Welcome acknowledgment

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s comments on the expulsion of minorities from Turkey is very interesting in terms of the “self-criticism” that it suggests with regard to an issue that has had a terrible cost for the people involved and for Turkey itself over the past century. It looks like welcome acknowledgment of a situation that Turkey has always tried to ignore – that former citizens lost their homes and livelihoods while Turkey lost the wealth of experience and cosmopolitan atmosphere that it once had.

But it is difficult for anyone outside Turkey to understand precisely why Erdogan made such comments and whether they will lead to anything as regards those ethnic groups and their survivors within and outside Turkey. Because all too often we have seen Erdogan making comments that come across as if he was the leader of an opposition party and not the prime minister. So it is very likely that his criticism of the authoritarian decisions of the past is aimed at scoring points in the endless struggle taking place between the Ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the military/foreign policy establishment. For example, for years Greeks have watched in vain for a solution that will allow the Orthodox seminary on Halki to function, in the knowledge that a breakthrough there would help Greek-Turkish relations but would also set a precedent regarding institutions of higher education that would benefit the AKP. Even though Erdogan had appeared supportive of a solution, we have not seen one.

Either way, Erdogan’s comments regarding the minorities are very welcome because they reflect a more nuanced understanding of history and the need for a society that will be more tolerant of all the various groups within it. It is like the country’s preparation toward European Union accession: Everyone, especially Erdogan and his party, knows that meeting the political and social criteria set by the EU will be to the benefit of all of Turkey’s peoples – except for those shadowy parts of the state mechanism that are opposed to a more open state and who hold back progress on all fronts. And yet little progress is made. So even if Erdogan’s latest statements are nothing more than a salvo in the much larger conflict, at least they have been fired in the right direction.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 26 May, 2009

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

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