Thousands of protesters had been expected outside this city's opera house Saturday night to protest a speech planned there by the man who many Greeks publicly refer to as "the Butcher of the Balkans"--President Clinton.
Thousands more had been expected to march on the U.S. Embassy next door, and to dog Clinton's every step during his visit, chanting anti-American slogans, holding up vitriolic signs and giving amplified speeches attacking what protest groups here depict as U.S. imperialism.
In the end, according to U.S. officials, it was the potential televised images of eggs, and possibly gasoline bombs, being thrown at the president and his senior advisers that proved more than Washington could stand.
So U.S. officials threatened this week to cancel the Clinton visit scheduled for this weekend, but then decided just to delay and shorten it in exchange for a pledge by Greek authorities--issued by the cabinet here today--that demonstrators will not be allowed near his entourage.
Clinton now plans to arrive Nov. 19 and stay for less than 24 hours, and he will likely remain well away from the embassy and out of sight, and possibly earshot, of planned protests.
Alone among the NATO allies in Europe, where Clinton generally is treated with admiration and respect, Greece stands out as a hotbed of anti-Clinton sentiment that crosses boundaries of age, gender and political affiliation. A recent newspaper poll in metropolitan Athens said a majority of people preferred that Clinton skip Greece during a nine-day trip organized to highlight the U.S. commitment to southern Europe.
While U.S. officials said there has been no specific threat to attack Clinton during his visit, a U.S. official said of Greece, "There is no more anti-American country in Europe."
Moderates in the Greek government have championed the visit as an opportunity to bolster U.S.-Greek ties, to balance a longer Clinton stay next week in neighboring Turkey, Greece's historic rival, and to seek U.S. support for Greece's position on such nettlesome diplomatic issues as Cyprus, a Mediterranean island divided between Greek and Turkish sectors.
But the Greek government, which faces an election in March, was divided over how to handle the protests, and last Friday Prime Minister Costas Simitis backed away from an earlier pledge to keep protesters away from the U.S. Embassy. He did so within hours after the leader of the Communist Party here, a Stalinist group that commands less than 10 percent of the public's support, warned of possible violence if protesters' movements were restrained.
U.S. officials were outraged by Simitis's decision, which also caught officials in the Greek Foreign Ministry by surprise. But U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Burns and Foreign Minister George Papandreou renegotiated the terms of the visit and agreed to hold most events at venues other than the embassy, a fortress-like building that one U.S. official described as "the mecca of all left-wing Greek demonstrations."
Instead of sleeping at Burns's residence, for example, Clinton is slated to stay at the Intercontinental Hotel along a major thoroughfare on the opposite side of the city. But even that site has not escaped violence. A Greek bystander was inadvertently killed when a bomb was set off there in April to protest the NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia.
Popular Greek antagonism toward Clinton is partly a legacy of that 78-day offensive, which the Greek media universally depicted as an attack on defenseless Yugoslav civilians rather than an attempt to put an end to Serbian atrocities against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Greeks have long been close to Serbs because both are Orthodox Christians, while the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo are predominantly Muslim.
Greeks also worry that Kosovo, a province of Serbia, will eventually join with Albania to create a Greater Albania that would dominate the region and lead to a redrawing of borders.
"We are always with the underdog" because Greece has long been one itself, said Alexandros Lykourezos, a prominent lawyer who helped represent Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military commander indicted for war crimes in the 1992-95 Bosnian conflict. "There is a sense that we have always been the victims of great powers."
Widespread resentment here against U.S. intervention in the region also dates from Washington's overbearing presence during the period from 1948 to 1971, when the U.S. ambassador even attended weekly meetings of the Greek cabinet and repeatedly helped intervene to block any communist rule.
Greeks also bitterly remember the Nixon administration's open support for an oppressive military junta that ruled here from 1967 to 1974, and they blame then-Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger for tolerating Turkey's invasion of Cyprus in 1974.
The country's now-aging Communists, many of whom were banned from public life despite once commanding support from an estimated 40 percent of the Greek public, have never forgiven the United States. Having spent their exile in hard-line Soviet Bloc countries, they never embraced the softer form of Communism that took hold among leftists in Italy and France.
With ideological disputes trapped in a time warp, "the last battles of the Cold War are being fought on the streets of Athens today," said a Western official who asked not to be named.
These historic grievances are expressed each year on Nov. 17, in what Athens University international relations professor Theodore Couloumbis calls "a symbolic ritualistic event" that brings thousands of protesters into the street in front of the U.S. Embassy and enables Greek schoolchildren to take a holiday.
The anniversary commemorates the date in 1973 when the U.S.-backed junta used tanks to suppress a student protest at Athens Polytechnic University.
U.S. officials say they were aware that Clinton's visit at the time of the anniversary might rub fresh salt in this old wound, but they note that he had already agreed to visit Istanbul, Turkey's largest city, for a European summit meeting scheduled for Nov. 18-19 and had little choice but to visit Athens in the same period.
Most protests surrounding the Nov. 17 anniversary have been fairly peaceful, but Greece is home to various groups of self-proclaimed anarchists and terrorists--such as the Arsonists of Conscience and the Greek Liberation Struggle--who occasionally initiate violent actions around that time.
A total of 472 terrorist incidents such as firebombings, assassinations and rocket attacks were committed in Greece between 1970 and 1998, and 201 of these were committed by 36 different groups within the past four years, according to a U.S. government tally. One group in particular, known as November 17, has made a specialty of attacking U.S. officials, and has killed four of them. It has conducted five attacks this year.