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Greek News Roundup: By Dr John Phillips
Greek News – January 2018
The next tranche of EU bailout money and the long-standing spat over an acceptable name for Greece’s northerly neighbour FYROM have been top of the political news from Greece since the new year. With some 50 outstanding actions to be completed ahead of the Eurozone finance ministers meeting on Friday, I would have expected to be leading, as usual on the finance and bailout issues, instead it is FYROM which has been stealing the headlines.
Diners a fish taverna in Thessaloniki are not unaccustomed to seeing their mayor there on Saturday nights, what surprised them however that on a cold night at the end of December, his dinner guest was Zoran Zaev, prime minister of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. This was no ordinary meal; the two diners were sending out a signal: that old enmities belong to the past, along with the nationalist rhetoric that for more than a quarter of a century has kept Greece and its northern neighbour at loggerheads. Twenty five years ago Thessaloniki saw more than a million citizens take to the streets chanting “Macedonia is Greek!” Now the city welcomes their Slav neighbours as tourists.
The dispute between Greece and the former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) started in 1993 and erupts intermittently over an issue that boils down to identity. In each reprise the focus, invariably, is on Alexander the Great – and which nation can exclusively claim him as their own. This inevitably leads to the thorny question of what to call the multi-ethnic mini-state. In Athens, “Republic of Macedonia” is unacceptable because it is seen as implying irredentist ambitions against the adjacent Greek province, which bears the same name. In Skopje, the republic’s capital, officials have long argued they have a historical right to a name now enshrined in the state’s constitution.
But Zaev’s decision to spend New Year’s Eve in Thessaloniki is evidence that emotions are changing in Skopje, Zaev’s government is taking a large step to ease tensions with Greece, by removing a series of provocative statues of historical figures such as Alexander the Great, from the streets of Skopje. Zaev no longer insists on his country being the sole heir to Alexander. Zaev has made EU accession a priority. Greece, itself in economic crisis for the best part of decade, also stands to gain if stability is restored to the region.
In Athens too, things are a’changin’. As recently as 2008 Athens vetoed Skopje’s entry to NATO and the EU. In what was seen as a major compromise, Athens has recently announced it would accept a composite name in which the word Macedonia can feature. Prominent politicians such as the interior minister Panos Skourletis are going on record as saying that the problem will be resolved in 2018. It is true that there is still considerable opposition in Greece to any compromise over the name but with over 100 nations using the name “Macedonia” for Greece’s northerly neighbour and the EU and NATO both keen to admit FYROM, Greece is becoming dangerously isolated internationally on this issue. It is very important that this dispute is settled Greece if it is to play an important role in the Balkans,
Today there is a meeting between delegates from Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) in New York under United Nations mediator Matthew Nimetz. Yesterday Nimitz said that his proposal to resolve the decades-old name dispute will include the term “Macedonia”; it is noteworthy however that he does not use the term “Republic of Macedonia”. Mooted name changes have included adding geographic qualifiers such as “upper”, “new” or “northern” Macedonia. Watch this space!
The Greek government has adjusted the amount it expects to receive in bailout funding after the third review is completed to 6.7 billion euros, raising it from the 4.5 billion it had estimated previously. Most of this money will be used to service its debt from February to June 2018. In order to receive this money the Greek parliament had pass a myriad of changes to Greek law to enable the release of funds. The most contentious aspects of the legislation were a provision obliging unions to gather a larger number of votes in order to calls strikes and cuts to welfare benefits for large families. It was inevitable that changes to Labour law would lead to strikes throughout causing transport chaos and disruption to hospital care and shipping as thousands of workers protested against proposed changes to a 36-year-old industrial action law demanded by the country’s creditors.
The Greek government’s aim is to approve the measures and secure the release of additional rescue loans at a summit of Eurozone finance ministers on January 22nd where, it is hoped, officials will also give the go-ahead for debt relief. It is unclear whether approval of the multi-bill alone will be enough, however as representatives of Greece’s creditors have deemed that another 50 prior actions remain unaccounted for and must also be enforced over the coming days. Greece has been given until Wednesday to adopt those prior actions, with European officials likely to take stock at the end of next week.
Greek Sharia Law
Members of Greece’s Muslim minority have hailed new legislation that will enable citizens to sidestep sharia law in family disputes. Earlier this month, the Greek government announced that members of Greece’s 120,000-strong Muslim community would now be able to seek recourse in Greek courts in divorce, child custody and inheritance matters rather than take their case to Islamic jurists – a century-old legacy of legislation drafted with the collapse of the Ottoman empire. The new legislation, passed with overwhelming support from all political parties, has been seen as long overdue.
Islamic court hearings, in accordance with laws first drafted in 1914, have until now been presided over by a single Muslim cleric. Previous government had hesitated to change the law for fear of further straining ties with Turkey. Under the new law Muslims will have the right to opt for a Greek court although Islamic jurists will still be available upon request. But while welcomed, Muslim MPs said the new law had not “fully abolished” sharia courts in the sole EU member state where they had been compulsory.
Human rights groups have long said the laws discriminate against women. Inequities associated with sharia were highlighted when Hatijah Molla Salli, a 67-year-old widow locked in an inheritance dispute with her late husband’s sisters, took the case to the European court of human rights after Greece’s supreme court overturned an earlier court verdict in her favour. The European court is expected to rule in favour of the widow.
One of my most reliable sources of Greek and Cypriot News is neither Greek nor Cypriot. It is the Melbourne-based Greek community newspaper Neos Kosmos which last month celebrated its 60th anniversary.
When the Neos Kosmos started out in 1957, the Greeks of Australia were rather conservative. Neos Kosmos was considered quite radical in its early days and, in contrast to existing newspapers, it encouraged immigrant Greek labourers to claim their legal rights. More recently, because of the fresh influx of Greeks making a fresh start in Australia, Neos Kosmos has become again active proponent in the Greek community, organizing soup kitchens and reporting on unfavourable legislation.
In general, the Greek-Australian media is very active. Ta Nea is published daily in Greek and Sydney has its own local Greek newspaper, Elliniko Kyrikas or Greek Herald. Greek-Australians can also keep abreast of developments in both countries on the multilingual radio station, SBS, where there is a daily two-hour program from 4 to 6 pm presenting the major news stories from Greece and the world, as well as community issues.
Patrick Leigh Fermour
Last April, our patron, Sir Michael Llewellyn-Smith treated us to wonderful lecture on “Patrick Leigh Fermor and Friends” and told us about forthcoming exhibition at the British Museum on this topic. There was an article about this forthcoming exhibition in the Observer just before Xmas.
A few days ago, the British Museum announced that the exhibition, provisionally entitled “Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor - Charmed lives in Greece” will now run from the 8th March until 15th July 2018. At the same time, there will also be an exhibition at the museum on Rodin and the art of ancient Greece which will run from Thursday 26th April until Sunday 29th July 2018.
And finally…when Chris and I first went to Zakros in Crete in the 1970’s, there were no site maps nor tourist guides to Zakros’ Minoan palace. Instead, our landlord lent us his treasured book about the Zakros Palace given to him and signed by its author, Nikolaos Platon, the site’s excavator. Now over fifty years later, and over 25 years since his death, Nikolaos Platon’s wartime exploits in protecting Crete’s archaeological heritage are beginning to coming to light. Slight and modest, with a PhD from Paris, Nikolaos Platon was one of the unlikely heroes of occupied Greece in World War II, risking his life defending his country’s monuments. Now interest in this archaeologist’s wartime accomplishments has been recently resurrected by the return to Greece of 26 ancient relics stolen from Crete in WWII.
The Battle of Crete in May 1941 found Platon fighting on mainland Greece but, as director of antiquities on Crete, he was desperate to return to the Crete to protect its archaeological treasures. He managed to convinced a German archaeologist of the seriousness of the situation, who arranged his transport to Hania. Platon’s son, recalls that his father had already arranged for several statues to be buried in the garden of the Iraklio Archaeological Museum and for a metal gate to be installed at the entrance to the basement to protect hundreds of other antiquities from plunder. The remainder of the museum’s exhibits, which could not fit in the basement and were moved to inaccessible parts of the building and hidden behind sandbag walls. Platon held the keys to the metal gate and refused to hand them over to the occupiers. He even slept in the museum to ward off possible thieves. The Germans put a lot of pressure on Platon and even threatened to execute him. Eventually he convinced them to take some copies of antiquities.
Nikolaos Platon was unable to prevent plundering in other parts of Crete though. He identified General Julius Ringel from Graz as one of the main plunderers. On Ringel’s orders, soldiers removed 11 clay jars, a bronze jug, a three-legged stone vessel and other objects in one day alone, according to notes made by a guard. In September 1941, Ringel ordered an illegal 20-day excavation near the Knossos palace complex but his efforts to reach untapped treasure were a failure. Nevertheless, he had plenty of booty to send off by air to Austria.
After the war ended, in February 1946, Greek authorities compiled a long list of pillaged artefacts, which included Ringel’s loot. Two years later, archaeologist Spyros Marinatos was assigned the daunting task of overseeing their return. A polyglot and an internationally respected scientist, he was the perfect man for the job. He started his quest in 1948 and found a significant number of Cretan antiquities at the local museum at Graz. The University of Graz’ Cretan Collection however had been sent to an expert in Vienna, who prevented their repatriation when he realized the suspect provenance of some of the Minoan bone shards.
The story of their homecoming began a decade ago, when Peter Scherrer was appointed head of the University of Graz’s Institute of Archaeology. He launched a project to identify the provenance of hundreds of antiquities in the institution’s possession. His experts investigated their potential connection of these antiquities to the Third Reich. One of the key sources used by the investigators was a report on the activities of the occupying forces compiled by Platon, when he was still director of antiquities on Crete in 1941. Based on Platon’s report, it was established that part of the Graz collection had been illegally removed from Crete. Scherrer was then able to start the process for the objects’ repatriation. On November 20th last year, artefacts looted from Crete some 75 years previously - clay vessels, fragments of idols and a bone dress pin, were returned to a Greek Culture Ministry representative in a special ceremony at the Greek Embassy in Vienna.
Saving antiquities was something Nikolaos Platon saw as a duty. Now 25 years after his death, the risks and tribulations he bore bravely in the war have been instrumental in the repatriation of antiquities to Crete.
The full article, “Return of stolen antiquities puts a WWII hero in the spotlight” by Yiannis Papadopoulos was published in Kathemerini on 12th January 2018. It can be found at