By: George Mantzios, guest author
“Caught between the bandit state on the one hand, and the comedy state on the other.”
These were Abdullah Ocalan’s words to his lawyer after slipping through the protection of the Greek National Intelligence Service (EYP) and into the hands of Turkish Special Forces in Nairobi, Kenya, on February 15, 1999. Confined now for nearly fifteen years on the prison-island of Imrali in the Mamara Sea in North Eastern Turkey, the specific chain of events that led to Ocalan’s capture are still shrouded in contention and conspiracy.
And yet, between the self-immolated body of a Kurdish protester in Athens and the shamed resignations of the Greek Foreign, Interior, and Public Order ministers, as well as the chief of the National Intelligence Service (EYP), there was and still is little room for confusion: Greece was responsible for Ocalan’s protection and so Greece is accountable for his capture. Greece’s accountability was even confirmed by a May 1999 Kurdish ‘popular court’ ruling sentencing the chief of the EYP and two Greek security officials to death for their role in Ocalan’s capture. But even after all these years, this blame is suspended awkwardly between incompetence and betrayal, suspended that is, between the comedy state and the bandit state, Scylla and Charybdis.
However both of these iterations of guilt reproduce a diplomatic conceit by holding the nation-state itself responsible, reifying the illusion that the nation-state is a bounded singular will on a world stage. Since at least the early nineteenth century such conceits have formatted the terms of engagement in international relations. However we all know that these conceits belie complex social dynamics of class struggle that articulate and disarticulate private and public interests within and beyond the state apparatus, complicating our ability to identify where sovereignty ultimately lies, rendering the concept at best an expedient means of juridical reckoning within the international community.
What I am here proposing is that we suspend Greece’s guilt- rather than absolve it- so as to reopen what one news-outlet has dubbed the ‘Ocalan Files’. Doing so refines our level of analysis beyond the pixelated viewpoint of the nation-state, forcing many unanswered or unasked questions and considerations into focus. Firstly, and most glaringly, how did Ocalan end up cornered in a Greek embassy in Kenya? On their second day in Nairobi, the Greek intelligence agent charged with Ocalan’s protection, Savvas Kalenteridis, would read in the Turkish “Hurriyet” newspaper that Turkish intelligence (MiT) had uncovered Ocalan’s whereabouts. Through what channels was this information leaked; was the CIA involved as Kalenteridis maintains to this day? After all, a high-level US delegation had previously travelled to Italy (where Ocalan was being harbored for some time) to persuade the Italians to expel him to an ‘unstable’ African country, where his capture would prove easy.
In fact, prior to arriving in Greece in 1999, Ocalan spent sixty-six days in Italy before being expelled (the Italians were under intense pressure from France and Germany, on the one side, and Turkish trade embargos, on the other). From Italy Ocalan was procured safe passage to Moscow and from there redirected to a military base in the capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe, being covertly harboured there while U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was visiting Moscow to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov with the objective of persuading the Russians to expel Ocalan. The story takes another twist at this point when, flying to St. Petersburg from Dushanbe, Ocalan was advised to remain in his plane because he was being targeted for kidnapping or assassination by the Russian mafia!
And ultimately who were Ocalan’s contacts inside the Greek government that facilitated his clandestine and unsanctioned arrival in Greece on January 29, 1999? This question in particular inflects the internal divisions and exclusionary systems of political patronage that beset Greek politics and that complicate the blame game in this particular case. For instance, although sympathy for the Kurdish struggle achieved popular support from across the Greek political spectrum- a support that culminated in Turkey accusing Greece of actively hosting PKK rebel training camps- there were ongoing tensions within the ruling leftist socialist party (PASOK) that compelled Ocalan to seek out unofficial channels of entry into the country in 1999.
The PASOK Prime Minister at the time, Costas Smitis, known to Greek posterity as ‘the modernizer’ or ‘book-keeper’, was motivated above all else by the prospect of joining the European currency, enforcing very unpopular and punitive austerity measures towards these ends. Such measures were so unpopular that in 1998 eight of his own deputies openly criticized his policies, instigating a vote of confidence in parliament. And whereas Simitis was beholden to Western European interests, which considered Ocalan a terrorist, many of his deputies were ideologically wedded to the leftist politics of the party founder, the populist leader Andreas Papandreou, and maintained strong ties with elements of the PKK. It was in this vein of solidarity that one PASOK deputy would later proclaim, “this [Ocalan’s capture] is the most humiliating moment in Greece’s history.”
Added to this internal political division was the division between the state itself and the ‘deep state’ of the National Intelligence Service, which maintained an informal level of operational autonomy, an autonomy typified when on four separate occasions Savvas Kalenteridis refused orders directed to him from the minister of Foreign Affairs, Theodoros Pangalos, to get rid of Ocalan in Nairobi, that is, to forcibly evict him from the embassy there. As a senior aid to Pangalos bombastically instructed to Kalenteridis, “[T]ell him to go on a safari. Tell him to go wherever he likes. He should stay away from [Greek] national colors.”
More endemically, this sort of operational autonomy was cited in EYP Espionage Division Director Col. P. Kitsos’s 2003 testimony, i.e., that the EYP chief, Haralambos Stavrakakis, had received a tip-off about Ocalan’s planned clandestine arrival in Greece in 1999 but did not act on the information. As Miron Varouhakis’ unforgiving report for the CIA would later frame it, it was this dysfunctional command structure between levels of the EYP and the Greek government that turned Ocalan’s security provisions in Kenya into a joke; the security agents appointed to his defense in Kenya were purportedly not even equipped with weapons. However, Varouhakis’ report, based on leaked official Greek government documents and testimony given during a trial in 2003 of those who illegally brought Ocalan into Greece in 1999, spills too easily into a castigation of the EYP and Kalenteridis specifically, going so far as to cite Kalenteridis’ “family roots and the tradition of nationalism that it implied” as a cause for his ineptitude.
However thanks to an exclusive interview conducted in May of last year by a Kurdish freelance reporter, Noreldin Waisy, we have for the first time a detailed personal account of the events leading to Ocalan’s capture by Savvas Kalenteridis himself. This is the first time that Kalenteridis has spoken out about the events. As such it provides an invaluable and intimate timeline that can serve as an instructive counterpoint to the official narratives that work through diplomatic conceits to locate fault at the superficial level of the nation-state. Such an attenuated account also serves as a compliment and corrective to Varouhakis’ report that finds fault quite specifically with the EYP, and Kalenteridis in particular. For these reasons I refer the reader to the transcribed interview in the link attached here.
* * *
As I write this ISIS forces are besieging the Kurdish Canton of Kobane in Syria. How desolate this topic, Ocalan’s capture all those years ago, appears when viewed in relation to the stakes of the violence transpiring relentlessly over there, right now.
What an oblique intervention I am proposing! Can solidarity attend such peripheral revisions to the historical record? Is solidarity the turning of opportunities into techniques, techniques of thinking, writing, acting… feeling? Does it have an ethical stance particular to it or is it always more of an improvisation between movements of envisioning and compromising? In spite of these nearsighted hesitations, there is an impulse to act, an impulse that is not mine but to which I belong. This impulse is an excitement as much as it is a throbbing, that is, as much pleasure as pain. These two things finally being equal, much work can now be done. But how much? Do I risk doing too much or too little in my protracted contemplation of first steps?
These are questions that haunt me as I write, but not as a Greek (I am not that). This contribution was not an attempt to absolve a nation of its guilt but rather to attenuate that guilt by uncovering the actions that inscribe the risk of betrayal in every gesture of solidarity.
And so I imagine through my writing, imagine Ocalan pacing back and forth on his prison-island, trying to keep pace with the urgency that now dictates time in Kobane. Consider the lag between his words and their bodies. Consider how decisions must fester in this interval, in the meantime. Consider how this interval grows bold with autonomy, articulating their bodies with his words and vice versa. Everything seems both urgent and untimely in this interval between. Perhaps this is the space of solidarity and perhaps justice, a space that none of us can fill but that all of us must occupy.
*”Act like a shepherd and whistle indifferently”-Vassilis Papaioanou, senior aide to Foreign Minister Theodoros Pangalos, offered this advice to Georgios Costoulas, Greek ambassador to Kenya. This was during the interrogation of Costoulas at the hands of the Kenyan authorities who were trying to ascertain the whereabouts of Ocalan.
 Clogg, Richard. 2002 . A Concise History of Greece. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
George Mantzios is currently pursuing a PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology at the University of Toronto and is a member of the Rojava Solidarity Collective.