Majestic in Exile

Op-Ed Contributor
Published: June 18, 2009

As a Greek, I have to visit the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum whenever I am in London.

I understand the strong feelings of my compatriots who want to see these unsurpassed sculptures returned home, ending the wrong done by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, two centuries ago. I feel the sense of dislocation — the incongruity — of the brilliance of Classical Athens at its peak trapped in a dull northern light, carried off by a foreign aristocrat and sold at a time when Greece itself was enslaved and its people unable to prevent the looting of their treasures.

And yet, without going into the legal or moral aspects of the issue, without weighing whether the Parthenon Marbles were saved or damaged by their removal, I cannot help feeling that the looting may have done the sculptures themselves and the idea of Ancient Greece more good than harm.

The British Museum is one of the greatest repositories of human achievement. It has given pride of place to the sculptures from the pediments, metopes and frieze of the Parthenon, providing them with the grandest gallery in the majestic building, when the wonders of other civilizations are cramped in smaller halls and corridors.

I agree with the British Museum that its exhibits tell the story of cultural achievement throughout the world and that the display of the Parthenon Marbles allows millions of visitors each year to admire them and “gain insights on how ancient Greece influenced, and was influenced by, the other civilizations that it encountered.” Visitors, who are not charged an entry fee, can contemplate treasures from the dawn of civilization in Mesopotamia, from Egypt and from Greece from earliest times down to the Hellenistic era.

And among the whole world’s treasures, the Parthenon Marbles shine — the expression of a free people celebrating their freedom from foreign invaders, their freedom from kings, aristocrats and religious bureaucracies. Because this, more than the wonder of their art, is the beauty of the Parthenon sculptures — whether in the British Museum, in Athens or wherever lesser segments are displayed.

In their depiction of the goddess Athena bursting out of Zeus’s forehead and her triumphing over Poseidon to become the city’s protector, in the mythical battles between centaurs and men, in the lively procession of contemporary citizens of democratic Athens honoring their goddess, the sculptures sing of freedom, community and the glory of life.

They are like a sunburst in a long and sometimes regressive chain of civilizations that created great art but whose people lived in the shadow of kings and priests and superstition. The Parthenon sculptures enshrine the point where the human melds with the divine, where, through the genius of mind and hand, stone is smoothed into the rippling of flesh, spirit and motion.

From the time they were brought to London, as the British Museum points out, the Parthenon Marbles inspired poets and artists and had a profound effect on scholars and the public.

Before the era of mass tourism, there can be no doubt that the sculptures drew broader attention to the achievements of the ancient Greeks and their descendants’ struggle to break free from the Ottoman Turks and establish their modern state.

Like silent envoys whose mere presence was their message — their appeal — the works that Pericles commissioned and Phidias created once again expressed the will of a people to be free. In an echo of this, the spirited campaign for the Marbles’ return to Athens renews their importance — to the benefit of both the British Museum and Greece’s heritage. The dispute reflects the value of the works, and their value drives the dispute. Their being in London, for now, does them no harm.

I have no doubt that one day all the Parthenon Marbles will be reunited in the New Acropolis Museum. Those that were once burdened by the name of Elgin have been in exile for just over 200 years — a brief period since their creation 2,500 ago. They have outlasted empires and civilizations and will continue to do so. They will be appreciated as long as there are people who appreciate beauty and freedom. And there are enough such people in Britain to ensure that sooner rather than later the Parthenon Marbles will go home.

Meanwhile, if the British Museum wants to be true to its self-appointed task of serving as curator of the world’s civilizations, and if it really does not recognize the geographic, national or ethnic origins of its masterpieces, then it should have the grace to acknowledge this in practice. It should drop the possessive adjective from its name and call itself simply “The Museum.” And its board of government-appointed trustees should be replaced by representatives of the nations whose ancestors created the works that it displays.

This would mark the end of colonial and imperial provenance of acquisitions and open a new era of exchange and cooperation between the world’s museums. Questions of ownership would be secondary in this new dialogue of free and equal nations. The Parthenon’s sculptures have the power to transform those who gaze on them.

Nikos Konstandaras is managing editor of the Greek daily Kathimerini and editor of the English-language weekly Athens Plus.

Contributed to the International Herald Tribune

Published: June 18, 2009


Shortsighted navel gazers

In all the noise of the past few weeks, the one thing that no one discussed was Greece’s future in the European Union. The two major parties treated the elections for European Parliament as a referendum on the government’s popularity, a clash over scandals, as a practice run for national elections. For the smaller parties, it was all about whether they would strengthen their standing on the local political scene.

Voters were forced to make their decisions on the basis of domestic politics, not according to whether the candidates would be able to contribute to Europe and also serve Greek interests in Strasbourg and Brussels. The main concern of voters appeared to be the need to protest against the government – but without strengthening the opposition PASOK party much. As polls had predicted, the smaller parties gained at the expense of the larger ones, with the exception of the leftist Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), whose leadership alienated many voters with its sudden euroskepticism.

So, instead of a vote based on a positive appraisal of candidates and European policies, many voters were forced to think negatively. One train of thought was: “If I vote for PASOK, it might come out so strong that it will return to its old arrogance and, pressing for elections, will make the country ungovernable.” Others who had voted for New Democracy now wanted to punish it for its inertia and the scandals. Others picked smaller parties, while others who intended to vote for small parties decided their vote would go to waste and so voted for larger ones. And, of course, an unprecedented number of voters chose to stay away. The system short-circuited.

The irony is that many of the new members in the European Parliament are most capable of serving Europe and Greece. And, with a stronger European Parliament if the Lisbon Treaty is ratified, their role will be most valuable. But it is difficult to expect that our parties will support them, blind as they are to everything but the narrow political scene of Athens.

Comment in Kathimerini and Kathimerini English Edition, 8 June 2009

Obama’s diplomacy

For the second time in two months, Barack Obama stood up before the Muslim world and declared his intention to improve relations between the United States and the followers of Islam. In his speech in Cairo on Thursday, the American president persisted with his message that relations can be based on “common interests and common respect.” He used the very same words in Turkey, on his first foreign trip as president, on April 6. Two such speeches, two visits to Muslim countries – all in the space of two months – underline the personal risk that Obama is taking.
His actions are not the flights of fancy of an inspired fool: The US president is intelligent, talented and daring. As leader of a superpower, he also knows that some battles are not won by arms. His country faces challenges on many fronts – Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and wherever Muslim fanatics might dream of a new September 11. He knows that his predecessor’s head-on collision with the world of Islam brought nothing but pain and tears to both sides. Obama’s aim is to gain time so that the United States can disengage from Iraq, beat the Taliban in Afghanistan, isolate them in Pakistan, curb Iran’s nuclear program and deprive extremists everywhere of popular support. Diplomacy is war by other means.
Obama’s display of good will is necessary to extricate America from the quagmire. However, it is complicated by the fact that he has to reach both the skeptical public in Arab and Muslim countries, which is waiting to see results after the declarations, and autocratic governments that need US backing. And though Obama appears to be expressing a tougher US line toward Israel, few believe that the Palestinian issue will soon stop being the touchstone for relations between the United States and the Muslim world.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition (and Kathimerini), 6 June, 2009

The personal and the European

Elections are a time when the individual participates in the evolution of the national. For us in Europe, the elections on Sunday are an opportunity to take part in the development of the European Union. These are the seventh elections for the European Parliament, a body that has become gradually more powerful and more representative of the people who now count themselves members of the European Union. If the Lisbon Treaty is adopted in the next couple of years, after overcoming the obstacle of the Irish “no” vote, then the European Parliament will be stronger than ever – the Parliament whose members we will elect on Sunday.

Going into the elections, a recent Eurobarometer survey across the EU found that citizens’ main concerns, which they wanted the campaign to focus on, were: unemployment (57 percent), economic growth (52 percent), inflation and purchasing power (40 percent), the future of pensions (32 percent), followed by crime, the safety of energy supplies, the fight against climate change, immigration, terrorism, food safety and agriculture. At the bottom of the list were: the euro (13 percent), the preservation of the European social model, the powers and competences of European institutions and, last of all, European values and identity (10 percent).

It is natural that people should worry about their finances and their pensions, as these will determine the quality of their lives. What is intriguing is that issues related to a common European experience or identity are right at the bottom of the list. This suggests either that people feel that the European project is doing fine without their thinking about it, or that they have more important things to worry about.

The primary concerns of individuals (unemployment, economic development, pensions, and so on) are issues that concern each country as well as the European Union as a whole. Members of the eurozone are sheltered from the worst storms of the global economy by their participation in the single currency, but they are also constrained by the rules that are aimed at keeping the euro strong. Decisions taken at the national and EU level will determine the welfare of each economy, and this will determine the wellbeing of citizens in each country.

So, at a time of global recession, and with national governments looking increasingly incapable of solving major issues on their own, and with the European Parliament set to wield greater power, it is obvious that these elections matter. And yet each country seems to be experiencing them solely as a referendum on the government or the main political parties, to the benefit of smaller – often extremist – groupings. This is a natural reaction against political elites who seem incapable of meeting the challenges of the times. But anger is no less damaging for being justified, and this suggests that perhaps it is time to uncouple European politics from the constraints of national politics.

As things stand, national parties ally themselves with pan-European parties according to their “ideology” – the center right European People’s Party, the Socialists, the Liberal Democrats, and so on.  But many ostensibly like-minded parties vary greatly among themselves from country to country and make uncomfortable bedfellows in Strasbourg. Looking at the candidates on the Greek party ballots, it is striking that some of them have more in common with people on rival ballots than in their own party. Yet the candidates and voters are constrained by the party of which they are members or for which they vote. If candidates could form their own ballots as representatives of EU-wide parties, perhaps voters would have a choice of sending to Strasbourg people whose primary focus is the future of their country within Europe, rather than sending representatives of political parties that see the European Parliament elections only as a way to push for power on the domestic stage.

Editorial in Athens Plus, 5 June, 2009

Could Alexander govern us?

And so the Greeks have voted that Alexander the Great is the “Greatest Greek” of all time, beating the philosophers, doctors, artists and politicians who created the unique Greek miracle which remains the world’s touchstone for achievement. The result was hardly a surprise, as Alexander was indeed Great: He reached the ends of the known world through military conquest, creating a huge empire which made a gift of the Greek tongue and culture to countless ethnic groups, which could then communicate with each other and exchange ideas, religions and products. Alexander changed the world and (this is what concerns us mainly), he made it “more Greek;” he made the past more familiar to us. For the citizens of a small country in a world of growing uncertainty, it is natural that we should seek to identify with Alexander’s triumphs, as if, in this way, we can impose ourselves on others, conquer fear, strike a blow against anyone who underestimates us, who to tries to usurp any of our achievements.

We miss Alexander, but what would we do if he suddenly appeared before us, ready to rule? We’d try to kill him, to run away, or – most likely – to strip him of the qualities that made him Great. (You see, Alexander’s great, but so is the democratic system that the other Greeks – whom he beat in the competition – bequeathed to humanity. And we would not like to lose our right to misgovern ourselves.)

Alexander – just as in his own time – would divide us between those who would like to follow him and those who insist on their state’s independence. Also, he would oblige us to be in a state of continual warfare – which might be okay if the fighting were aimed at conquering a perennial foe, but Alexander had no intention of stopping: He was forced to turn back only when his exhausted army finally rebelled on the bank of the Hyphasis River in India as they contemplated yet another meaningless battle against a superior foe.

But because Alexander was a hero of his time, when military conquest or defeat determined whether one lived or died, where a king might believe that he was the son of a god and therefore need not abide by the laws of men nor institutions, it is pointless trying to judge him by today’s criteria. That is how great leaders have always been – Alexander was just more successful than all the others, because he managed to leave a positive impression on many of the regions that he conquered, as we see from the survival of his name in many cities and narratives of distant nations.

So let’s not judge Alexander by today’s standards. Let’s compare ourselves with him instead, so that we might be judged. First of all, in Greece today, Alexander would not be so fortunate as to attain power as a headstrong 20-year-old (unless he were the son of a king, which, he was). In Greece today, mediocrity and selfishness rule – and it takes many years for a capable young person to have all good qualities knocked out of him and acquire the necessary networks among political, economic and academic interests that will allow him to climb the ladder of power. He would need to be at least 40 before he achieved this. And then he would find himself confronting the many systemic problems that we all know and which are maintained by the interests that will have supported him in his rise. As a graduate of our narrow-minded education system (because it is one thing to be tutored by Aristotle and another to study at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki), a hostage to interest groups and to the corruption that feeds off political apathy and maintains it, he would cut no Gordian knots. He’d just keep talking about “change” and “reform,” not daring to do anything that would endanger his support, as he’d play for time. He would allow the country to sink, as long as he could remain in power. (Suffering along with his soldiers when they lack food and water would be taken as a sign of dangerous, unforgivable weakness.) And if today’s Alexander were to embrace foreign nations and their customs, this too would meet with disapproval from his cohorts and a large part of his nation, which feels comfortable only when flattered by claims of its purported superiority to all things foreign. (This bigotry is far removed from the anger and dismay that Alexander’s tough Macedonian generals felt when they saw him luxuriating in Persian dress and being overwhelmed by delusions of grandeur.)

So we might miss a leader who made the Greeks known to the whole world and we might miss an age in which our nation dominated all others. But if we compare ourselves with Alexander the Great, we may justly argue that he was the greatest Greek of all time – except for our own.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 25 May, 2009

A vote for the future

Since signing up to join the European Economic Community 30 years ago, Greece has had the honor and the responsibility of being part of the growing unification of Europe. The benefits and obligations are a two-way street. The EEC “acquired” a member very different from the others – all of whom, at the time, were far more “Western” than Greece both geographically and historically. From Greece’s problems, demands and obsessions, Europe learned how to embrace new members with different needs and modes of behavior. It learned, also, how to enforce its will when necessary (as in imposing environmental directives, for example). Without the thorns in the initial relationship with Greece, it is doubtful whether subsequent European “enlargement” would have gone as smoothly as it did. On the other hand, Greece won the longest period of political stability and social well-being in its history, along with huge amounts of money for modernization and its people’s advancement.

Europe and Greece both gained from this osmosis. But, just three weeks from the June 4-7 European Parliament elections, there is a strong sense that both Europe and Greece are in a quagmire in their relationship but also in their separate development. Europe suffers from a lack of vision and a dearth of self-confidence on the part of its leaders, while Greece is trapped by the structural dysfunctions that no politicians dare tackle.

This problem is expressed by lack of interest in the Euro elections. Whereas 63 percent of EEC members’ citizens voted in the first direct elections for the European Parliament in 1979, by 2004 this had dropped to 45.7 percent (with participation in Greece dropping from 79 percent to 62.8 percent over the same period). For these elections, Eurobarometer found that 53 percent of European citizens are not interested in voting, reflecting perhaps a wider disconnect with politics.

In Greece, according to a Public Issue poll published by Kathimerini yesterday, only 39 percent of voters are interested in these elections, although 80 percent plan to vote. Their mood is dark: With 8 percent still undecided, the major parties show a dramatic drop in support. The opposition PASOK party leads, with 26.5 percent saying they will vote for it – a drop from 38.1 percent in the parliamentary elections of 2007 and from 34 percent in the euroelections of 2004. Ruling New Democracy is supported by 21 percent – a dramatic halving of the vote it got in 2007 (41.8 percent) and 2004 (43 percent). The Communist Party has the support of 6 percent (down from 9.5 percent in 2004), while the extreme right-wing LAOS is floundering at 3 percent (from 4.1 percent in 2004). Synaspismos shows a small rise, at 5.5 percent from 4.2 percent in 2004. Out of nowhere, the unknown and untested Ecologist Greens party has the third-largest group of voters: 6.5 percent.

The percentage that the main parties will get will most likely be larger on election day, but it is already obvious that our politicians’ inability to do anything about the country’s problems is leading to an impasse. The lack of policy leads to problems growing so big that no one can deal with them. The result is that the dysfunctional economy and society lead to a combination of apathy and rage at the lack of choice for voters. Of course, protest votes are not exclusive to Greece, as throughout the EU governments are expected to feel citizens’ anger through abstention or votes for small parties.

In Greece, though, we are worse off because we are trapped in a vicious cycle. Our politicians do not tackle corruption and other systemic problems in our economy and society. This is a permanent handicap, but the most severe consequence is that young people who might have made the difference in our politics, civil service and other spheres of public life see that any effort to help out will be in vain. And so, as mediocrity and expedience smother a country, it becomes more urgent for Europe to become stronger and more representative, so that citizens can hope for an end to their own country’s impasse. The challenges that the EU faces today are common to all its members to a greater or lesser degree – whether in the fields of the economy, security, migrant policy, energy or the environment. The parties which show that they are capable of taking Europe seriously, and which present candidates capable of playing a role in Europe’s development, are the parties that we should support. Not only in these elections but in the national ones as well. Because what is good for Europe is good for us. And vice versa.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 18 May 2009

Character is destiny

On Saturday, Jacob Zuma was sworn in as the third president of post-apartheid South Africa, following the legendary Nelson Mandela and the bookish Thabo Mbeki.

South Africa, with a population of about 50 million people, is Africa’s economic and industrial powerhouse. Its future will have a decisive effect on the stability and welfare of the entire continent.

In the past two decades, South Africa achieved a miracle: It passed bloodlessly from a regime of institutional racism to a noisy, multicultural and exemplary democracy.

The nation has shown great progress since the first free elections of 1994, but major problems remain unsolved: inequality among rich and poor (not necessarily always on the white/black axis), violent crime and 5 million people infected with HIV.

Zuma has now been called upon to solve these problems at a time when the global economic crisis is rocking South Africa – reducing demand for its industrial products as well as its gold, platinum and other resources. The new president’s character, however, is another cause of concern, as he is as different as one can be from Mandela and Mbeki.

His predecessors were men of learning and persuasiveness, who managed to combine their anti-apartheid struggle with a decidedly Western image: Mandela, a member of the Xhosa aristocracy, was a lawyer before his 27-year imprisonment, during which time he continued to read and learn. Pipe-smoking Mbeki has a Master’s degree in economics from the University of Sussex.

Zuma is a self-educated, polygamous former cowherd and firebrand trade unionist who stokes up crowds with his trademark guerrilla song: “Bring me my machine gun.” He won the presidency after a long struggle against corruption and rape charges, for which he has been cleared.

So it is natural that many in South Africa and abroad should worry that after the “gentlemen” Mandela and Mbeki, the populist Zuma could destabilize the economy and upset the delicate racial balance in the country. The recent troubles in which poor black South Africans carried out a pogrom against even poorer Zimbabwean immigrants (accusing them of taking their jobs), showed how fragile the situation is and how little patience remains for a more just distribution of national wealth.

And this is precisely where one might hope that Zuma’s election could be cause for optimism: Only someone like Zuma, who appears to be closer to the people than to the governing elite, could carry on with the prudent, conservative economic policy that Mandela and Mbeki followed without provoking a revolution. Because the ruling African National Congress has not lived up to expectations of solving all the country’s problems, it has to appear to change itself radically in order to remain in power.

In Zuma’s case, we might say that we have proof of Heraclitus’ view that “character is destiny.” If Zuma were not so popular nor so determined to pursue power, he would not have endured the war declared on him by the establishment under Mbeki in the past few years. He not only won, but there is even the possibility that, because of this character, he may be just the person his country needs in order to secure a peaceful continuation. Time will tell.

If we look at the character of a number of leaders with regard to their career and the course of their country, we may find reasons both for hope and for despair. For example, Barack Obama, with his seriousness, patience, academic achievements and desire for consensus, may be just the person the United States need to lead them out of economic crisis and two wars. In Russia, the low-key Dmitry Medvedev and strongman Vladimir Putin appear to be finding a balance with each other; at the same time, they are keeping a tight hold on the reins of power, while gradually developing their country and its institutions. In Britain, Gordon Brown, on a burning deck, is trying doggedly to steer through the economic storm that his government did not see coming.

If we turn to Greece and look at the people who are in power or in pursuit of it, then we see why we are in so much trouble. It appears that here it is not leaders’ characters that are their destiny but their name. And a name – whether it be Karamanlis or Papandreou – means very little if it is not accompanied by the character of a leader.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 11 May, 2009

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

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