continue to vent their anger at Greece through possible terrorism. Europeans will sideline Greece politically. Turkey will capitalize on Greece's misstep to show NATO partners not only how "unreliable" Athens is, but to make stronger demands in Cyprus and Aegean territorial disputes.

The old saw "beware of Greeks bearing gifts" is now working its way through the European press - presumably for laughs. But ancient wisdom would be better used by the Greeks against those now profiting from its mistakes.

"For himself does a man work evil," wrote Hesiod almost three millennia ago, "in working the evils for another."

*Marcia Christoff Kurop is a contributor to The International Herald Tribune and an associate fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Affairs.

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