Cutlasses into ploughs

(This is from November 2008. I pulled it out of the drawer because of the recent intensification in piracy, including the capture of an American captain by Somali pirates)

The hijacking of a supertanker by pirates hundreds of miles off Kenya earlier this month has thrown the spotlight on a phenomenon that had been growing in recent years but to which few had paid much attention. After nearly 200 years of law and order in marine transportation, the rise of piracy appears to be something of an anomaly. But history shows that piracy – the plundering of merchant vessels and the ransoming of their crew and passengers – has always posed a threat to shipping. Piracy flourishes when there is no strong empire that can rule the seas or when a country does not have a government capable of securing the well-being of its people or of maintaining order. In Somalia today there is no credible central government; no one is capable of – or interested in – maintaining order in the coastal areas. Anarchy and neglect push the people into ever greater desperation. Ambitious young men can choose between poverty and crime.

Pirates have a special place in the world’s folk tales and in the collective memory of people like ours, whose history, human geography and architecture has been shaped by piracy. (For example, for centuries no one could build settlements along our coast, for fear of pirates – unless the settlers were pirates themselves).

The oldest reference we have from a somewhat historical source is in Homer, where piracy is presented as the natural consequence of the collapse of the Cretan naval empire. After Minos, the Athenian empire and then Alexander the Great’s fleet maintained some kind of order. Political forces have always exploited pirates in order to harm the interests of their enemies.

We see this through antiquity right up to our recent past. In the Caribbean in the 17th century, for example, France and England encouraged pirate attacks on ships of their common enemy – Spain. Only after Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, when Britain became the sole sovereign of the seas, was piracy stamped out.

Ancient Rome presents an especially interesting case. In the last years of the Republic – the 1st century BC – the Romans were undisputed masters of the land and showed little interest in policing the seas. But while they were involved in endless civil wars, piracy developed to such an extent that pirates would also carry out raids inland and more importantly, had also disrupted Rome’s food supply. With less wheat getting in, prices rose so much that fears of famine grew. That’s when – in 67 BC – the general Pompey was granted unprecedented absolute powers to raise a mighty army and fleet and stamp out piracy. The Roman elite was alarmed by the concentration of so much power in the hands of a single man, but Julius Caesar, to further his own plans, pushed the people into demanding Pompey’s appointment. Such was the public’s faith in the great general that his appointment alone sufficed to bring down the price of wheat in Rome. In three months, through methodical and effective campaigning, Pompey had ended the pirates’ reign.

But the road toward supreme authority resting with one man had been opened. This would quickly lead to the end of the republic and the beginning of empire. Caesar and then his adopted son Octavian, who was destined to become the Emperor Augustus, exploited this. Augustus later established an imperial fleet, which maintained order on the seas for nearly 300 years. When the empire weakened, the pirates took control of our region again for more than 1,400 years.

Today, the Somali pirates’ actions are leading to a rise in ships’ insurance premiums and the higher cost of shipping goods via longer routes. These costs will inevitably be passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices. A multinational fleet of warships has assembled off the Horn of Africa. But however much naval forces may try, the only way to beat piracy is to promise Somalia a better future. The secret of Pompey’s success was that when he had captured 20,000 pirates he neither executed them nor did he release them so that they would go back to their old ways. What he did was give them land – and they settled down and became peace-loving farmers.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 24 November 2008

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The Greeks’ migrations

The history of the Greeks is an endless river that springs up from the depths of central Asia and acquires a homeland at the bottom of the Balkan peninsula, across the Aegean and in Asia Minor. From there, like blood pumped by a powerful heart, Greeks spread out across the world. The fate of their homeland – the prosperity or hardships of little Greece – always determined the emigration or return of its children. After they conquered the area we now know as Greece, the Greek tribes quickly expanded – either through the creation of colonies around the Mediterranean and Black seas or through war (such as the Trojan War and Alexander’s conquests), or through trade. The lack of arable land and shortage of other natural riches forced the Greeks to become seafarers, mercenaries and merchants. They learned the art of survival far from friends and family – they became the first cosmopolitans, the first global citizens.  As adventurers, they opened roads and created Greek settlements, large and small, everywhere – from the deserts of the ancient Middle East to the suburbs of Melbourne.
The past century saw great developments in the Greeks’ migrations, an epic that has still not found its poet. With the opening up of the “new world” of the Americas, Oceania and Africa, hundreds of thousands of Greeks left their villages in search of a better life. They took root far from their homeland, creating new hearths of Hellenism far from the familiar coasts of the seas near Greece. But the Asia Minor Catastrophe, the persecution of the Greeks of Turkey and Stalin’s deportation of Greeks from the Crimea and the Caucasus, pushed Greeks deep into central Asia again – but also resulted in more than a million coming to Greece. This new blood (rich with the experience, wealth and inventiveness that Greeks acquire when the live abroad), strengthened the anemic Greek state, which only found its current form after World War II. At the same time, hunger and the stifling horizons of post-war Greece pushed tens of thousand of young Greeks to leave for Australia, Germany, Belgium and other countries in search of hope and prosperity. Also, many students who studied abroad realized that only outside Greece could they fulfill their expectations, that only as emigrants would they be judged according to their merit and be paid according to their worth. With the billions of euros that flowed into Greece from the European Union, it was no longer poverty that forced the more restless, the more daring Greeks to seek their fate elsewhere. Now it was the lack of opportunity and the thirst for knowledge that inspired the descendants of ancient mariners to migrate.
In the past few years, things have changed once again. Instead of poor Greeks leaving, poor foreigners are coming to Greece while it is the Greeks with the education and means to do so who have been seeking their fortune elsewhere. The foreign immigrants gave new life to Greece’s countryside, propped up the social security funds and helped complete major construction projects.
Now the global economic crisis is laying bare all the problems of Greece. In addition to the dysfunctional  social, educational and political systems, our economic problems can no longer be hidden behind borrowed prosperity. The lack of competitiveness (for which Greek workers are the least to blame) and debt are undermining the future. The problems faced by other countries are leading to a drop in tourism: the money that we were used to waiting for will not be coming, we will have to seek it elsewhere.
The solution for Greeks has always been to look beyond their country’s limits. The Balkans, the Arab states, Russia and Turkey were always favored areas for trade and settlement. In these regions the Greek presence has withered or disappeared, but the past acts like a beachhead for the future. Greek communities in foreign lands – as well as isolated professors, students, contract workers, sailors and entrepreneurs – are like firm stepping stones in history’s river. They show that for those who dare, home is not just the hard and beautiful country of their birth or ancestry, but the Earth itself.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 13 April 2009

Shot in the foot

Last Thursday, April 2, the leaders of the world’s 20 largest economies met among the ruins of the global economic order to seek consensus on how to deal with the crisis and what steps to take toward the foundation of a new international system. The meeting – which was also Barack Obama’s first foreign sojourn since his election as US president – was an historic event both because of its timing but also because the leaders of very different nations set aside their differences and worked toward a compromise. Irrespective of whether decisive steps come out of the London Summit, it comes at the end of one era and the beginning of another.
On the same day, central Athens was blocked to traffic by an ongoing protest by textile workers who had encamped on Syntagma Square days earlier. Also, as the major labor federations had called a 24-hour strike to protest against the global economic crisis, demonstrations made the center a no-go area – unless one wanted to spend hours stuck in traffic.
So, both inside and outside Greece, Thursday, April 2, 2009 was a day of major import to the Greek public, whether one wanted to know where the world was going or whether one should dare go to central Athens.
But, this being Greece, no one in the public could learn anything about the world or his or her own city – because the journalists’ national federation suddenly called a 24-hour strike to coincide with that of the other labor federations. In a triumph of stupidity that would surely rank as a chapter in a textbook on journalism if the subject of public enlightenment were ever taken seriously in Greece, journalists managed to cast a mantle of darkness over their readers, viewers and listeners on precisely the day that the public needed the best possible information on global and local events. In this way, journalists stressed both how important their work is and how incompetent they are in evaluating its importance. They also highlighted their own irrelevance: People who cared about international developments could read all about them on international news sites or watch foreign television channels, whereas, locally, several news sites and blogs not affiliated with professional publishers were able to keep chattering away.
The journalists’ unionists must have been very proud of themselves because of the success of the blackout they imposed on an already benighted population. For years they have shown an impressive immunity to the painful truths and mortal challenges that their profession faces. As the global and local economic crisis hits mainstream journalism at its heart – advertising and circulation – the journalists’ only weapon is to prove every day how necessary they are for a well-informed public. It is madness to point members of the public to other sources that do nothing to put bread on publishers’ or journalists’ tables. Pulling the switch on information at a time of such crisis is like picketing our own funeral.

Milestones&Footnotes comment in AthensPlus, 10 April 2009

Banking on the Balkans

In the two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Greece has managed to miss every opportunity to establish itself as the major economic and political player in the region. Our politicians have allowed domestic concerns to dictate foreign policy, without establishing a long-term strategy or showing any ability to adapt to the changing political and economic climate. As the years passed, as our neighbors worked their way out of the dead-ends and poverty of the Communist era, Greece was embroiled in bilateral problems with almost all of them, using up political capital instead of creating more productive entanglements.

At a time when turmoil in the Balkans demanded strong leadership and initiatives, Greece displayed none of the self-confidence one would expect of a long-time member of the European Union and NATO. Athens did show the odd initiative – such as hosting a peace conference during the Yugoslav conflict and providing funds for Balkan reconstruction. And it is also fair to say that most of the problems were not of Greece’s making – whether these concerned Greek minority rights in Albania, the “Macedonia” name issue, and Turkey’s occupation of northern Cyprus and its pressure on Greece in the Aegean. What was lacking was the inspiration to look beyond political problems and build bridges in what has always been a fertile hinterland for economic growth and political influence. And yet, Greece’s relations with its neighbors were nominally good, thanks mainly to business initiatives and investments.

If our politicians had focused on encouraging strong social, cultural and sporting ties, they would have formed the backbone of improved relations with our neighbors. Instead, even when immigrants from Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova and other countries came here in all good spirit, wishing to build a better life, they were left to the whims of indifferent bureaucrats and malevolent police. This did nothing to foster good relations with countries that should have been overjoyed by the remittances they were receiving from Greece, prompting them to stand by Greece diplomatically. Instead, it was left to individual citizens and businesses to improve ties.

Now, the fallout from the global economic crisis on the Balkans and Southeastern Europe can offer Greece a new opportunity to emerge from its shell. Its major banks are deeply involved in the Balkans. This inspires fears of over-exposure but also provides an opportunity for Greece to play a constructive role in helping weather the storm and build the future. (For example, 30 percent of National Bank of Greece’s loans are outside Greece, with 16 percent of them in Turkey).

As the region suffers from its worst crisis since the collapse of Communism – with remittances, manufacturing and exports plummeting – there are fears for the area’s security. In Strasbourg last week, US President Barack Obama said he was “very concerned about the impact of the economic downturn” on Balkan countries’ ability to maintain peace and stability. According to the Financial Times on Monday, an IMF report proposes that EU states in Central and Eastern Europe should consider scrapping their currencies in favor of the euro even without formally joining the eurozone.

Greece most certainly has its own economic and social demons to confront. But, as a member of the eurozone, it enjoys security that no other country in the region has. With its extrovert banks and other businesses primed and ready, all it needs is strategic planning and political initiatives to open up the Balkans and give the Greek economy room to expand, and in doing so spur growth both in Greece and the region. This opportunity must not go to waste.

Editorial in AthensPlus, 10 April 2009

The EU’s Turkey test

Who would have thought in the years since 2005, when much of the Muslim world erupted in fury over a Danish newspaper’s publication of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad, that this facile experiment would set off a chain reaction that would undermine the Western world’s values of free speech and tolerance? And yet, after a four-year hiatus, the cartoon furor is back – this time not as farce but as tragedy.

On Friday and Saturday, the eve of a visit to Ankara and Istanbul by the new US president, Turkey’s Islamist-inspired government went eyeball-to-eyeball with its NATO allies, rejecting the appointment of Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen as the Western alliance’s new secretary general because of his country’s support of free speech. Once, in more optimistic times, we might have expected that Turkey’s stand would lead to Ankara’s isolation among its NATO allies and be taken as proof that the Turks are a long way from being ready to join the European Union. Turkey would have been pressed to change its position. But we are living in a new world now, one in which even the most sacrosanct values of Western democracies can be thrown out for the sake of a transitory political compromise. Turkey finally agreed to Rasmussen’s appointment only after Barack Obama met with his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul, for an hour before the NATO summit. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey had received “guarantees” from Obama that one of Rasmussen’s deputies would be a Turk and that Turkish commanders would be present at the alliance’s command, according to the Hurriyet Daily News. The New York Times reported that Ankara was assured that talks on two chapters in its European Union accession talks would resume. These are among eight chapters that were frozen in December 2006 due to Turkey’s refusal to acknowledge the existence of the Republic of Cyprus, an EU member which has been under partial Turkish military occupation since 1974.

It’s the timeless lesson of politics: The weak, even if they have justice on their side, are repeatedly trampled over by the mighty. In this case, Turkey will move closer to joining the EU while doing nothing to recognize the existence of Cyprus. Obama went a step further yesterday, calling on the EU to accept Turkey as a member. To rub in the magnitude of Turkey’s triumph, Rasmussen is expected to “address the concerns” of the Muslim world – as The New York Times put it – regarding the cartoons. In other words, the new leader of the Western alliance is expected to say he is sorry for having upheld the principle of free speech in his country. (A frightening footnote: London’s Daily Mail revealed on Friday that the BBC is sitting on an interview with a Danish cartoonist who is at the heart of the controversy, apparently too scared to broadcast an opinion that might anger Muslims.)

For Greece and Cyprus, it was already bad enough that Obama is in Turkey today and tomorrow, highlighting that country’s importance to the United States in the region. If the European Union is indeed planning to cave in to an ever-more-assertive Turkey’s demands, rather than forcing Turkey to adapt to the EU’s principles, then the whole world will come to regret the Europeans’ and Americans’ selling out their core values and principles in order to appease a nation that has never shown any ability to compromise nor cooperate on anything but its own terms. Well-meaning people everywhere – including in Greece and Cyprus – have supported Turkey’s bid to join the European Union, on the understanding that when Turkey meets its commitments to the EU, it will be a Turkey that will have changed radically for the better, to the benefit of its neighbors, its partners and its own people. If the EU now chooses to dilute its principles in order to appease Turkey (and its backers in the United States and Britain), then the current leaders of the EU will have managed to destroy the most democratic, the most just, the most progressive social, political and economic experiment the world has seen. That seems a monumental and unforgivable loss for the sake of very short-term gains.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 6 April 2009

Chickens and eggs

There is sorry irony in the fact that Amnesty International accuses the Greek police of human rights violations and the use of excessive force against demonstrators and detainees, at a time when the state appears incapable of enforcing law and order anywhere. The sad thing is that Amnesty International is not exaggerating: Police and coast guard officers are often brutal when dealing with people who have fallen into their hands, whether they be violent demonstrators, crime suspects, passers-by or terrified illegal immigrants. The irony is that these strong-arm tactics do nothing to frighten the hooded youths who occupy university premises with impunity and rampage through Athens and Thessaloniki’s shopping districts at will; they do nothing to stop the rise in robberies and other forms of organized crime, which keep boring deeper into our daily lives and deepest fears.
Perhaps it is only to be expected that when officers are incapable of performing the task for which they were ostensibly hired and trained, they will take out their frustration on whoever falls into their clutches. Or is perhaps that the lack of discipline that makes officers brutal is also the reason for their incompetence? What comes first: the chicken or the egg?
But why should we be so hard on our police when all they do is reflect a much broader problem in society. Whether they be politicians, judges, professors, bureaucrats, doctors, journalists, policemen, waiters or plumbers, too many of us do not do the jobs that we have undertaken – always expecting someone else to do better than us to set things right. We are experiencing system failure, where confusion of laws and responsibilities, incompetence at the personal and institutional level, a lack of accountability and the total absence of a vision for the future conspire to break the nation down into warring tribes with no purpose but to impose their will on everyone else.
We can see the steps that brought us to the slippery slope. But, gliding effortlessly in our decline, we can only guess where all this will stop. Which individuals, armed only with personal integrity and moral duty to society, will take it upon themselves to stand against the willful destruction, to try create a beachhead of civility on what has become an enemy shore?
Last weekend, the rector and other academic leaders of Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University declared that the youths (including “hooded ones”) occupying university premises had a deadline of “Monday or Tuesday” to leave. On Saturday, in broad daylight, the youths rampaged through the city’s heart before returning unimpeded to their “asylum.” On Tuesday, at a much-anticipated debate that was expected to end the sit-in or lead to police being summoned to the campus, jeering protesters threw an egg at the rector. The meeting ended with university authorities pathetically promising to consider the protesters’ demands. The egg flew, the rector ran. But would the egg have flown if the hoodlums were not already sure that the chicken would fly?

Milestones&Footnotes comment in AthensPlus, 3 April 2009

Cold shoulder, hot opportunity

Judging by the disappointment of Greece’s political and diplomatic establishment, President Barack Obama’s visit to Turkey looks like a diplomatic triumph for our neighbor and perennial rival. It is obvious that the fixed relationship between Washington, Athens and Ankara – exemplified by the 7:10 ratio agreement, which meant that for every 10 dollars in aid that Turkey got, Greece would get seven – has been broken. Washington has made no effort to hide the fact that it does not consider Athens important enough to burden Obama with an unnecessary visit simply for the sake of appearances. This realpolitik has reached the point where – inexplicably – even the wise, respected and moderate spiritual head of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios, has been left off the agenda for Obama’s visit.

As much as this may hurt Greeks’ and Greek Cypriots’ sense of justice, they cannot expect an American president who has shown that he does not fear to overturn decades of domestic and international policy to spend any time worrying about another country’s sensitivities. And Obama certainly does not need a visit to Athens that could provoke the kind of street theatrics that made Greece look as if it was being burned to the ground when President Bill Clinton visited in 1999.

It is difficult to face the fact that Greece is more or less irrelevant to developments in the wider region. But if we want to step back from an emotional reading of the situation, we might see that things are not all that bad for Greece.

The chief benefit of Obama’s cold shoulder is that it gives Greeks the opportunity to rid themselves of the delusion that all they need to do to solve their problems is to grouse enough so that Washington takes their side. It should have been clear since Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 that Washington’s studied neutrality would never work to Athens’s benefit. The Macedonia issue proved this beyond doubt. Greece must now understand that it has to stand on its own and use its diplomatic and political initiatives to function as a valuable member of the European Union. Only if Greece becomes self-confident and self-reliant will it be able to turn events to its advantage, whether this be in relation to Ankara, Skopje, Moscow, Brussels or Washington. It was such self-confidence that allowed Turkey to block US plans to invade northern Iraq from its territory, yet keep relations with Washington alive.

But the most important legacy of Obama’s visit to Turkey will be the extent to which the United States is prepared to press “a key NATO ally” to go against its own interests in order to serve Washington’s strategies. Obama’s greatest concerns on his visit to Turkey – behind the obvious window dressing of his participation in a meeting aimed at promoting dialogue between the West and Muslim countries – are Washington’s exit strategy from Iraq, the containment of Iran and renewed international involvement in Afghanistan. For this reason, issues such as Kurdish rights and aspirations, both in Turkey and Iraq, recognition of the Ottoman Empire’s genocidal campaign against the Armenians, Cyprus and the patriarchate are likely to be mentioned in a way that will save face for both sides but not get in the way of what Washington considers the real issues.

Now Greece must take stock of its own long-term interests, plan its strategy and get involved in regional and European developments. Turkey’s relationship with the United States is indeed more intense right now, but this could serve as a catalyst that will increase the terrible tension between Turkey’s ruthless secular state and an Islamist government already wounded by unexpected losses in the local elections of March 29.

Editorial in AthensPlus, 3 April 2009