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Greek News Roundup: By Dr John Phillips
Greek News – February 2018
With EU bailout money and economic affairs taking back seat this month, most of the political news is international and for a change we will start with Cyprus.
After a lacklustre campaign, President Nikos Anastasiades comfortably won a second five-year term in the Cypriot presidential election. The conservative statesman received 56% of the vote with his left-wing challenger, Stavros Malas securing 44% of the vote. The result is similar to that five years ago when Anastasiades had won his first term with 57.4 percent against Malas’ 42.6%. He had campaigned for re-election promising to re-energise the stalled peace process. These UN-mediated talks which were aimed at uniting Cypriots in a bi-zonal federation collapsed amid anger and mutual recrimination last July but still came closer than ever before to success.
Meanwhile on the other side of a UN-patrolled “green line” in the island’s north, some 5,000 Turkish Cypriots chanting “we want our country back” took to the streets of Nicosia in a mass demonstration against Ankara’s heavy-handed policies towards the breakaway republic. Tensions with the Turkish government mounted after a mob of hardliners known as the “Grey Wolves” attacked the offices of the Turkish Cypriot pro-reunification newspaper “Afrika” for running a front-page article critical of Turkey’s military offensive against Kurdish militants in Syria. The Grey Wolves are a Turkish ultranationalist, neo-fascist organization. Established in the late 1960s, it rose to prominence during the late 1970s political violence in Turkey when its members engaged in urban guerrilla warfare with left-wing activists and militants. They are also alleged to have been behind both the Taksim Square massacre in Istanbul on May Day, 1977 and the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II in 1981.
The collapse of the UN talks last July has often been blamed on President Anastasiades’ understandable reluctance to make political concessions so close to a presidential election. Now he has a mandate to resume reunification talks unfettered by electoral concerns for the next five years. Perhaps we will see a united Cyprus before the next presidential election in 2023.
The Greek government has welcomed an announcement by Zoran Zaev, the prime minister of the Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) that his country is willing to change its name in order that one of the world’s most vexing disputes could soon be solved. According to diplomats, among the new names being considered are Upper Macedonia, New Macedonia, Northern Macedonia and Macedonia (Skopje), In addition Skopje's “Alexander the Great” airport has been already renamed “Skopje International Airport” and that the main road route to Greece is now known as the “Friendship highway”. The proposed names however still remain unpopular among certain groups of the Greek community both in Greece and across the diaspora. Hundreds of thousands of people protested in Athens over the prospect of a solution that would include the word “Macedonia”. The Greek foreign minister, Nikos Kotzias, and several other senior government officials had received death threats for their conciliatory stance on the issue.
Although nothing seems to have happened on the diplomatic front since our last meeting, things have been happening behind the scenes. Nikos Kotzias and his FYROM counterpart, foreign minister, Nicola Dimitrov have met several times during the last month. The Bulgarian President has waded the “name” dispute between Greece and FYROM saying that issue also concerns Bulgaria. Although he did not explain further, it is believed that he is concerned about the rise of IMRO, a Bulgarian a right-wing populist political party. IMRO is a reincarnation of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, a pan Bulgarian revolutionary political organization in the Macedonia and Thrace regions which was founded in the late 19th century. Bearing in mind IMRO’s violent past, Bulgaria’s concerns are understandable.
Both Greece and FYROM are under intense political pressure to resolve the row, which has held up the Balkan nation’s drive to join NATO and the EU. The dispute threatens western-style liberal politics across Europe’s most historically volatile region where growing Russian intervention is increasingly a cause for alarm. The EU would like FYROM to join them. Greece is beholden to the EU who hold a tight rein on its purse strings. Zaev been more progress than all the leaders before him and Greece’s prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, is as keen as Zaev to reach a settlement. Although the current Greek government wants to see the issue resolved, it is so politicised it is hard to see how they could push it through. Tsipras only governs with the support of the right wing Independent Greeks party, which has taken a hard line on the name row. It is so tantalising close to an agreement yet still so far.
On Monday (19/02/18), the FYROM leader, Zoran Zaev, has reportedly said he expects the protracted name dispute with Greece to be resolved in the summer. Zaev was quoted by the Reuters news agency as saying he expected the issue to be fixed ahead of a NATO summit scheduled for the summer.
The two islands of Imia (Ίμια) are back in the news. For those who don’t remember, Imia consists of a pair of small uninhabited islets in the Aegean Sea, which are situated between the Dodecanese and the southwestern mainland coast of Turkey. They lie roughly midway between the Greek island of Kalymnos and the Turkish peninsula of Bodrum. Their total surface area is 10 acres.
Although aspects of the islands’ sovereignty such as territorial waters and national airspace had been disputed between the two countries for decades, conflicts over the possession of island territory were unknown until the end of 1995. The dispute over Imia arose when, a Turkish Cargo ship accidentally ran aground on one of the islets and had to be salvaged. The resultant dispute rapidly escalated with Greek and Turkish forces coming close to armed conflict until the situation was defused by a US envoy, Richard Holbrooke. In the aftermath of the crisis, the dispute was widened Turkey began to lay parallel claims to a larger number of other islets in the Aegean which are regarded as indisputably Greek by Greece.
Tensions around the islets were renewed in January 2017 following Greece’s refusal to extradite alleged participants of the failed 2016 Turkish coup d'état. A Turkish navy missile boat accompanied with two special-forces speedboats entered the area around the islets. Almost exactly a year later, on February 12th, this year, a Turkish coastguard patrol vessel rammed a Greek coastguard boat near the islets. Nobody was injured, but the Greek vessel suffered damage to the stern where the Turkish boat hit it with its bows. Although the Turkish Foreign Ministry denied the Turkish vessel was at fault, TV footage revealed a Turkish patrol boat ramming the Greek boat.
In a further escalation of tensions in the Aegean, an advisor to Turkish President Erdogan has issued a direct threat to Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, his ministers and other Greek officials not to set foot on the islets of Imia. Turkey has started to build a watchtower, barracks and a pier on Çavuş Adası, a neighbouring Turkish island only one mile away from the islets. The European Union has warned Turkey to refrain from any kind of threat or action directed against the sovereignty of any EU member state most pointedly Greece.
According to a recent survey, Greeks are quitting smoking in record numbers. The nation-wide survey showed that just 27.1% of the population said they were smokers compared to 36.7% back in 2012.
Back in 2007, Greece had one of the highest percentage of smokers in the world with over half of men and a third of women being regular smokers. Over the last 10 years, a campaign “Smoke-Free Greece” supported by a Greek-American charity, the Behrakis Foundation, has been fighting tobacco use in Greece. Now the campaign is starting to change public attitudes. According to the poll findings, the majority of Greeks expressing strong opposition to smoking. The survey also focused on anti-smoking legislation in enclosed public areas. Over 80% of respondents, said that non-compliance with anti-smoking laws was unacceptable to them while 76.1% expressed anger at the fact that Greece is the only EU country that still tolerates smoking indoors.
What has bought about this rapid change in attitude in Greece? No campaign could do it, no health warning could do it; for a very long time, no change in the price of a pack could do it. But as Greeks learnt to survive on less, they earned themselves the unusual distinction of abandoning cigarettes in record numbers a mind-blowing 2% drop in the number of smokers every year. Only 13% of Greeks over the age of 65 now smoke, and now we can see the fruits of years of Behrakis Foundation’s campaigning in schools, with fewer and fewer Greeks under the age of 24 becoming smokers. The battle is now with those who are middle-aged.
And finally… if I mention reproductions of Greek sculptures to you, your mind would normally turn to mass-reproduced plastic statues made in China and sold in tatty souvenir shops. Now this is changing; a group of artists working for Athens’ Culture Ministry have exclusive rights to make officially certified copies for sale in Greek museum shops.
The team of about 50 fine arts graduates are painstakingly recreating sculptures of Greece’s ancient masters. They work on a range of sculptures from an 8cm hare from Roman-era Macedonia to 2m high statues of Zeus and Poseidon. All statues are full-scale, made out of plaster in moulds and painstakingly hand-painted to match the hues of the original piece be it metal, marble, clay or even ivory. Plaster is used because it does not shrink while drying, unlike other materials such as resin, and allows reproductions which are completely accurate in size.
Each reproduction takes days to complete with the largest, copies of the 5th century BCE statues of Zeus and Poseidon requiring nearly two months from beginning to end. The casts are made in the museums where the originals are kept, and the ensuing moulds are stored together with more than a thousand prototype copies, some dating from the late 19th century. The standard of sculpture is very high with each artist trying to emulate the artistry of ancient times. It might even be the closest that an artist can get to time travel.
For the time being, the sculptures can only be bought at major museums and archaeological sites in Greece with the proceeds being used to help fund Greek archaeological and conservation projects. An authentic copy of Zeus or Poseidon will set you back about 3,000 euros excluding EasyJet’s excess baggage charges.
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