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

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

They agree only to clash

Our political parties have decided that the global economic crisis and domestic developments in the economy and society are not so great as to shake their confidence in each party’s ability to lead the Greek people to security and prosperity. No one expected the prime minister’s appeal for consensus to lead to an abrupt reversal of decades-old policies. That would demand that each party and each party leader abandon the illusion of infallibility and thereby also undertake responsibility for the state of the country. New Democracy and PASOK would have to shoulder the blame for the years they have traded places in power, while the leftist parties would have to face up to the fact that as opposition parties they have not only failed to make life better for the working people but have also contributed to a lack of flexibility in adapting to changes and to a trade union mentality that has held the country back in several spheres. The consequences are clear, for example, in the education system’s impasse and in the fact that vulnerable groups of workers and the unemployed do not enjoy the representation that workers with full rights do – lest unions’ recognizing the existence of workers in precarious occupations be misconstrued for blessing those occupations at the expense of the fully employed…
The main parties which have been trading places in office operate as if they have no responsibility for Greece’s plight, doing nothing but blame each other; the smaller parties act as if they live in a perfect world where they can make maximalistic demands without dirtying their hands by any contact with reality. Such “idealism” – the demand for a perfect result and nothing else – often leads to blindness and to the opposite result of that which is desired. The concept of university asylum, for example, was adopted with the best of intentions but lead to universities becoming hothouses of violence and intolerance. Also, precarious jobs are here to stay, and as the economy worsens more and more people will accept fewer rights as long as they can get work. It helps no one when parties and unions pretend that they do not exist.
The lack of consensus, however, is much more serious than the parties’ inability to cooperate in order to deal with the current crisis. However serious this problem may be, however necessary it is to tidy up public finances and carry out structural reforms, the country’s basic problems are much greater.
Where consensus is truly necessary is in any effort to overturn the client-patron system that has plagued modern Greece since its establishment. But which parties will abolish themselves, abandoning the system of favors-for-votes on which they base their existence and their pursuit of power? Which parties will clash with informal centers of power that control the parties and determine developments? Which parties will cooperate for real educational reform? Which parties will work toward fixing the National Health System? Which will agree to the creation of new conditions in the labor market, which will reduce workers’ and employers’ contributions to social security while saving money by simplifying the social security system? Which parties will lead farmers, artisans, businessmen to adopt new technologies and create an economy based on the model of “green” development? Which parties can invest seriously and carefully in our cultural heritage, establishing strict rules of behavior and cleanliness with the aim of providing the highest possible level of services?
Only such substantial changes could create new jobs and new sources of wealth. But this would take work, patience and sacrifice; it demands that we abandon the prejudices of decades. Our parties, however, neither dare to take such steps nor to demand them of the people. They behave as if being in power still provides opportunity for political or material gain. They do not understand that reality has left them behind. Agreeing to continue their disagreements, they agree only on their common retreat from the battle for survival that this nation must wage.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 9 March 2009