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Until the thunder strikes, the Russian saying goes, the peasant won’t cross himself.

Neither cross nor double-cross is what the Russian government claims it did when the Kurdish leader, Abdullah Ocalan, most recently flew from Athens to Russia, then back to Athens, and then towards Minsk, only to be turned back.

According to the head of Russia’s Federal Security Service Vladimir Putin, the question of admitting Ocalan to Russia, or refusing him, was never directly considered by the President nor the Prime Minister of Russia. They, Putin seemed to be saying, have no responsibility for what has happened to Ocalan.

The Greek Prime Minister, Costas Simitis, has tried a similar disclaimer, but his spokesman hasn’t been able to find quite the words for it. Simitis’s attempt to put the blame on others, forcing their resignations while saving himself, is now bringing down the governing party of Greece. Never, in the opinion of millions of Greeks, has there been such cowardice before the enemy.

Whatever can be said now, Greek and Russian officials almost certainly tried harder than anyone else in Europe, to save Ocalan from capture by the Americans, the Israelis, and the Turks.

By the way in case anyone has the slightest doubt the Turkish special services not only did not capture Ocalan in Kenya. They didn’t even climb out of their aeroplane when he was delivered to them. The only Turkish military credit that can be claimed is that, when summoned, they managed to fly their aeroplane to Kenya without incident. There they waited, inside the craft, until Ocalan, betrayed and captured, was handed over.

Excatly what happened along the road from the Greek Embassy to the airport isn’t the issue which the Greek nation is now debating.The Greeks believe they have a duty to a man, and a nation,that are as persecuted by the Turks as the Greeks themselves have been and as the Cypriots still are.

Here in Russia, it was unusual indeed for the chief of domestic intelligence and security to claim that Ocalan’s appeal was never directly considered by Boris Yeltsin or Yevgeny Primakov. If the appeal had been indirect, and if Yeltsin and Primakov didn’t know about it, it would have been gross insubordination of lower-level officials to say no, without getting clearance from above.

It defies sense to imagine Primakov wasn’t apprised of Ocalan’s bid to find asylum. It’s impossible to believe Primakov left it to Putin,or someone of lower rank, to decide.

But Primakov is different from Simitis, and Russia is different from Greece, on this issue.

Primakov had every reason to fear that admitting Ocalan to Russia would trigger an even more ferocious assault on his prime ministry than he is already having to endure. The attackers are some of the same the United States and Israel as the pursuers of Ocalan. But Primakov is not an elected official, like Simitis. He may enjoy popular support, but he doesn’t command a majority in parliament. It’s obvious he can’t count on the president not sacking him summarily, without any reason at all.

In short, Primakov has almost no margin for risk. Ocalan was beyond risking, just as the Russian state is beyond Primakov’s control.

This isn’t a justification for Russia’s refusal. But it is an illustration of the difference between Primakov and Simitis. And there’s a moral difference, too. Primakov’s duty is to Russia, and the growing public support for him in the polls shows he is widely respected for demonstrating this. That duty gives him no job security whatsoever, but it allows him two freedoms — to be silent and to wait. Towards Ocalan, he exercised both. Those who believe Primakov should have acted differently lack the power to protect him from the consequences.

In Simitis’s case, the Greek leader held a comfortable majority in parliament, and plenty of time before he risked that in a national election. That amounted to job security, plus the freedoms to speak out, and to act.

Turkey is also an enemy of Greece in a manner that doesn’t apply to Russia, no matter how much trouble-making the Turks engineer in the Caucasus and the Black Sea. Turkish troops occupy Cypriot territory. They invade Greek airspace and maritime territory every week. They kill Greeks.

And one thing more: noone who loves Greece, and no Greek, can ever show cowardice in the face of a Turkish threat. When the Turks are thundering, Greeks know they have a duty to do more than cross themselves. By obliging Ocalan to fly vainly from Greece to Russia, and back again, and ultimately allowing the opportunity for his detection and capture, Simitis sacrificed a national duty, and Greece is in turmoil because of it.

Primakov sacrificed one principle for another, in order to live to fight another day. Russians aren’t mistaken or immoral for hoping
Russia will be better off if he does that.

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