Greece’s Stand on National Minorities
Updated: Aug 11, 2018
by Eqerem Mete
In early 2001, the EU is expected to send a committee to discuss a cooperation agreement with Albania. Greece’s Foreign Ministry General Secretary on a recent visit to Tirana told the Albanian Prime Minister that “Tirana had to review its legislation on minorities if it wanted to get closer to the European Union,” whereas the Albanian prime minister expressed his conviction that “Albania will compile and apply an advanced legislation, one of the most progressive in Southeastern Europe.”
The EU initiative to teach the Albanian authorities how to behave themselves towards the so-called 35 to 40 thousand-strong Greek minority, the ultimatum of the envoy of the Greek Prime Minister and the statement of the Albanian Prime Minister seem to imply that there are serious defects in the Albanian legislation on national minorities. To clear up this issue, to see where they stand and for the sake of arguments, the relevant Albanian authorities are in duty bound to study the legislation and practice of other countries including Greece, as well as those of other countries who pose as the most advanced in this regard.
Are there more advanced legislation and more absurd practice in other countries than what is observed in our country as concerns national minorities? In stead of pupils going where the school is, in Albania [Greek] schools follow the children of the Greek diaspora wherever they are, despite their numbers, even though these numbers are in flagrant violation of the law.
For their part, the Greek authorities have not deigned so far to give official permission to open even a single elementary school for the children of hundreds of thousands of Albanian immigrants. It never occurs to Greece to take such an official step that would have even the remotest semblance of recognition to the rights of a national element, who is not and does not call itself Greek. In the Greek opinion, such a step would be a dangerous precedent that would undermine the theories about the so-called homogeneity of the Greek state and whet the appetite of the national minorities for education in their own mother tongues. This step would also lead to increased pressure at home and abroad on Greece. It would also nullify the endeavors of the Greek authorities over many decades to assimilate the Albanians, those who are native to the land and those who have immigrated during the centuries to Greece. The attempts to change the nationality of the recent Albanian immigrants through schooling in Greek and with the help of the Greek Orthodox churches by changing their religion, and the dictate of the Greek authorities by exploiting their presence in Greece to the Albanian state would be ever less ineffectual.
Such a domestic policy of the Greek state has a powerful impact on its foreign policy towards its neighbors despite its European patchwork and ornaments. In stead of reciprocity towards Albania at least for the sake of the position of the present-day Albanian government, Greece has increased the intensity and range of its pressure.
Greece has not given up its territorial claims on Albania. To avoid such an accusation and to keep up the pressure, the Greek government lets the so-called ultra nationalistic circles raise territorial claims, whereas for the moment in its official capacity, it covers them up with the slogan about respect for human rights and democratic rules.
At high level official meetings between the two sides, the Greek side makes ultimatum-like demands, which signify the imposition of a master-apprentice relationship. At the Greek parliament debates are held on “growing Albanian nationalism, increasing disruptive role of Albanian armed groups in Kosova, Macedonia and southern Serbia” though the struggle of the Albanians against aggressive Serbian nationalism has been supported by the entire democratic world, with the exception of the Greeks. One thing is more than clear in this context. The closer the Kosova issue edges to a settlement, the greater their irritation and emphasis on the absurd parallel they draw to this issue.
Greek Eurodeputies, of the New Democracy and PASSOK, demand that the macro-financial aid to Albania be stopped and that the latter denied the right to start negotiations on signing an association and stability agreement with the European Union. Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou has also mounted the stage. He has written to European Commissioner for External Relations Chris Patten making an issue of “the lack of respect for the rights of ‘the Greek minority.’”
Though the two countries have signed a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, the Law of the State of War with Albania is still in force. Greece has abrogated such a law with Italy despite the stark truth that it was fascist Italy and not Albania, which committed aggression against it in 1940. The property of the Albanians in Greece have been frozen on the pretext of such an absurd law, while as to the property of the Albanian population, massacred and compelled at gunpoint to flee Chameria, most absurd arguments are put forward not to return it to its legal owners.
In view of such Greek policies and activity against Albania, one might as well say that Greece is still living in the past. To live in the present, it should abide by the old Chinese wise saying: “To know others is knowledge, to know yourself is enlightenment.” It is precisely the latter that our neighbors have missed.
It is against this backdrop of Greek political activity against Albania that the present Albanian government approaches relations with its southern neighbor in the context of “the strategic partnership between the two parties, two governments and two countries” hoping that the road to Europe will pass through Athens the same as in the past when the road to Moscow passed through Belgrade.
With the exception of those who have their hands and feet bound, nobody in their right mind can fail to see through what the Greek side is aiming at.
To return to the topic of the beginning about national minorities, I would say that people would be really curious to learn what Greek authorities have to say about this issue. The following material based on Greek and European Community sources, published in an abbreviated form in the Albanian-American newspaper Illyria (New York, the USA), can shed some light on the experience of the Hellenic state in this direction.
The July 23, 1999 appeal to the Speaker of the Greek Parliament and the Party leaders on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the restoration of democracy in Greece reminded me of a document entitled Report on the Albanians of Greece a group of researchers of the European Community compiled in 1987.
The appeal, signed by all three Turkish minority deputies, seven Turkish and three Macedonian minority organizations, as well as three human rights non-governmental organizations, including Greek Helsinki Monitor and Minority Rights Group – Greece, emphasizes that the Republic of Greece has an important weakness: it does not recognize the existence of national minorities on its territory.
The undersigned call upon the Greek state to recognize the existence of Macedonian and Turkish minorities, to ratify the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities of the Council of Europe without any conditions for its implementation and to implement the principles of the Convention, as well as of the related OSCE documents, so that all forms of discrimination or persecution against members of these minorities cease and their rights be respected.
It is true that the Greek authorities, who have always been playing the ostrich, and the Greek public, which has been duly indoctrinated for decades on end, refuse in no uncertain terms the existence of national minorities on Greek territory. The principle that the Greeks have always stuck to runs as follows: “Those who live in Greece are Greeks. All those who are not Greeks should quit”. That is the prevailing frame of mind in Greece, a member of the United Nations, the European Union, NATO, OSCE, and other international organizations. It does not cross their Greek mind that if the neighboring countries had applied the same principle, there would have been no Greeks outside the borders of the Greek state.
Let us cite in brief the responses of some Greek authorities to the appeal according to Greek sources:
The Speaker of the Parliament, Apostolos Kaklamanis: “In Greece there is no Turkish or Macedonian minority. There is a Muslim religious minority. Whatever constructs, especially at this moment, serve other purposes and will be handled in the appropriate way.” The minister for the Press Dimitris Reppas: “Unhistorical and unrealistic constructs will fall by the wayside.” The Greek foreign minister Papanadreou: “Greece, in a difficult region, is carrying out an exemplary policy in the area of minorities…” Whereas the former Minister of Macedonia and Thrace Stelios Papathemelis declared: “I should tell them in their language “Ai sihtir” (Screw off!). The KKE leader added another version to the motivation of the appeal. He said: “We believe that the issuing of such a statement is less related to the anniversary of the restoration of democracy than with whichever dialogue is being carried out between Greece and Turkey… it gives the United States of America the opportunity to impose their conditions on this dialogue. The perpetrators of this action can be found not only in Greece.” While the newspaper Eleftherotypia ran an article by Professor Nicholas Stavrou, a Greek-American, on the US being behind the travails of the Balkans. Mr. Stavrou writes that “Ankara and its patrons in Washington with the support of the human rights industry in the US and its affiliates in Greece are behind the appeal…” This statement, which shifts the blame onto the United States, bears resemblance to what the Speaker of the Greek parliament Apostolos Kaklamanis has said about the NATO air strikes against Serbia. “The US-led attacks revert ‘Europe back to Cold War Times,’ he has declared. ‘We must stop being prey to a power [read USA] that does not want to see Europe stand on its own.’”
What draws one’s attention in particular is the striking similarity of the responses of the Greek authorities and of representatives of the political parties to the appeal and the statements contained in the Report on the Albanians of Greece. The conclusion that can be drawn from the content of the appeal is that the policies of the Greek authorities on the issue at present are the same as they were in 1987, when the above-mentioned report, a summary of which follows, was compiled.
REPORT ON THE ALBANIANS OF GREECE
by the Commission of the European Community
A group of researchers of the European Community visited Greece from the 4th to the 10th of October 1987 to study the existence of the Albanian element and the preservation of its ethnicity and language.
The trip was organized by the “European Bureau” to study the lesser-used languages, observed by the Commission of the European Community.
Composition of the Group:
Antonio Belushi Italy
Ricardo Alvares Spain
E. Angel France
Kolom Anget Spain
Havier Boski Spain
Onom Falkona Holland
Volfgang Jeniges Belgium
Robert Marti France
Stefan Moal France
Kol O’Cinseala Ireland
Joseph San Sokasao Spain
Object of the trip: Research in 300 Albanian communities in Greece.
To help European representatives on their visit to get in touch with the Albanian people in Greece, who are currently speaking Albanian, which is not taught in Greek schools.
To assess the reaction of various parties and other institutions to the issue of protection of linguistic minorities existing in Greece, which are not recognized at present even below a minimum criterion as is the case with the Albanians, etc.
Views of the main parties:
The “New Democracy” Party:
We talked with Michael Papakonstantinu, Efstakios Paguhos, Nikola Martis, Joanis Vulfefis and Kaeti Papannastasion. Here are some of their answers:
“There is no problem of Albanian language in Greece. If we put linguistic problems on the table, we would create very great problems for the Greek state. If the Albanian language is spoken, it is spoken only in families. No opinion can be fully expressed on this issue. There has never been room for the Albanians in our problems. Your mission is very delicate. Do not complicate things. Watch out! Minority issues will lead to war in Europe. We can in no way help at these moments. Likewise, we do not want to give the impression of Albanian presence in Greece. This problem does not exist for us.”
The “PASOK” Party:
Questions were addressed to Dr. Jorgos Sklavunas and Manolis Azimakis. Their answers:“We do not deem it necessary for the Albanian and other minorities to learn their mother tongues because the language they speak is not a language. There are no Albanian territories in Greece. There are only Greek territories where Albanian may also be spoken. He who does not speak our language does not belong to our race and our country.”
The Ministry of Culture:
Having listened to the questions, Doc. Athina Sipirianti said:
“To solve a problem, you have always to set up a commission. We do not have the possibility of dealing with the problem you are raising. Your experience will be necessary for what we shall do in the future. Your visit is a great stimulus to us.”
The Pedagogical Department:
Dr. Trinnidafilotis’ answer was very cold:
“There is no teaching of Albanian. What you are saying is a political rather than a cultural problem. I have nothing else to add.”
The Commission of the Independent Magazine Anti:
“Borders between states are not fair. This interest in minorities in Greece can hide interests of domination by other states. Linguistic minorities, namely, the Albanian minority, have no right whatsoever. In Greece, there are only Greeks.”
The above statements and the appeal to the Speaker of the Greek Parliament and the party leaders are clear evidence of the presence of Albanians, Turks and Macedonian Slavs in Greece, who still speak their mother tongues. According to research done by scholars, there are about 700 Albanian villages in Greece, whose Albanian ethnicity the Greeks deny. It is a well-known fact that national minority members in Greece have all been subject to intense, organized assimilation, which the Greeks, while ignoring their distinct ethnicity, justify by pointing to their Orthodox religion, as though religion were the criterion to determine one’s nationality. However, there are also Greeks who contradict the absurd claims of the Greek authorities. In a study on the subject, Professor of International Law and current Vice-President of the European Court of Human Rights, Christos Rozakis, acknowledges the ethnic character of minorities in Greece.
In view of Greek domestic policies on national minorities, it is regrettable to observe that an EU member like Greece has so far failed to be a role model for the other Balkan countries, that its example in this area adds to the Balkans’ already tarnished image as a result of Serbia’s policies, that though a NATO member, despite the government’s ‘efforts’ to keep a so-called balance, Greece opposed NATO’s air war against Serbia under the threadbare pretext of its religious and traditional historical ties with the Serbs and tacitly supported Milosevic’s policy of genocide and ethnic cleansing in Kosova. In this campaign of solidarity with Milosevic when the NATO bombing began, even Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens hastened to join Patriarch Alexii of Moscow, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, to call for support for Serbia.
It is also a pity that nothing has so far changed in Greece’s nationalistic and theocratic policies since the 1944-1945 period when the Greeks were the first in southeastern Europe after World War II to perpetrate genocide. They massacred and ethnically cleansed Albanians from Chamouria, an Albanian-inhabited region in the northwest of today’s Greek state.
It stands to reason that their religious brethren, the Serbs, would naturally draw on the Greek experience of the ethnic cleansing of Albanians and extensively use it against the Kosova Albanians in the year 1999.
The way the Greeks respond to the national minority issue signifies the existence of a strong, unhealthy nationalistic trend, raised to state policy level, which runs counter to the general tendency in the other countries of the European Union. The official 1951 census in Greece indicated that ethnic minorities in the country constituted 2.6 to 3.8 per cent of the total population. Just as in the case of other non-Greeks, the number of Albanians, too had radically been reduced in the census. According to other sources, there were at least as many as 350,000 Albanians at that time. Slavic speakers in Greece today number up to 300,000 though the majority of them had to flee during and after World War and the Civil War. Facts are stubborn. Nevertheless, these figures that have been drastically reduced, have always been suppressed whenever they have been brought up. Worth mentioning are also the following facts, symptomatic of Greek intolerance in the area of national minorities: A few years ago, death threats against Anastasia Karakasidou, a Guggenheim Fellowship scholar at Harvard University, first came from the Greek community in the United States and then in Greece because she had described the presence of a Slavic speaking Macedonian community in Greece in her book “Fields of Wheat, Hills of Shrubs…” Almost at the same time, Christos Sideropulos, leader of “the Human Rights movement in Macedonia” faced trial on charges of “spreading false information that might cause disturbance in the international relations of Greece.” His guilt had been a statement to the effect that the ethnic Macedonians faced curbs on their language and culture by a state, which denies their existence.
Though there is no denying the fact that Greece is a full-fledged member of the European Union, its behavior, past and present, which has little to do with Western values, is helping an increasing number of people realize that the country is a far cry from the rest of the EU members as far as mentality, culture, as well as religious and national tolerance are concerned. Greece is also distinct from the other EU member countries as far as its domestic legislation is concerned. For instance, citizenship, ethnicity and religion are deliberately confused in Greece. The Greek Constitution outlaws proselytism. There are also provisions, especially Article 20 of the Greek Citizenship Law in Greece, under which sanctions, prison terms and denial of Greek citizenship are imposed on religious minority members, accused of involvement in so-called activities against Hellenism. Irrespective of the fact that Greece has repealed Article 19 of the Greek Citizenship Law under international pressure, which entitled the government to deprive those regarded as allogenes [Greece’s natives of non-Greek origin] of Greek citizenship, it has not made the Article retroactive in order to restore citizenship to those who have unjustly lost it.
Financial Times quotes Takis Michas, social affairs specialist at the Athens daily Eleftherotypia, as saying: “Greece is an inward-looking society. Orthodox values reinforce that mentality. Orthodoxy sees the West as a threat, a place where conspiracies are hatched against it,” a mind frame of both Greeks and Serbs, which draws its source from the ancient split between western and eastern Christendom. Whereas British historian Norman Davies writes in his book “Europe A History”: “From the time of the Crusades, the Orthodox looked on the west as the source of subjugation worse than the infidel.” This mindset is made manifest in the United States, too. According to recent news reports, Archbishop Spyridon, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church in the United States, who has spent most of his life in Europe, has been accused of trying to keep the church inaccessible to members who feel more American than Greek. Spyridon, who is the first American-born leader of the Greek Orthodox church in this country, says he works to protect the church’s Byzantine traditions, proving to be one of those Greeks who are still living in the Byzantine empire. As Jeane Carthner of the newspaper Liberacion points out: “A few years ago, the Greeks were enemies of the Albanians, Macedonians and Bulgarians. They are constant enemies of the Turks, while now they have become enemies of the Americans, the British, the French, the Germans and the rest of the world.” “The West is full of enemies,” the president of Greece, Costis Stephanopolous, has been quoted as saying. Scholars consider such statements “a reminder of emotions that are deeply felt in the eastern Balkans. The common link is the Orthodox religious tradition. It is a tie that cements the alliance with Serbia …” Such a mentality that has been conducive to national and religious bigotry has prompted analysts to draw the logical conclusion that Greek presence in the EU and NATO, etc. is an anomaly and a paradox. Greece continues to be an awkward partner or indeed a black sheep in the European Union even today. Time and again, it creates false problems for Europe with its whimsical behavior towards its neighbors. This conclusion is not a thing of the past, of the early 1990s, as another Greek, Loukas Tsoukalis, of the European Institute of the London School of Economics, says.
Such being the case, it is wrong, at least in the foreseeable future, to regard Greece as the bridge that will link the neighboring countries to Europe. This EU member country, which regards every criticism of its handling of domestic affairs, the minority and religious issues in particular, as a West-inspired, hostile step to destabilize the country, cannot play such a role unless it improves its image, which is still low by European standards, and gives up sowing the seeds of religious and national intolerance.
Far from trying to find the culprit abroad, Greece should mend its ways at home.
* The article was published in the Albanian newspaper “Albania” in December 2000
** The article writer was political director for the Balkans and the Middle East in the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Albania from 1992 to 1996