A recent draft bill on Sharia law aims to limit its application in Western Thrace, home of a Muslim minority in Greece. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has recently stressed that the bill will address "shortcomings and inequalities affecting the minority population of the country”, while Education Minister Costas Gavroglou has told the relevant parliamentary committee that "the specific legislation is a step towards equality and democracy, within a complex European context and a framework for respecting the Muslim minority in our country".
The draft bill, filed by the ministry of Education, is expected to be tabled in the parliament plenum on Thursday 11.1.2018. According to the new law, family law disputes (divorce, inheritance) for Muslim minority members who have been married in a religious ceremony will from now on be resolved in Greek civil courts, unless both sides in the dispute agree before a lawyer to have their differences resolved through a mufti (interpreter of Sharia law).
Greek News Agenda spoke* with Konstantinos Tsitselikis, Professor at the Department of Balkan, Slavic & Oriental Studies of the University of Macedonia (Thessaloniki, Greece) about the legal status of the Muslim minority in Western Thrace, the obligatory application of the Sharia law and its impact on the lives and human rights of the Greek Muslim communities of the region. Tsitselikis argues that the new law constitutes a positive step that ensures access to civil law, stressing that “minority rights should not infringe fundamental human rights, the pillar of our democracy” and that “Sharia law should be implemented in line with human rights, values and norms.” He adds that dealing only with issues of language and religion, while ignoring the economic factors that exclude large parts of the minority from mainstream Greek society, is not enough to achieve the full integration of the minority populations.
Professor Tsitselikis' main academic interests concern human and minority rights and international law. He has also worked for the Council of Europe, the OSCE, the UN, the EU in human rights and democratisation field missions and has been president of the Hellenic League for Human Rights. In the past years he has conducted research on minority foundations of the Greek Orthodox minority in Turkey and the Muslim minority in Greece.
Would you like to tell us a few words about the legal status of the Muslim minority in Western Thrace? What are the conditions that led to the adoption of the Islamic law and its preservation to date?
At the end of the Greek-Turkish war of 1919-22, the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of the Turkish Republic, the Lausanne Conference adopted measures sanctioned by international law that effectively involved ethnic cleansing in a bid to achieve homogeneous nation-states in Greece and Turkey. The population exchange between the two countries was decided as a counter-weight to the Greek Orthodox population already expelled from Asia Minor. Over 400,000 Muslims of Greece were forced to migrate to Turkey. However, under the Convention of Lausanne (January 1923), the Muslims of Western Thrace were exempted from the population exchange, as were the Greek Orthodox of Istanbul (also the Greeks of the islands of Imvros and Tenedos).
The subsequent Treaty of Lausanne (July 1923) guaranteed special minority rights to the non-Muslim Turkish citizens in Turkey and to the Muslim citizens in Greece who had been exempted from the population exchange. This special legal protection concerns, since 1923, education rights (bilingual minority schools), protection of community properties (waqf/vakif/vakoufia) and religous freedom. Religious freedom regards prayer houses (mosques and mescits), religious functionaries (imams) and religious leaders, the muftis. The three muftis of Thrace also acquired special jurisdiction over family and inheritance matters. The jurisdiction of the mufti to apply Sharia law in Thrace stems from the Treaty of Lausanne (1923). The treaty, which is the cornerstone of minority protection up to date, states in Article 42 Paragraph 1: “The [Greek] government undertakes, as regards [Muslim] minorities in so far as concerns their family law or personal status, measures permitting the settlement of these questions in accordance with the customs of those minorities.”
The legal content of Act 2345 (1920) on the authority and status of the muftis did not change even when the law was replaced by Act 1920 (1991), which retained both the substantive law and the procedure of the 1920 act. Under this regime, the mufti system has survived, albeit with some limitations. Within their areas of jurisdiction, the three current muftis of Thrace (serving Komotini, Xanthi and Didymoteiho) have jurisdiction over family law and inheritance disputes between Muslim Greek citizens. Often the Greek courts consider the mufti’s jurisdiction as exclusive and obligatory and this has negative impact over the Muslims of Thrace.
How did the obligatory application of the Sharia law impact the lives of the Greek Muslim community? Which segments of the population were the most affected?
The obligatory application of Islamic law has taken two forms: When the civil court denies accepting an application filed by a Muslim (in most of the cases lodged by a woman applying for divorce) and remands the case to the mufti; and when the civil court denies applying the civil law on inheritance as regards a public will (overturning thus the wish of a Muslim testator who drafted a will according to the civil code).
Therefore, the most affected segments of population among the minority of Thrace are women and all those who draft a will according to the civil law. In a broader sense anyone, regardless of minority affiliation, can be harmed due to lack of legal certainty: Ownership over inherited properties could be overturned as there are no clear norms on the validity of wills. Lastly, children of divorced parents, who after certain age are always placed under custody of the father, have been largely affected.
What would you answer to the claim that the application of Sharia law is necessary for protecting the minority´s religious rights?
Often, the implementation of Islamic law is considered to be a part of the minority protection system. If this is true, Islamic law should not contradict fundamental human rights that also protect the status of the minority. Minority rights cannot be implementable without the general framework of human rights within which are functional. Therefore, minority rights cannot infringe fundamental human rights, the pillar of our democracy. Sharia law could be implemented in line with human rights, values and norms.
How do you evaluate the changes introduced by the bill? Does it ensure that the Islamic law will be applied only as an exception to the Civil Code and following the expressed will of all parties involved?
The draft bill, which introduces amendments to the law on the muftis, constitutes a positive step towards resolving this 'legal anomaly', and ensuring equal access to civil law. Islamic law will be applicable only when both parties agree on it.
It is worth noting that this change has been triggered by a case adjudicated by the Greek courts and then by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg. The case was pending before the First Section of the European Court since 2014, and was referred to the Grand Chamber: a Greek Muslim in Thrace had drafted a public will according to which his wife would inherit all of his estate. As they did not have any children, after he passed away, his widow acquired the entire estate. The public will was then challenged by the sisters of the deceased, on the grounds that Sharia law -according to which they are heirs on the ¾ of the deceased’s property- should be obligatorily implemented. While the first instance court and the Court of Appeal of Thrace upheld that the public will is valid and Sharia law cannot be implemented without consent, the Supreme Court of Greece upheld the opposite: That Sharia law is the exclusive law applicable on all Muslims of Thrace in the framework of the minority protection law.
The Grand Chamber of the Court of Strasbourg heard the case on the 6th of December 2017; this hearing set off a chain of announced changes of law on the muftis and the Islamic law applicable in Thrace. In November the Prime Minister announced from Komotini, Thrace that the Sharia law will cease to be obligatory and will become voluntary to those who wish to follow it.
Do you believe that in the long run Sharia law should be abolished altogether?
To have Islamic law be a part of the Greek and the European legal system two conditions should be met: First, that there is no infringement on fundamental human rights; second, that the members of the minority are free to choose the one or the other law.
The government is also faced with two options: First, to abolish by law, in a kind of ‘sudden death’, Sharia law and the mufti courts; second, to impose the aforementioned conditions in the application the Islamic law. The government seems to have chosen the second option, and I believe that in the near future only a small percentage of cases will continue to be adjudicated by the mufti: the majority of the members of the minority will opt for civil law. Women will play a significant role in this change, and this will amount to a big step towards their emancipation.
However, Islamic law as applied by the muftis is only one aspect of the problem. The way the muftis are appointed is also an issue that has remained unresolved for many years and needs to be dealt with. It seems that the government is considering opening the door to the election of the muftis by the minority.
What other legislative actions and/or policies do you think would contribute to the further integration and equal treatment of the Muslim minority of Thrace?
The Muslim minority of Thrace should be seen as a segment of the Greek society, not to be subjected to discriminatory treatment or special measures that do not uphold the rule of law. Of course, some special measures are necessary in order to ensure the equal treatment of vulnerable groups like the Muslim minority. However, characteristics such as ethnic and national identity, language and religion are not the only ones that define the minority today.
Social exclusion and poverty shape the canvas on which minority characteristics are developed. Treating only language and religion and ignoring the economic factors that exclude large parts of the minority from the mainstream Greek society does not help integration. In order to achieve integration we have to reach acceptance of the “other” as well as to guarantee equal opportunities for all, without barriers on religious and national identities.
*Interview by Ioulia Livaditi
Read more Konstantinos Tsitselikis papers here. Read more about Konstantinos Tsitselikis book on Old and New Islam in Greece - From Historical Minorities to Immigrant Newcomers (Leiden/Boston, 2012).
See also: Ministry of Foreign Affairs - Issues of Greek - Turkish Relations; Major International Treaties Concerning Greece; The Economist: Greece prepares to do away with compulsory sharia in Western Thrace
Simos Korexenidis' documentary “Teriade” is referring to the life and work, of the Lesvos island born Stratis Eleftheriadis - Teriade (1897 - 1983), Art critic and Art book publisher, who topped the artistic life of France from 1920’s up to 1960’s. At a time that the so called “modern art”, was at its beginning, Tériade was tightly connected with its establishers and pioneers. This collaboration was active and definite and included well established editors of the time, such Christian Zervos, Albert Skira, Maurice Reynal etc. In addition to his active participation in the domain of editing as an art critic, Tériade started publishing art books and magazines that drew worldwide attention and reputation, because of their originality and unique quality. In 1937 Tériade established the publishing house "Verve", publishing mainly the magazine with the same name (“Verve: The French Review of Art”). It published 38 issues from 1937 to 1960.
So brilliant was the outcome, that the official French state organized an "Hommage a Tériade", in the series of great retrospective exhibitions, at the Grand Palais (1973). It is the same exhibition that nowadays is permanently settled in the museum bearing the name of its donator: Stratis Eleftheriadis-Tériade built right beside the fatherly house in Mytilene, Lesvos island. Tériade also promoted the naive painter Theophilos and provided him with the means and the financial ability to paint. With the donation of the “Theophilos” museum as well as the “Tériade” museum-library and their priceless collections, he has created in Mytilene, his homeland, a unique spot of culture.
In the documentary important professionals from the art world talk about Teriade, among others Katerina Koskina (Director of the Athens-based National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), Marina Lambraki Plaka (Director of the Greek National Gallery), Katina Charalabidi (Director of Teriade Foundation), and Kostas Maniatopoulos (painter/Director of Museum-Library Teriade).
The documentary was and will be presented in many different Festivals and spaces, such the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki, the 31 Griechische Filmwoche Festival in Munich, and the 4th Free Flying Festival in Brussels.
When was your first acquaintance with Tériade? What prompted you to create the documentary?
An article in the local newspaper "Politika Lesvos" by my friend Varvara Gigilini, describing the financial difficulties and the negligence of the two museums, was the origin of this documentary. What we wanted to do, almost eight years ago, was something short, a five-minute video, to make the municipal authorities of Lesbos and the State aware of the museums Theophilos and the Museum-Library Teriade.
But as our research grew, the more we discovered this wonderful and intelligent person, and that's why we made the decision to do something longer and more elaborate. So we started our documentary and we have come a long way to get to the end of this effort. And all this in the heart of the crisis that has multiplied our difficulties even if the encouraging words and "bravos" were everywhere. By the end, six years had passed, and that’s a lot for such a project. However, it is clear that they do not all share your interest, your love or your dream if you will, and this is known. We said that we should try to highlight the great contribution of this man to his homeland. People of a certain socio-political status and "interested" collaborators have just seen in all this an occasion for the use of the name of Tériade and any future financial gain that would result. We put them aside and we went ahead.
The road was not easy. I often said that I would drop everything. Fatigue, constant researching, a lot of reading and frustration, conciliating with uninterested people, but also stagnation. We managed to finish it and attend the first presentation at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival. Great joy without a doubt and in my case a personal and redemptive victory. A very important thing for a man to whom we owe a lot. It was worth it.
What are the main axes of Tériade’s history that you supported in the creation of the film? What aspects of his life did you most want to depict?
His own life determined my central axis, since I wanted to make a personal and artistic portrait of Tériade, that is to say, by watching the documentary, that someone could understand who this man was.
The choice of the people who spoke in the documentary - and I'm very happy with everyone's participation - was exactly what I wanted to show. Friends and acquaintances talk about personal moments revealing elements of his character and details of his daily life, art critics, artists, museum directors and museologists can refer to his artistic and editorial work and its meaning.
Tériade is a very important figure in the cultural history of Greece, and it is scandalous that this man, so famous and honored throughout the world, is so absent even today from his homeland. Even though he was a renowned art critic and publisher of art magazines (Verve, Minotaur).
And even he was the man who promoted our folk painter Theophilos ... It should be noted that Tériade was friends with Picasso, Matisse, Miro, Chagal, Jiacometti, Léger, Juan Gris, Corbusier, Georges Rouault, Braque, Elytis, Eluard, Millau, Tsarouchis, NH Ghikas, Venezis, Laurens, Breson, Bonnard, Villon, Brassai and some of the biggest names in literature have written in his magazines such as Joyce, Lorca, Hemingway. Moreover, he was honored by the French Academy as "Knight of the Arts" and he founded and gave as a gift two museums in Lesvos, namely the Museum "Théophilos" and the one named "Museum-Library Tériade ".
Secondly, the fact that he loved art with passion and that, with his ancestral education, he was able to integrate Greek and European philosophy into his work. Stratis Eleftheriadis Teriade was an extremely smart man. I would have liked to be present when he was talking with Picasso, or my favorite, Miro, with Coco Chanel, with Lorca, with Henry Cartier Bresson or with his friend psychiatrist Angelos Katakousinos, where a sample of conversation, for example, could even be a sentence from Elytis's letter to Tériade, who writes: "Prizes - if you put aside the material side - are sometimes forgotten. What remains is the piece you could incorporate into the tradition of your country and your people.”
Or when Tériade says elsewhere: "The man who speaks about the art of his time, the art in progress, painstakingly traces his track, a dark or authentic track, between the magnificent power of divination and his fragile business spirit. Well, who wouldn’t want to be lucky enough to participate in the exchange of such thoughts?
In general, how do you see contemporary documentary production in Greece? Do you think there is a change towards this genre, and if so, why?
Yes, of course, there is a great blooming in documentary production, because digital cameras are now so easy and economical that you can always have a small camera that gives you a nice picture and good sound to develop a theme and an idea.
Certainly, there will be friends to help. After a laptop, go to the editing then, depending on your financial situation, you negotiate for a more professional product, let’s say. There are also many more places where documentaries can be screened. Not only public television (private television has never been interested in culture), it is subscription-TV channels and the Internet that provide easy access to information even from mobile phones.
Greek cinema is finding its way to festivals and international events in recent years. Why do you think this is happening?
I will answer with a statement by Teriade: "Verve (the magazine) was born in December 1937. In times of agony, such things happen, when there are big crises, when we are really desperate and we do have nothing to lose, or rather, we are afraid that everything will be lost while waiting for disaster ... Then at this precise moment everyone is able to act, even to act with passion."
This anguish we see as people and as a people, I think it crosses our films and our documentaries, where other peoples can easily or inductively recognize their own questions or global issues. Moreover, everything that is deeply personal is global at the same time. I am very happy that my friends and colleagues find the way and show their work at international festivals (and the corresponding market accordingly) and thus show a sample of our culture. I hope and I expect to see "Teriade" in Paris. It would be a great honor and a real pleasure.
*Interview by Magdalini Varoucha. Translation by Nicole Stellos
In 2017, Greek News Agenda published more than 100 interviews, as part of our contribution to an ongoing dialogue about political, economic, social and cultural developments in Greece. As the economic crisis becomes part of the country’s collective history, our interviews aim at highlighting Greece’s potential and contradictions, comparative advantages and weaknesses.
The interviews are sorted by six categories: ‘Rethinking Greece’ features interviews with academics and public intellectuals on Greek historical and political debates; ‘Reading Greece’ features interviews with Greek writers, poets and other stakeholders of the Greek book market; while ‘Quo Vadis Europa?’ examines what lies ahead for the European Union [mainly] from a Greek point of view. Our other categories are ‘Government and Policy’, Filming Greece and Arts in Greece.
Nicholas J. Theocarakis is President and Scientific Director of the Athens-based Centre of Planning and Economic Research (KEPE) and Associate Professor of Political Economy and History of Economic Thought at the University of Athens where he has served as director of the doctoral program in economics. His research interests include the Political Economy of Labour and the Political Economy of public debt. His most recent book [with Yanis Varoufakis and Joseph Halevi] is Modern Political Economics: Making Sense of the Post-2008 World (2011).
Professor Theocarakis spoke with Greek News Agenda* about the potential of the Greek economy, the need for a fair framework of industrial relations and a more generous welfare state, the design of European institutions and its flaws, the toxic measures which are connected with the dominant economic theorizing as well as the role of KEPE regarding Greece’s economic policy and growth strategy. Nicolas Theocarakis underlined that “unfair growth is not only politically undesirable it is also economically inefficient” and the two major requirements for sustainable economic growth are the abandonment of the austerity policies and the reduction of the public debt to sustainable levels.
In a previous interview with a Greek newspaper (Epohi weekly, 9.7.2017) you noted that Greece’s economy is very dynamic. What do you mean by this? Do you think that the recently observed economic recovery alone could lead to the sustainable economic growth of the country?
I was referring to the potential of the Greek economy especially to the knowledge embodied in its workforce and in the progressive part of the business community. Greece is an advanced economy and though it has suffered immensely in the recent crisis especially because of the implementation of a harsh, unjust and unnecessary austerity policy, it has the potential to bounce back. My comment was not related to the recent improvement of certain leading economic indicators. The two major requirements for sustainable economic growth are the abandonment of the austerity policies and the reduction of the public debt to sustainable levels.
The government has declared, and many analysts agree, that Greece will exit from the macroeconomic adjustment programme in August 2018, able to finance itself in financial markets. What has to be done next in order to improve people’s lives in terms of social justice, more jobs and fair growth?
Growth without social justice, low unemployment and greater equality, an unjust, unfair and jobless growth, is not a desideratum. Moreover, previous notions of the great tradeoff between efficiency and equity do not hold water anymore as numerous studies have shown. Unfair growth is not only politically undesirable it is also economically inefficient. Nevertheless, years of unrelenting austerity have been particularly harsh to those at the lower end of the income scale. Any improvement of the quality of life for the suffering majority should include a fair framework of industrial relations that protects those who work, a more efficient and generous welfare state, an emphasis on education and a system that will seriously reduce the evasion of taxes and social security contributions.
During the last European Council in Brussels, EU country leaders discussed the road map for eurozone reform and the deepening of the European Monetary Union, 25 years after the Maastricht Treaty. In this direction, what is the meaning of proposals such as a euro budget for eurozone countries, a Euro finance Minister and a European Monetary Fund, for Greece?
One of the major problems of the design of European institutions was that the political process of bringing them about was so arduous that we ended up with a system that it was not well thought out and unable to deal with crises. It was a fair weather system, with bad economics and no politics. It was also a clearly undemocratic system of a Europe unsure of itself and distrusting the will of the European people. It is no surprise then that we have phenomena where European electorates showed a similar mistrust for the European Union opting for xenophobic, extreme rightwing anti-European parties. I would welcome moves for a more federal Europe provided that we should stop pretending that “experts” should take the decisions for the European people
In an effort to analyze the roots of the economic crisis in Greece, to what extend is this crisis connected to the 2008 collapse of the financial system? How can political economists help us make sense of the situation in Greece and the world economy?
The economic crisis in Greece was clearly the result of the 2008 global financial crisis. This crisis hit different economies in different ways and the endemic problems of the Greek economy were exacerbated by the crisis. It was a perfect storm, so to speak. On the other hand, the insistence of curing the problem with more toxic measures which were the result of a discredited economic theory that serves the interests of the more reactionary circles of the European Union made matters worse. It is high time that we abandon the voodoo economics that bring misery, inequality and stagnation and address the issues as political economists for analyzing the situation of the Greek and the world economy.
The Centre of Planning and Economic Research (KEPE) was established in 1959 with the aim to conduct economic research and analysis for Greece. What should be the role of KEPE regarding the numerous challenges that the Greek economy is currently facing?
KEPE went though many phases in its history than spans more than half a century. In these difficult fiscal times it has to earn its keep and become a true research arm for economic matters of the Greek State and Government and create the necessary infrastructure in order to answer in a scientific and detached manner specific questions that are posed by the Government and produce policy papers that relate to the economy and the growth strategy of the country.
*Interview by Ioulia Elmatzoglou
Read KEPE's recent "Greek Economic Outlook" issues offerring an analysis of both the current developments in the Greek economy as well as more specialized and specific economic issues:
Annamaria Simonazzi is Professor of Economics at Sapienza University of Rome, Italy, where she has been the director of the Master in Economics and local coordinator of the European Phd in Socio-Economic and Statistical Studies. She presides the Scientific Committee of research institute Fondazione Giacomo Brodolini, is co-director of the journal Economia & Lavoro and member of the editorial board of inGenere.it. Her research interests range from macroeconomics, to social policy, gender and labour economics. Her recent publications include: “Economic relations between Germany and Southern Europe", The Cambridge Journal of Economics, 2013 (co-authored) and “Italy: Continuity and Change in Welfare State Retrenchment” in The European Social Model in Crisis – Is Europe losing its Soul? (Edward Elgar 2015).
Rafael Muñoz de Bustillo Llorente is Professor of Applied Economics at the University of Salamanca. is Professor of Applied Economics at the University of Salamanca in Spain. His main fields of study and research are Labour Economics, Economics of the Welfare State, European Integration and Development Economics. From in 1999 to date, has participated in over twenty research programs, written chapters in collective volumes and published several articles in scientific journals in both Spanish and English. Some of his books that have been translated in English are: “Measuring more than Money: The Social Economics of Job Quality”, (co-authored, Edward Elgar 2011) and "Operating Hours and Working Times: A Survey of Capacity Utilization and Employment in European Union" (co-authored, 2007).
The two professors recently attended the European Conference on “Inequalities, Neoliberalism and European Integration: progressive responses”, organized by the Nicos Poulantzas Institute and transform! europe, that took place in Athens 23-25 November, as speakers in the panel “Inequalities, welfare state and middle classes in Southern Europe”. Simonazzi and de Bustillo spoke to Greek News Agenda* about how the crisis has affected the middle classes in Spain and Italy, if welfare states in Southern Europe share common traits, how the shrinking of the welfare state is connected to the rise of nationalism and what can be done to defend the european social model:
How has the crisis and subsequent austerity measures affected the middle classes in Spain and Italy?
Annamaria Simonazzi: In Italy, economic stagnation had started much before the crisis; the labour market was severely segmented, with a very high rate of young people with atypical contracts, in precarious jobs or unemployed. Thus, before the crisis, middle classes' anxieties were mainly related to their children’s bleak future. The crisis has spread unemployment problems to all age groups, and the middle classes were not spared. The possibility of bleak future for the children is now complemented with an equally bleak present for the grown-ups of the family. Unemployment and the associated decline in labour income is the main reason behind the inequality surges occurring in Italy during recent years, affecting especially the lower middle classes.
Rafael Muñoz de Bustillo: The impact of the crisis on the middle class in Spain (defined as the population with an income equivalent 80 % to 200 % of the median income) has been double: on one hand there has been a reduction of the size of the middle class, as many have slid down the income ladder to be absorbed by the lower income classes. In relative terms we estimate this reduction at 5%. On the other hand, as a class, after the crisis, the middle class is poorer, as there has been a 4.5 % reduction of the income they command (out of a total income that is already lower as result of the decrease of GDP, 5.8 % lower from 2008 to 2011).
The middle class has also been affected by the huge increase in unemployment related first to the crisis, and then to the austerity measures taken after May 2010 -when the countercyclical Keynesian policy applied until then by the social democratic government (PSOE) was changed to a policy of fiscal consolidation to address the debt crisis- resulting in unemployment reaching 26 % in 2013.
Furthermore, austerity measures had a negative effect on many public services such as health, education or pensions, services that are closely related to middle class aspirations such as a certain standard of health care, university education for the children etc.
Do classical typologies of welfare state regimes (e.g. Esping-Andersen's classification of welfare states as liberal, conservative and social democratic) also explain differences in income inequality among EU countries? Some authors have argued there exists a fourth type of welfare state: the Southern European, shared by Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece. Would you like to comment on this?
Annamaria Simonazzi: The Mediterranean welfare state has been mostly based on the family in order to complement a very unequal provision of services. There had been timid attempts in various countries (and in Italy) to increase the role of the state and extend the coverage of the social services newtork beyond pensions (e.g., long-term care, childcare, poverty assistance), but these have been mostly cancelled by the fiscal crisis.
Rafael Muñoz de Bustillo: Generally there is an inverse relation between the size of the welfare state (social expenditure as a percentage of Gross Domestic Outpout) and income inequality. Spain for example is one of the EU countries with higher income inequality as measured by the Gini Index, as result of the increase in inequality during the crisis. But interestingly, the higher level of inequality is not the result of higher inequality at the market level, i.e. in terms of market income, but results from the small redistribution power of the meager welfare state existing in the country.
As for the existence of a fourth welfare state model, although I think that Mediterranean countries share some elements, like the lower level of social expenditure as a percentage of GDP, I don´t think they conform a “model”. For example, clientelism, supposed to be one of the elements of such model is completely absent in Spain, while in some areas, such as health (or pensions) the Spanish welfare system is perfectly comparable with the systems in place in the Scandinavian countries: universal, fairly efficient, etc. The only difference, again, is the lower percentage of GDP allocated to the services.
Middle classes are defined not only by their income, but also by their aspirations. What is the effect of the generalized sentiment of vulnerability and insecurity among the middle classes today? How is it connected to the rise of populism and nationalism?
Annamaria Simonazzi: The generalized sentiment of vulnerability due to the state of the economy, has certainly contributed to a shift towards populism and a growing sentiment against immigration, though the female migrant carers represent the backbone of the elderly care system, and male immigrants sustain a large part of agriculture and construction. In Italy the anger is directed more towards the political class, expressed in the form of supporting "populist" parties or not voting at all.
Rafael Muñoz de Bustillo: The crisis has gravely affected incomes, but more than that it has affected expectations about the stability of the future, anything could happen, nothing can be taken for granted anymore (not even the unity of the country, as is evidenced by that Catalonian crisis). There is a growing concern regarding the possibility of middle class children to reach middle class status, and regarding the capacity of the State to honor its compromises in terms of pensions, healthcare, etc.
It seems that the so-called “European social model” is under threat everywhere in Europe. Can progressive policies be sustained under the current circumstances? Under what terms?
Annamaria Simonazzi: As far as I know, the Nordic welfare model is still resisting (although with some scars): it is based on a high rate of employment (both male and female) which is indispensable to pay for the public services through taxation, and industrial relations are aimed at easing the transition towards new technologies -what once was called the "high road" to growth with equality. Of course, countries with a lower level of development and sharing a common currency with stronger partners face much greater difficulties in pursuing a road of high employment. The process of fiscal consolidation and high levels of debt severely constrain their options.
Rafael Muñoz de Bustillo: Certainly. They can be sustained as long as the correlation of political forces allows it. It is not a problem of economic sustainability of the model but a problem of having the political strength needed to allocate enough economic resources to make it sustainable in the future. This can be done within an economic area such as the EU, but, again, only if there is a coalition of countries large enough to readdress the type of policies adopted in the past.
* Interview by Ioulia Livaditi
Thanos Dokos (Ph.D., Cambridge) is Director General of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP). He served as the Director for Research, Strategic Studies Division, Hellenic Ministry of National Defence (1996-98) and as an Advisor on NATO issues to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1998-1999). He has taught at the Universities of Athens and Piraeus, the Hellenic National Defense College, the Diplomatic Academy and the Hellenic National Security School.
His research interests include global trends, international security, Greek-Turkish relations & Mediterranean security and his recent publications include: “Greek foreign policy under the Damocles sword of the economic crisis”, Katoptron No. 2, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Athens, April 2015; “Greek foreign policy towards the Middle East”, Welt Trends, May 2015; ‘Would GREXIT be a geopolitical disaster’, Strategic Europe, Carnegie Europe, June 17, 2015; ‘It’s the War in Syria Stupid!’, Europe’s World, September 2015.
Dr Thanos Dokos spoke with Greek News Agenda* about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's visit to Greece, Greek-Turkish relations today and their economic aspect, as well as EU-Turkey relations and Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East:
How would you describe Greek-Turkish relations today?
Greece has moved away from zero-sum game perceptions vis-à-vis Turkey and overall, the two countries are much better off today in terms of bilateral relations (including trade and people-to-people contacts) than they were a few years ago [before 1999 to be more precise]. Having said that, neither country has moved from their firm positions regarding ‘high politics’ issues and Greece and Turkey continue to perceive each other through a Hobbesian prism. Greek policy-makers are moving away from “zero-sum game” perceptions regarding Greek-Turkish relations, but scepticism and distrust continue to linger as Turkey insists on its revisionist policies. During the last few years Turkey has been conducting frequent low level overflights of Greek islets and islands whose sovereignty Ankara started disputing rather recently. Turkey’s political objective is to promote its claims regarding maritime zones in the Aegean. Challenging the sovereignty of inhabited islands is a highly escalatory and potentially destabilising policy of brinkmanship, however.
It seems unlikely that there will be major progress in the near future in fully normalizing bilateral relations. It would be more productive if the two sides explored ideas for confidence-building measures and functional interim solutions regarding overflights, air-space violations and dogfights.
Erdogan has already visited Greece in the past. This will be his first visit as President. In fact he will be the first Turkish president visiting Greece in 65 years. What do you think about the timing of the visit and which are the expected outcomes for both sides?
The visit is taking place at a time of President Erdogan’s choice. It is probably related to Turkey’s difficult relations with the majority of EU countries, as well as the US and the resulting diplomatic isolation. A state visit to Greece would be a good photo opportunity and a successful public relations exercise for the Turkish president, who is eager to show that he is still welcomed in an EU member state, despite the bilateral problems and his authoritarian style of government. For the Greek government the expectation is that this visit and the resulting good will, in combination with Ankara’s many foreign and domestic problems will lead to a period of lower tension between Greece and Turkey and perhaps better cooperation on the migration issue. Boosting economic cooperation is another expectation for the Greek side.
Are we to expect further progress in the field of economic cooperation between Greece and Turkey?
TheTurkish side has put on the table a few potentially interesting proposals for economic cooperation. Boosting economic ties would be important for both sides, as Turkey remains an export destination for Greece whose economy is still struggling with the economic crisis, whereas the Turkish economy has been slowing down after several years of impressive growth rates. Energy is another area of potential cooperation. Already there is a natural gas pipeline linking the two countries and another one, the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), that will carry gas from Azerbaijan to Italy, via Turkey, Greece and Albania, is under construction. The Russian proposal for an extension of the so-called Turkish Stream (another proposed pipeline) through Greece and then to other European destinations will have to overcome the obstacle of difficult political relations between Russia and the West.
You believe that Turkey still wants to join the European Union or that it wishes to establish another kind of relation with the EU?
President Erdogan has made every possible effort to cause tension with major EU countries and alienate Turkey’s Western partners and allies. As a result of undemocratic practices inside Turkey, a number of European policymakers and a majority of the members of the European Parliament have been asking for a formal suspension of Turkey’s accession negotiations. Greece is one of several EU member states believing that such a decision would be counterproductive as it would cause Turkey to drift further away from Western institutions. Turkey’s key role in the management of refugee/migration flows would make such a development rather costly for the EU. It would also be tantamount to ‘abandoning’ those in Turkey (probably 50% of the population) who are against undemocratic practices and support a closer relationship with the EU. Of course, any expectation that Turkey could join the EU in the foreseeable future would be unrealistic. The best both sides could aim for is a better working relationship that would allow more efficient cooperation in areas of common interest (or concern).
What is the Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East?
After decades of very selective engagement with the Middle East, AKP’s Turkey has been trying to increase its presence in the region, using mostly its soft power to increase its regional role and influence. A confrontational attitude towards Israel was intended to serve those objectives. The Arab revolts significantly disrupted Turkey’s Middle Eastern policies. Ankara then tried to play the Sunni card by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in various Arab countries. This policy failed spectacularly in Egypt. Turkish support for the opposition in Syria also didn’t produce the expected results, as the Assad regime proved to be quite resilient. The situation became more complicated because of the emergence of ISIS and the support given to the Syrian Kurds by various powers. Turkey is currently struggling to prevent the emergence of autonomous Kurdish entities and is trying to re-define its relations with regional and global actors in the Middle East.
*Interview by Sotiria Gotsi
Karl-Heinz Lambertz is the President of the European Committee of the Regions (CoR) since July 2017. He has been a CoR member since 2001 and was President of the CoR's PES Group from 2011 until 2015. After a number of functions linked to his academic background in law, he became Member of Parliament of the German-speaking Community in 1981. From 2014 until 2016 he was President of Parliament, before taking post as Senator.
Last November, the European Committee of the Regions in partnership with the other EU institutions organized the 8th European Public Communication Conference (EuroPCom). The event (9-10.11.2017) brought together over 600 public communication professionals, including high-level political representatives, to debate current challenges in both EU and public communication, putting particular emphasis on how to engage citizens in the European project whilst examining the cross-over between communication and engagement.
Karl-Heinz Lambertz spoke to Greek News Agenda* about the need for a new narrative for Europe underlining that delivering results is the best way to communicate EU. He also stresses the importance of cohesion policy as an expression of European solidarity to the unprecedented challenges that the EU has recently faced, such as the economic and migration crisis, indicating that the EU should fulfill its promise of social progression by meeting the real needs of people. He is referring to the EU richness concerning regional diversity and how we can avoid regional nationalism, while he accentuates the need for a strong cohesion policy in the future inviting all interested parties and individuals to join #CohesionAlliance.
In your speech at the 8th EuropCom opening session you referred to the EU “double paradigm shift” describing a situation where citizens feel remote from an EU that does not bring hope. In your opinion, is there any responsibility of the EU for this sentiment? What do you think is the task of politicians and communicators?
The European Union is far too often viewed as something distant in Brussels, that doesn't matter to daily life, when in fact we need to remember that Europe is every region, city, town and village. Whether it is creating jobs, improving transport, delivering public services or spurring innovation, demonstrating what the European Union is and why it matters must begin locally and regionally.
Delivering results is the best way to communicate Europe which is why EU policies and investment must be led by a simple criterion: does it improve the daily lives of citizens? The EU needs to bring hope and fulfill its promise of social progression by meeting the real needs of our communities but this means ensuring decision-making begins from the ground up and regional investment is protected. Politicians and beneficiaries must also take responsibility, contributing to a shared vision of Europe and giving credit to the EU when it brings about positive change.
Everyone working with and in the EU needs to re-think the way we communicate. We need a new narrative of Europe that listens to the aspirations, hopes and worries of citizens and actively responds. It means speaking out when it does improve lives but being honest when it fails. We need to break the communication gap that for too long has existed between Brussels and the citizens it serves through using new technologies, by continual engagement with citizens and talking about Europe locally.
More than 300 regions are embedded in the EU structures, in parallel with national governments. Is there any risk that this regional integration and “localization” may lead to regional nationalism?
By defending the role of local and regional authorities in the EU, the European Committee of the Regions is not calling for a European Union composed of 300 micro-states. The EU is rich in its regional diversity. Often regional and local identities are even older and stronger enrooted than national identities. This is a fact that needs to be reflected in European policymaking. If we want to avoid regional nationalism, we need to make sure that the EU is accepted by its citizens, which is to say that they believe in it as an added value and not as a threat. More autonomy is ideally something that renders regional nationalism redundant. The key is to strongly involve regional and local authorities in the implementation of political strategies. Correctly applying the subsidiarity principle – through for example our Committee's participation in the recently launched EU Subsidiarity Task Force - are means to ensure regions and cities are involved and heard.
Greece in the last few years has experienced both a migrant and an economic crisis. What do you think is the role of cohesion policy in enhancing solidarity among EU citizens?
The European Union has faced unprecedented challenges in recent years and the insufficient response has made too many citizens questions its very purpose. We are starting to see our economy grow, yet in many regions and cities, unemployment remains stubbornly high. The migration crisis may have been stemmed, but it has placed further strain on many local and regional authorities, responsible for the reception and integration of refugees. EU cohesion policy – currently worth one-third of the EU budget – has softened the blow tackling economic and social disparities; supporting investment in training, education, employment, housing and health; and fostering cooperation across borders. In all its dimensions - economic, social and territorial - cohesion policy is an investment in people and the ultimate expression of European solidarity. It needs to be strong, simpler and more visible in Europe's future.
What is the role of the European Committee of the Regions and cohesion policy in EU’s future, especially at a time when social inequalities in Europe have risen?
Given the potential economic implications of Brexit on the next EU budget after 2020 and changing political priorities, cohesion policy is under threat. As the EU's assembly of local and regional governments, our 350 members are united that cohesion policy must continue to be an integral pillar of Europe's future. This is why, together with many other European territorial associations, our Committee launched the #CohesionAlliance – a growing coalition open to anyone who believes cohesion policy must continue to be the same percentage of the EU budget as it is today. It needs to be protected to add to the 5000 km of roads and 1500 km of railways that have been built; to ensure that not just the six million Europeans have access to better drinking water, but every citizen. A Union without cohesion policy is not the Europe we want.
*Interview by Ioulia Elmatzoglou
The sun never shines for Yannis Economides’s film characters. Lumpenproletariats suffocating in small apartments, surrendered to their fate and instincts, unable to reflect on the conditions of their own existence. Economides says he loves them, but why does he put them through extreme situations?
Yannis Economides was born in Limassol Cyprus. In 1987 he moved to Athens to study filmmaking. After making short films and documentaries, he wrote and directed his first feature film, “Matchbox” (2002). His second feature, “Soul Kicking” (2006) and his fourth feature, “Stratos” (2014) premiered at Cannes Film Festival and the 64th Berlin International Film Festival respectively. His third film, “Knifer” (2010), won seven Hellenic Film Academy awards, including Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay. Each of his four films has won the Greek Film Critics Association Award for Best Greek Feature Film. In October 2016 he made his theatre debut at the New Stage of the National Theatre in Athens, directing his own play Sleep, Stella, Sleep. He has appeared as supporting actor in several Greek films as well, including Fatih Akin’s latest film, “In the Fade” (2017). He is currently preparing a new film, “Ballad for a Pierced Heart”.
In his interview with Greek News Agenda*, Yannis Economides explains that putting his characters through extreme situations serves as a means of exposing their inner thoughts, noting that he is interested in the dark areas of human nature, with Greek reality always in focus. He makes clear that he is not interested in analyzing and deconstructing the Greek family as an institution, which serves as a mere canvas in his films. Elaborating on the traits of his distinct cinematic style, he emphasizes his persistence on realistic representation and his loving gaze for all his characters, the good and the bad. Finally, Economides expresses disappointment in that although contemporary Greek Cinema has gained international critical acclaim, it does not have a political impact on Greek society.
Do your heroes represent extreme cases?
I don’t think they are extreme cases; what is extreme is the circumstances I put them through. They represent the average Greek inside out, and what he or she have made of their life and country. I put my characters through extreme situations to shed light on them, to expose through these extreme situations how they think, how they feel and their dark sides, in which I am particularly interested.
How do you build these characters and what are the reasons for their poor judgment and misery?
I build my characters through observing people around me. I’m not interested in the reasons why something happens as much as what comes next. As an artist, I work with the human condition, human nature. The darkness of the human soul has been ever present. There is no reason why. That is how human beings are and jealousy, hatred, arrogance, avarice are archetypical facts of human nature. I try to shed light on the Greek version of all this.
In your films, you work a lot on deconstructing the traditional family institution which is a source of neuroses. What are the maladies of the Greek family that make it a place of oppression?
Actually, for me the Greek family is a pretext. It is the canvas on which I draw my dramatic composition to depict human darkness. I do not make social cinema. My films deal with humans and the depths of their souls. I try to follow a Shakespearean path of characters and dramaturgy. Critics may see different things in my work. The family is what it is. I’m not interested in analyzing the facade of contemporary Greeks. What I am interested in is how people evolve in this environment through what is happening to them.
What about the female characters in your films? Usually, they set the plot in motion, they are as angry as the male characters. How do they function in your films?
It is evident that in my films there is no Virgin Mary or the old fashioned model of the self sacrificing or submissive woman that used to exist some decades ago. They are dynamic in a bad sense and their distinctive feature is that in order to survive in a men’s world, they foster male behavior; that is what happens to women in the Western world. They are aggressive. I’ m not being judgmental. Since women have an equal role in society, at least in Western societies, they have chosen to adopt male behaviour. It’s not my job to examine or evaluate this. I’m interested in what this generates; and its product is violence, which is necessary for life to go on. I don’t judge my female characters. They are trapped and they have to find means of survival from what surrounds them. They will either surrender and die or find a way out. That’s the way things are.
You have developed your own distinct realistic cinematic style, signature dialogues, experimentation with film form; you have developed your film frame from “Matchbox” to “Stratos”. Would you like to elaborate on the traits that distinguish your cinematic expression?
I like the way you put it. What is crucial for me is the accurate representation of reality, the way I understand it. I try to construct a story as it would happen in the real world. I add humour and extraordinary characters in the plot, the signature dialogues you mentioned, but there is always one principle that has to be obeyed: realism. I don’t do films that belong to an unreal sphere, which are not relatable with the audience, no matter the viewer’s social background. There is also one distinctive feature that I am especially proud of and that is the love with which I embrace all my characters. I see my characters in a loving way regardless of whether they are good or bad. I feel for all of them. I don’t examine them as guinea pigs in a cold laboratory, neither am I experimenting on them. I try to recreate what they go through. And maybe that is the reason why the actors liberate themselves and put that extra something that’s engraved on the film.
There are characters in your films, such as the youths in the work place in “Soul Kicking” that are violent, racist and blind as far as their own existence is concerned, and maybe this is where followers of the extreme Right come from.
This is a very accurate observation. In my films, I’d predicted that the wasted energy of these young people is on the verge of finding and fitting into the ideological mold of the extreme Right. They are trapped in a dead end job, all the energy of their youth is going down the drain. They could be working somewhere else and be useful, be happy, but this is not the case. They work where they work, they are unhappy and they have to find a scapegoat for their misery.
What is the role of the city in your films?
In my first films it is decisive. The city causes suffocation at least in my first two films “Matchbox” and “Soul Kicking” in a way that is implied and reflected upon the characters. After the Knifer I have widened my frame bringing small town Greece into the discussion. So yes, the role of the city is decisive. I should make clear that I’m not interested in morality tales. Ever since my first film, I’ve been trying to dive deep inside my characters. I’m not underestimating morality tales, which is a genre with its own difficulties, and I respect immensely the poetic ethnography of Otar Ioseliani, but my work is different.
You have been directing for the second year in a row at the New Stage of the National Theatre in Athens your own play Sleep, Stella, Sleep. Was the transition from cinematic to theatre conventions difficult?
It was a great experience for me. It was the first time I worked in theatre, I was lucky enough to work with an amazing group of actors and I was offered freedom of expression. Theatre is much more direct. It’s liberating that you don’t have to go through the ordeal of finding funding. It’s much easier to stage a play for the theatre.
You mentioned the difficulties of funding. Has the fact that you are an established film director made it easier for you to find access to funding?
Things remain the same, both in Greece and abroad. Making a film has never been easy. On the whole, things get harder every year, not only in Greece but in Europe as well. It’s difficult to find funding, especially for a Greek film, with Greek actors, shot in Greece and according to some standards.
You are a pioneer within a generation of directors that critics have described as the renaissance of Greek cinema, a cinema that is subversive and has brought Greek cinema into international focus.
So what? Greek cinema has no impact in Greek society. Greek films do not constitute a social and political fact for Greeks, as used to be the case with Angelopoulos’ and Voulgaris’ films in the 70’s. Their films were discussed by students, movements and the audience. In the 70’s, cinema was something that concerned Greek society, it wasn’t something outside it. Contemporary Greeks don’t give a damn about Greek cinema. It’s not the same for Greek theatre, which has its public and is revered by Greeks. And it’s not the audience’s fault. It’s the filmmakers fault. They have not managed to engage the audience and gain its trust and respect. The audience is lost in its own problems and struggles.
I don’t know what kind of stories contemporary filmmakers want to tell. I don’t know if they are only interested in international film festivals. For instance, why do the majority of Greek films have an English title? This doesn’t happen with other countries. It’s OK to find an English title when your film goes to a festival abroad, but why make a Greek film, in the Greek language, with an English title? Would acclaimed playwrights as Dimitris Kechaidis or Giorgos Dialegmenos give an English title to his plays? Once in a while there is a point in using an English title, as is the case with Vassilis Katsikonouris’ “Arizona Dream”, but it shouldn’t become the rule. Authenticity is needed if Greek society is to be shaken and moved. Thus to be honest, I don’t see any point in winning awards at Festivals. The issue for me is for films to have an impact on the community, in real life. Now is the time for artists to make their point; if not now, when then?
Watch "Stratos" trailer:
* Interview by Florentia Kiortsi
Pierre Rosanvallon, who holds the chair in modern and contemporary political history at the Collège de France, was invited by the French Institute in Greece to deliver a lecture on the challenges faced by democracy in the 21st century. He spoke to our sister publication Grèce Hebdo* on the democratic disenchantment in Europe and the rest of West, the mutations of modern democracy in a globalised economy and the challenges faced by the traditional political system due to emerging new demands.
Some analysts state that market fundamentalism inevitably creates a gap between election promises and government policies, thus discrediting political forces on both ends of the political spectrum. Is this situation unavoidable, in your opinion?
No, I think it should be considered within a historical context for democracy. Democracy was established on the idea that the electorate has the right to appoint legitimate, representative governments who prioritise the common good, since the general will is expressed through elections. We see however that elections are not successful in advancing legitimacy, representation and the public interest. Other mechanisms are thus needed; and I think we find ourselves at a moment, a threshold of a second democratic revolution. The first democratic revolution was that of universal suffrage, and the second democratic revolution should mark an expansion, a multiplication of the forms of representation (society cannot be simply represented by a delegate) of the means of promoting the common interest -given that the common interest is more than the will of the majority party- and also an increase of legitimacy, since democracy must be confirmed in a permanent way, while elections are intermittent. Thus, everywhere in the world we witness a democratic disenchantment, which has its roots specifically in the realisation that election promises cannot be entirely fulfilled.
You note that “democracy is the people’s watchful eye”. What exactly is the meaning of this phrase?
First of all, this is a historical observation. Take the French Revolution: the foremost symbol of the revolution is an eye; it is the eye, because the people henceforth keep their eyes open constantly, even as they speak intermittently. It has often been said that democracy is the voice of the people; I believe that, since the beginning, democracy has probably proved itself to be the people’s eye as well – that means it doesn’t only relate to decision-making but also with monitoring, which is continuous. So the concept of the people monitoring deputies and the administration to ensure the provision of the common good is a concept of crucial importance. This means that, in order to have a functional democratic regime, we need a functional civil society, democratic media, a whole social fabric which allows the people’s eye to serve its purpose.
We have recently witnessed in France the triumph of nonpartisan candidates (Macron, Mélenchon, just to name a few). Are political parties no longer qualified to acquire political power?
It is obvious that political parties are facing a crisis, and this crisis has primarily social roots. It is important to keep in mind that throughout history political parties have represented social groups such as labourers and the self-employed, the middle class, farmers and ideologies – for example, Christian democratic parties have been of great significance in Europe. Social stratification has now become less conspicuous, causing the loss of party roots anchoring them to society. But there is also a second reason, namely that parties conform to what could be called “demand-based politics”. The function of parties is to serve as mediators between society and the political system, yet nowadays we see that politics are being restructured as “supply-based politics”: It is individuals that offer a specific “political supply” to the people, and this transition from demand-based politics to supply-based politics has, I believe, primarily social origins and possibly also stems from some weariness of party structures, considering that political parties have been in power too long and there are expectations for renewal. This renewal is affected through individuals responding to a very simple need; it is through personal embodiment that a sense of responsibility can be achieved. A party is, in its way, irresponsible, because it is a group, while an individual can be held directly responsible. Hence, there is a demand for accountability, and partisan parliamentary democracy did not adequately respond to this need. So, if we have transitioned to supply-based politics, it’s because we have progressed to a brand of politics passing from the legislative to the executive, and the executive is much more embodied while, by definition, the legislative branch is composite; the assembly bears no responsibility. I think that this transitioning from demand-based politics to supply-based politics should be conceived as a mutation of democracy instead of something circumstantial. Because even in the countries where political parties keep their power -such as Great Britain or Germany- the party leaders are the ones who make all the decisions. It can be said that parties no longer constitute democratic organisations, where the base is responsible for planning.
And what is the relation of economic globalisation and market fundamentalism with the democratic process?
Market fundamentalism plays a very important role because it globalises issues and, in doing so, creates a chasm between economic sovereignty, which is global, and political sovereignty, which is local. Thus, market expansion -because it is not simply a matter of market power but of expansion- leads to forms of political and democratic regulations beyond (the borders of) national democratic republics. And this poses a great challenge nowadays because, paradoxically, political systems now tend to fall back on a principle of homogeneity. There are many instances of inequality and we think that the answer to that is a populist ideal. The populist ideal promotes national homogeneityas an answer to rising inequality, and so we seek to once again put forward the notion of nationality while on the contrary we should now more than ever embrace internationalism. We can see clearly now, with the “Paradise Papers”, that if there is no action in the form of an international democratic economy then the market wins, because it works on a larger scale.
What can we learn from the recent Greek experience?
I believe there is a lesson to be learned from Greece, something which was expressed more aggressively there but is also relevant to other countries as well. It is the fact that countries throughout the West tried to solve their social issues by swelling their debt. In doing that, all they did was buy time, as Streeck, a famous German sociologist, put it. What we have here is a kind of democratic defect: a democratic system should be able to make concessions, to make choices, and creating an unsustainable debt is a means of avoiding concessions and choices. And I believe that Greece is an archetypical example of this -which is also true for the other countries to a less dramatic extent- and that the situation in Greece is just the grimmest illustration of a general phenomenon in modern democratic societies.
*Interview by Costas Mavroidis. Translation by Nefeli Mosaidi.
Born in Athens, Dimitris Athanitis studied cinema and architecture. Member of the European and Greek Film Academy, he has directed seven feature and three short films. His last film “Invisible” (2016) won 14 awards and screened at more than 35 film festivals. His debut film “Addio Berlin” (1994) won Jury’s Prize and Critics Mention at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival (TIFF) for its innovative style, while his second feature “No Sympathy for the Devil” (1997) was nominated for Best Feature Film and won the Best Actress Awardat TIFF. “2000+1 Shots” (2000) was placed by Australian film critic B. Mousoulis among the 10 best films of the year for the Senses of Cinema film journal. His 2012 film “Three Days Happiness” won 4 awards and showed at more than 20 festivals.
Greek News Agenda interviewed* Dimitris Athanitis in connection to his film “Invisible”, a tough urban western focusing on the unequal battle fought by 35year-old factory worker Aris against injustice after being fired without notice. Shocked and unable to react rationally, Aris decides to take justice into his own hands, when his ex-wife appears unexpectedly leaving their 6 year-old son with him. Athanitis explains how he has woven a dense narrative on clearly cinematic terms which follows the protagonist’s gradual loss of contact with reality. He underlines that he is interested in exploring his characters’ desires and thoughts, going under the surface, beyond conventional distinctions between “good’ and “bad” and that his films always include social criticism, despite appearances to the contrary.
Christos Benetsis, Yannis Stankoglou, "Invisible" (2016)
Asked why he chose Aspropyrgos, an industrial area on the outskirts of Athens, as setting, Athanitis replies that it is an area that fits into the notion of invisibility around which the film revolves, in the sense that it has lost its place in society, as is the case with the central character, as well as his son who is being ignored by both parents. Finally, Athanitis invites the reader to a view of his personal journey in filmmaking through twenty five different encounters, from the 80’s to the present, as laid out in his book “Secret encounters”.
“Invisible” is an innovative combination of genres, combining social drama with noir and western elements and an enigmatic, open ended plot. How do you think these elements contribute to the narration?
“Invisible” is in a way innovative in combining elements from different cinematic genres but it is mainly the ending of the film that brings something really new. Ιn this long, almost endless sequence, there are three plot twists which strike hard at the audience. The viewer feels lost with all the twists and turns and has to think to put the pieces together. The decisive factor is that “Invisible” combines reality with elements of fantasy. The film begins describing Aris’s cruel reality and step by step lays out what goes on inside his mind. This is the key to also understanding the ending.
Christos Benetsis, "Invisible" (2016)
On the other hand, it is important to observe that underneath the simple surface lies a narrative condensed, enriched with two and three stories running at the same time. Although Aris is always kept in frame, we can also follow his kid’s story, which is as important and complicated as his own. We also observe in an abstract way, as described through cinematic language, the complicated existence and relations of other characters around Aris.
There is underlying social criticism in your work. Would you like to elaborate?
In my films I am interested in scratching well under the surface. I want to go beyond the characters’ social façade, to see what they really want, what they think, far beyond the artificial distinction between “good” and “bad”. Finally, my films make a strong social comment despite appearances to the contrary. The plot of my first short film “Philosophy” - shot in 1993 when the war in Sarajevo had just begun – deals with the expansion of war in the Balkans, the collapse the Greek economy and the declaration of bankruptcy by the President, leaving philosophy as the only possibility left that’s cost free. The film won the Best Fantasy Film Award at the Drama Film Festival. A few years later, the film proved to be prophetic.
The city is a protagonist in your films. Why did you choose Aspropyrgos as a background in “Invisible”?
My six previous films were shot in central Athens and they focused on city life. Aspropyrgos however is not really that far away; it is just a decadent industrial area on the city’s outskirts and I felt that it was the right setting for my story. Moreover, although this area is so close to the city, it remains invisible to the people, as Aris remains invisible for his employer and as the kid feels invisible in the world of the adults.
How do film makers deal with the economic crisis? Are they intimidated by it?
The crisis has proven to be productive in a way. It gave more space for creativity and made clear how urgent it is to make films. So, I am optimistic.
Would you like to tell us a few things about your book “Secret Encounters”? What do these encounters offer the reader?
“Secret Encounters” relates to my encounters with some extraordinary people in the course of my cinematic journey all these years. There are stars like Ben Gazzara and directors like Chabrol or Kakoyannis, writers, singers, fictional characters, chess players and even some unknown persons. There is a challenging mixture of characters and at the same time my own personal voyage in filmmaking through twenty five different encounters from the 80’s to the present. This book is an expedition involving people, places and times and constitutes an anthology of extraordinary people and a personal mythology at the same time.
What are your future plans?
The only I can say is that a female character will be at the centre of my next film, which will be in black and white, and it shall be shot far from Athens.
* Interview by Florentia Kiortsi
Read also: Film review by Elie Castiel, Sequences, Montreal (in French)