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Greek News Roundup: By Dr John Phillips
Greek News – February 2019
After saying last month that January would perhaps be the very last occasion that I would be leading with subject of Greece and North Macedonia, I am of course starting with this topic again tonight. This month, I am not reporting disagreement, disappointment or yet another dispute between the two neighbours, but to demonstrate what progress can be made in less than a month when there is good will on both sides.
On Tuesday February 12th, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was officially renamed North Macedonia, in accordance with the Prespa agreement to normalize relations with Greece. Now a series of what are euphemistically called “practical adjustments” such as new road signs, updated passports and currency have started to be rolled out. Already road signs at border crossings, airports and customs checkpoints all refer to “North Macedonia”. Within four months, North Macedonians will start being issued with new car license plates bearing the international vehicle registration code of NMK. By the end of this year, new passports bearing the name “North Macedonia” will be issued.
North Macedonia took a giant step toward joining NATO when it signed NATO’s accession protocol. The NATO accession protocol must be endorsed by all 29 NATO members and Greece was the first nation to ratified it. It is expected that North Macedonia will become a full member of NATO by early 2020 but, until then, it will take part in NATO meetings as a guest.
The implementation of the Prespa agreement is expected to greatly enhance trade between Greece and its northern neighbour. There are already about 300 Greek companies operating in North Macedonia, mostly in construction, telecommunications, textiles and service industries, as well as in banking. Despite the difficulties created by the naming dispute, Greek companies have already invested 473 million euros there over the last two decades making Greece the third largest investor in North Macedonia after Austria and Great Britain. The biggest hindrance now to bilateral trade is the lack of interpreters and translators who are fluent in both languages.
One problem which has arisen which was not envisaged in Prespa agreement concerns more than four thousand Greek businesses which have the terms “Macedonia” or “Macedonian” in their brand or company names. They are concerned that North Macedonian companies which already use the same names may now also have the right to use these names internationally, which would create consumer confusion and pose a real threat to the Greek companies’ interests in global markets. Although the Prespa Agreement appears to be ambiguous regarding this issue, the agreement stipulates the setting up of an international team of experts including representatives from both Greece and North Macedonia to try to resolve any such business-related disputes or issues. This panel will remain active until 2022.
Things are now starting to move fast now there is good will on both sides. For example, it was announced earlier today that Greece and North Macedonia will slash roaming charges for travelling cell phone users – a clear sign of the growing rapprochement of the two neighbours. Or is it? Is the fear of a rumoured Greek general election in May and a likely change of Greek government the driving force? The New Democracy party who are most likely to form the next Greek government has slammed the Prespa agreement. Is it a rush by the current Greek and North Macedonian leaders to tidy up all unfinished business before the ND leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, takes charge in Greece?
The Greek government is about to ratify a 480 million euro contract for the construction and operation of the new international airport in Kastelli (Καστέλλι) in the centre of Crete. It will replace old Heraklion’s Nikos Kazantzakis Airport, which was Greece’s the second busiest airport after Athens’ Eleftherios Venizelos airport. The current Heraklion airport only has a single runway, a small terminal building, and ageing air and land side facilities, which are no longer sufficient to serve the growing air traffic to Crete.
Although we talk about the new airport at Kastelli, there has actually been military airport at Kastelli from as long ago as 1940. In 1986, Greece’s then-Prime Minister, Andreas Papandreou, proposed the building of a new international airport at Kastelli. Now, after years of indecision and postponements, contractors have been appointed, money allocated and building to start in January next year. Hopefully the new airport will come into service in about 6 years’ time.
The new airport will be situated on the south western side of existing Kastelli Hellenic Air Force Base. It will have a dual 3.2 km runway which will meet modern international standards. The construction of the new airport will become the biggest construction project ever on Crete and one of the largest private investments made in Greece. There are plans for a new highway to link the new airport with the National Road along north coast in or around Hersonissos which would speed up transfers. When the new airport is operational, the old airport at Heraklion will be closed and its site will used for a large urban regeneration plan.
The project however is not without its critics. Although residents of Heraklion will be delighted to lose the invidious roar of jet engines overhead seemingly taking off every couple of minutes from the old airport, the old airport is a major source of employment in the Heraklion area and many Heraklion jobs will be lost. Others point to the fact that the Kastelli airport would be located almost 45km from Heraklion and this could adversely affect tourist flow to Crete’s largest city.
Anyone who has ever used the old Kazantzakis airport will be familiar with the massive check-in and security queues, especially when there are several outbounds flights close together, such as on package holiday main changeover days. I flew into the Heraklion’s old Nikos Kazantzakis Airport in June last year. The arrival hall was hot, dark and unwelcoming with its ageing creaking luggage carousels frequently breaking down. First impressions matter; I will go back to Greece, many other visitors may not. A new airport serving Heraklion, which actually welcomes its visitors to Crete is sorely needed.
Elefsina (Ελευσίνα) is or rather was a rather drab, tired post-industrial town 20 km west of Athens. Although Elefsina only became an industrial hub in the nineteenth century, it is history goes back much longer. As Eleusis (Ἐλευσίς) it was one of ancient Greece’s five sacred cities and the home of the rituals known as the “Eleusinian Mysteries”. Since those glory days, its only claim to fame has as the birthplace of the prominent Greek singer "Stelios" (Στέλιος Καζαντζίδης) and location of the highest ever officially recorded temperature in Europe (48°C).
In recent years, Elefsina has worked hard on transforming its now-inactive factories into museums portraying its industrial and technological history. The city has received awards for its urban regeneration and its performance in ecology and recycling efforts. Today, the hill containing spectacular archaeological ruins and the Archaeological Museum take pride of place in its centre. The Sacred Way (Ἱερὰ Ὁδός), the road across the city which connected ancient Eleusis with Athens, is now preserved forever. Elefsina’s Aeschylia Festival, which is named after its famous son, the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus is one of the longest standing cultural events in Attica. It is held annually at "Palaio Elaiourgeio" a former soap factory by the seafront now transformed into an open-air theatre. Elefsina has now been reborn and revitalised, its reward is being honoured as the “European Capital of Culture 2021”.
“Transition to Euphoria” is the city’s theme for the preparations leading up to the big year. The municipality is involving residents and local art and culture associations in several arts programs which will celebrate the cultural designation. The whole city is alive, with both young and older residents participating in cultural programs in residential areas and along the waterfront. The city of Eleusis now looks like an endless workshop for the arts; exhibits with subjects ranging from artistic photography to the workers’ movement during the industrialization of the area are seen all over town.
And finally……… 2019 marks one hundred years since the first basketball team was founded in Greece.
Basketball was introduced to Greece by members of an American branch of the YMCA, who came to Thessaloniki to support the American soldiers who fought alongside Greek troops during WWI. A group of young Greek men who were members of Thessaloniki’s YMCA started playing the game and decided to form a team. It turned out that this was not only the first team in Thessaloniki but the first anywhere in Greece. In no time, basketball started gaining ground in all of Greece and became increasingly popular in Thessaloniki. Since then, basketball has gained millions of fans in Greece, with both the Greek national basketball team and the country’s clubs winning numerous major competitions.
Despite its popularity at the end the first world war, Greek basketball nearly foundered ended when the Americans left Thessaloniki, their basketball equipment left with them. Greeks however are never less than enterprising. A photograph from 1919 which is now exhibited in Thessaloniki’s YMCA’s museum of basketball, portrays a group of young Greek men playing basketball in an open area of the city. For the ball, a football was used; instead of a basket, the players used an upside-down chair with its seat removed, tied to a pole demonstrating their eagerness to play what is now one of Greece’s favourite sports.
Greek Basketball players in Thessaloniki (1919)
Greek News – January 2019
A shorter news roundup this time because, as usual, there is little fresh news over the Christmas period. With news being confined to North Macedonia and the bad weather, Let’s start, perhaps for the very last time, with North Macedonia.
Two weeks ago, North Macedonian MPs endorsed a landmark accord which will rename the Balkan nation “the Republic of North Macedonia” in a move that now opens the way to NATO membership. Prime Minister Zoran Zaev efforts were complicated when a small ethnic Albanian party demanded that the planned constitutional designation “Macedonian citizenship” be changed to “citizens of the Republic of North Macedonia.” to safeguard the identity of ethnic Albanians who form about a quarter of FYROM’s 2.1-million population.
The name-change deal was reached after almost 30 years of dispute with Greece, and now the poisoned chalice has passed to the Greek parliament and the Greek lawmakers will be voting on ratifying the name deal with their northern neighbours by the end of the week. The Greek government will be looking to pass the contentious agreement with FYROM signed last June and settling the decades-old dispute between the two neighbours, with an absolute majority of at least 151 MPs in the 300-seat House. SYRIZA has only 145 seats after ANEL, the small nationalist party quit the coalition in opposition at the deal. Apart from the 145 SYRIZA MPs, it is expected that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras can count on the support of independent and centrist MPs.
Although Government officials appear optimistic about the outcome of the vote on Thursday evening, Greek society and the country's political world are still deeply divided on the name issue. The public is clearly against the deal, with up to 70% opposed to it. Nevertheless, the tens of thousands who demonstrated in last Sunday's rally in Athens, was only a fraction of the 600,000 demonstrators predicted suggesting that although most Greeks are still against the deal, they are reconciled to the Greek parliament agreeing to the name-change.
Note Added 25/1/19 @ 16:00hr. Today the Greece's parliament ratified the change of name from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) to the Republic of Northern Macedonia, ending a decades-old dispute and opening the way for the ex-Yugoslav republic to join the European Union and NATO. As was widely predicted, the vote was carried by 153 votes to 146, a majority of 7. International bodies such as the UN, EU and the council of Europe have welcomed the ratification. Opinion polls still indicate that most Greeks oppose the settlement, a fact which may not bode well for Prime Minister Tsipras with a general election coming up this October, and his party is trailing the opposition New Democracy by about 10-12%. The New Democracy party who are likely form the next government slammed the Prespa agreement and the ND leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has threatened to veto Skopje's accession to the European Union. Nevertheless, Tsipras has 6 months to formally agree to North Macedonia joining both the EU and NATO and the name change should become a fait accompli by October.
Although the Greek Met Office was technically correct in predicting that Athenians hoping for a white Christmas would be disappointed, Boxing Day however brought much snow to most of Greece and even Mount Parnitha in the outskirts of Athens was flecked white with snow. Since the start of Greek meteorological records in 1930, it has only twice snowed in Athens on Christmas Day in 1949 and 1968 and the sole snowy Boxing Day in the Greek capital was back in 1991. For a short while, Athenians were able enjoyed their white Christmas but, as wave after wave of snow hit Greece, their enjoyment turned to consternation as it became an increasing difficult to keep warm and to obtain essential food and medicines. In Athens, motorists were advised to display caution and to fit their cars with anti-skid chains on the icy roads. Municipal authorities in Athens and Piraeus opened heated venues for the homeless, while teams of volunteers were out in the streets offering help to those sleeping rough
Across the rest of Greece, things were much worse. Kastoria (Kastoriá) lake in northern Greece froze solid. Authorities in northern Greece declared a state of emergency in the municipalities of Grevena and Deskati due to the disruptions caused by the recent intense snowfalls. The emergency status will remain until at least February until snow is cleared from roads leading to rural areas and from dozens of mountain villages that have been cut off for a fortnight.
Even now things aren’t back to normal. The organisers of the world-famous Patras Carnival had even contemplated cancelling its opening day last week because of the inclement weather. Despite the heavy downpours, many thousands of doughty people had been waiting patiently in the rain for the festivities to begin, the organisers relented and allowed the opening ceremony to take place although many of the concerts which had been scheduled to take place were cancelled.
the carnival groups. The final event of the Patra Carnival, the ritual burning of the Carnival King will take place on March 10th. I hope they have better weather!
The Nikouria Stone
An ancient stone tablet bearing a historic inscription of the Resolution of Nikouria, dating back to the 3rd century BCE, has resurfaced on the island of Amorgos after it had gone missing for over 100 years.
The stone bears a copy of the Resolution of Nikouria (Νικουρία). Its text describes the islanders’ decision to participate in a feast and games organized by Ptolemy II in Alexandria, in honour of his father, Ptolemy I. A copy of the resolution was erected on the altar of Ptolemy I on Delos (Δήλος) and other cities which had voted in favour of the games. The inscription is of great importance because it provides an insight into the balance of power during the first half of the 3rd century BCE and the transition of control from the Macedonians to the Ptolemaic dynasty.
The tablet was first discovered in 1893, in a church on the islet of Nikouria just off the coast of the Cycladic island of Amorgos (Αμοργός). It was transferred to a nearby stable where it remained until about 1908, when it disappeared. For over one hundred years; the location of the Nikouria Stone was a mystery; dozens of researchers tried and failed to track it down. It was finally rediscovered late last year by Stelios Perakis, an archaeology student from Amorgos, and a German archaeologist with the help of local residents. The tablet was found in the Amorgos village of Tholaria (Θολάρια) embedded in the outer wall of a recently renovated house which had previously belonged to a shepherd from Nikouria. The tablet will be removed from the wall and transferred to the Amorgos archaeological collection where it will be displayed.
The Nikouria Stone
And finally……… with all the bad weather in Greece over this Christmas and the New Year, it was time for Greeks to batten down their hatches and to welcome in 2019 the new year in the traditional way with sweets, wine and a game of cards. According to Greek folklore, the new year will not go well if one doesn’t play cards on New Year’s Eve. But if one plays cards and loses, it augurs that the new year will be full of bad luck; if, however one wins, jubilation will reign.
The card-playing custom is observed so seriously by some Greeks, that they even allow their young children to play cards and to gamble with them. In truth however, the betting stakes are usually so little that they are merely symbolic and hardly qualify as real gambling. Much more importantly, it provides an opportunity for family and friends to get together and enjoy each other’s company.
Nevertheless, be warned! The Greek word for a deck of cards, is “trapoula” (τράπουλα); it is derived from the Italian word “trappola” which means a trap. So, beware of Greek children bearing a pack of cards and suggesting you play cards with them. They have been trained as card sharps by their parents from a very early age and will probably take you to the cleaners!