One of the projects taking part in Art-Athina 2016 (May 26-29, 2016) under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture and Sports is “Compassion”, an art and philosophy project that was founded in 2015 by a voluntary initiative of active citizens, artists, cultural managers and academics, based in Hamburg, Germany and Athens, Greece. Curator of the project is Dr Efi Kyprianidou who specializes in Cultural Policy and Management issues. She spoke to Greek News Agenda (GNA)* about the initiative and shared her views on the role of contemporary art in times of crisis.
Q: You currently curate the second version of the Compassion project which is to be presented at Art- Athina Platforms. Can you provide an insight on how the idea about this initiative came to life, as well as on the subject of the current exhibition?
A: Compassion is a non-profit, volunteer-run arts collective acting in Athens, Nicosia and Hamburg. Our aim is to promote public awareness regarding the support and understanding of patients with chronic illnesses. We wanted to understand the experience of illness and encourage doctors, psychologists, philosophers and artists to engage in an interdisciplinary dialogue regarding the meaning of illness. Our activities are founded on the belief that art can provide valuable insight into a number of issues associated with illness and medical practice. Such issues include: the distinction between the objective approach of western medicine and the subjective experience of illness and pain; the relationship between art and medical practice; the meaning of health, illness and pain; the effort for empathic understanding; the relationship between the sufferer and the physician; the quest for equal access to healthcare system; and the ethics of medical treatment in the light of some of the pharmaceutical industry’s questionable practices.
The subject of our latest project “The Waiting Room”, to be presented at Art-Athina Platforms, explores the concept of empathy that is the innate ability to experience another’s experience and share his emotional condition. “The Waiting Room” reenacts the experience of sitting in a waiting room of a hospital - a rather common experience for anyone who has ever fallen ill or who has stood by the side of someone else fallen ill, feeling that he is laying somewhere between the hope for cure and the agony provoked by the disease, between the reason of life and the irrationality of illness. Moreover, after reading the Greek Minister of Culture and Sports Aristides Baltas’s open letter to artists and intellectuals calling for solidarity and support to refugees, we felt that the experience of staying in a waiting room alludes to, in an uncanny way, the condition of the refugees and the immigrants, who are trapped between the disease of the war and the hope of a European Eden; that await for the verdict of history between hotspots and fenced borders. Participating in our project are four young artists from Greece and Cyprus (namely Christos Avraam, Nikos Gyftakis, Kyriakos Kousoulides and Penny Monogiou) who engaged in the creation of a novel group installation on this issue, by combining painting, sculpture, ready-mades and interactive video projections.
Q: The first version of the project was presented in Berlin (October 2015). How was the project welcomed in Germany? Do you believe that cultural collaboration - exchange between Northern and Southern European countries can serve as a tool to overcome cultural stereotypes that were prominent in Europe, during the recent years of the crisis?
A: For the first phase of our project, which was titled “Compassion- On the phenomenology of being ill”, a space at the Art Center Kuenstquartier Bethanien (a former hospital) was transformed into hospital rooms and 13 artists from Greece, Austria, Germany and Cyprus - among them Ulay, Günter Brus and Alexandros Psychoulis - presented their work. The exhibition was well received from the Berliners, who were eager to learn more about Greece and the current economic and social situation in the country. Overcoming well rooted cultural stereotypes is not of course easy, but art is surely an excellent means to achieve this.
Q: As a consequence of the eurocrisis, public expenditure for culture and arts has decreased dramatically and the cultural sector finds itself at a turning point where new ways of managing arts need to be established. In your opinion, what could be a possible way forward, in terms of cultural policy & diplomacy, for countries that have been plagued by the crisis?
A: It is true that European countries, Greece in particular, had to reduce culture/ heritage budgets and subsidies to independent arts and cultural organizations or even abolish some state funded cultural institutions; the ones that survived see their futures hanging in the balance. However, at the same time, we witness a spur of privately funded large scale cultural projects and organizations such as Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre, Onassis Cultural Centre or Neon Organization that actively support very important cultural initiatives. Recently Renzi’s goverment in Italy - a country that like Greece has historically financed cultural heritage - introduced a 65% tax break for money put into cultural projects, a programme that resulted, for example, in the major restoration of the Trevi Fountain by the luxury brand Fendi. I know that in Greece we tend to be rather suspicious of the involvement of private funding when it comes to cultural policy, but I think that right now it is the only option. And may I say that it is a good one: cultural policy in Greece should gradually move away from the model of the “architect state” where the government contributes the major part of financial and political resources for culture. I think that time has come for creative synergies between public and private cultural institutions and independent arts and culture initiatives. Greek culture policy should invent its own model where the State and the Ministry will have a regulative role in those synergies in order to ensure that cultural creation will not be further harmed by the lack of public support and subsidy.
Q: Could there also be a positive side to the crisis taking into consideration that in Greece, for instance, there is a burst of cultural activity in recent years? Is it true that in times of adversity, artistic creativity blossoms?
A: Well, yes and no! It is of course true that we have seen a cultural and creative explosion in recent years and the economic and social crisis has been a major theme. For these and other reasons, the Greek cultural scene has been spot on and at the heart of major international events, such as the Documenta. However, it would be a dangerous simplification to argue that a crisis has in the end a positive side for cultural activity. Cultural initiatives and artists need funding and support; maybe private subsidizing is fine for big institutions, but it is of no use for small struggling organizations or individuals working in the arts. In times when more than 7 million Europeans work in the field of creative industries with more than 550 billion revenue per year, it seems obvious that investments in cultural industries should be sought after, so that cultural and artistic creativity can really develop.
Q: What are the plans, objective and vision of the Compassion initiative for the future?
A: The Compassion arts collective prepares the publishing of a collection of essays on arts and the phenomenology of illness with contributions from Art Professors and academics including: Joanna Bourke (Birbeck University of London), Pepi Rigopoulou (University of Athens), Dimitra Makrinioti (University of Athens), Eleni Filippaki (Hellenic Open University), Costas Ioannides (Athens School of Fine Arts), Antonis Hatzimoisis (University of Athens), Fay Zika (Athens School of Fine Arts), Aris Sarafianos (University of Ioannina), Lara Skourla (Hellenic Open University), Spyros Petrounakos (National Technical University Athens), Elpida Rikou (Athens School of Fine Arts), Efi Kyprianidou (Open University of Cyprus), as well as the artworks of the Compassion artists.
Compassion is also planning a series of events to be held in Athens next year as well as an innovative project of digitalization of the Athenian hospitals.
* Interview by Eleftheria Spiliotakopoulou
*Efi Kyprianidou holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Athens. She received her MA in History and Philosophy of Science and Technology from the National Technical University of Athens. She also undertook some graduate work in media, culture and communication and received her MA in Cultural Management. She has curated a number of individual and group art exhibitions in Greece, Cyprus, Germany and the UK. She is the academic advisor of the Cyprus Virtual Art Museum and an Adjunct Lecturer at the Open University of Cyprus on the subject of Cultural Policy and Development. She and artist Penny Monogiou are the co-founders of Compassion Arts & Philosophy collective.
See more from Greek News Agenda: Art-Athina 2016: Greece’s Biggest Contemporary Art Show Grows Larger this Year
AthensLive is a new and ambitious initiative in Greek media. It is a collaboration between Greek and international journalists, aspiring to become an independent English-speaking news portal in Greece.
AthensLive spoke with Greek News Agenda* about their vision, their crowdfunding campaign, the Greek media landscape and how challenging it is to practice independent journalism in Greece, the major misconceptions in international media regarding our country, and how their goal is to “reflect the reality of Greek life, which can be both a source of inspiration and despair”.
1. What’s the story behind AthensLive? What is your vision and which are the challenges that lie ahead?
Seeing Greek media as widely corrupt and foreign press as uninterested in covering Greek stories beyond banking incidents and riots, Tassos Morfis, Angelos Christofilopoulos, Yannis Drakoulidis and Gerry Domenikos decided to create a blog in English where they could tell the “Greek story” in their own way. Then Sotiris Sideris, who had recently received a MA in New Media and Digital Culture from the University of Amsterdam, returned to Athens and joined the emerging team. Eventually the rest of the group formed and the idea for a blog became something much bigger.
AthensLive has formed into a collaboration between Greek and international journalists and photographers. From documentaries and investigative reports to podcasts and data journalism, we hope to provide the type of news sorely lacking in Greece. We are building an alternative to the corporate-owned press, which is often ruled by established political interests. Crowdfunded and subscription-sustained, we will be free of advertisements and independent of the corruption endemic in Greek media.
While the most obvious difficulty is finding funding, we are concerned with more than that. Winning over the Greek public, who are rightfully disenchanted with Greek journalism in general, is one of our long term aspirations.
2. Your crowdfunding campaign will come to an end in a few days. Have you reached your goal? Are there any other projects or initiatives under way?
We have reached about 30% of our €60,000 goal. Oftentimes the final week of a campaign brings a surge of donations, so we are optimistic. However, it is important to understand that Greece hasn’t had extensive experience with crowdfunding campaigns. Three separate media projects have attempted to raise funds this way before us and none of them have met with the degree of success we have. Apart from the campaign, we also in contact with various institutions and foundations so no matter what the final outcome, we will certainly continue to pursue AthensLive.
3. How would you characterize the Greek media landscape? Do you consider that the new media law voted recently could be a step to the right direction? How feasible is after all to practice independent journalism in Greece?
The Greek press is corporate-owned and bound to established political interests. Media organizations, their owners (often key players in other industries), and the political elite function in mutual interdependence. With years of economic crisis, media organizations have experienced extensive consolidation of ownership spanning both print and electronic media. This guarantees that the few remaining owners and their political interests are the only perspectives represented.
Media blackouts are the norm when established interests are threatened. In 2014, the Luxembourg Leaks implicated a number of Greek firms in the tax avoidance scandal. However, no mainstream media group reported their names. The lack of coverage of anti-austerity movements over the years, including the majority OXI opinion during the 2015 bailout referendum, can also be traced back to ties to political parties, such as New Democracy and PASOK. It is clear that the press is nothing more than an instrument of political parties and corporations.
In terms of the new media law, which regulates private television channels, we have reservations regarding the efficacy of these reforms. Certainly, the television sector needs regulation. However, when every outlet is corrupt, how significant will the change be by limiting their numbers through new licensing procedures?
4. Which are the main misconceptions in international media regarding Greece? Could a more balanced media approach positively affect the country’s national image?
International media selectively covers stories in Greece, mainly focusing on banking incidents, the refugee crisis, and riots. However, there is more to the story than that. Athens is becoming a major cultural center in Southern Europe, hosting documenta 14 and the widely popular Athens Biennale.
At the same time, however, we see the toll all these years of crisis and austerity have taken. The Greek public is filled with pessimism. The neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn, is increasingly active and this also reflects the rise of the far-right across Europe. The Greek police have targeted volunteers working with refugees, bolstering xenophobia when solidarity is needed the most.
We are not a tourism agency for Greece. We are interested in reflecting the reality of Greek life, which can be both a source of inspiration and despair.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou [On behalf of AthensLive, questions were answered by Bryn Retherford, Editorial Manager]
Evi Gkotzaridis is a historian with interests in historical Revisionism, 20th century Irish history and the ‘long’ Greek Civil War period (1946-1974). She was born in Thessaloniki and raised in Paris. She holds a PhD in Irish History and Politics from the Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris III).
Gkotzaridis’ publications include”Trials of Irish History: Genesis and Evolution of a Reappraisal, 1938-2000” (2006) and “A Pacifist's Life and Death: Grigorios Lambrakis and Greece in the Long Shadow of Civil War” (to be published - May/June 2016: View Extract). She currently works on a wider project under the title: “Revisionism in 20th Century Historiography: Dangerous Hermeneutics and Experiments in Objectivity”.
Evi Gkotzaridis spoke with Rethinking Greece* about her latest book on Grigorios Lambrakis**, the ‘long’ Greek Civil War period, the "deep" state, the historical parallels between Ireland and Greece, studying historical revisionism in a comparative framework, as well as democratic processes and today's ideology of economism.
How did you become interested in the life of Grigorios Lambrakis?
My family moved to France during the Junta. I grew up in Paris, in a sort of illusive bubble. For most of my adolescence, I was cut off from my origins and culture. Even though I attended a Greek school once a week, I was only now and then aware of my ‘difference’ for Paris was back then a powerful cosmopolitan blender. My family never spoke of the past and my few tentative questions usually fell on deaf ears. They were focused on the future not the past, and behaved as if the past was an emotional encumbrance. But one day I watched ‘Z’ (the political thriller of Costas Gravras) on French television and the bubble dissolved suddenly. In hindsight, I can tell that watching this movie was an eye-opening experience. It was tantamount to what the Irish intellectual Conor Cruise O’Brien once called, ‘the feelings preceding the thought’. It was a massive awakening, even though at that stage I understood little of the political background that had led to the assassination of that personality. And yet, at that moment, I decided semi-consciously that I would write about him one day.
What were the characteristics of the post-Civil War period in Greece?
The years between 1949 and 1967, that is until the Colonels’ coup d’Etat, is a period characterized by poverty, institutional imbalance, a vying for supremacy between different power centres, rabid anticommunism at the level of the State, a great deal of social discontent and agitation, a political culture premised on a protracted ‘state of emergency’, and more generally, a persistent lack of freedom hiding behind the façade of a nomocratic and democratic order.
One of the ways in which this State anti-Communism expressed itself was the phenomenon of para-constitution, or if you prefer, copious rules of exception that reduced Communists at best to second-class citizens, at worst to outright enemies. One should remember that as late as 1962, roughly 1.100 men were still held in prison for crimes they had committed during the December 1944 clashes in Athens ("Dekemvriana"), even though Winston Churchill had intervened personally around the time of the Varkiza Agreement to bind the Greek Government to the principle of ‘no proscription’. This principle meant that no man ‘ringleader or otherwise’ would “be punished for his part’’ in the December fight.
Furthermore, the Right, which won the Civil War (1946-1949), is on the horns of a great dilemma: On the one hand, there is a progressive current within it that wishes to modernize Greece. Hence, women obtained nominally the right to vote and stand as candidates in legislative and municipal elections on 28 May 1952, even though the law remained dormant until 1956 when Constantine Karamanlis stepped in as Premier and finally implemented it.
Karamanlis is also the architect of the country’s accession to the European Economic Community (EEC). A convinced Europeanist who believed that Europe was Greece’s intrinsic destiny and that membership would act both as stabilizer and repairer of a social fabric that had been torn apart by the Civil War, he worked hard to that end until he secured a first accession agreement in 1962 and, after the tragic interlude of the dictatorship, he resumed his efforts, which culminated with the signing of the full treaty of accession in May 1979.
On the other hand, all through the 1950’s and 1960s’, there is a strong authoritarian current inside the Right, having a single-minded obsession and that is Communism and its perceived eternal threat. This current believes firmly that Greece escaped Communism only by a whisker in the 1940’s and is inclined to interpret any erosion of its political hegemony or any popular shift towards the centre ground as leaving the backdoors open to this fifth column again.
This authoritarian element is profoundly distrustful and scornful of the normal workings of democracy and also quite prepared to violate the popular will by various unorthodox or underhand methods if the situation demands it. Historians know now that the results of the October 1961 elections that returned the Right to power had been obtained through the use of some fraud and a significant amount of violence and intimidation, and that these far from being isolated and spontaneous actions, were most likely the outcome of a well-prepared secret plan cooked up by the Secret Services and the Army, a plan called ‘Pericles’.
Inside this authoritarian current, there were people like Panagiotis Pipinelis, former advisor to King George II, who enjoyed the absolute trust of the Throne and who, later in 1967, felt no qualms about lending respectability to the dictatorship by accepting his co-option as Foreign Minister. We find also a man like MP Nikolaos Farmakis, who in an article published in 1961 -in a review pointedly called ‘Our Struggle’- compared the holding of the forthcoming elections to ‘the coming of chaos’ as he predicted the formation of a united front between Centre and Left, or a Left-wing challenge to the results through armed insurrection! To Georgios Papandreou’s demand, who was then leader of the Centre, that these elections be carried out under the stewardship of an interim government to ensure fairness, Farmakis retorted without batting an eyelid that there was something superior to popular sovereignty and the safeguarding of the results’ authenticity and that was the ‘national interest’!
At the apex of this authoritarian current, we find the Throne, which is also fiercely anti-Communist. As I mentioned before, the Right is not altogether a homogeneous or unanimous block: within it at least two other institutions vied fiercely for 'absolute' power and tried to prevail over the Government which they tended to relegate to the status of expendable commodity when it became insufficiently compliant with their demands. These institutions were the Crown and sections of the Army, both of which constituted effectively the bastions of ultra-conservatism in Greece and fancied themselves as the only true defenders of the endangered post-Civil War status quo. Therefore, Greek political life of that time is marked by a strange phenomenon of institutional anomaly or imbalance at more than one level.
The murder of independent deputy Grigorios Lambrakis and the journalistic and judicial investigation that followed, shed light on another permanent trait of those years which is the existence of a deep state, to use the Turkish phrase, or parastate, as it is known in the Greek context. Since the Left revealed its new popular appeal by emerging as the first Opposition Party in the 1958 general elections, it had often complained that a 'junta' already existed and was pulling the strings behind the curtain of official power. On the other end of the political spectrum, one often heard that Greek democracy needed to be kept on a tight leash because it was not mature enough to discern the false lures of Communism and steer clear of a future collaboration with it.
The way devised to do that, short of completely destroying the façade of democracy, was the maintenance of the "deep state". This should be understood as an 'invisible' Executive, not accountable to Civilian will and its traditional representatives, ie., Parliament and political parties, that had succeeded in infiltrating the Army, police and intelligence services and operated in the shadows in order to 'guide' policy away from domestic initiatives that could have spelled the end of the Cold War quarantining of the Left.
It is noteworthy that even inside the ranks of the newly-reconstituted Centre (aka Centre Union), a party whose leadership remained resistant for a long time to the emergence of a moderate form of Leftism shorn of its revolutionary mantle as was EDA (United Democratic Left) then, and to any collaboration with it, acute concern was voiced sometimes for a governmental behaviour that seemed to too tolerant, or downright complicit with the activities of these 'invisible' forces. This criticism became more strident and widespread when it became apparent that the deep state was capable of hitting 'indiscriminately' and showed no qualms in impeding the political expression of the Centre too, as it did during the controversial October 1961 elections.
This deep state comprised of State officials, Army and Gendarmerie officers, Secret Services agents and paramilitary groups, some of which appear to have been legal. On the heels of Lambrakis’ assassination, which the authorities and Right-wing Press rushed to portray as an ‘unfortunate accident’, the journalists (Georgios Romaios, Georgios Bertsos and Ioannis Voultepsis) reporting on the case had managed to secure a significant batch of confidential documents originating straight from the Athens and Salonica Divisions of the Service of Information, which then were attached to the Premier’s Political Office.
Based on the information they found there, the journalists came to the conclusion that there had been direct links and communication between this State Service and the leaders of some of these paramilitary groups and that the latter had actually been channeling public money and issuing dangerous orders to groups of violent ‘indignant citizens’.
This phrase evidently does not carry the same meaning as nowadays. These people had not much in common with 21st Century European demonstrators, the ‘indignados’ of Spain or the ‘aganaktismeni’ of Greece, protesting against the dead-end of austerity policies, except perhaps the state of precarity in which some of them lived. Instead, the term represented a ironic euphemism or genteelism for anti-Communist cells of vigilantes whose job was to gather as ‘counter-demonstrators’, break up political meetings, manhandle, terrorize and more generally obstruct the political expression of the Left and its ‘fellow-travellers’. Needless to say, all this activity was orchestrated from the upper echelons of this deep state.
Hence, instead of involving the police directly in the unpalatable job of political repression, risking exposure and having to confront public opprobrium, those pulling the strings had found a safer mechanism through which to express their anti-Communism with more leeway and ‘panache’. Finally, it would seem that some of the personalities who formed this deep state on different levels and were implicated in the process of sabotaging the Left’s political revival and undermining the proper functioning of democracy in the lead-up to dictatorship, had collaborationist antecedents or at least were tainted heavily by the suspicion.
Minos Argyrakis' drawing, picturing Grigorios Lambrakis, published at the Avgi newspaper the day after Lambrakis death (28.5.1963)
Is the history of this period important for today’s Greece?
The existence of a deep state all through the post-Civil War period is a disquieting phenomenon. Its relatively smooth co-existence with a parliamentary system of government remains undoubtedly one of the greatest conundrums of Greece’s modern history. Although, at first sight, this phenomenon of co-existence may look as a major contradiction or paradox, in hindsight it seems that the words ‘dualism’ or ‘ambivalence’ are perhaps more appropriate here to describe the complexity of the situation.
Certainly, it is because of the tolerance of these ‘unaccountable and inscrutable elements’ that the dictatorship of 21 April 1967 was able to gestate and entrench itself more firmly. Naturally, this begs the uncomfortable question of why the Right-wing Government did not do enough to stop these elements in their tracks, particularly in view of the fact that the Govermnent was aware of their activities. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that at some point the Government decided that these ‘unaccountable and inscrutable elements’ could prove useful to it.
The history of this period inevitably raises the question of how far we have progressed since, or how watertight or safe from similar arbitrary encroachments are democratic processes in 21st century Greece and elsewhere. There is in my opinion a new and even more extreme form of omnipotent ideology at work in Europe nowadays, and that is economism. Its buzzword, austerity, has been imposed by the TROIKA on Greece, Ireland, Spain and Portugal and reduced their respective governments and parliaments to mere rubber-stamping mechanisms, incapable of considering the actual human cost behind such budgetary orthodoxy.
Are there any historical parallels between Ireland and Greece?
Ireland was my first research laboratory and was - I realized later - also a means of approaching the troubled history of my own country. Even though Greece and Ireland tended to be little aware of each other in the past - a situation that the current financial crisis has changed - there are arresting similarities between them. Foreign occupation (Turkish/English), famine (1940's/1840's), Civil War (Right/Left - Pro-Treaty/anti-Treaty), poverty, the harrowing experience of emigration, the proximity of a sectarian conflict (Cyprus/Northern Ireland) and of course major differences: the Right/Left divide never took hold or became entrenched in Ireland the way it did in Greece; it was in fact overshadowed by the more lasting Catholic/Protestant distrust and the historical split within the anti-colonial and Republican movement.
There is, I believe, an inherent factionalism, a profound rebellious spirit, you may say, both among the Irish and Greek people, which continues to prove a great obstacle when the situation demands national solidarity and the overcoming of a greater enemy or challenge. Moreover, a lasting legacy of the civil war in both countries has been an unhealthy compartmentalization of the body politic between ‘patriots’ (sound nationalists) and ‘traitors’ (often an infinitely extensible category) and this original rift has often been used by the subsequent political elites as a way of deflecting attention from real social and economic inequalities. So from the start, Ireland as an object of research drew me in because it had a 'familiar' ring.
Written in honour of Irish revolutionary hero Michael Collins (1890-1922), Brendan Behan's song 'The laughing boy', or 'To gelasto paidi' in its Greek translation, has come to stand for various Greek historical figures and events and is one of the most recognised songs of the last 40 years in Greece (Read more: Who was Theodorakis' 'laughing boy'? How Greeks came to love a song by Irish writer Brendan Behan)
What are the similarities and differences of the relevant historical debates?
In both countries, there have been various attempts to re-appraise history, often in order to understand unresolved political problems and conflicts that continue to cast their troublesome shadow over society. This work of re-appraisal or ‘revision’ is at once necessary and perilous, because more or often than not it is nearly impossible for a historian, even a well-meaning and honest one, to break free from her ideological preferences.
Thus, one is confronted with an arresting paradox: sometimes those who present their new findings as deriving from the use of an ‘objective’ method are not prepared to acknowledge that they too participate in the pragmatics of an already existing ideological discourse or that their findings can and are often hijacked and harnessed to boost the credibility of a specific discourse. That is why it is not enough for historians to claim that ‘revision’ is the bread and butter of historical scholarship because the discovery of new data and the application of a new method are more likely to bring us closer to the ideal of ‘truth’. Rather, they are better off becoming more self-reflexive and looking more closely at how their arguments and conclusions may be instrumentalized, so to speak, in order to whitewash crimes or shift historical responsibilities around.
More generally, the over-politicization in the historiographical field is a fact, probably inevitable, especially nowadays in view of this unprecedented financial crisis and the resulting tensions inside the EU. Something of the sort seems to be at play for example in the recent controversy sparked by Heinz Richter’s conclusions on World War II Resistance in Crete and the unprecedented readiness of a Rethimno Prosecutor to charge him under the newly introduced anti-racism Law with “denial of defamatory nature of the Nazi crimes committed against the Cretan people.” In my view it would be naïve to consider Richter’s arguments and conclusions as well as the reaction they have provoked outside this context of European crisis and tensions.
The captious propaganda campaign by some European media and leaders to lampoon Greece as a ‘childish’ nation or an economic pariah, bereft of discipline, industriousness and decency, in need of harsh punishment, has gingered up the feeling of nationalist indignation and led understandably to a spectacular re-opening of old wounds. Sensitive questions that for six decades were put on the back burner, like the never-claimed Occupation loan and the mostly relinquished wartime reparations that followed the 1953-Allied agreement in London -endorsed also by Greece- to write off over 60% of Germany’s debt, have been pushed back on the agenda. One should not forget that behind the revival of these questions, oftentimes casually dismissed as a sleight of hand of an incorrigible people dead set against changing or paying its debt, and however ill-timed it may be from a tactical point of view in the opinion of some, lies a grief of bewildering magnitude; a grief not honoured and consequently never overcome.
To come back to your question in a more precise manner, there are indeed parallels to be made between the more recent Greek and Irish revisionist discussions. The revisionist re-appraisal of Irish nationalism started in a moderate fashion as early as 1938 and happened to coincide with the advent of a more professional and organized historical discipline. Yet this critique of the nationalist narrative assumed a much more radical form in the 1980’s and 1990’s because of the Northern Irish conflict, the failure of all political solutions and the ongoing tragedy as reflected in the IRA terror campaign, the loss of life and the general state of anomie.
In other words, the onset of the Troubles in the late 1960’s, over thirty years of violence and particularly the IRA’s claim that they derived their moral mandate from the 1916 Easter Rebellion, had a traumatic and catalytic effect on the generation of historians who reached maturity then. It became a natural reflex for them to disown to different degrees the violent republicanism that the Rebellion had embodied and their scepticism for that political route increasingly turned into a radical doubt, targeting not only the means but also the ends of Irish nationalism.Greece, on the other hand, followed the historiographical path of Eastern Europe by initiating a new revisionist phase after the collapse of Communism, in practice in 2000. Predictably, its focus was the grand narrative of the 1940’s and its target primarily the Left. And yet, interestingly enough, despite this difference in timing, some of the changes experimented with in the patterns of interpretation and explanation of historical phenomena are undeniably similar.
One such pattern is the recasting of the wars of Liberation as civil wars, as with the sectarian component of Protestants versus Catholics in the Irish anti-Colonial struggle of 1916-1923, or with the ideological component of Communists versus Fascists or even Liberals during World War II in Greece. Moreover, both Irish and Greek revisionisms display a tendency to look at liberation or resistance movements with stern scepticism. They underplay their truly 'national', 'democratic' and 'popular' character and foreground their politically or religiously 'sectarian' character instead. Combatants are treated as cold warriors which fight not in order to defeat an imperialist invader but to impose their own political and social order. In the Irish example, the traditional portrayal of the Old IRA as a non-sectarian and ecumenical force fighting for collective freedom has been called into question, most openly in the work of Peter Hart. In the Greek example, the question of the Left’s responsibility in the slipping into Civil War has been raised and this is understandably perceived as a deliberate attempt to destroy the moral capital it gained as a result of its successful leadership of the largest resistance movement during the war.
More precisely, scholars like Stathis Kalyvas and Nikolaos Marantzidis have questioned the most axiomatic assumption in the study of the Civil War since the fall of the Junta; chiefly that the Left was the main victim of violence. It was an assumption which could gain credence because the Left had lost in the Civil War and suffered heavy persecution in its aftermath – pursued with renewed vigour during the regime of the Colonels (1967-1974) – but also because references to Left-wing terror were often dismissed as an appalling lie cooked up by the Greek Right.
The new focus on this violence, on its ‘bureaucratic’ and ‘centrally-directed’ character, as pointed out by Kalyvas is perhaps a necessary addition to the task of refashioning the general mast of Greek historiography with more objectivity and comprehensiveness. However, when doing so, one must be careful not to forget the general historical context or silence the asymmetric power relations largely favourable to the German-collaborationist camp. In the Irish context, the cold warring does not oppose Communism to Fascism but one should nevertheless be cognizant of the fact that Irish historiography followed a similar outer interpretative path, notably in its willingness to explore the extent to which the country's skidding off into civil war in the 1920’s and sectarian conflict in the 1970’s and 1980’s could not be explained away convincingly by continual and sole reference to the divide and conquer policies of Britain.
In fact, in both historiographies the focus of attention has shifted from the obsessive theme of foreign interference and the clear tendency to demonize it to an ever more courageous probing into domestic discord. This transpires in the new preoccupation with the phenomenon of wartime collaboration and the events of the civil war in Greece or the recognition in Ireland that partition of the island had not been something imposed from above but a “secession” occurring because of a severe “breakdown in human relations”. Hence in the 1980’s, the Marxist Nikolaos Svoronos had warned his colleagues that the view that Greece is “merely a stage for puppets whose strings are moved by alien lands is naïve for a historian, a mortal disease for history itself and an unacceptable alibi for politicians.” In a similar vein, John Whyte had shown the distance travelled by Irish scholarship when he wrote that “the internal-conflict approach to Northern Ireland [was] close to becoming a dominant paradigm.”
Ultimately, I believe that it is useful to study changes in historical interpretations in a comparative manner essentially because it discourages superficial or banal claims to some form of national exceptionalism. With such study, one soon realizes that all historians grapple with similar challenging theoretical, moral and political problems when re-examining the grand narratives of Marxism or Nationalism. Finally, I think that it holds the potential to induce much more critical spirit at a pan-European level and convey the much-needed sense of a shared identity, providing of course that historical education in schools and universities is given a chance to fulfill its role with originality and vision and above all unimpeded by perceived political expediencies.
* Interview by Nikolas Nenedakis
**Grigorios Lambrakis (3.4.1912 - 27.5.1963) was a Greek politician, physician, track-and-field athlete, and member of the faculty of Medicine at the University of Athens. He was elected to the Greek parliament in October 1961 as an Independent collaborating with the United Democratic Left (EDA) which was Greece's newly emerging umbrella left-wing party. Lambrakis was a pacifist who used his parliamentary immunity to march for peace, from Marathon to central Athens after the march had been banned by the authorities. Lambrakis' ideal to free Greece from foreign influence captured the youth’s imagination. It also galvanized the Left which after a quarter of a century of Right-wing oppression wielded under the pretext of fighting Communism, was ready to embrace his goals of national reconciliation and universal peace. He was assassinated in Thessaloniki on a fateful evening of May 22, 1963, right after he had delivered a powerful speech, amid a frenzied crowd of Right-wing thugs and a totally passive police force. The Athens Classic Marathon, run every year in November, is dedicated to Grigorios Lambrakis.
The letter Z (lit., zei, means he is alive) became the rallying cry of the Greek youth who found in Lambrakis their new hero. Four years later, the Greek government was overthrown by the military Junta of 21 April 1967. In 1969, film director Costa Gavras released ‘Z’ (after Vassilis Vasilikos’ book), which tells the story of the assassination and the journalistic and judicial investigation that followed. ‘Z’ beautifully paced and deeply moving with the lyrical music of Composer Mikis Theodorakis became one of the cinematic sensations of the late sixties. It starred Yves Montand as Grigorios Lambrakis whose murder in the middle of a violent demonstration is covered up by State officials and Jean-Louis Trintignant as Christos Sartzetakis, a tenacious magistrate who is determined not to let them get away with it.
See also: Evi Gkotzaridis: ‘Who Will Help Me to Get Rid of this Man?’ Grigoris Lambrakis and the Non-Aligned Peace Movement in Post-Civil War Greece: 1951-1964; “The Music of Mikis Theodorakis" blog: Grigoris Lambrakis, symbol of democracy;
Vouliwatch is a digital platform that engages Greek citizens with legislative politics and grants them with the opportunity to communicate, evaluate and hold elected representatives in the Greek and the European Parliament (MPs & MEPs) accountable. Similar successful initiatives (“Parliamentwatch”) exist in countries like Ireland, Luxemburg, Tunisia, Germany, France and Austria.
Antonis Schwarz is Vouliwatch’s co-founder and a community administrator for the ParliamentWatch Network, an international network of parliamentary monitoring organizations. He is of Greek-German origin and studied Politics (BA Kings College London) and Business (MA IE University Madrid). In the past, he has worked at Ashoka, a global organization supporting social entrepreneurs, Bonventure, the first German venture philanthropy fund, as well as Yunus Social Business, a global social business accelerator. Beyond his engagement for more citizen participation and transparency, he is also interested in scaling social/impact investing to Greece to help fight the crisis.
Antonis Schwarz spoke with Greek News Agenda* about the Vouliwatch platform, social entrepreneurship, the Greek civil society, the need for transparency and strengthening the voice of the citizens as well as the need for a new narrative "based on innovation, solidarity, openness, kindness and a love for Greece."
What was the main reasoning behind creating Vouliwatch? What are the demographics of its users and which features of the platform are they most interested in?
The idea of starting Vouliwatch was born as I was doing my Masters in Madrid and was reading the news about the deteriorating economic and political situation in Greece. The feeling grew inside me that it is my civic duty to make an extra-ordinary effort and do my small part in helping get rid of this crisis, as the situation in Greece seemed to reach critical tipping points of social unrest. My idea was to create a non-partisan platform and strengthen the voice of the citizen in politics. In Greece, as in the rest of Europe, citizens have very limited means of actively intervening in politics beyond their ballot in election times and are wholly dependent on political parties for law-making. In short: I believe a democracy in the 21st century requires more direct democracy, the need of which is visible not least in the frustration that citizens across Europe feel about mainstream politics.
Regarding the demographics of Vouliwatch’s users, at least half of our users are between the ages of 18-35, yet every third visitor is older than 35. Our users are mostly interested in reading about what is going on inside parliament through our news section (“observatory” or «παρατηρητήριο» in Greek) that is updated daily by our parliamentary correspondent. Also popular is seeing which bills recently got voted in parliament, as well as of course asking questions to MPs and MEPs.
You are keeping an eye on the MPs; do they keep an eye on you? Are there examples of citizens’ ideas that have made their way from Vouliwatch to the Parliament?
In the beginning we experienced quite a dose of suspicion from parliamentarians, yet the suspicion has decreased over time, not least because MPs have realized the added benefit of Vouliwatch, which is to show that they care about citizens’ concerns and even attract new voters. Today we receive emails of MPs congratulating us on our efforts, which gives me great optimism that there is a bright future ahead of us. We want to help make parliament more transparent and MPs to repair their broken public image and we can only do this together with our representatives in parliament.
There have been some examples where MPs have embraced citizen questions posted on Vouliwatch and used them as a basis for an official request to the respective ministry. One example concerned a question by the NGO Emfasis Foundation that asked a question regarding the situation of homeless people. Homeless people had severe difficulties accessing the public health system in case their ID cards have expired, since in order to renew an ID card a permanent address is needed.
After two years of online existence, have you reconsidered, in any way, your prior assumptions about the Greek civil society and the culture of openness in the country?
Greek civil society is experiencing a strong boost due to the ongoing economic and political crisis but this boost cannot be capitalized because of several reasons, one of the most important reasons being that scandals are part of daily life in Greece - You read about it almost every day in the newspaper. Hence the pressure that civil society can exert is sometimes limited or at least of very short duration. At the same time, our state is so incapable and badly organized that you do not know where to begin to start pressuring. And then you have to fight against interest groups… This frustration is part of daily life, you learn to live with it and do the best you can.
The situation regarding transparency is also worse than I had anticipated and also I have seen that there is a lot of window dressing going on. Great transparency laws get voted, which are then not implemented. Regarding the necessary reforms that this country needs, I would like to state here that the government should make it a priority to ban the youth wings of political parties at universities. The influence the youth political parties have in academia is unheard of in the developed world. But probably this is an ambitious wish of mine, which I will not see implemented in the near future.
How could a young person establish a career in social entrepreneurship? What are the biggest challenges she/he will have to face in Greece? In which ways could the institutional framework evolve so that it could encourage citizen initiatives and support the sustainability of social projects?
Aristotle once said “where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation.” - I think therefore a good starting point is to discover what you are really passionate about, see where your talents are and where you realistically can make a difference. Then you can get engaged in the social entrepreneurship eco-system in Greece, for example by getting in touch with the Impact HUB or Ashoka Greece and get feedback on your idea. Generally, speaking the biggest challenge is finding funds for your social endeavor, since foundations in Greece target mainly established players, crowdfunding is not working and the fact that Greece has the lowest percentages of people donating money (in contrast to in-kind donations where Greece does comparatively well).
Regarding the institutional framework, there is great mistrust against NGOs and the nonprofit sector, because of corruption scandals where government funds were awarded to NGOs that belonged to cronies. This in turn severely damaged the public image of the whole nonprofit sector. What we therefore need is an effective regulation of the Greek nonprofit sector, which is currently quite unregulated, in order to re-establish trust into the NGO sector. The regulation can be drafted on best practices from other EU or OECD countries and must involve more accountability. I have heard of examples where clubs where registered as an NGO for years. This is not acceptable. Also, I would also encourage the Greek state to look at the concept of social impact bonds to accelerate social innovation and investment into social enterprises. Tax deductions to NGOs could be another idea to encourage new initiatives.
More than six years into the crisis, is civil society mature enough to push for a new narrative for Greece or is it still mainly focused on trying to alleviate the effects of the crisis?
I think the latter is still the case but in trying to alleviate the effects of the crisis we are creating the new narrative based on innovation, solidarity, openness, kindness and a love for Greece. I think most Greeks reading this will agree that we could be the greatest country on this planet without a doubt if we took care of our pathologies. The Greek people are creative, witty, funny; we have great weather, an ancient history and we value friendship and family. What more do you need? If Greek civil society is growing stronger, we need to work together in order to make politics listen to our concerns. Only together we can achieve something.
What are Vouliwatch’s goals for the near future? Are you developing any ideas for new social projects?
In fall we received an EU grant to help set up a Vouliwatch organization in Cyprus. Furthermore we are working on aggregating parliament data to be able to compare the productiveness of parliamentary periods. As for me, I have many ideas but they are all top secret… at least for the moment.
*Interview by Lina Syriopoulou
Miltos Pechlivanos is Professor of Modern Greek Studies and Director of the Center of Modern Greece (Centrum Modernes Griechenland / CeMoG) at the Freie Universität Berlin. He studied Modern Greek Studies and Comparative Literature at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and at the University of Konstanz. His doctoral thesis was on “Discourses of Modernity Before the Foundation of the Greek State”.
Professor Pechlivanos has taught at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and, as a visiting professor, at the Universities of Munich, of Cyprus, and at the EHESS, Paris. His research interests include the theory and history of reading and literary communication, the history of knowledge and the reception of Enlightenment and Romantic ideas in modern Greek culture, the Modern Greek novel, and the history of Greek-German cultural transfers.
Miltos Pechlivanos spoke to Rethinking Greece* about CeMoG's activities and agenda, the cultural relations between Germany and Greece, Greece’s intellectual history, the German public sphere and Greek exceptionalism discourse in times of crisis, as well as about the need to re-conceptualize Modern Greece by incorporating her tensions and distinct traditions.
How does the ongoing crisis affect German students’ and scholars’ interest in Greece? Can you offer us an insight into the Center for Modern Greece goals and activities?
As we are dealing with a number of successive "crises", my answer must differentiate distinct levels. The ongoing financial and monetary crisis, the ensuing crisis in Greek-German relations and of course the crisis of refugee flows have brought Greek affairs at the centre of the German public sphere. And we should not forget that negative publicity is still publicity: the number of students interested to know more about Modern Greece is increasing (at this point we should add a new factor: the students - members of the so-called "new migration" to Germany due to the economic crisis). This visibility of Greece is reflected in the growing media interest in the country, in the number of scholarly publications, the public interventions of economists, as well as the ongoing research carried out by fellow colleagues from sociology and political science (some of which is carried out with the cooperation of German and Greek academic institutions).
Modern Greek Studies in Germany certainly include an agenda for the cultivation of Greek-German relations and the last seven years have set an urgent challenge for a systematic study of the history of these relations and its various distortions which of course include persisting stereotypes. I can not refer here in detail to the numerous CeMoG relevant initiatives, conferences and publications but one can trace them in the Centre's website: www.cemog.fu-berlin.de
CeMoG itself was established in 2014 at Freie Universität Berlin thanks to a Stavros Niarchos Foundation grant but also owes its creation to this new bilateral reality: the will to build and strengthen scholarly and cultural networks between the two countries, the need for organized dialogue and interdisciplinary-intercultural mobility promotion as well as the need to systematically study the common Greek-German history. CeMoG’s projects include, inter alia, organization of conferences, financial support for young researchers, the construction of an online and open access encyclopedia of Greek-German relations and exchanges, and the Edition Romiosini publishing program and digital library that focuses on translations of seminal Modern Greek literature oeuvres as well as various studies of Modern Greece.Are there any parallels between Greek and German cultural identity? What is the significance of German Romanticism for Greece’s self-understanding?
“Cultural identity” as such is subject to negotiation, it cannot be perceived, in my opinion, outside the history (and the stories) of cultural mobility and transcultural transfers. The members of the Rum millet (the Orthodox Christians of the Ottoman Empire) in order tο “become” Greeks in the 19th century, met with classicist Graecomania and Philhellenism as well as with the romantic nationalism of the Germans, that themselves strongly needed the classical Greek Ideal to construct their own “cultural identity”, as opposed, say, to French enlightenment and revolution. Greek intellectual historian C. Th. Dimaras has adequately stressed the importance of Greek 19th century intellectuals “meeting” with Herder, Heine and Nietzsche. On the other hand, we should not forget that Dionysios Solomos’ (considered the national poet of Greece) legacy, that "The nation must learn to regard as national what is True" (‘Το έθνος πρέπει να μάθει να θεωρεί εθνικόν ό,τι είναι Αληθές’) has been inspired after Solomos’ acquaintance with German idealism through Italian translations: His seminal poetic composition "The Free Besieged" (1826–1844) emerges from such creative, and never only bilateral, European routes.
CeMoG’s cultural events have included a major conference on 20th century Modern Greek Philosophy (September 2014), an area little known to Modern Greek Studies scholars, but quite important in terms of Germany’s influence on Greece’s recent intellectual history. Would you like to tell us more?
This special conference (Deutschland und Griechenland im Spiegel der Philosophiegeschichte. Transfers im 20. Jahrhundert) was organised by CeMoG after the meeting of the President of the Hellenic Republic, Karolos Papoulias with the President of the Federal Republic of Germany Joachim Gauck and the signing of the joint declaration for the establishment of the Greek-German Youth Foundation in Berlin (September 2014). The joint declaration followed the tribute paid by President Gauck at the monument of the village of Lygiades, where German troops executed 92 civilians, 34 of them children.
While in other cases we chose to focus on the World War II memories with talks about the German occupation and war crimes in Greece (as for example in autumn 2015 in cooperation with the Topographie des Terrors foundation in Berlin), in September 2014 we tried to see the Greek-German relations through the mirror of the history of philosophy. The conference was conceived as a vehicle for reflection upon European identity in Modern Greece putting forward the question of the reception of German philosophy. Presentations and discussions focused on the work of Greek mid 20th century Neokantian philosophers like Constantine Tsatsos and Panayotis Kanellopoulos, but also of later prominent figures like Panagiotis Kondylis and Kosmas Psychopedis, as well as on the fortunes of the Frankfurt School and Western Marxism in Greece. The conference proceedings will be published soon in Edition Romiosini publishing program."Drifting Cities", Stratis Tsirkas’ Greek modernism classic, was recently translated in German by CeMoG’s Romiosini Editions, inaugurating a new series on Greek fiction and academic literature. Why is Tsirkas’ work important for Modern Greek literature and do you think it will appeal to the German reading audience?
CeMoG’s Edition Romiosini took over from the earlier Romiosini Verlag in Cologne, through which Hans Eideneier and Niki Eideneier-Anastassiadi have been contributing to the translation of Greek literature into German since 1982. Not only will the editorial program of the Romiosini Verlag in Cologne be partly overtaken and published anew (in the first half of 2016: Stratis Myrivilis’ Life in the Tomb, Dido Sotiriou’s Bloody Earth, Mimika Kranaki’s Philhellenists, Mary Iordanidou’s Loxandra and Sotiris Dimitriou’s To hear your name well), but also new translation projects will be launched among which many non-fiction titles like Yannis Voulgaris’ monograph on post-dictatorship, democratic Greece 1974-2009 and Rika Benveniste’s Those who survived on Greek Jews who survived from the Holocaust. All titles of Edition Romiosini/CeMoG are offered free of charge for online reading and can also be obtained as a printed edition (Book-on-Demand) and some of them as an E-Book as well. We try to take advantage of all the possibilities of digital publishing seeking the greatest possible visibility for our books.
The Edition Romiosini started its journey in December 2015 with Stratis Tsirkas’ Drifting Cities. First of all, to correct an unwarranted lack of the German book market - this is a classic text of the modern Greek (and, in my opinion, European) prose that should be made available in German. In this emblematic trilogy about Greek conflicts in wartime Egypt Stratis Tsirkas reflects upon the postwar fate of modern Greece. It comes as no surpise that the trilogy was established as one of the main literary reference texts for Greek readers after the dictatorship. And one more thing: following the other leading writers of the Greek Diaspora, i.e. Ionian Islands native Dionyssios Solomos, Alexandrian Constantine Cavafy and Asia Minor descendant Giorgos Seferis, Stratis Tsirkas from Cairo succeeded in upgrading Greek literature and transforming the literary idiom of the Hellenic Diaspora into a constant quest for self-consciousness.
How the German reading public will receive this difficult book only time will tell. The first indications, however, allow for optimism, and I’m referring to the recent review in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Readers of demanding literature, as we read there, can now associate North Africa’s war front, not only with Rommel but also with the Greek of the Diaspora Stratis Tsirkas whose Drifting Cities can be situated in the same line with Sartre’s Les chemins de la liberté and Malraux’s L'Espoir.
Many aspects of Modern Greek history, culture and society are seen by prominent public intellectuals as exceptional, both inside and outside Greece. How do Modern Greek Studies internationally, and especially in Germany, reflect upon this view?
I may, rather spontaneously, refer to the title of a conference in Princeton in 2007: „Against Greek Exceptionalism“, or use Constanze Güthenke’s and Dimitris Papanikolaou’s project on „Questioning Greek Exceptionalism“. Or to cite an important position in C. Th. Dimaras‘ History of Modern Greek Literature, Greek culture "is expressed through the constant renewal that is caused by contact with foreign cultures". Its special character is the result of these rich and varied influences and contacts. In contrast «exceptionalist arguments produce inadequate history, limited self-understanding, and arrogant politics» (Mary Nolan) and can impede the opening of Modern Greek Studies, both inside and outside Greece, in the direction of comparative analysis, the study of cultural exchanges, and the search for wider reference frames and interpretative schemes.
German media narratives about Greece and the Greek national character seem to be instrumental in Germany’s policy toward the country and Europe. Can public/cultural diplomacy have any impact on the stereotypes involved?
The German public sphere has been flocked by unhistorical and populist images for the “other”. Greece and the Greek national character have been portrayed as “exceptional” or marginal in ways that prepared the ground for a “Grexit”. We should off course fight against these stereotypes by presenting images which are closer to reality: CeMoG is serving this goal with a variety of events and publications. We have also to study this crisis of representation in the public sphere in Germany and Greece and we should analyze the relevant stereotypes by using discource analysis and media sociology. Thus we are preparing a special Workshop to take place this May, where a project of the University of Crete and the Freie Universität Berlin will be presented (The Greeks, the German and the Crisis: Discursive actor attribution analysis of the Eurozone crisis debate / GGCRISI) with the participation of Greek and German journalists.How can we rethink Greece and the cultural relations between Germany and Greece through the current debates about Europe’s crisis and future prospects?
“Rethinking Greece” means to my understanding to re-conceptualize Modern Greek history, literature and language in a multifaceted manner, i.e. to enhance all possible perspectives through which we can read Modern Greece. Tensions and disharmony between our distinct traditions, scholarly and popular, classical and Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine, Ottoman and Balkan, Mediterranean and European can all be incorporated and reflected upon. Only if we reflect on Cavafy’s “We 're a mixture of races here: Syrians, Greeks, Armenians, Medes” (In a town of Osroene, 1917), taking steps beyond nationalism, we can build a cultural policy, suitable for the current circumstances where Europe in the face of the refugee crisis, by invoking exceptionalism, seems to betray its founding principles.
*Interview by Nikolas Nenedakis
Stella Belia is a Greek activist for LGBT rights. She is the President of Rainbow Families organization, which represents Greek families of same sex parents and their children and strives for equal opportunity policies. She works as a kindergarten teacher in Athens and raises five children with her partner.
The introduction of a civil partnership law in Greece (December 2015) brought to the forefront the question of LGBT rights in the Greek society, and it is in this framework that Rethinking Greece* asked Stella Belia to answer questions on the current status of LGBT people in Greece, the human rights agenda in times of pauperization and crisis, the perception of homosexuality in Greek public opinion as well as possible conflicts between more traditional values and the liberal mindset that permeates the international LGBT agenda.
The recent enactment, with a broad parliamentary majority, of the of same-sex partnership law is regarded as an important milestone in the history of LGBT claims in Greece. How do you assess this development?
This law gave many people the necessary breathing space to finally talk openly about their sexual orientation, to organize their life and to solve many everyday problems. Yesterday I saw a gay couple that had been closeted all their lives sign a civil partnership contract and submit it to the municipality of a provincial town. After that their life will substantially improve, and this has great significance.
On the other hand, the fact that our children were left behind (the right of gay couples to adopt was not included in the new law) was a big disappointment for us. Up until the last minute we believed that the legislators would make a point of responding to the needs of the most vulnerable group of citizens: the children. Unfortunately it was not so.
We must understand that we are not talking about hypothetical persons. We are talking about real people, living next to us. I think that, although this law will not result in a huge influx of people signing up for civil partnerships, it will somehow educate society to a reality that otherwise would be kept hidden or invisible, as many people turn a blind eye to it.
European societies are on a track of granting universal rights regardless of sexual orientation. Do you believe that this battle has been largely won, or are you afraid that a political realignment in Europe could bring forth forces that might threaten those gains?
Many rights that we thought were established and inalienable -e.g. labor rights- lose their non-negotiable character and are put back on the table to be re-negotiated or repealed. The same goes for human rights: the current economic and political circumstances favor the rise of conservative parties and groups, which to a large extent derive their political power from people who previously upheld liberal ideologies. This is what happened in our country, where those who support the Golden Dawn party come mostly from the voters of New Democracy, the party "closer" to their conservatism.
This means that we could face situations where countries like France, which have made considerable progress in equal rights, plummet to racist and homophobic policies, in case of an election victory for Marie Le Pen.
To what extent do you think the economic crisis and the pauperization of the Greek population has affected the debate on the so-called human rights agenda?
Consider how human needs are classified (e.g. on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs): at the base we find the need for survival (food, water, etc.) and on the next step we find safety concerns: physical safety, labor security, resources, health, property, etc. With the economic crisis there is an increasing number of people who cannot satisfy even the needs at the base of the pyramid, like eating, and an even greater number of people who may barely meet those basic needs, but cannot meet the needs on the next level, because of issues like unemployment, no access to healthcare, inability to pay their mortgage etc.
It is therefore very difficult for a person dealing with any of the above situations to think about the remaining levels at the top of the pyramid, like social acceptance, self-esteem and self-realization. How do we talk to people about gay rights when they are in such dire situations? On the other hand, the duty of every well-governed state is to try and create the necessary conditions so that no citizen can be discriminated against for something like their sexual orientation. The pauperization of Greek society should not prevent the state from ensuring equal rights for all citizens.
What role could public education play in cultivating certain attitudes and social perceptions on LGBT issues? What are the specific actions that the State could take? What are the obstacles placed, and by whom, in this course of changing Greek education?
Firstly, Greek education suffers an obvious deficit: the Ministry of Education in our country – despite the various names it has been given over the years, such as Ministry of Culture, of Sports, of Life-long Learning, of Research etc – has always had attached to its name the term “Religious Affairs”. The fact that a secular policy area like education is part and parcel of religion brings to mind theocratic power structures. It also poses a significant obstacle to promoting changes in the education process towards inclusiveness and the dismantling of LGBT-related stereotypes.
Let me use the example of LGBT parents’ families. Our children, ever since they enter school, starting from kindergarten, don’t see in their school books any family resembling their own families. Besides, in the ranks of the teachers, there is a widespread perception, overtly expressed, of the heteronormative family as the “best” family and all other types of family structure are considered less than, inferior, deficient etc. As a result, our children are forced to keep their family reality out of their school’s door and they join it again only after they school.
It’s been a while now, since we – the organization of Rainbow Families – undertook the task to change this: we are trying to engage University departments that offer teaching degrees, so that future teachers are better informed on LGBT issues. We are also producing material to be used by educators who wish to depict the variety of different family structures. We are currently working on an Alphabet to teach phonology to toddlers and children of primary school ages: the text includes pictures and references to many possible family structures, so that all children can see in it a family that looks like their own family. Moreover, we keep broaching this issue in European conferences. Last but not least, we are in contact with organizations abroad, such as Schools Out, with a view to gaining from their vast experience on how to push things forward towards an all-inclusive school that gives all children space to develop and thrive.
During the recent conference held by "Rainbow Families" ("Love Creates Families," 13-14.2.2016), the word "fear" was often heard from young people living in the Greek countryside. Do you think that there is a two tier Greece as far LGBT issues are concerned, on a center / periphery axis?
I am citing an excerpt from the published life story of a gay guy living in the Greek province, specifically in Lappa, a village very close to Patras: “… I’ve been beaten several times. They took me out to woods; they stole my clothes and left me naked. They started spitting on me, kicking and laughing at me. They keep hanging out of my house and scream “Set the fag’s house on fire!”. I have suffered a lot. And the worst part is, my mother is currently severely ill, with a very serious disease, and they don’t even respect my need to take her out for a walk. They will attack me in front of her”.
This case of abuse was heard by a court, but the Greek justice system, instead of convicting the assailants, based its decision on the allegation that this guy and his aged mother were “provocative”. What else can I add? It is without a doubt that there’s a big difference between living in the anonymous crowd of a big city and living in a small village. Needless to say, the latter is way more difficult.
In response to the increasing migratory flows in Europe, some express fears that the "European way of life" will be “undermined” because of the influx of people of other religions, with different customs and values. Does this debate pertain to LGBT issues?
The refugee crisis is a matter that concerns everyone and everything. This is one of the biggest humanitarian crises in history since the two World Wars. Surely these people come from countries with different norms but what does this mean? People usually choose to keep those habits and customs that do not undermine their new life. When our own people migrated to Germany, U.S.A. or Australia, the traditions they observed were the celebrations of big holidays and especially their fun parts, like the spit lamb on Easter, and not the traditions like the “vendetta” between families.
Now, with respect to the "European way of life", I don’t see us experiencing this way of life in Greece: Take a look at some high ranking church officials that adopt deeply negative stereotypes about gay people and demonstrate strong resistance against what they perceive as a “European way of life." Just remember a prominent Greek politician’s provocative statement about Luxembourg’s Prime Minister. This aspect of Europe, therefore, is not yet firmly established in our country.
In some countries LGBT issues figure prominently in the political agenda, and political parties communicate their positions on these issues to the citizens, just as they do on any other policy issue. Is that the case in Greece?
I think this gradually happening in Greece. So far we’ve been a weak, easily neglected minority, with practically no political influence. Since the vast majority of LGBT people are not openly out, politicians for the most part thought that defending our rights wouldn’t bring more votes, or even worse, could backfire. I can sense a change in the climate now, as everybody understands that we and our allies are acquiring political clout, in terms of influence and number of votes. I believe that soon this is going to lead to serious changes in several political parties with regards to the way they deal with our community’s claims.
*Interview by Alkis Delantonis & Ioulia Livaditi
Kajsa Ekis Ekman is a Swedish journalist, writer and activist. She is the author of several works and books about the financial crisis, democracy and women's rights; She writes for the major Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter and is an op-ed columnist at the leftwing daily ETC.
In 2013, her book “Skulden, Eurokrisen sedd från Aten” (“The Debt/The euro crisis as seen from Athens”) was published in Swedish. It is worth noting that “Skulden” is not only the word for debt but also denotes guilt (as it is also the case with theGerman word Schuld), which is why the Swedish title cannot be directly translated into English. This is why a different title was given to the book when it was later translated and published into Greek. The title chosen for the Greek version of the book was “Stolen Spring” (“Κλεμμένη άνοιξη - Το χρονικό της κρίσης”), a title that was inspired by Stratis Tsirkas’ book ”Lost Spring”.
Kajsa Ekis Ekman spoke to Rethinking Greece* about her book in which she attempted to break the hegemony of the Greek exceptionalism discourse that was prominent in northern European circles, especially in the first years of the euro crisis. She also shared her views on the current policies applied to address the crisis in Europe and talked about her solidarity initiatives for Greece, as well as for being proclaimed “Greek-Swede of the year 2015”.
Since the outbreak of the euro crisis, you have written a series of articles on Greece, as well as a book. What was it that motivated you to focus on the Greek case?
Greece emerged as the center of protest against austerity measures in 2011. From the Aganaktismeni’s (Indignant Citizens Movement) spontaneous square meetings at Syntagma and other squares all over the country to general strikes and a resurgence of the Left, people showed that they would not silently accept being reduced to a debt colony. This impressed me and when I was contacted by friends in Greece who told me what was happening, I decided to come and write about what I saw. I ended up going back and forth for three years. I learned so much. Not only about the political developments, it was like studying history unfolding live, but I also made many friends.
Through your articles and book, you invited the public to “rethink Greece” by casting doubt on the view that the euro crisis was triggered by lazy retirement-seekers, an idea which was prominent in northern European circles (political and journalistic), especially in the beginning of the crisis. Can you elaborate more on your research/work with regard to this issue?
When I arrived in Greece in 2011, the effects of the austerity measures had not become tangible yet. What angered people was rather how they were depicted in the European press. The worst was the German press and Bild in particular. But Swedish media also spread a light version of the “Greek freak show” talking about hospitals with 50 gardeners and no garden, workers retiring at 40 and having luxury lives, and our biggest newspapers wrote that Greeks “took it easy under olive trees and drank coffee all day.” I have been doing investigative journalism for 13 years but to debunk this myth took me 15 minutes. Just looking at statistics from Eurostat, ILO, OECD and others showed that Greeks actually work more hours than the average European. Productivity is lower, that is true, but this depends rather on the nature of the Greek industry which is not so technologically advanced as the central or northern European heavy industry. This has nothing to do with the workers themselves! Why did this myth spread anyway? How come nobody fact-checked their articles? I don’t know. Either the journalists themselves are lazy. Or truth is inferior to hegemony. When the troika was preparing the way for austerity, this had to be explained to the average non-Greek as “they have been living over their means, they now need to cut down and this is fair”. How else could you justify the austerity measures?
In your view, how has the image of Greece in Northern Europe been affected in conjunction with the scapegoating and the dissemination of over-moralizing narratives related to the Greek society’s characteristics? Has the public debate changed towards a fairer direction after six years of economic and political crisis?
I would say that in 2013 the idea had changed. We now heard less about the lazy Greek and more about the humanitarian crisis that was taking place. I now think that at least people in Sweden have understood what is really going on. What really made it clear was the referendum in 2015, when people clearly voted no to austerity and were deceived by the government. Many voices were heard saying that this move was antidemocratic. The chief economist of one of the biggest Swedish trade unions wrote a report on Greece stating that debt ought to be cancelled. But of course since last fall, the refugee discussion has been the predominant one when speaking of Greece, we now hear very little on the economic situation if anything.
In 2013, you initiated a call for solidarity for Greece through an open letter that was signed by 22 prominent personalities of Sweden, published in the top- selling daily newspaper “Dagens Nyheter” under the title “Austerity policy must stop before it is too late”. What could be an alternative way to exit the euro crisis, according to your opinion? Do you consider that Scandinavia can serve as a model for mixed economy welfare state and prosperity that Europe should pursue?
My opinion is that when a country enters an economic program (I am referring to the troika) with 13% unemployment and 120% debt and after five years has 29% unemployment and 180% debt, then this program has clearly not served its purpose. Then why continue with it? There is no logic at all. The troika program has been an economic catastrophe and a human disaster for Greece. It should be ended now. There is no point in deceiving the public by calling it “the institutions” when it’s still the same thing. The longer it goes on, the worse.
Now the Scandinavian welfare model is another, bigger discussion. Many people in Greece have an idea of it which relates back to the 70’s when in fact Scandinavia has changed a lot and is no longer the social democratic paradise it once was. In some aspects such as privatization of education, electricity and railways, we are more neoliberal than Greece. Yet I think one of the reasons why Sweden, for example, still has managed to keep a relatively good standard of living is that we voted no to the euro in a referendum in 2003. Finland, with the euro, is doing a lot worse. Norway is in great shape and is not even an EU member. At the end of the day, if the EU was pressing Greece with the euro as their weapon, there is no reason to be scared of dropping it. The euro is not a magic ticket to the VIP club. It simply means that control over the money is not in the country’s own hands. If you don’t control your money, you are not independent, you can only ask for mercy from the bankers. And I think that in Greece, having studied its history, there is this double sentiment. The quest for independence which clearly is a red thread throughout history, from Kolokotronis to Metaxas “Oxi” and Aris Velouchiotis, but also the fear of loneliness which leads the country to jump from one superpower to another in the hunt for allies. And I think in July last year, these two tendencies clashed. Many Greeks want to be independent AND have the euro and unfortunately it is not possible at the moment.
Sweden has been traditionally following an open-door policy to immigrants. However, added to the existing strains of austerity, the escalation of the ongoing refugee crisis puts further economic and political pressure to Europe. How could one rethink the refugee crisis in these challenging times?
Oh I don’t know. This is not my topic. There are experts who have studied this matter and I have not. The only thing I have to say is this: If the world powers would stop invading countries in the Middle East and Central Asia all the time, the number of people on the run would surely drop.
You are a founding member of the “Network for Greece” organization in Sweden. Can you tell us more on this initiative and its actions?
We are not tied to any political party, the organization is for anyone wanting to express solidarity. We have five aims. Stop austerity; People before profits; Give the youth work and future in Greece; Solidarity with everyone living in Greece i.e. no to fascism and racism; and cancelling of the debt. What we do is to organize seminars, to inform Swedes on what’s going on, we hold demonstrations and we invited Aris Xatzistefanou to show his movies here. Members are both Greeks who lived here since the 60’s and those who came recently, Swedes who have been to Greece a lot and have ties to the country, and anyone with an interest in economy. Among our members are also the former ambassador to Greece Krister Kumlin.
You were recently proclaimed as “Swede-Greek of the year 2015” by the “Committee for cultural exchange between Sweden and Greece”. What does this mean to you? What, in your opinion, are the bonds between Greece and Sweden; how much do the two countries have in common?
Yes I was very honoured for that prize! Especially as I received it from Theodor Kallifatides who is a great author and has done so much for the relationship between the two countries. I think the relationship goes way back. Not only since many Greeks came here in the 60’s and worked in the industry and the first Swedes started going on charter in the 70’s, but remember up until the 70’s all Swedes who went to college had to study ancient Greek – the language – it was a requisite. The two countries also have in common the fact that they are small and obsessed with what the world thinks about them. If there is a Swede or a Greek who makes it in Hollywood we always have to point it out: “Look! That’s someone from my country!” A British or American never screams that when they see a countryman on TV. We also tend to think we are unique and start sentences like “in ALL other countries it’s that way, only in MY country it’s this way”. Another similarity is that since we are at the fringes of Europe, we talk about Europe as “the others.” We say we are going “to Europe” when in fact we are already in it.
* Interview by Eleftheria Spiliotakopoulou
See also: Kajsa Ekis Ekman’s blog (mostly in Swedish) & Kajsa Ekis Ekman's book on Being and Being Bought, Prostitution, Surrogacy and the Split Self (2013)
Acclaimed Greek writer Theodor Kallifatides, who has been living in Sweden since 1964 and whose books have been translated and published in more than 20 languages, spoke to Greek News Agenda (GNA)* about some painful childhood memories and how it all began, what it means to be a bilingual writer, and how it feels to be called a “migrant writer”. He also shared his views on Greece’s brain drain, the refugee crisis, and Greece’s image abroad.
Q: It has been 40 years since you started making a living exclusively from writing. How did it all begin? At what age, and instance, did you feel the need to write for the first time?
A: It all started when I was very young, 5 years old to be exact. My father, who was a teacher, had already taught me how to read and write. It was during the Occupation of Greece in WWII. The Germans executed a man in our village, and to set an example, we were all forced to observe the execution. My father was already imprisoned. My older siblings were away. Thus, it was I and my mother who was holding my hand that watched the execution. I watched the man fall, and saw his dying gaze. That evening, I didn’t go out to play. I stayed in, and for the first time, without knowing why, I wrote something about that execution.
Q: You belong to that rare species of bilingual writers. What does it mean, in practical terms, to write in a language that is not your mother tongue?
A: It implies a constant insecurity, which is positive however, because one is always alert and in search of every word, writing with difficulty since nothing flows with ease. All this is good for a writer; ease and convenience are not, they’re an enemy. I have to know exactly what I want to say, without any rhetorical tricks. Writing in Swedish has forced me to be honest.
Q: A recurring theme in your novels is migration. How has it affected your mentality, your frame of mind as a writer? Do you accept the term “migrant writer” (invandrarförfattare) that is widely used in Sweden, or does it bother you?
A: The term “migrant writer” bothers me. I am a migrant, but this is not why I am a writer, irrespective of whether emigration was and remains an experience of decisive importance in my life.
Q: One of the consequences of the Greek economic crisis is emigration, especially of young and educated people (brain drain) leaving Greece in search for a better future abroad. However, this option is not always that simple or easy. Having gone through this yourself, what would you say was the hardest part and what would your advice to those opting for this path nowadays be?
A: Only if you know why you are leaving and are certain that there are no other solutions, only then would I recommend this path, emigration. Living in a foreign country entails many challenges and ordeals; it requires giving it all to survive. Determination and drive, perseverance and commitment, hard work and self confidence; you have to know who you are so as not to get lost.
Q: Another side of migration that Greece is facing nowadays is that of refugees from the Middle East coming to Europe with hopes for a better life. What is your view on the running public debate in Europe concerning the refugee crisis?
A: Europe is not dealing with how to help these people but with how to avoid them. It is shameful and idiotic because huge human potential that we’ll need one day is being wasted unreasonably.
Q: In what ways and to what extent do you believe that the image of Greece in Northern European Media and public opinion has been affected in recent years?
A: Unfortunately, a great deal of goodwill towards our country has been lost, and this is not only on account of any mismanagement of the situation, but because of the intransigence of the Institutions as well.
Q: You have now lived for over 50 years in Sweden, where you have enjoyed a successful career, have been awarded with honours and prizes and, above all, have gained the respect and appreciation of the Swedish public. Do you consider yourself in a way as an ‘ambassador’ of Greece abroad?
A: I don’t consider myself as an ‘ambassador’ of Greece, but I always defend the Greek people. This does not mean that I am blind to what’s wrong with us or others. But you don’t strike one who is down; you help him stand on his feet.
* Interview by Eleftheria Spiliotakopoulou
Theodor Kallifatides was born in the village Molaoi of Laconia, Greece, in 1938. In 1946, he and his family moved to Athens where he finished high school and studied at Karolos Koun’s Art Theatre school. He immigrated to Sweden in 1964, where he has lived ever since. He studied philosophy and worked as a lecturer at Stockholm University between 1969 and 1972, and then as chief editor of Bonniers literary magazine “Litterära Magasin” between 1972 and 1976. Kallifatides made his literary debut in 1969 with a poetry book, but gained recognition mainly through his subsequently published novels. He is one of the most acclaimed contemporary writers in Sweden and is considered the most prominent example of writers from migrant background in the Nordic countries that have chosen to write in the Nordic languages. Since 1994, he began writing in Greek as well. In total, 18 of his novels have been translated and published in Greece (mainly by Gavriilidis Editions). His autobiographical work “The Past is not a Dream” was published in 2012, and his latest novel I will Always Return was published in 2015. He has published novels, poetry collections, travel essays and plays, and has received numerous awards for his works which usually revolve around memories of his homeland and his life as a Greek abroad. He has also written film scripts and has directed a film.
Read more: Leaving, Losing, Letting Go: Some Steps in Bilingual Transformations in the work of Theodor Kallifatides (Modern Greek Literature: Critical Essays, 2003)
Watch video (in Greek): Theodor Kallifatides - Writer (produced by ERT, the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation, 2011)
Aristides Hatzis is an Associate Professor of Law & Economics and Legal Theory at the University of Athens (Department of Philosophy & History of Science) with a doctorate on Law & Economics from the University of Chicago, founder of the GreekCrisis.net blog and the Athens-based John Stuart Mill research group.
He is the co-editor of Law and Economics: Philosophical Issues and Fundamental Questions (Routledge, 2015), Economic Analysis of Law: A European Perspective (Edward Elgar 2017).He is a member of the Editorial Board of the European Review of Contract Law, a fellow of the European Law Institute, a member of the scientific board of the Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP), as well as a member of the National Council for Research & Innovation.
Professor Hatzis op-eds have been published by the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, the CNBC and other major international and Greek media (Ta Nea, Protagon). He has also given interviews to major international media outlets: Bloomberg News, Economist, Euronews, BBC, Financial Times, Guardian, Spiegel, U.S. National Public Radio, Time, Voice of America, Belgian State TV, Finish State TV, Swedish State Radio, etc.
Aristides Hatzis spoke to Rethinking Greece* about his department research and academic performance, his initiative to launch the Greekcrisis.net blog, the liberal heritage of Greece and the study of liberal political thought in Greece, the need for pro-free market reforms in Greece, as well as the state of today’s centre-right political parties in the country.
You teach Law & Economics and Legal Theory at the University of Athens. What are the dynamics of academic research of this particular field in your department (History & Philosophy of Science) and in Greece generally? What do you think is the level of the study of Philosophy & History of Science in Greece and what are the career prospects of Philosophy graduates in the country?
I am teaching law & economics at the Law School and Legal Theory at my department, the Department of History & Philosophy of Science. This is not a new department. It was established, more than two decades ago, in 1994. It is justifiably considered, academically, one of the best departments in Greece. This is not a subjective view. It was the conclusion of the external evaluation report for my department: “The Committee’s overall assessment of the Department is very positive. It is something of which the University of Athens and the Ministry of Education should be proud.” This is the result of an emphasis on academic excellence, a close, almost personal relationship with the students, a curriculum which is up-to-date and an atmosphere of tolerance and cooperation. One wonders what’s the future of a philosophy graduate in a country with almost 60% unemployment among the young. Happily, our students are regularly being accepted in graduate programs in many areas, in Greece and abroad. Their employment rate is more than the average and they are among the most satisfied students in Greece with the level and quality of their studies. Unfortunately, our students with the most impressive careers don’t live in Greece anymore.
My course is a mix of legal theory, political philosophy and institutional theory. It is a course on the history of the liberal constitutional democracy and the development of the rule of law, from Ancient Athens to the early 20th century. With references to the issues of the freedom of speech, the debate on self-ownership and human dignity, the relationship between law and morality (with a lecture dedicated to Nuremberg trials) and economic inequality. In this course and a sequel, in the form of a seminar, we deal with all the above plus current issues, like the integration of Muslims in western societies, police violence and torture, the freedom of the press and the contradictions in a liberal democracy. Every year we see 8-9 movies, we attend at least one theater play and the students organize 12-18 debates.
Law & Economics is my area of research for the past 25 years. I got my doctorate on law & economics from the University of Chicago under the supervision of Judge Richard Posner. Law & Economics (and the economics of institutions in general) is a relatively new field of study. It tries to answer questions like, what’s the suitable institutional framework for economic development, how to make the justice system more efficient, how to interpret legal rules in contracts, torts, antitrust in order to regulate behavior successfully. The Law and Economics approach is the opposite of a stagnant and barren legal formalism, which is still dominant in Greek legal theory. However, for the past ten years a great number of young scholars, colleagues, lawyers and judges are interested in the field. We have a rather large and lively community and we organize a very successful annual conference for young scholars.
One last word about research. Research in Greece is like a hurdles race, especially in social sciences. It is underfunded, you can’t organize a lab, you can’t help young scholars, you can’t invite a colleague, you can’t travel to major conferences, you have to spend most of your time in clerical work. I am trying to minimize cost by integrating my research and my teaching. This has some beneficial side-effects. My first audience is my students. And the feedback is invaluable.
You have launched the GreekCrisis.net blog which offers a variety of perspectives into the Greek crisis, mainly through International Press articles and commentary. Can you tell us a bit more about this initiative? How do you assess the public’s response to it?
This is a joint project. We started it with Dr. Yulie Foka-Kavalieraki, my wife, 6 years ago. It started very modestly, as a clearinghouse of information for the Greek Crisis. The great success was rather shocking to us. I remember that in the summer of 2012 we took some time for vacation and we started receiving emails from hedge fund analysts, bank managers and journalists asking us why “our service” had stopped. We have now 3.200.000 individual visits, almost 13.000 posts and a faithful audience. You can also find there all my opinion pieces published in the New York Times, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal but almost everything you need to know about the Greek Crisis, including bibliography. Funny, and not expected, fact: only 14% of our visitors are Greeks! This is a public, pro bono service. We don’t have any kind of help, we don’t receive any kind of funding or donations and we don’t have advertisements. Our only hope is for this blog to become redundant. But I am afraid that this crisis will last longer than expected or feared.
It seems that there is a growing interest for the study of the liberal political thought and particularly British - American liberalism in Greece, reflected in initiatives such as the Liberty Forum of Greece and the John Stuart Mill research group, among others. Is it a trend, or a phenomenon with deeper roots?
Greece had a very strong liberal tradition, especially in the 19th century. Greece was founded as a liberal democracy by liberal politicians with strong ties and personal relationships with leading liberal intellectuals and politicians in Britain, France, Italy and the U.S.A. Unfortunately, this tradition was forgotten under the fever of the irredentist nationalism of Megali Idea for many decades and then by the bloody antagonism between communist left and conservative right after World War II and the ensuing ferocious civil war. After 1974 a number of liberal intellectuals tried to reintroduce liberal ideas in Greece, after almost a century. They had their failures but they managed to create a fertile ground for such ambitious initiatives as the Liberal Forum of Greece (of whose scientific board, I am a member) or the “John Stuart Mill research group”, another project my wife and I founded and organized with the help of my current and former students. Its success was unprecedented. We have 1.200 members, mostly students (from every Greek university) and young professionals, 70% of whom are young women. Our events are so successful we keep booking ever larger venues. This is also an initiative based on purely voluntary work. We don’t receive any funds, our events are free, we don’t have a budget.I believe that classical liberal ideas are going to exert a much greater influence in the not-so-distant future in Greece. Because these are ideas of the open society, emphasizing liberty, rationality, individual rights, the rule of law, political equality, free competitive markets and civil society. Greece is deficient (more or less) in all the above and this is the root-cause of its problems. The modernization of Greece entails embracing these ideals.
Greece was not only founded as a liberal democratic state, but also as a genuine European state. Of course there was always a great gap between political ambition, intellectual wishful thinking and the grim reality of a backwards society. Nevertheless, the Greek political elites managed (with a few exceptions) to keep Greece in the right side of history – “right” also meaning “winning”. The young Greek state was attached to the British empire, when the empire was powerful. In every European conflict Greece was always with the winning side (Balkan wars, World Wars, Cold War). Greece became member of the most privileged and powerful “clubs” (recently NATO, OECD, European Union, Eurozone). That is why Greece cannot imagine itself outside of European integration, even when this process has serious structural problems, even when Greek people are dissatisfied with their partners. Greece’s ambition has always been to be a part of the Western Europe. This was a challenging ambition but a wise and worthy one.
What kind of reforms does Greece need? And what is the reform capacity of the Greek society and the Greek political system, especially under the current circumstances?
Greece still has the least free economy in the European Union, one of the less free economies in Europe. It is still not competitive, despite the steep decline in labor cost, because it is also not supported by an economically-efficient institutional framework. The administration of justice is ridiculously slow. You need 4,5 years to enforce a contract, 3,5 to finalize a bankruptcy procedure. It is still hostile to investment due to overregulation, corruption, a nefarious macroeconomic environment, a banking system in disarray, costly energy and substandard infrastructure. Greece needs urgently radical pro-free market reforms. Unfortunately, this kind of reforms have very powerful enemies, the strong pressure groups – in the case of Greece and in order of importance: powerful cartels, professionals and public sector unions. Most Greek identify reforms, erroneously, with the extreme fiscal measures (tax hikes, across-the-board salary cuts) which were both inefficient and unfair. Consequently, we have the phenomenon of “reform-fatigue” without real reforms.
How would you translate the state of the liberal political ideology and centre-right political parties in Greece today? What does it mean for New Democracy as the main opposition party to have Kyriakos Mitsotakis in its helm? What are the consequences for the Greek political spectrum?
Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ election was a surprise to me. He is the first leader of the conservative party who can be characterized as liberal, after 23 years. However, I should emphasize that the party is not liberal. The liberal faction is rather weak and marginalized. Mitsotakis was elected by the Greek centrists who went enthusiastically to vote for him. He has to control his party and establish his dominance to win the elections, especially if the next elections are close. I think that his most important contribution would be to transform the party into a genuine European center-right party with a strong liberal element.
His election challenges the undisputed political hegemony of Alexis Tsipras (winner of four elections in a row). Now Tsipras has a formidable opponent. Mitsotakis can become Prime Minister in two ways. By behaving opportunistically, waiting political cost to undermine Alexis Tsipras or by persuading the Greek people that the liberal alternative is the only real alternative for growth, jobs, and the restoration of the rule of law and Greece’s reputation. The second option is the most difficult, but at the same time the most rewarding and sustainable.
*Interview by Vasiliki Diagouma and Nikolas Nenedakis
Watch Aristides Hatzis' interview with Crisis Observatory (In Greek with English subtitles, 28 November, 2014):
In an interview with Greek News Agenda, Nikolaos Stampoulopoulos, founder and creative director of New Diaspora – a participatory narrative hub relevant to the current Greek migration flow, its causes, its consequences and its future – discusses the idea that sparked New Diaspora, its mission and future goals and comments on how we can turn “brain drain” into “brain gain” and redefine the Greek collective identity.
What is the idea behind New Diaspora? What makes this initiative so important?
Over the last seven years of continuous recession, nearly half a million Greeks have abandoned their country; adding up to thousands of their compatriots who moved abroad before the crisis officially broke out. Most of those people are young, educated and multilingual. In my opinion, if we don't manage to reverse this massive 'brain drain' or tap on it from a distance, the prospect of a successful productive restructuring of Greece seems exceptionally difficult, if not impossible. The same goes for the redefinition of a collective identity that is not determined by obsolete, and sometimes negative, cultural stereotypes.
Launched in March 2013, New Diaspora started out as a bilingual digital storytelling platform, focusing on the personal stories of the new generation of Greeks living abroad during the crisis. Since then, it has grown into a participatory narrative hub, relevant to the current Greek migration flow, its causes, its consequences and its future. New Diaspora's mission is to bridge the gap between Greek 'neomigrants' and their birthplace, empowering both sides by becoming a point of reference and social synergy, that encourages the members of an international community to connect to each other, share experiences and ideas, collaborate and pursue common goals.
Apart from telling stories that matter, we try to provide people with useful information on moving and finding work abroad. We also partner with numerous other initiatives and organisations, in an attempt to facilitate the need for international networking and promotion of extrovert and innovative Greek business and cultural activities. Our ultimate goal is to help as much as we can in creating incentives for the return of expatriate Greeks, eventually reversing the tide and turning the 'brain drain' into a 'brain gain'. The current developments in Greece and the rest of Europe make this a formidable task, to say the least.
New Diaspora has received wide Greek and international media attention, your social media reach is constantly growing while new partnerships are inaugurated. What comes next? Are there new projects under way?
To this date, the entirety of New Diaspora's content and activities has relied on volunteer work, and that also includes the mini documentaries I have directed and published online for free. We are now in the process of securing funds from institutions and private sponsors, in order to hire people who will redesign our website and make it more interactive, and also help us increase our content flow and community engagement. In the near future we want to co-organise networking, cultural and academic events in various countries, starting from the most popular destinations in Europe. In addition, we are hoping that our proposal for a new series of mini documentaries about Greek 'neomigrants' around the world will find the necessary financial support. The platform is already there to promote such a series, as well as to discover people who have compelling stories to share.
The economic crisis has sparked a massive wave of ‘neoemigrants’ in what is called the “Greek brain drain”, often recorded and commented in the Greek and international press. What differentiates New Diaspora in the way it presents and promotes the stories of these neoemigrants?
New Diaspora's unfair advantage is its dedication to the cause of recording a migration wave as it happens, without trying to beautify or sensationalise anything. We care for all kinds of stories and opinions, instead of selectively focusing on the exceptionally successful and exceptionally unfortunate that Greek media seems to prefer featuring. Moreover, by letting expatriate Greeks tell their own stories in an unmediated way, we believe we can inspire people to discuss issues, seek solutions and become the change they crave for.
There are many people interested on this subject, both in Greece and abroad; and I'm not referring to Greeks only. This is a case study on an altogether new type of workforce and entrepreneurial mobility, and no one knows how it will evolve and influence the shape of things to come.
You have been living and working in Amsterdam since 2009. What’s your own story of migration? How has it influenced your perspective?
I lived for five years in the Netherlands, where I worked as a freelance filmmaker, made new friends and got used to riding a bicycle instead of driving a car. While the crisis was escalating back in Greece, it sometimes felt like I was living in a parallel universe with a totally different economy, mentality and climate. It wasn't always easy to stay focused on building a new life in a place I knew from the start I will never belong to as much as I belong to my homeland.
During my stay in Amsterdam, I realized that the growing influx of my compatriots was a story no one else particularly cared to tell, so I started filming my friends and my impressions of my life abroad. I still struggle to organise all this footage, hoping to create a feature length documentary on the period "I went Dutch". Meanwhile, the preparation and management of New Diaspora became a full time obsession that led me to the decision of returning to Athens at the end of 2014; seeking funds and partners to carry on from there. The timing was far from perfect, but I haven't regretted it yet.
You have stated that redefining an obsolete collective identity – that somehow seems to be stuck in the “Zorba” cliché of the 60s – is absolutely necessary in the attempt to rebrand Greece, an undertaking that cannot be achieved by the ones who are left behind. Which would be the core elements of a new Greek collective identity?
The whole notion of a collective identity is that it takes a living community to define it. When that community breaks up, its identity inevitably gets fragmented and distorted, ending up like a blurry reflection of an idolised past. I don't think there is anything wrong with the ancient and more recent Greek heritage, as long as we keep reinventing it and adding to it. If the crisis and the migration it causes make us too depressed or alienated to do so, we become trapped in a stagnant narrative.
We live in the age of internet and mobility, however, and it's up to us to stay connected and exchange ideas and experiences that will tell the future generations who we were and what we achieved. Therefore, I prefer to be an optimist who sees an opportunity for renewal in this gigantic brain drain, providing that both the ones who left and the ones who stayed behind (or came back, as it is in my case) will work together and produce economic and cultural wealth. I wish I knew what will be the specific characteristics of the civilization we will leave behind. My hope is that they will include equal rights, cultural diversity, freedom of speech and uncompromising democracy.
Interview by Athina Rossoglou