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THE BRISTOL ANGLO-HELLENIC CULTURAL SOCIETY

SILVER JUBILEE 1987-2012

 

Page Updated 12/11/2015 15:53

The magazine “Greece This Month” now seems to be working again. So just follow the hyperlinks and enjoy.

http://issuu.com/greekpressoffice/docs/

 


Greek News Roundup:  By Dr John Phillips

 


John Phillips

 

Greek News – October 2015

 

When I spoke to you four months ago in June, Greece's left-wing SYRIZA government led by Alexis Tsipras was struggling to find enough cash to pay its public sector workers and pensioners and to repay some of the international loans which had been used to maintain a facade of Greek solvency.  Negotiations between Greece and its creditors over were close to breakdown and it was clear that during the summer, the Greek government would have to make some extremely painful decisions which would define the country's future in the years, if not decades, to come.  Today, things do not appear much different.  Mr Tsipras remains Prime Minister; his SYRIZA party still governing Greece in coalition with the right-wing ANEL party: the Greek government is still at loggerheads with Europe.  This does not mean that nothing at all has happened over the summer in Greece, quite the contrary!  In four short months, Greece has been forced to accept a demeaning bailout from Europe, held a referendum on whether to accept the terms of a bailout, fought yet another general election and appointed its first ever female Prime Minister.

To unravel this complex sequence of events we will turn the clock back to the evening of June 25th when Mr Tsipras verbally accepted a revised bailout deal with the EU in exchange for yet more austerity.  The following night, he surprised both his governmental and European colleagues by announcing that he would hold a referendum on the terms of the terms of the bailout believing that "No" vote would strengthen his hand at the negotiating table and ensure "a better deal".  As Mr Tsipras correctly predicted, the referendum clearly showed that the majority of the Greek were against the terms of the bailout.  It was however a pyrrhic victory when Tsipras eventually ended up signing on to a bailout deal tied to even harsher austerity terms than were on offer in June.  Although the Greek government managed to get this deal voted through parliament, it was only with the support of two opposition parties i.e. the New Democracy and the centrist To Potami parties.  Over forty of his own SYRIZA MPs had either voted against the proposal or abstained from voting.  One week after the vote, 26 MPs defected from SYRIZA and formed their own party.  This defection left Prime Minister Tspipras in a weak position needing to restore his own authority in parliament.  He would have liked to hold immediate elections to take advantage of his popularity within Greece but couldn't do this immediately because he needed to negotiate the details of the new bailout plan with the eurozone and the IMF and then to push a series of reforms through the Greek Parliament with the support of opposition parties.  In practice, this meant an election couldn’t be held before mid-September.

In mid August, Alexis Tsipras' SYRIZA-led coalition resigned and this year's second Greek general election was held on Sunday 20th September.  Although the polls predicted a close race between SYRIZA and the New Democracy party, the 8% margin of SYRIZA's victory was a surprise.  SYRIZA, the New Democracy and the far-right Golden Dawn parties were all returned to parliament with roughly the same proportion of the vote and same number of MPs as in the February elections earlier this year.  The Popular Unity party (Λαϊκή Ενότητα, ΛΕ), formed by the 26 defectors from SYRIZA, received less than 3% of the vote and no seats.  SYRIZA resurrected its coalition with ANEL; business as usual!

For Alex Tsipras to place his head on the block twice to face an increasingly beleaguered Greek electorate demonstrates bravery, self-confidence, popularity and a mastery of Greek domestic politics.  Whilst these attributes are useful in Greece, they do not necessarily appeal to the EU leaders, the IMF and Greece's creditors.  With his position as Prime Minister of Greece secured for the foreseeable future, perhaps it is now time for Alex Tsipras to abandon the shenanigans of Greek politics with his European partners and to engage in some constructive politics with those whom, by necessity, will be Greece's financial lifeline from now on.


Vassiliki Thanou-Christophilou - Greece' First Female Prime Minister

On the 28th August 2015, the President of Greece, Prokopis Pavlopoulos, swore in Vassiliki Thanou-Christophilou (Βασιλική Θάνου-Χριστοφίλου) as Greece's first ever female Prime Minister.

Earlier in August, Alexis Tsipras had resigned and asked the President to form an interim government to run Greece until the completion of the September election  Constitutionally, before appointing the interim government, the President of Greece must give the opposition parties the opportunity to form a government.  Only after this process has been exhausted can the President appoint an interim Prime Minister and government.  Even then, the President does not have a free hand in choosing the interim Prime Minister.  According to Article 37 of the Greek Constitution, he must appoint the president of one of the Greece's three Supreme Courts as the interim Prime Minister.  Because two of these Supreme Court Presidencies were vacant and Vassiliki Thanou-Christophilou was the only sitting Supreme Court President, she was appointed Prime Minister.  Therefore, despite what some of the press said, her appointment as Greek Prime Minister does not actually represent a real step forward in equal rights in Greece.

Vassiliki Thanou-Christophilou was born in Chalcis in 1950 and studied law at University of Athens.  She entered the judiciary in 1975 rising rapidly through its ranks to become President of the Court of Cassation on July 1st 2015.  She is married with three children and speaks French and English fluently.

Other News

Sparta

Of the major sites mentioned in the Homeric epics, only the palace at Sparta remains undiscovered.  Up to recently, no one had found a palace in the Spartan plain, which matches the grandeur of the palaces of Pylos and Mycenae.  Now there is hope that the remains of a Mycenaean palace to the south west of Sparta in the Peloponnese may be the palace of Menelaus.

A few years ago I told you about an exciting new excavation at Xirokambi (Ξηροκάμπι) to the south west of Sparta in the Peloponnese, where the remains of a Mycenaean palace with Linear B tablets, fragments of wall paintings and several bronze swords had been found.  Since then, news about these excavations has been sparse; however in August this year the Greek Ministry of Culture gave further details of developments at the Xirokambi site now named Agios Vassilios.

It is now considered that the palace was built around the 17th-16th centuries BCE, which is much older than originally thought.  (The initial report of the excavations claimed that the palace only dated back to the 14th century BCE).  The palace is now known to contain around 10 rooms.  Recent finds include objects of worship, clay figurines, a cup adorned with a bull's head, swords and fragments of murals.  Some of the Linear B tablets found are now estimated to be at least century older earlier than any previously found.  Because there is a Minoan settlement near the Spartan palace, scholars may need to rethink the links between Linear A and Linear B.

According to the Ministry statement, the new discoveries provide "new information on the beliefs and language systems of the Mycenaean people" and will provide opportunities for further research on the "political, administrative, economic and societal organisation of the region".

Agios Vassilios Site, Xirokambi

Amphipolis

During summer of last year (2014), the excavations of an Alexander the Great-era tomb near ancient Amphipolis in Macedonia and its plethora of finds caused more than its fair share of excitement.  In March this year, the Greek Culture Ministry announced that there would be no more government funding at this stage for further archaeological work at Amphipolis and that the experts would focus on the five skeletons and various other artefacts that have already been unearthed and at making the tomb safe from collapse.  Recently the new Greek Culture Minister, Nikos Xydakis, announced that 200,000 Euros has been allocated in order to make the monument accessible to tourists but the release of the money has been delayed due to the capital controls.

Debate about the identity of the human remains discovered at the site reignited when the chief archaeologist Katerina Peristeri confirmed that the tomb dates to the final quarter of the 4th century BC, around the time of Alexander the Great's death.  She added that the friezes inside the tomb, which depict figures on horseback, suggest it was a shrine to a hero.  Peristeri said that her team had discovered three monograms of Hephaestion, a general, and closest friend of Alexander the Great and that therefore the Amphipolis tomb may have been dedicated to Alexander's companion Hephaestion.  Other experts however are of the opinion that the current evidence is susceptible to alternative explanations.

Osdina

A remarkable fortified settlement of Osdina or Ouzdina in Thesprotia, western Greece, was opened to the public yesterday (20/10/15) under the name of the "Archaeological Park of Byzantine-Post Byzantine Settlement of Ouzdina.  It is located on a hill overlooking the Kalamas gorge near the village of Pente Ekliesies (Πέντε εκκλησίες) just to the north of the old road from Igoumenitsa (Ηγοθμενίτσα) to Ioanina (Ιωάννινα).

The fortress town of Ouzdina is an example of a settlement that has survived throughout the centuries and keeps architectural remnants of the classical Hellenistic up to post-Byzantine period.  It is a densely-packed village with dry-stone houses in narrow cobblestone streets.  A fortress wall encloses the town protecting it on three sides; the remaining west side being a sheer rock cliff.  There were once ten churches in Ouzdina.  Today we can still see of these eight churches and a museum.  It is thought that the name of the settlement derives from the old Slavic word, ozdbna a furnace for cereals drying but Professor Nicholas Hammond, an old friend of this society, identifies its name with Ophtini of ancient springs.  The settlement flourished possibly during the post Byzantine period and early years of Ottoman rule but was abandoned, for unknown reasons, in the first half of the 18th century.

Ouzo and Raki

Ouzo and raki have been an established part of Greek life and culture for as long as long as I can remember but over the last few years, it has become increasingly expensive.  Greeks will of course blame this on Brussels for forcing their government to increase the tax on alcohol by 400%.  What the Greeks will keep to themselves however in case Brussels get to wind of it is that although commercially-bottled raki and ouzo are now taxed at the draconian rate of 12.75 Euros/litre of ethanol, this is only half the tax rate imposed on imported spirits.  The trouble is that now Brussels has rumbled them and accused Greece of contravening European rules on the free trafficking of goods.  Even worse, Brussels has now the temerity to challenge Greece's right to tax unbottled bulk ouzo and raki at a mere 1.4 Euros/litre although not many producers actually bother to pay this trifling amount of tax.

An increase in tax on unbottled bulk ouzo and raki from the current rate of 1.4 Euros/litre to 25.5 Euros/litre, the tax rate imposed on imported spirits, would have two deleterious effects.  Firstly the trafficking in illegal ouzo and raki would grow significantly and secondly, the free carafaki of raki which often appears with bill in tavernas will become a thing of the past.

And finally……..if you are getting too old for strenuous walking in the Greece, you will soon be able to rest your weary legs and trek through the Greek mountains from the comfort of your own armchair.

Many of you are aware of Google Street View a technology featured in Google Maps and Google Earth that provides panoramic views from positions along many streets in the world.  Greece was the 56th country to join the Google Street View project, in June 2014.  Two years ago, Google launched a new program called "Trekker" which enables walkers and explorers to borrow a special backpack mounted kit which uses the same technology used Google Street View vehicles to collect imagery from hard-to-reach places.  Now there is a project to map Greece's countryside, hiking trails and culture as part of an environmental campaign initiated and managed by a four-member project team called "E4".  The project is based on hiking in Greece, and is supported by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the Greek National Tourism Organization, UNESCO, the Hellenic Federation of Mountaineering & Climbing, and the European Ramblers Associations.  One of the team's objectives is to map out the 1,800-kilometre E4 footpath, highlighting its most important sections, including Mt Olympus.  To date (21/10/15), it is claimed that three Greek destinations i.e. the Meteora monastery complex, the Balos Lagoon and the Samaria Gorge in Crete have been mapped out via Trekker and now are available for users to visit online[1].

But in truth, no computer program can capture the sheer pleasures of actually walking in the Greek mountains with eagles souring overhead, drinking water from a mountain stream or perhaps sharing a glass of raki with a friendly shepherd provided of course that the EU does not tax raki out of existence!

 


 

 

Greek News – June 2015

 

For the third month running, its déjà vu time again with Greece struggling to find enough cash both to pay its public sector workers and pensioners and yet meet the due repayments of its myriad of international loans which, up to now, have given Greece a façade of solvency.  The next few days will be critical for Greece and the Greek people.  As Greece's foreign creditors and eurozone peers increase the pressure on Greece to comply with their harsh terms, it has became clear that the Greek government will have to rapidly make some extremely painful decisions which will define the country's future in the years, if not decades, to come.

Although Greeks are extremely concerned by developments and mostly want to see the SYRIZA-led government coming to a deal that will both ensure that the country remains in the common currency area and European Union and which prevents a further and more rapid decline in the economy.  Over the last week, there have been frequent rumours that a bail-out agreement is imminent only to for hope to evaporate.  Prime Minister Tsipras' recent uncompromising rhetoric has done little or nothing to encourage an atmosphere where an acceptable compromise is achievable.  Now EU members are speaking the unspeakable - Greek exit from the Euro and perhaps even the EU itself.

The EU has already taken steps to be able to handle any "contagion risk" if Greece were to default on its debts and crash out of the eurozone.  The British government has embarked on contingency planning to prepare for the "serious economic risks posed by a Greek default.  Withdrawals in recent days have averaged €200-250m a day peaking at €400m on Monday.  At this rate, Greek banks would find it difficult to survive without support from the European Central Bank (ECB) and earlier this morning, Greece’s central bank has issued an urgent plea to both sides to hammer out a deal, otherwise Greece could be forced out of the European Union.  In the event of Greece leaving the Euro, it would difficult for Greece to set up its own currency overnight; for a start it does have the means of production of new banknotes.

Today (17/06/15) things have been hectic!  Negotiations between Greece and its creditors have been close to break down.  Austrian Chancellor, Werner Faymann has flown into Athens in a final bid to end the standoff with international creditors over a rescue package.  Faymann is a Social Democrat who has taken a relatively lenient line with Greece in the past believing that although Athens had to stand by commitments it made under its current bailout plan, it needs support to keep it from leaving the euro zone.  During the afternoon there were reports that EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker is about to propose a new compromise.  The details of Juncker's proposal are not clear but seem to entail releasing 250 million euros of cuts, probably in defence spending, in exchange for the Greek government overhauling its social security system and completely axing itsearly retirement schemes.  These proposals could be part of an interim cash-for-reform agreement to tide the country over the summer.  Early this evening, the European Central Bank (ECB) agreed to continue to support the Greek banks, a sign that they regard the banks as solvent, at least in the short term.

Tomorrow will be the big day for Greece.  Eurozone finance ministers will meet in Luxembourg in what maybe the last chance to seal an agreement on the 7.2 billion euro bailout aid before Greece's money runs out at the end of June.  It has been leaked that the discussions on Greece will be very short with creditors waiting for either "Yes" or "No" answer from Tsipras to their current proposals.

John F Kennedy once said "Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past but let us accept our own responsibility for the future."  Let us hope that neither the paymasters of Europe or Alex Tsipras dwell too much on the misdeed of the past but go hand in hand to ensure a future free of austerity for Greece.


FYROM

FYROM or to give it its full official title, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, has not been in the news for a while.  After the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, the name "Macedonia" became the object of a dispute between Greece and the newly independent Republic.  Greece opposed the use of the name "Macedonia" by the Republic of Macedonia without a geographical qualifier, supporting a compound name such as "Northern Macedonia".  Although the UN adopted the provisional name of "the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia", most UN members including the United Kingdom have now recognised the country as the Republic of Macedonia.  Back in the 1990's, the UN set up a negotiating process with a mediator, Matthew Nimetz, to try to mediate the dispute.  Negotiations still continue between the two sides but have yet to reach any settlement of the dispute.  Since the coming to power in 2006, the FYROM leader, Nikola Gruevski, has pursued a policy of "Antiquisation" linking FYROM with Alexander the Great and Philip of Macedon.  This policy is viewed by Greece as deliberate provocation and considered that it has exacerbated the "name" dispute.  As a result, FYROM's EU and NATO applications have been stalled.

Although Gruevski is still in power, there is now hope of a breakthrough.  FYROM's Deputy Prime Minister Fatmir Besimi has been in Athens meeting with the Greek Foreign Minister, Nikos Kotzias trying to set up an initiative for Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) to aid the solution of the name dispute under the aegis of European Commissioner for Neighbourhood Policy Johannes Hahn.  Compared to FYROM leader Gruevski, Fatmir Besimi is a moderate who is considered by Hahn as one of the most "realistic and reasonable voices" in the Balkans.  The Greek Foreign Minister, Kotzias talked of a very friendly, creative and open discussion which generated hope for the future.

Perhaps the time is now rife for a solution to this old chestnut.  Both FYROM and the EU want to restart accession talks, which was blocked by Greece back in 2006.  Greece has a new government, which badly needs a foreign policy success to restore its pan-European credentials.

Other News

Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre

An exciting project to provide Athens with a major hub for the arts is about to open its gates to the public for the first time.  The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre will provide a home for the National Library of Greece and an opera house for the Greek National Opera.  Budgeted at more than $800 million, the project is being totally financed by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.  The Centre at Faliro expected to fully open to the public by the end of 2016.  When the project is complete, it will be donated to the state and will become one of the largest donations ever in Greek history.

The centre's design is inspired by the Acropolis.  The library will have a green roof, rising gently from an artificial hill in the surrounding park, part of the Cultural Centre's agora.  On the summit of the hill there will be a large glass-walled reading room with spectacular views of the city and the Aegean Sea.  Under the reading room, the main library will house more than two million books.  The opera house will include a 1400 seat auditorium for opera and ballet performances as well as a 400-seat theatre for new experimental works.  A massive photovoltaic canopy on top of the opera house will meet much of the complex's energy needs.  The complex will be surrounded by 42 acre park providing a large lawn for outdoor performances, a playground, running and cycling tracks and a vegetable garden.  The park will include a 400m long sea water canal with some 1400 trees will be planted alongside.

The project is a massive boost to the stagnant Greek economy providing about 2,000 badly needed jobs during the construction phase.  Once operational, it’s expected to generate about $227 million in annual economic activity.  Construction started in 2012 and remains both on schedule and on budget. It demonstrates what Greece is capable of when such projects well-managed and adequately funded.

Tradition of ‘fakelaki’ still going strong at Greek Hospitals

Back in 2013, I told you about a web site, set up by a young Greek lady called Kristina Tremonti.  The site "edosafakelaki" (έδωσα φακελάκι), which literally means "I paid a bribe", allows people to report anonymously on cases of bribe-giving or taking, or indeed cases where bribes were refused.

Since the site was set up, the widespread view has been that the ongoing financial crisis has reduced the amount of bribes given and taken at Greek hospitals.  A Transparency International survey also reported a small reduction in corruption.  Now a new independent review has shown under-the-table payments to doctors in the public and private sectors have actually increased.

This was partially due to a change in which bribes were solicited; for example by overbilling patients at private clinics or by requiring fakelakia to be paid via a third party.  In an attempt to prompt the Greek authorities into action, edosa fakelaki has now given its users the opportunity to make a complaint against specific individuals.  Although the site is designed to protect the identity of those who have the courage to break the silence and report on a specific incident, only 17 individuals have done so up until now with most complainants concerned they might get caught up in a legal dispute, or that other doctors would refuse to treat them in the future.  The website is therefore now concentrating on collating reports on the web site and goading the authorities to act where there are a number of reports involving a specific doctor or clinic.

The Greek Health Ministry is working on a new disciplinary framework to deal with corruption, but officials would not comment on the measures that this will contain.  Nevertheless unless people take action to name-and-shame offenders, this reprehensible practice will continue.

Real Ale in Greece

And finally…….Unpasteurised beer, or real ale to British drinkers, has not been popular for many years in Greece.  The hot Greek summer makes it difficult to produce unpasteurised beer and keep in it good condition.  In addition, Greece's antiquated laws relating to brewing ensured that only large international brewers could keep ahead of the law and make a profit at the same time.  Now things are beginning to change and you can now actually sample some Athenian real ale.

The former Athinaiki Zythopoiia Brewery on Kifissos Avenue has just opened its doors to the public as Athens' first beer museum and micro-brewery.  Visitors to the museum can get an insight to the history and traditions of beer-making in Greece and visit the museum's antique beer-making equipment and collection of original Greek ceramic beer mugs.  The museum has its own micro-brewery where original recipes of unpasteurized beer are brewed and more importantly can be tasted by visitors.  Admission to the museum is free on every Saturday in June from 1 till 8pm.  It will close down for the summer and reopen in September 2015.

If you want Greek real ale in the height of summer, you will have to go Rethymnon in Crete and sample the beer from the excellent Brink's brewery.  After starting out in 2001 with a production of just a hundred litres of unpasteurised beer a month, the brewery now produces over 5000 litres monthly.  Their beer is exported to Cyprus and Denmark and has been sent to the British Embassy in Athens to help celebrate the Queen's birthday which explains the large increase in beer production.

 

Greek News – May 2015

 

Its déjà vu time again as Greece has had yet again to struggle to find enough cash to pay its public sector workers and pensioners as well a large repayment to the IMF.

Last weekend, Greece narrowly averted another financial crisis by managing to pay about €500m (£360m) in wages to its public sector workers.  Although these mid-May wages and pensions were paid at the due time, Greece suffered yet another downgrade of its credit rating.  Meanwhile Greece remains locked in talks with its creditors in an effort to release €7.2bn of bailout funds to avoid a default and ultimate exit from the eurozone.

The optimism at the end of April that a deal would be struck with the EU and IMF in the coming weeks has come to nothing.  European leaders have put the blame on Greece's flamboyant Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, whom they regarded as "impossible to do business with" and placed the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, under extraordinary pressure to remove him from office.  To force Varoufakis to resign in such a situation would have been politically impossible for Tsipras, so he shrewdly asked Euclid Tsakalotos, the Minister of International Financial Relations, to take over the coordination of the EU negotiating team and to play a lead role in the face-to-face negotiations with creditors but leaving Varoufakis in overall charge of finance.

As a compromise over some of the reforms demanded by Brussels and the International Monetary Fund, the Greek government is apparently pushing ahead with the privatisation of its biggest port, Piraeus, by selling a majority stake to China's Cosco Group, who already manage two of container piers at the port.  There are also strong indications that Greece's railway network will be privatised.

In an interview with the Greek TV channel "Star" late Monday night, Yanis Varoufakis indicated that Greece was close to an agreement with its partners.  One of the sticking points in the past has been a reluctance of Greece to agree to a flat 23% VAT rate.  Varoufakis is now proposing three different VAT rates from September 1st: 6.5% for medicines, food and books, 15% when paying for goods with a credit or debit card and 18% for cash payments.  This will enable VAT to be automatically deducted and paid to the Greek exchequer by the card provider making VAT avoidance more difficult.  It appears that this measure has been received a positive response from the EU partners.

Cyprus

On the 20th of July 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus.  For over forty years, the island has remained ethnically divided into two communities: the Greek-speaking Republic of Cyprus in the south and a Turkish-administered area in the north.  All of the many attempts at mediation to reunite Cyprus have failed.  Now when the Republic of Cyprus' President, Nikos Anastasiades, meets the new Turkish Cypriot leader, Mustafa Akinci, there is genuine hope of a breakthrough.

We've all heard the phrase "genuine hope" lots of times before but what is different now from the last attempt at reunification in 2004 or any of the many previous near-misses?  The big difference is Mustafa Akinci.  Mustafa Akinci is a moderate leftist recently elected as leader of Turkish Cypriots replacing the hawkish Dervis Eroglu.  As mayor of Nicosia's Turkish-controlled sector from 1978-92, Akinci had collaborated closely with his Greek Cypriot counterparts on a number of projects in the capital.  More importantly, the new Turkish Cypriot leader is seen as the one person willing to challenge the role of Turkey in Cyprus.  In recent years, moderates like Akinci have increasingly complained about their Turkish Cypriot cultural identity being usurped by ever-increasing numbers of settlers from Anatolia.  Akinci has squarely laid the blame on Turkey's increasingly authoritarian president, Recep Erdoğan and his neo-Islamist AK party.  Within days of his election, Akinci announced to the world that it was about time that Ankara stopped treating Cyprus "as a child" drawing a stern rebuke from Erdoğan.

The other reason for optimism is that the time is also ripe for a settlement.  The Greek Cypriots have only just emerged from their worst-ever economic crisis and Turkey is keen for a foreign policy success.  Optimism has been further boosted by Athens and Ankara displaying a rare desire to improve bilateral ties.  The Turkish Cypriots are acutely aware that if there is no reunification now, Erdoğan will further extend his influence in the north of the island.  They fear that their distinctive Turkish Cypriot identity will disappear and they will become a minority in their own country.

In the past, efforts to come up with a power-sharing arrangement have stumbled on the formation of a central government and the ever-sensitive issue of property.  To reach a settlement, Anastasiades will have to sell the benefits of a solution to the hard-liners among the Greek-Cypriots; in return, Akinci will have to make the necessary compromises to help him do this.  The time has come for both sides to show real leadership.

Other News

The Parthenon Marbles

In an unexpected reversal of policy, Greece has rejected the option of legal action in British Museum Parthenon marbles row.  Barely 48 hours after receiving a 150 page dossier from Amal Clooney and other leading human rights lawyers at London's Doughty Street chambers exhorting the Greek government to pursue legal channels immediately, the new Greek Cultural Minister, Nikos Xydakis, said the route to retrieving the treasures lay in diplomatic and political channels and not international courts where outcomes were far from assured.

Commissioned to write the report by the previous Greek government, the human rights lawyers argued that the Parthenon marbles artworks were an irrefutable part of Greek identity, history and culture.  The report sets out the options Athens faces in its decades-long struggle to win back the 5th century BCE carvings.  It suggested that Athens make a formal request for the marbles' repatriation before submitting a legal claim to the International Court at The Hague.  If the request was turned down as expected, Greece should take then the case to the European court of Human Rights.

The timing of the announcement is rather baffling coming a few days after the Conservative Party's victory in the UK General Election.  Diplomatic and political efforts have been tried since the mid-1980s and made very little progress.  The previous British coalition government was unreceptive to the returning the marbles rejecting an offer of mediation by UNESCO.  Although successive polls have shown that the vast majority of Britons would like to see the marbles returned to Greece, recent statements by both David Cameron and the new Secretary of State for Culture, John Whittingdale, suggest it is extremely unlikely to happen during the five years of present parliament.

The volte-face has been greeted with despondency and dismay by international campaigners.  With Greece's public finances at an all time low and isolated internationally, Athens feels that it cannot risk many millions of Euros in a gamble in the international law courts and any spare cash in their treasury should be used to keep the debt-stricken country afloat.


And finally…….An iconic newspaper image of a Greek army sergeant saving a drowning Eritrean woman has come to represent all the Greek people who treat desperate migrants like fellow human beings.  This image symbolises both the desperation of those who take to the sea to flee the troubles and tribulations of their own countries and the valour of the Greeks and other south Europeans who risk their lives to save them when tragedy strikes.

At 8am on the morning of April 28th, Greek army sergeant Antonis Deligiorgis was having a quiet coffee with his wife by the sea at the Zefyros beach just a few kilometres south of Rhodes Town.  He had never met Wegasi Nebiat, a 24-year-old Eritrean refugee who was cooped up in a tub of a boat over-laden with Syrian and Eritrean refugees.  The boat had set out from the nearby Turkish port of Marmaris and now was listing badly and drifting uncontrollably towards the bank of jagged rocks off the Zefyros beach.  Almost inevitably, the boat grounded on the rocks, disintegrated and threw its passengers and crew into the strong currents of the Zefyros Beach.

Immediately locals downed tools and rushed to the scene to help.  The coastguard and ambulance brigade were there, a helicopter was in the air and fishermen had put to sea in their caiques.  Casual passers-by including Sergeant Deligiorgis were wading into the surf to pull survivors from the waves.  Hundreds of Rhodians donated food and clothes; one woman even stripped the clothes off her own child to swaddle a shivering Syrian baby.  A local pressman's photograph of Sergeant Deligiorgis pulling a 24-year-old Eritrean refugee, Wegasi Nebiat, out of the sea by her shoulders was syndicated around the world epitomising the bravery, courage and generosity of the inhabitants of Rhodes that day.

Sergeant Deligiorgis singlehandedly brought 20 of the 93 migrants safely to shore; his heroism raising the spirits of a nation grappling with its worst economic crisis of modern times.  Later that week one of the Eritrean women whom Deligiorgis had rescued gave birth to a healthy baby boy in Rhodes General Hospital.  She named her son "Antonis" after her rescuer.

Boat-migrant-being-rescue-008

 

Greek News – April 2015

 

As usual, Greek news over the last month has been dominated by Greece's dealings with Europe and the rest of the world over the bail out and its financial situation.  This month, Greece has been struggling to find enough cash to get through the next couple of weeks.

Economists are predicting that, without the rescue funds, Greece is unlikely to be able to pay salaries and pensions and to settle its dues with the IMF. They say that Greece is edging closer to a default on its debt obligations that could precipitate the country's exit from the eurozone.  With money running out, fears of a Greek exit from the eurozone have increased as signs grow that the country is on the brink of bankruptcy.  There are growing worries on the financial markets that the slow progress in negotiations means Greece will not be able to meet its May debt deadlines.  As a result, yields on Greece’s government bonds ie the cost Greece has to pay to borrow money have been rising whilst those on German bonds fell again as investors continued to chase safe-haven assets.

Over the next few weeks Greece will be forced to find enough money to pay almost €2bn (£1.4bn) in wages and pensions in addition to almost €1bn due to the International Monetary.  The Greek government has already issued a decree forcing public sector bodies to transfer any idle cash reserves to the central bank in a sign of how severe the country's cash flow has become.  Greece has been desperately trying to convince its international creditors to release the last chunk of rescue funds.  Many of its fellow eurozone countries, Germany in particular, say they first want clearer commitments to reforms from Tsipras and his government.  Nevertheless, after the gloomy tone at last week's IMF meeting in Washington on Greece and the eurozone's prospects, there are some indications that talks over the weekend between Greece and the IMF, the ECB and the European Commission have made some progress.

Although Eurozone Finance Ministers meet for further talks on Greece on Friday, no breakthrough is expected until early May when IMF payments are due.  Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister and leader of the Eurogroup, today said he still expected a deal to be struck in the coming weeks and that it was in the interests of the eurozone for Greece to remain in the currency bloc.  Let us hope that all is sorted out before Greece drops into the abyss.

New Greek Law undermines Greek-American Relations

A new Greek law to enable prisoners with severely impaired health to be freed from jail early and placed under house arrest has seriously undermined Greece's relations with both the USA and Turkey.

The US ambassador to Athens has issued a stern warning to Greece over proposed legislation which would enable the early release of Savvas Xiros, the bomb-maker for the November 17 terrorist group whose victims included 5 American citizens.  Using unusually frank language ahead of talks between the two countries, Ambassador Pearce said the passage of this bill would be seen as a "profoundly unfriendly act".  In the almost three months since Tsipras assumed office, this issue has overshadowed relations with the US.  Diplomats have leaked that it was likely to dominate the Greek foreign minister's inaugural meeting with the US secretary of state, John Kerry, in Washington on Monday.  Turkey has also expressed its concerns over Xiros's potential release.

The November 17 group began its killing spree with the assassination in Athens of the CIA station chief, Richard Welch, following the collapse of military rule in 1975.  During its 27 years of operation, it killed 29 people including five Americans, three Turkish diplomats and the British military attaché.  The group was only caught and disbanded after a crudely made bomb detonated in the hands of Savvas Xiros in Piraeus in June 2002.

Savvas Xiros was badly injured when the blast destroyed his eardrums and left him almost entirely blind.  He is currently serving five life sentences including 2 sentences for murdering Americans.  Xiros' appeal to the Greek courts to be set free on health grounds has already been rejected.  The Greek government views the new law to allow prisoners with severely impaired health to be freed from jail early and placed under house arrest purely as a humanitarian measure and not simply about Savvas Xiros.  It is viewed by the USA and, to be honest, many Greeks as politically motivated because there are very few inmates in Greek jails who aside from Xiros would fall into the category of being "severely disabled".

This issue has placed the Greek government between the proverbial rock and a hard place.  A leftist Greek government cannot be seen to be changing what it views as purely domestic legislation under orders from Washington; on the other hand Athens has been relying on support from America to keep its debt-stricken economy afloat.

Other News

Christie's Auction

A row has broken out between the Greek Ministry of Culture and the London auction house, Christie's over a 4th century BCE funerary stele.  The carved marble stele dates from around 350-325 BCE and bears the inscription 'Dorias [daughter of] Poseidonios'.  According to the lot description, it was found in Halkida on the island of Evia and was recorded in the travel notes of Eduard Schaubert in 1844.

Based on Schaubert's 1844 travel notes, Greek authorities argue that there is proof that the stele was recorded in Greek territory after the country's liberation from Ottoman rule and therefore its export was illegal.  Christies claimed that the stele was from a private collection in France and acquired prior to 1994.  Although the Greek Culture Ministry sent a letter to Christie's presenting evidence that the stele had been illegally exported from Greece and asking that it be withdrawn from auction, Christie's nevertheless insisted that its own investigation showed that the auction could continue as planned under British law.  The stele was eventually sold by auction for £75,000, about twice its estimated value.

Four items, three ancient Greek vases and an Etruscan head, all of them of Italian origin each with a value greater than £100,000, had already been withdrawn from the auction after an investigation by Dr Christos Tsirogiannis, a specialist in the illegal antiquities' trade, in cooperation with Interpol and Italian authorities.  Although Dr. Tsirogiannis' investigation was not connected to the Dorias stele, which had been handled by the Greek Culture Ministry, he said it was "no surprise" that Christie's was once again attempting to auction antiquities of "dubious or nonexistent legal provenance".

Homer's Odyssey

Homer's Odyssey has been interpreted many ways.  As well as the conventional interpretation, Odysseus has been portrayed by countless writers in a myriad of different ways such as Leopold Bloom in James Joyce's Ulysses and as a pomade-crazed outlaw played by George Clooney in the Coen brothers' film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?".  Now the poet and playwright Simon Armitage is recasting the cunning king of Ithaca as a modern-day wily politician.

Simon Armitage is no stranger to reinterpreting Homer.  In 2004, the BBC commissioned him to create a version of the Odyssey to mark the Athens Olympic Games.  This verse adaptation was broadcast on Radio 4.  Last year, Armitage's play "The Last Days of Troy" was staged both the stage and radio.

Armitage's new play, "The Odyssey: Missing Presumed Dead" presents Odysseus as “a high-ranking minister with a colourful background who gets sent on a delicate diplomatic mission to Istanbul.  Odysseus is portrayed as a very reluctant participant at Troy, who does everything he can not to go there.  Although he will happily tell lies and distort facts, he will occasionally play the roles that he's expected to play if necessary.  The play moves back and forth between the contemporary world of Westminster, the Minister's provincial home and the ancient past.  When his Istanbul mission goes haywire, he "sort of drops through the floor into the past" encountering the Sirens, the Lotus Eaters and Circe while striving to break back into the present.

The play will open at the Everyman theatre in Liverpool in September and will then tour the UK; unfortunately the closest it gets to Bristol is the Northcott Theatre at Exeter from the 24th to 28th November this year.

Greek Clergy

An unexpected outcome of Greece's financial crisis has been an increase in the number of young Greeks applying to join the clergy.  According to the Archdiocese of Athens, the number of applications interested in enrolling in one of Greece's four ecclesiastical academies has more than tripled in the last three years.

In order to become a priest in Greece, the person is only required to have a higher education degree, and attendance at an academy is not mandatory.  Now the Greek Church is running workshops to "fast-track" often highly qualified young people into the priesthood in just three years.  The apprentice priests attend theoretical and practical courses and also train to work in soup kitchens, hospitals and prisons.

At the present there are about 10,000 clergy in Greece but there are about 500 vacant positions across the country.  Although it is sometimes argued that these young people are only joining the priesthood because they cannot get other work.  Many apprentice priests already work in the private sector.  When they become ordained, they intend to continue in their original work offering their priestly services without charge.

Sifis the crocodile found dead in Crete

The 3 metre-long crocodile that became a national celebrity in Greece after being discovered last summer in a lake in Crete has been found dead.

Early July last year, a large crocodile was spotted at the Potami Dam on the Amari plain in central Crete.  Although the local authorities initially considered it a threat and tried to catch it, all such attempts failed.  In the meantime, the crocodile, now nicknamed Manolios or Sifis by its growing number of fans, continued to attract the crowds.  Eventually the local Mayor of Amari suggested that Manolios should be allowed to stay on as a guest of the municipality as a tourist attraction.

The very mention of tourist money alerted the various local and national government authorities who soon became engaged in an internecine bureaucratic squabble.  Eventually it was decreed that under Greek law, Sifis was the property of the Environment Ministry and it would be their task to locate and trap the crocodile in accordance with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which was rather difficult because nobody knew exactly which type of crocodile it was.  Eventually a crocodile specialist recommended getting hunters to capture the crocodile by boat at night.  Nevertheless strangely enough, Cretan hunters, who are not normally reticent about hunting any animal, legally or illegally at any time, were not interested in this offer of free legitimate croc hunting.

Unfortunately, Sifis was not able to withstand the harsh winter weather that hit Crete this year and he passed away.  His body was found floating in the dam at the end of March.  Sifis' body has been transferred to the Natural History Museum where it will eventually be put on display.

crocodile

German couple pay Greece £630 war reparations

And finally……an elderly German couple visiting Greece walked into the town hall at Naplio and told the mayor that they wanted to make up for their government’s attitude.  They said they had calculated that each German owed Greece €875 for what Greece had suffered under German rule during world war two.  They then handed over €875 (£630) in what they said was their share of the German reparations owed to Greece from the second war second world war.

Figures from some sources in Athens put the amount still owed by Germany at around €162bn (£117bn), or more than half the level of debt that Greece is struggling with.  Although Greece has long claimed such a sum from Germany, there is however, no provision in the Greek Finance Ministry for receiving it.  Therefore the money has been donated to a local Naplio charity

 

Greek News – March 2015

 

Much as expected, Greek News over the last month has been dominated by Greece's dealings with Europe and the rest of the world over the bail out and its financial situation.

Last meeting, I left you with Athens making its first tentative concessions in this game of brinkmanship by indicating that it would continue accepting financial support when the current bailout expired at the end of February.  There was no longer any pretence that the bailout would be replaced by a loan agreement with no strings attached.  Eventually a four month extension to the bailout was reluctantly agreed by the Eurogroup, ECB and IMF, whom we must now call the "Brussels Group" and no longer the "Troika".  In return, Greece would provide and implement a "list" of agreed economic reforms.

It was at this point, things got messy.  Yanis Varoufakis (Γιάνης Βαρουφάκης), Greece' new Minister of Finance, accidentally or perhaps accidently-on-purpose sent the wrong list of reforms to Brussels; then Eurozone Ministers could not agree amongst themselves whether the corrected proposed list was adequate.  When the Eurozone Ministers finally accepted a list of reforms, it was not acceptable to the IMF.  Now Europe is expressing concern about the delay in Greece's enforcement of the now-agreed economic reforms.

Last Friday (13/03/15), Greece was able to meet a loan repayment to the International Monetary Fund of about 350 million euros.  Now Tsipras and Varoufakis are trying to negotiate with EU to release more funds from the country’s 240 billion-euro bailout amid concern that the Greek government could run out of cash at any moment.  This coming Friday (20/3/15), the EU leaders including Tsipras and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be meeting for a two-day summit in Brussels.  On the very same day, the Greek government has to repay the IMF another 346 million euros and refinance 1.6 billion euros of treasury bills.  In the meantime, the schism between Germany and Greece grows wider by the day.  SYRIZA's traditionally good ties with Moscow have heightened fears that Greece would turn to Moscow as its strategic protector if it was ejected from the Euro.  Russia, in turn, has said despite its own financial woes, it would consider a Greek request for aid.  Unless Berlin and Athens can come to an amicable agreement, something that looks increasingly less likely, there are only two possible outcomes: Greece capitulates or Greece leaves the euro. Look out for a fiery meeting!

SYRIZA has been in power for some seven weeks and its honeymoon from Greece's domestic politics is now over.  Tsipras is under fire from his own supporters as well as the opposition parties.  The New Democracy (ND) party has taken great pleasure of reminding Tsipras that when he was leader of the opposition, he had described the country’s cooperation with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as "a recipe for social destruction" whereas now he is looking to the OECD for help.  There is growing discontent amongst SYRIZA's backbenchers about the government's failure to implement some of the anti-austerity policy measures, which Tsipras had promised to implement immediately if he won the election.

All is not doom and gloom for Alexis Tsipras.  The more intransigent and incendiary Greece's European partners become, the more support behind the new government has solidified.  According to a poll last weekend, support for SYRIZA has grown enormously since the election at the expense of the pro-austerity New Democracy Party.  Over 75% of Greeks now consider its government's course of action so far to have been positive.  The suitability of Alexis Tsipras as Prime Minister has soared from 29% to 55% in the polls.  Despite the possibility of "Grexit" (Greek exit from the euro) being openly discussed again, optimism has returned on the streets of Greece.  People worn down by gruelling austerity, on the back of unprecedented recession, are smiling again.  Government officials are again walking casually through central Athens, instead of ducking into chauffeur-driven cars to avoid protesters.  Last week, finance minister Yanis Varoufakis was mobbed by appreciative voters as he ambled across Syntagma Square.  As the T shirts say "SYRIZA is Greek for hope".  Let us hope that the Greek government can fulfil these hopes and aspirations of the Greek people.

Turkey

A rite of passage for any incoming Greek Prime Minister has been an act of aggression by Turkey to test his mettle.  This has usually taken the form of air incursions or invasion of small uninhabited islands like such Imia in 1997.  These incidents usually follow a time-honoured pattern: a provocative Turkish act, diplomatic sabre-rattling, both armies being put on alert, diplomatic expulsions followed by the USA and NATO carrying the delicate negotiations to restore peace with neither Greece nor Turkey losing face.

Alex Tsipras was subjected to his baptism of fire when Turkey tried to reserve a large chunk of airspace over the Aegean Sea for military manoeuvres until the end of this year.  On 1st March, Turkey unilaterally issued a Notice to Airmen (or NOTAM for short), reserving an extensive area of airspace over the Aegean Sea from March 2nd to December 31st 2015, for military use.  Athens reacted by lodging complaints to NATO, the European Union and the United Nations, prompting a flurry of diplomacy.  This time, however Turkey departed from the expected script.  Instead of escalating the tension, it cancelled the NOTAM which it claimed had been "issued erroneously with an inaccurate coordinate".  Although the withdrawal of the NOTAM has been interpreted as resulting from improved Greek-Turkish relations, diplomatic sources have suggested that NATO had played a key role in de-escalating the tension after endorsing Athens’s complaint.

Cyprus

It is not only Greece that has been suffering from financial woes and bailouts; Cyprus, of course also has also had its financial problems.

Although linguistic solidarity, which results in Cyprus and Greece to give each other's contestant the top score each year in the Eurovision song contest, illustrates the strong cultural ties between the two countries, their respective economies and their approaches to the recent financial problems have been completely different.  Unlike Greece, Cyprus has been largely diligent in implementing the economic reforms required in return for its international bailout in 2013.  There has been little public protest against the reforms in Cyprus despite the deep recession that ensued.  Cyprus' current centre-right government blames former the Communist President, Dimitris Christofias, for delaying a cleanup of Cypriot banks, which made the eventual bailout more painful.  Since the radical leftist SYRIZA party won power in Greece in January, denouncing austerity and demanding a reduction of its official debt, Cyprus' and Greece's economic paths have diverged more sharply.

Doubts over Greece's future membership of the euro are straining its historic kinship with Cyprus with Nicosia distancing itself from Athens to try to secure its own foothold amongst the Euro nations.  Cyprus is therefore trying to reverse a perception that the two countries are inextricably linked economically, worried that it could be dragged down with Greece, should Athens' finances collapse and force the Greeks to abandon the euro.  The fate of Cyprus, a divided island on Europe's frontier with the Middle East, could prove an important test of the durability of the eurozone and the wider European Union in the face of political uncertainty in Greece.  Cyprus is hoping to return to borrowing on bond markets this year; Athens has little such prospect.


Other News

Cyprus seems to be in the News this month, and, according to the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), almost a million birds were illegally killed in just two months on a single British military base in Cyprus last year.  A report by Dr Tim Stowe, the RSPB's international director, alleges that local poachers killed 15,000 birds every day during September and October 2014 in the Dhekelia (Δεκέλεια) Sovereign Base Area (SBA) in Cyprus.  The report highlights a three-fold increase in illegal trapping of songbirds on the British military base since monitoring started in 2002 and urges the Ministry of Defence and the Sovereign Base Area authorities to do something about it before this autumn's migration.

Every autumn, vast numbers of songbirds use Cyprus as a place to rest and feed as they migrate south from Europe to Africa.  For centuries, Cypriots have hunted these birds each September and October to make a local dish called ambelopoulia.  Traditionally, trapping had been carried out using branches covered in sticky lime, on which birds would land and be unable to escape.  The majority of the birds captured this way are common species such as robin and blackcap and the practice of hunting them had a negligible effect on their conservation.  Hunting however also captures rare species such the Cyprus wheatear and Cyprus warbler and the invention of large-scale, indiscriminate netting techniques has enabled organised gangs of poachers to trap tens of thousands of birds, including the threatened species.  Although the Cypriot government outlawed ambelopoulia and the hunting of migratory birds back in 1974, it is nevertheless still possible to find ambelopoulia in local tavernas and the illicit demand for this dish is now resulting in an unprecedented number of birds being killed.

Although the MoD have disputed the report's claims about the actual number of birds killed during this period questioning the methodology of the RSPB's survey, it is clear that that there is an unacceptable level illegal hunting of birds at Dhekelia.  During last year's migratory period, the MoD police arrested nearly 50 poachers, seized 450 nets and 286 piece of poaching equipment.  Although penalties are potentially severe, convicted poachers can be fined €17,000 or imprisoned for up to three years; there are very few successful prosecutions.  The MoD is however in a difficult position.  The Bases have suffered from hefty cuts to their resources and they are reluctant to deal harshly with the poachers because such an act would undoubtedly antagonise the local community.

With this level of illicit hunting, there will soon be a time when migratory birds become a rarity in Cyprus.  Perhaps it is now time for the MoD to put more resources into protecting the wildlife in its care and for the Cypriot government to implementing its own laws before it becomes too late.

No more cash for Amphipolis Dig

The Greek Culture Ministry has announced that there will no more government funding at this stage for further archaeological work at Amphipolis and that the experts will focus on the five skeletons and various other artefacts that have already been unearthed and at making the tomb safe from collapse.  Although the official government line is that the excavation project has already received generous funding and now it needs breathing space to consolidate their work, a more credible reason is the level of funding exposes Greek government to international criticism at time when it has to show that it is tightening its belt.

A Museum in Northern Athens is preserving the memories of Asia Minor Greeks

Sadan Yusuf Durkan is a Turk who owns an antiques store in Smyrna or present-day Izmir.  His wife is Greek and his own mother hailed from Kavala in northern Greece.  Many Turkish customers still come to his shop to sell him Cretan divans, sculpted wood furniture, embroidery, post cards and other relics of a life that came to an abrupt halt in 1923 when the Greek population was forced to leave their homes in Turkey.

A few years ago a young woman entered the store carrying a wooden suitcase which she had inherited from her grandmother, who, in turn, had been entrusted with it by a Greek woman who taught sewing and embroidery before having to flee Smyrna.  The box contained samples of students' work as well as materials the seamstress used for wedding gowns, mostly lace and pearls. The young woman also brought a wooden chest to the store filled with the dowry of an unnamed Greek woman.  Mr Durkan and his wife believed that such items should be preserved and exhibited to show people the traditions of Asia Minor.  So instead of selling them, the couple donated the contents of the suitcase and the chest to the Asia Minor Folk Museum in the northern Athenian suburb of Nea Erythrea.

The contents of the suitcase and chest have now been put on display in the museum amongst the thousands of objects donated by families from Asia Minor to the Association that runs the museum.  Although those Greeks who were forcibly expelled from Turkey could not bring even a fraction of their belongings with them, those who came to Greece in the population exchanges or abandoned their homes before the 1922 disaster were able to bring along valuable objects and family heirlooms.  It is these belongings which are now the backbone of the Museums exhibits.  The tribulations of these uprooted people are not the focus of the museum.  The museum presents their daily lives and shows how they expressed themselves through arts and crafts. The museum, for example, boasts clothing that once belonged to Roza Eskenazi, the quintessential voice of the Greeks of Asia Minor, as well as traditional wedding dresses and men’s suits and a rare 1750 costume from Ikonio.

The association’s 76-year-old president and caretaker of the museum, Kyriakos Martakis, first visited his parents' hometown, Cesme, after his father died at the advanced age of 105.  Using his father’s memories of the past as his map, Martakis eventually found his father's family home.  An elderly Turk opened the door and politely said "Finally, you’re here!"  It was his grandfather's protégé who had guarded the house and all of its contents since 1923, convinced that someone from the family would come back one day.

The Asia Minor Folk Museum is in the northern Athenian suburb of Nea Erythrea (Karastamati & 2 Driveti, tel 210.6209.814).  It opened in 2013 in a space donated by the municipality. It does not currently have a web site.

 

Greek News – February 2015

 

Much as expected, Greek News for the last month has been dominated by Greece's dealings with Europe and the rest of the world over the bail out and the financial situation.

Last meeting, I left you with Athens making its first tentative concessions in this game of brinkmanship by indicating that it would continue accepting financial support when the current bailout expired at the end of February.  There was no longer any pretence that the bailout would be replaced by a loan agreement with no strings attached.  Eventually a four month extension to the bailout was reluctantly agreed by the Eurogroup, ECB and IMF, (we must now call them the "Brussels Group" and no longer the "Troika"); in return Greece would provide and implement a "list" of agreed economic reforms.

It was at this point, things got messy.  Yanis Varoufakis (Γιάνης Βαρουφάκης), Greece' new Minister of Finance, accidentally or perhaps accidently-on-purpose sent the wrong list of reforms to Brussels; then Eurozone Ministers could not agree amongst themselves whether the corrected proposed list was adequate.  When the Eurozone Ministers finally accepted a list of reforms, it was not acceptable to the IMF.  Now Europe is expressing concern about the delay in Greece's enforcement of the now-agreed economic reforms.

Last Friday (13/03/15), Greece was able to meet a loan repayment to the International Monetary Fund of about 350 million euros.  Now Tsipras and Varoufakis are trying to negotiate with EU to release more funds from the country’s 240 billion-euro bailout amid concern that the Greek government could run out of cash at any moment.  This coming Friday (20/3/15), the EU leaders including Tsipras and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be meeting for a two-day summit in Brussels.  On the same day, the Greek government has to repay the IMF another 346 million euros and refinance 1.6 billion euros of treasury bills.  Meanwhile the schism between Germany and Greece grows wider by the day.  SYRIZA's traditionally good ties with Moscow has heightened fears that Greece would turn to Moscow as its strategic protector if it was ejected from the Euro; Russia, in turn, has said despite its own financial woes, it would consider a Greek request for aid.  Unless Berlin and Athens can come to an amicable agreement, something that looks increasingly less likely, there are only two possible outcomes: Greece capitulates or Greece leaves the euro. Look out for a fiery meeting!

SYRIZA has been in power for some seven weeks and its honeymoon from Greece's domestic politics is now over.  Tsipras is under fire from his own supporters as well as the opposition parties.  The New Democracy (ND) party has taken great pleasure of reminding Tsipras that when he was leader of the opposition, he had described the country’s cooperation with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the OECD, as "a recipe for social destruction", now he is looking to the OECD for help.  There is discontent amongst his own backbenchers for his government's failure to implement some of the anti-austerity policy measures he had promised to implement immediately if he won the election.


All is not doom and gloom for Alexis Tsipras.  The more intransigent and incendiary Greece's European partners become, the more support behind the new government has solidified.  According to a poll last weekend, support for SYRIZA has grown enormously since the election at the expense of the pro-austerity New Democracy Party.  Over 75% of Greeks now consider its government's course of action so far to have been positive.  The suitability of Alexis Tsipras as Prime Minister has soared from 29% to 55% in the polls.  Despite the possibility of "Grexit" (Greek exit from the euro) being openly discussed again, optimism has returned on the streets of Greece.  People worn down by gruelling austerity, on the back of unprecedented recession, are smiling again.  Government officials are again walking casually through central Athens, instead of ducking into chauffeur-driven cars to avoid protesters.  Last week, finance minister Yanis Varoufakis was mobbed by appreciative voters as he ambled across Syntagma Square.  As the T shirts say "SYRIZA is Greek for hope".  Let us hope that the Greek government can fulfil these hopes and aspirations of the Greek people.

Turkey

A rite of passage for any incoming Greek Prime Minister has been an act of aggression by Turkey to test the mettle of any incoming Greek Prime Minister.  This has usually taken the form of air incursions or invasion of small uninhabited islands like such Imia in 1997.  These incidents usually follow a time-honoured pattern: a provocative Turkish act, diplomatic sabre-rattling, both armies being put on alert, diplomatic expulsions followed by the USA and NATO carrying the delicate negotiations to restore peace with neither Greece nor Turkey losing face.

Alex Tsipras was subjected to his baptism of fire when Turkey tried to reserve a large chunk of airspace over the Aegean Sea for military manoeuvres until the end of this year.  On 1st March, Turkey unilaterally issued a Notice to Airmen (or NOTAM for short), reserving an extensive area of airspace over the Aegean Sea from March 2nd to December 31st 2015, for military use.  Athens reacted by lodging complaints to NATO, the European Union and the United Nations, prompting a flurry of diplomacy.  This time, however Turkey departed from the expected script.  Instead of escalating the tension, it cancelled the NOTAM which it claimed had been "issued erroneously with an inaccurate coordinate".  Although the withdrawal of the NOTAM has been interpreted as resulting from improved Greek-Turkish relations, diplomatic sources have suggested that NATO had played a key role in de-escalating the tension after endorsing Athens’s complaint.


Cyprus

It is not Greece that has been suffering from financial woes and bailouts; Cyprus, of course also has also had its financial problems.

Although linguistic solidarity, which results in Cyprus and Greece to give each other's contestant the top score each year in the Eurovision song contest, illustrates the strong cultural ties between Greece and Cyprus, their economies and their approaches to their recent financial problems are completely different.  Unlike Greece, Cyprus has been largely diligent in implementing reforms required in return for its international bailout in 2013.  There has been little public protest despite the deep recession that ensued.  Cyprus' centre-right government blames former the Communist President Dimitris Christofias for delaying a cleanup of Cypriot banks, which made the eventual bailout more painful.  Since the radical leftist SYRIZA party won power in Greece in January, denouncing austerity and demanding a reduction of its official debt, Cyprus' and Greece's economic paths have diverged more sharply.

Doubts over Greece's future membership of the euro are straining its historic kinship with Cyprus with Nicosia distancing itself from Athens to try to secure its own foothold amongst the Euro nations.  Cyprus is therefore trying to reverse a perception that the two countries are inextricably linked economically, worried that it could be dragged down with Greece, should Athens' finances collapse and force the Greeks to abandon the euro.  The fate of Cyprus, a divided island on Europe's frontier with the Middle East, could prove an important test of the durability of the eurozone and the wider European Union in the face of political uncertainty in Greece.  Cyprus is hoping to return to borrowing on bond markets this year; Athens has little such prospect.

Other News

Cyprus seems to be in the News this month, and, according to the RSPB (the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), almost a million birds were illegally killed in just two months on a single British military base in Cyprus last year.  A report by Dr Tim Stowe, the RSPB's international director, alleges that local poachers killed 15,000 birds every day during September and October 2014 in the Dhekelia (Δεκέλεια) Sovereign Base Area (SBA) in Cyprus.  The report highlights a three-fold increase in illegal trapping of songbirds on the British military base since monitoring started in 2002 and urges the Ministry of Defence and the Sovereign Base Area authorities to do something about it before this autumn's migration.

Every autumn, vast numbers of songbirds use Cyprus as a place to rest and feed as they migrate south from Europe to Africa.  For centuries, Cypriots have hunted these birds each September and October to make a local dish called ambelopoulia.  Traditionally, trapping is carried out using branches covered in sticky lime, on which birds would land and be unable to escape.  The majority of the birds captured this way are common species such as robin and blackcap and the practice of hunting them had a negligible effect on their conservation.  Hunting however also captures rare species such the Cyprus wheatear and Cyprus warbler and the invention of large-scale, indiscriminate netting techniques has enabled organised gangs of poachers to trap thousands of birds, including the threatened species.  Although the Cypriot government outlawed ambelopoulia and the hunting of migratory birds back in 1974, it is nevertheless still possible to find ambelopoulia in the local tavernas and the illicit demand is driving the number of birds killed to unprecedented levels.

Although the MoD have disputed the report's claims about the actual number of birds killed during this period questioning the methodology of the RSPB's survey, it is clear that that there is an unacceptable level illegal hunting of birds at Dhekelia.  During last year's migratory period, the MoD police arrested nearly 50 poachers, seized 450 nets and 286 piece of poaching equipment.  Although penalties are potentially severe, convicted poachers can be fined €17,000 or imprisoned for up to three years; there are very few successful prosecutions.  The MoD is however in a difficult position.  The Bases have suffered from hefty cuts to their resources and they are reluctant to deal harshly with the poachers because such an act would undoubtedly antagonise the local community.

With this level of illicit hunting, there will soon be a time when migratory birds become a rarity in Cyprus.  Perhaps it is now time for the MoD to put more resources into protecting the wildlife in its care and for the Cypriot government to implementing its own laws before it becomes too late.

CIA-Dhekelia

No more cash for Amphipolis Dig

The Greek Culture Ministry has announced that there will no more government funding at this stage for further archaeological work at Amphipolis and that the experts will focus on the five skeletons and various other artefacts that have already been unearthed and at making the tomb safe from collapse.  Although the official government line is that the excavation project has received generous funding and now it needs breathing space now, a more credible reason is the level of funding exposes Greek government to international criticism at time when it has to show that it is tightening its belt.

A Museum in Northern Athens is preserving the memories of Asia Minor Greeks

Sadan Yusuf Durkan is a Turk who owns an antiques store in Smyrna or present-day Izmir.  His wife is Greek and his own mother hailed from Kavala in northern Greece.  Many Turkish customers still come to his shop to sell him Cretan divans, sculpted wood furniture, embroidery, post cards and other relics of a life that came to an abrupt halt in 1923 when the Greek population was forced to leave Turkey.

A few years ago a young woman entered the store carrying a wooden suitcase which she had inherited from her grandmother, who, in turn, had been entrusted with it by a Greek woman who taught sewing and embroidery before having to flee Smyrna.  The box contained samples of students' work as well as materials the seamstress used for wedding gowns, mostly lace and pearls. The young woman also brought a wooden chest to the store filled with the dowry of an unnamed Greek woman.  Mr Durkan and his wife believed that such items should be preserved and exhibited to show people the traditions of Asia Minor.  So instead of selling them, the couple donated the contents of the suitcase and the chest to the Asia Minor Folk Museum in the northern Athenian suburb of Nea Erythrea.

The contents of the suitcase and chest have now been put on display among another 2,000 objects donated by families from Asia Minor to the association that runs the museum.  Although the Greeks who were forcibly expelled from Turkey could not bring even a fraction of their belongings with them, those who came to Greece in the population exchanges or abandoned their homes before the 1922 disaster were able to bring along valuable objects and family heirlooms.  It is these belongings which are now the backbone of the Museums exhibits.  The tribulations of these uprooted people are not the focus of the museum.  The museum presents their daily lives and shows how they expressed themselves through arts and crafts. The museum, for example, boasts clothing that once belonged to Roza Eskenazi, the quintessential voice of the Greeks of Asia Minor, as well as traditional wedding dresses and men’s suits and a rare 1750 costume from Ikonio.

The association’s 76-year-old president and caretaker of the museum, Kyriakos Martakis, first visited his parents' hometown, Cesme, after his father died at the advanced age of 105.  Using his father’s memories of the past as his map, Martakis eventually found his father's family home.  An elderly Turk opened the door and politely said "Finally, you’re here!"  It was his grandfather's protégé who had guarded the house and all of its contents since 1923, convinced that someone from the family would come back one day.

The Asia Minor Folk Museum is in the northern Athenian suburb of Nea Erythrea (Karastamati & 2 Driveti, tel 210.6209.814).  It opened in 2013 in a space donated by the municipality. It does not have a web site.

asia_minor_musem


Greek News – January 2015

 

I spoke to you last November (2014), about the consequences of a failure of the Greek parliament to elect a President of the Greek Republic.  The successful election of a new President would have allowed Greece's coalition government to survive until the end of its elected term in June 2016 but failure to elect a new President would bring about an immediate Spring Election.  As you all are probably aware, Prime Minister Samaras brought forward the Presidential election but parliament failed to elect a new President of Greece.  As a result of this gamble, on this coming Sunday, the 25th January, Greece will hold it's most crucial General Election ever.

This Greek election represents the start of an even more uncertain era in Europe.  The political forces set in motion by austerity policies designed to cope with the still-unresolved Greek economic crisis have undermined its established political parties and alliances.  New parties, as well as older but previously marginal ones, have grown apace.  Some are getting closer to power, or at least to a share in it; others, like the once mighty PASOK, will be lucky to be represented in the next Greek parliament.

SYRIZA, the Greek radical leftist party led by Alexis Tsipras (Αλέξης Τσίπρας) has been leading the polls for a long time and is currently about 4% ahead of its nearest rival, the current Prime Minister's New Democracy Party with the extreme right wing Golden Dawn in fourth place just behind the new centrist party, To Potami.

If, as expected, SYRIZA wins the elections, it will perhaps go down in history as the first true anti-austerity, as well as unashamedly anti-capitalist party to come to office in Europe after 2008 changed the rules of the game.  Although forgiveness is a rare enough quality, a SYRIZA government will be asking its European partners to forgive and forget some of the €317bn (£240bn) Greece still owes, so that its economy and society can recover from more than six years of austerity and recession.  Instead of the defiant tone that once saw Alexis Tsipras, SYRIZA's leader, threatening to ditch the euro altogether, his party now hopes to negotiate an agreement with Germany and other creditors, which would allow Greece to remain in the single currency and set Greece on a road to economic recovery.

What will happen, if, as likely, no party wins an overall majority?  According to the Greek constitution, the incumbent President Papoulias will offer the leader of the party with the most seats in parliament, three days to form a coalition.  If that fails, then the president will then invite the leader of the second party to try and form a coalition.  If that does not work out, the baton will be offered to the third party; this could potentially be the Golden Dawn.  President Papoulias' machinations must conclude on February 4th.  If the party leaders have failed to form a government by then, the President may himself try and form a coalition, but if this fails, he must dissolve Parliament and call new elections.  This scenario would create a constitutional problem as President Papoulias's term of office will have expired by the time that these second elections have been completed and a new parliament formed.  Who would then have the authority to carry out impartially the delicate coalition negotiations and constitutionally empower a new government?


Fire on board Norman Atlantic

A fire on board the Italian car ferry, the Norman Atlantic has claimed the lives of 9 passengers; another 18 are still missing presumed killed.  The Norman Atlantic had been chartered by the Greek company ANEK and was sailing from the Greek port of Patras to Ancona in Italy, via Igoumenitsa when it caught fire in the Adriatic Sea near Corfu just after Christmas with 475 people on board.  Greek, Italian and Albanian coast guard boats, as well as commercial vessels helped in the rescue attempt, which was hampered by gale force winds.  Two more lives were lost when two Albanian seamen died from injuries sustained when a cable linking their tugboat to the ferry snapped.

Now the fire is extinguished and crippled ship berthed at Bridinsi, the investigation into the ferry disaster will begin in earnest.  Already questions have been asked about the accuracy of the ship's passenger manifest.  It has also been suggested that safety checks carried out by port authorities in Patras just before the ship sailed had found that some of the vessels safety features were malfunctioning or missing.  Of greater concern must be claims by many Norman Atlantic passengers that the fire alarm did not sound promptly, the crew was not helpful in coordinating the evacuation and that some crew members actually abandoned the ship before all the passengers had been evacuated.

Parthenon Marbles

Greece has reacted with outrage to the British Museum's surprise move to loan one of the disputed Parthenon marbles to Russia.  News of the move elicited shock and fury with Greek officials, and activists abroad, describing the gesture, variously, as sly, arrogant, provocative and rude.  Within hours of learning of the unexpected decision to send the monumental statue of the river god Ilissos to the State Hermitage museum in St Petersburg, the Greek Prime Minister, Antonis Samaris labelled the decision as insulting, particularly at a time when Greece has asked Britain to agree to mediation under the auspices of UNESCO.

International inter-museum art and sculptural loans are very delicate and complex arrangements that are not finalised on a whim or at a moment’s notice or under a veil of secrecy.  There was no advance notice or promotion given of the Hermitage exhibition.  Although museums normally break the news of such a loan months in advance in order to publicise it, by the time of the announcement of this loan, the sculpture was already at the Hermitage and ready to go on public view the following day.  It later emerged that there had been a clandestine operation to remove the sculpture from the British Museum under the cover of darkness and to air freight it to Russia as if were a covert military exercise.

Campaigners have suggested that the loan would give added impetus to Athens to pursue the legal route in its quest to reclaim the Parthenon treasures from London.  The loan has effectively demolished the British Museum's argument that the Greek antiquities were immovable.  The secret dealings surrounding the loan of the sculpture to St Petersburg reveal a lot more about the strategy and sophistry of the British Museum and should serve as a warning to Greece that mediation with the British Museum over the return of the Parthenon Sculptures is unlikely to succeed.


Other News

Robert V. Keeley, an outstanding American diplomat and an excellent friend to Greece, has died in Washington at the age of 85.  He was the brother of Edmund Keeley, the celebrated Hellenist who has been instrumental in bringing Greek poetry to an international audience.

Robert Keeley was serving as a political officer at the US Embassy in Athens when the Colonels seized power in the early hours of April 21st 1967.  Despite not holding a high-ranking diplomatic position, he risked jeopardising his career by openly expressing his strong disagreement with the official American position on Greece both before and after the coup.  He went so far as to openly maintaining contacts with pro-democracy groups opposed to the Junta.  He advised formally Washington to sever all ties with the Junta regime and correctly warned the US that collusion with the colonels would endanger future Greek-American relations.  His outspokenness was not appreciated by his superiors and his diplomatic career foundered for the next seven years.

By 1985, Andreas Papandreou was then Prime Minister of Greece and was advocating anti NATO anti-USA policy.  At this particularly difficult period in Greek-American relations, Keeley was the only US diplomat to whom the fiery Papandreou would listen to.  He was recalled from the diplomatic wilderness and returned to Greece as US Ambassador with a remit to patch up the bellicose US-Greek relations.  Keeley encouraged Washington to pay more attention to the Greek premier's act rather than his words.  He was able to persuade Papandreou to moderate his rhetoric to avoid antagonising the Reagan administration unnecessarily.  When Keeley left Greece in 1989, US Greek relations were almost cordial as a result of Keeley's wise counsel and affection for Greece.

Seaplanes

This year will see the start of seaplane service covering much of Greece.  More than 40 waterside airports across Greece are currently at the final stages of development creating jobs and boosting tourism.

Contrary to expectation, travel by seaplane will not be very expensive.  Typically a half hour scheduled journey, eg Athens to Serifos, Kos to Naxos, or Rhodes to Sitia, will cost about 75-80€ ie about twice the normal Olympic fare.  Because however the sea planes fly from seaports close to town centres rather than out-of-town airports, the overall cost of a journey will be similar to that of a conventional flight if however the costs of travel to and from the airport are taken into account.  Hellenic Seaplanes will start the year with four 19-seat seaplanes, which will increase to 20 by 2017.

Amphipolis

On Monday (19/01/14), the Greek Ministry of Culture announced that the laboratory examination of the human skeletal material found inside the grave inside the Amphipolis tomb showed that there were four dead bodies buried in the tomb, along with the remains of a single cremated person.  The bones belong to a woman of approximately 60 years of age, two men aged between 30 and 45 years and a newborn baby.  In addition there were the remains of an adult person, who had been cremated prior to the death of the other four.

DNA tests will now be carried out to determine if the buried are related to each other and whether the burial place is a family tomb.  It is certain, however, that the cremated person was the first "tenant" of the tomb because ancient Greeks had stopped burning their dead after the 3rd to 2nd century BCE.  It is more difficult to determine the exact identity of the burned remains but the recent revelations go some way to dispelling the speculation that the tomb belonged to Alexander the Great.

Great news: the bones belong to 5 persons

 

 

And finally……..Back to the Greece's election and with the exception of SYRIZA supporters, who expect to win on Sunday, nearly everyone thinks that the election has come at a bad time for Greece and no one will gain from it.  This is far from true, elections are big business!

First of all, all Greek employees are entitled up to three days off work to exercise their right to vote depending on how far their electoral districts are from their place of residence.  With electoral districts often hundreds of kilometres away from the elector's residence, coach companies, buses and trains are all competing with each other for some much needed custom during the mid-winter lull.

But with over 18 political parties vying for the public's vote, each elector will be inundated with more election mail than they could conceivably read.  To handle this onslaught of mail, main post offices in Athens and Thessaloniki have been compelled to stay open throughout weekends in order to receive and process election material such as party and candidate mail campaigns.  Although the humble postmen may be groaning under the weight of the additional mail they will have to carry, the overtime pay will very welcome.  Who can now say no one will gain from Sunday's elections.

 

 

 



[1]             Note added on 30/10/15.

The Google Trekker destinations for Greece can be accessed via https://www.google.com/maps/streetview/#greece-highlights.

 

Cretan destinations now include: Balos beach, Mt Dikti, Samaria Gorge, Elafonisi, Mt Ida, Mt Kofinas, Haniá old town and the Aforesmenos lighthouse.  In addition, the Acropolis Museum, the Plaka and Mt Lycabettos in Athens; the White Tower Thessaloniki, Monemvasia, Meteora, Hydra, Mt Olympus, Rhodes, the Monastery of St John at Patmos, Corfu Town and Naplion are now also available.