News from Greece and Cyprus

John Phillips gives us his monthly round up of all the news from Greece and Cyprus.

January 2020

A relatively quiet couple of months with Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ new centre-right government busy passing new laws getting unpopular legislation on the statute book well before the next election. A rite of passage for any incoming Greek Prime Minister has been an act of aggression by Turkey to test his mettle.  This has usually taken the form of air incursions or invasion of small uninhabited islands like such Imia in 1997.  These incidents usually follow a time-honoured pattern: a provocative Turkish act, diplomatic sabre-rattling, both armies being put on alert, diplomatic expulsions followed by the USA and NATO carrying the delicate negotiations to restore peace with neither Greece nor Turkey losing face.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis has now, of course, been subjected to his baptism of Turkish fire.  Back in November, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a controversial agreement on maritime boundaries in the Mediterranean with Libya. In return for military help, Libya has signed a memorandum of understanding with Libya to extend Turkey’s drilling rights – a move that has infuriated other countries including Greece and Cyprus.  Now, based on this “private” agreement”, Erdogan is publicly claiming that there is no continental shelf around any of the Greek islands including Crete.

The USA and the EU, in particular France, have backed Greece’s position that the memorandum violates the UN Law of the Sea Convention. Prime Minister Mitsotakis has expressed his intention to veto any solution on the Libya crisis at the EU Council of Foreign Ministers if the Libya-Turkey maritime border deal is not scrapped. Meanwhile the daily sorties of Turkish F-16 fighter planes over Greek territory, cyberattacks from Turkey and harassment of Greek fishermen near the Isle of Imia continue unabated.

Greece’s first Female President

If the deterioration of Greece’s relations with Turkey was not unexpected, the decision by Prime Minister Mitsotakis to propose a female candidate for the Presidency of the Hellenic Republic was unforeseen and sent shock waves through the male-dominated Greek political system and society.

Although the Greek Constitution of 1974 vested the presidency with considerable powers on paper, in practice, the Greek President’s role is a largely ceremonial. The President is the nominal commander-in-chief of the Greek Armed Forces and occupies the first place in the country’s order of precedence. The President is elected for a five-year term by the Greek Parliament at least a month before the incumbent President’s term expires. Normally the President of Greece is a former Greek politician but occasionally a non-politician is elected.

Prime Minister Mitsotakis was widely criticized by the national and international press when he included just five women in his 51-member government last July.  Now the prime minister has made amends by proposing Katerina Sakellaropoulou (Κατερίνα Σακελλαροπούλου) as the first female President of the Hellenic Republic. Her rise through the Greek judiciary has been meteoric.  Her sensitivity to civil liberties, ecological issues and minority and refugee’s rights, prompted the SYRIZA administrations to fast-track her though judicial posts and she became the first female President of the Council of State, Greece’s top administrative court in 2018. Now Mitsotakis’ endorsement of her sends out a clear signal that things are changing in Greece regarding gender equality.

Earlier today (22/01/20), the Greek parliament formally voted for Katerina Sakellaropoulou to become Greece’s next President. Her nomination was supported by 261 MPs from ruling New Democracy, SYRIZA and the centre-left KINAL parties in the 300 seat Greek parliament. She will serve 5 years as President starting on March 13th when incumbent President Prokopis Pavlopoulos’ term comes to an end.

Sakellaropoulou was born in Thessaloniki in 1956, her family comes from Stavroupoli, Xanthi. She is not associated with any political party or viewpoint. She has a proven ability to work through conflicting views during her many years in judicial posts and her election as President-elect may help improve the image of justice and enhance its prestige. Her appointment has been widely welcomed by Greek politicians and populace alike.

Other News

The Olympic Cup

The extraordinary story of an ancient wine cup, bwhich was awarded to the winner of the marathonrace in first modern Olympics before being smuggled out of Greece by a notorious Nazi has been brought to light after its return to Athens. The 6th century BCE pottery wine cup was awarded to Spyros Louis, a Greek water carrier, when he unexpectedly won the inaugural Olympic marathon in 1896. After Louis was handed the pottery, it disappeared. In 2012, Georgios Kivvadias, director of the vase collections at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens was asked to investigate what had happened to it. What followed were two years of detective work before the archaeologist eventually found the vessel and secured its return to Greece.

After Louis was handed the pottery, it vanished until 1934 when it re-appeared in the hands of Werner Peek, a German archaeologist who had amassed a collection of antiquities during the thirties. He probably bought it on the art market in Athens. Peek, an ardent Nazi sympathiser later confessed to handing his entire 68-strong antique collection to Hermann Göring, who arranged for it to be smuggled out Greece to Germany for him.   After the war he lived in East Germany teaching Classics. He moved to West Germany in the late 1980s and sold his collection to the University of Münster, which acquired it without knowing the exact origins of the pieces.  On discovering the cup’s provenance, the university graciously agreed to its return to Athens

The vessel is currently on display in the National Archaeological Museum. It will remain in Athensuntil it can be exhibited at a museum chronicling the history of the Olympics in ancient Olympia, the birthplace and venue of the original games.

Spyros Louis’ 6th Century BCE Pottery Wine Cup

Farming

If you look on Google Earth at the area around krokos (Κρόκος) near Kozani (Κοζάνη) in northern Greece, you will find the village surrounded by small pink squares.  This is not a secret military base pixelated out by Google; the pink squares are crocus fields and the crop is saffron.  Saffron, a spice so expensive that’s it’s called “red gold”, has brought jobs and money to a region better known for coal mines and unemployment.

Greeks have been cultivating red saffron for three centuries in the countryside surrounding Krokos, which takes its name from Crocus, the saffron flower. Alexander the Great is said to have used it to heal battle wounds. Until the year 2000, Greek production was limited to 30kg a year for domestic consumption only. All that changed in 2008, when the economic crisis hit Greece; young Greeks with university degrees but no work returned to their family homes in the countryside to make a living off the land.  In Krokos, this meant working in the fields crocus farming.

Saffron grows only in this region of Greece. Marketed as Krokos Kozanis and sold through a village cooperative, 1g of saffron costs about 4€ in Greek shops. It may sound expensive but it takes 150,000 hand-picked flowers to make one kilo of the spice, which sells for about 1,500€. Nowadays Greece produces about four tons a year of red saffron which 70% goes abroad. It is harvested between late October and early November. Saffron harvesting is hard back-breaking work but relatively well paid at this time of the year when little other work can be found.

Over the last ten years, the Krokos saffron cooperative has doubled its members from 494 to over a thousand whilst increasing its land from 592 acres in 2008 to 1,349 acres. These days, three or even four generations of a family join in the crocus flower harvesting before removing the saffron strands from the flowers to dry them.  The elderly, often-uneducated, grandparents need to teach their university-educated offspring the practical skills required to grow the saffron. In return, the younger generation with their knowledge of marketing, business and export markets contribute their own expertise to the family farm by making saffron farming a successful business.

Stevia

Another Greek farming success born out of the economic crisis is stevia. Stevia is a sweetener and sugar substitute derived from the leaves of the plant species Stevia rebaudiana. The use of stevia sweeteners as replacements for sugar is claimed to benefit people with diabetes, children, and those wishing to lower their intake of calories. Although the stevia plant has a centuries-long history, it has only gained popularity in the last decade.

It was six Californian tobacco growers who first realised that their stevia crops were far more profitable than tobacco but it was Christos Stamatis, a young Greek mechanical engineer whorealised that his home village in Fthiotida (Φθιώτιδα) in central Greece provided the ideal weather and soil conditions for growing stevia. He first set about trying to persuade farmers in the local villages of the benefits of cultivating stevia. He eventually convinced 150 farmers to each contribute €500 to help set up a cooperative, the Stevia Hellas Co-operative, which became the first business in Europe dedicated to the production of stevia.

Over the past seven years, many other farmers have joined up, turning their attention away from tobacco to the cultivation of the natural sweeter. Greece has become the centre of stevia cultivation in Europe. Since it was established, the co-op itself has doubled in size. It now employs 300 people, exporting its product across Greece itself and beyond to western Europe, the United States, Canada, and the United Arab Emirates.

And finally…….the American actor, Tom Hanks (Τομ Χανκς) and his family have been made honorary citizens of Greece.

Hanks has a long connection with Greece. He became an Orthodox Christian before his marriage in 1988 to Rita Wilson, who is of Greek descent. He and his wife were co-producers of the blockbuster 2002 romantic comedy “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”.  In addition, the Hanks family are frequent visitors to Antiparos (Αντίπαρος), where they own a house, generously support local events and are well-regarded by the local community.

The Hanks family were offered Greek citizenship mainly in recognition for their help in assisting victims of the deadly wildfires at Mati near Athens in July of 2018. “They were active in mobilizing and sensitizing the global community to reach out to the tested Greek citizens,” the citation reads.  As well as making generous donations for immediate relief actions, the Hanks family set up a global charity to raise even larger sums of money for long term assistance to the victims of the fire.

In his acceptance speech, Tom Hanks spoke of why is a great honour becoming a citizen of a country he has loved for so many decades provided, of course, as long as he doesn’t have to serve in the army.



November 2019

Due to illness there was no Greek news this month


October 2019

I left you in June with Greece facing yet another general election on July 7th.  For once the pollsters were dead right, SYRIZA’s vote plummeted and voters in Greece gave Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ centre-right New Democracy party a resounding mandate to form a new government displacing the incumbent left-wing SYRIZA party, which had been in power since 2015.

The poll was the first to take place at the height of summer since 1928 and there were worries that many voters would prefer the beach to the polling stations.  The election itself was not without troubles:  Residents of the island of Rhodes in the Dodecanese who vote on the island of Kastellorizo (Καστελλόριζο) had to be shipped there on a Navy vessel due to the lack of commercial shipping.  The appearance of an adder at a polling station near Vonitsa (Βόνιτσα) caused a bit of excitement. A few minutes before the polls closed, a group of young protesters stormed a polling station in Exarcheia in Athens and stole the ballot box.

Despite these upsets, the voters’ message was clear; with almost 40% of the vote and a large majority in the Greek parliament, Kyriakos Mitsotakis will govern Greece for at least the next 4 years.  There were, of course, other winners and losers in the election.  The right-wing Golden Dawn lost all its seats in the Greek parliament; failing to garner the necessary 3% of the national vote and being replaced by the slightly less extreme “Greek Solution” Party. Although SYRIZA were routed by a 9.5% of the vote, a staggering margin of victory, they did much better than expected with Yanis Varoufakis’ DiEM 25 Party taking votes from them.  DiEM 25 now have 9 parliamentarians including Varoufakis himself.

New Democracy’s revival has been linked to Mitsotakis’s efforts to entice centrists and to the conservatives’ ability to siphon off votes from Golden Dawn by taking a tough stance on immigration and the long-running name row over North Macedonia.  Greece’s neighbour to the north.  Mitsotakis pledged he would endeavour to change the country for the hundreds of thousands of mostly young Greeks who in recent years had left in search of work. Like most new Greek prime ministers, Mitsotakis has had a fiery start: tensions with Turkey have risen dangerously in the eastern Mediterranean over conflicting claims to energy reserves off the island of Cyprus. Within hours of Mitsotakis assuming office, the EU made clear that to him it would not be tolerating any fiscal derailments if he keeps his pre-electoral promises of tax reduction. Nevertheless, less than a month after assuming power, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, he has achieved what no other Greek administration has managed so far: he has enforced a smoking ban in the Greek parliament. Nine years, 10 months and 26 days after the smoking ban came into effect in the rest Greece, its lawmakers are finally being forced to abide by it too, a clear sign that he is not going to be beholden to his more conservative backbenchers.

North Macedonia
The failure of the EU to begin accession talks with North Macedonia has raised questions about the fate of the Prespa Agreement between Greece and North Macedonia. France, Denmark, and the Netherlands all opposed Skopje’s and Tirana’s European aspirations against the advice of the EU leaders, Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission and Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council.  The recent resignation announcement from the Prime Minister of North Macedonia, Zoran Zaev and his promise to hold a snap election could threaten the agreement if the right-wing opposition VMRO party wins the next general election in North Macedonia.

Before the election, the new Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis was known for his strong opposition to the Prespa Agreement in 2018. He however conceded that Tsipras’ recognition of North Macedonia is already a “fait accompli” and he will not challenge it much to the annoyance of some of his MPs, saying it wants to see its full implementation commenting that it is “a bad agreement but we cannot change it.”

Greece officially supports the EU aspirations of North Macedonia, provided that Skopje respects the Agreement fully.  The only outstanding issue to fully implement the Agreement is the detailed wording of a constitutional change to safeguard the future of an independent public prosecutor. Nevertheless, the French, Danish and Dutch action is seen by many as an indirect diplomatic victory for Athens. However, it is clear that political uncertainty in North Macedonia could raise concerns over whether the Balkan nation will respect its commitment to the Prespa Agreement.

Very recently Denmark and the Netherlands, who blocked the enlargement, have indicated that they were open to considering the application of the two countries separately. Although both are opposed to opening talks with Albania, they have hinted that North Macedonia could get a green light by passing a law safeguarding the independent public prosecutor.  It now remains to be seen what direction Greece’s neighbour will soon take, and whether the Prespa Agreement will remain in place, as the current administrations in both country’s want.

Tourism

Spacious and airy accommodation, just 100m away from the sea and 13 km away from Heraklion, at the extremely reasonable price of 22 euros per night. The rental includes two double beds, a toilet, a shower, two fireplaces, and a living room but no ceiling!

This is a summary of a real Airbnb advert. Twenty-two euros per night for an Airbnb let on a Greek island is extremely reasonable even without a ceiling. The true price of such a room with a roof would be more likely to be at least 100€ per night.  In a busy 3-month summer season, an Airbnb owner would expect to receive 10,000€ for each room representing some 6000€ profit/room after taxes, cleaners etc are paid.

In the past, the same room would have been let on a long-term rental of about 100€ per month. Now, as result of this surge in Airbnb lettings, there are no longer affordable long-term rentals on the most popular islands for long-term Greek and foreign residents, students or seasonal workers alike.  With no seasonal workers to support the tourist industry, the visitor numbers will drop; ay there’s the rub.

If Airbnb was a plus for the Greek tourist industry, the bankruptcy of Thomas Cook was a minus as thousands of Greek hoteliers, both large and small fell victim to Thomas Cook’s demise.  It has been estimated that Greek hotels will have to bear losses of around 230 million euros from British travellers alone. Because Thomas Cook holidays were traded all over Europe, their true cost will be substantially more.

Zominthos
Zominthos (Ζώμινθος) is a Minoan site in Crete, which few people had heard of until recently but is one you will be hearing a lot more of from now. Back in 1982, the Greek archaeologist Yannis Sakellarakis (Γιάννης Σακελλαράκης) identified the site of a large, two-story Minoan building on the path from Knossos to the Idaion Andron on a small plateau in the foothills of Mount Ida at an altitude of about 1200m, which is higher than any other known Minoan site and most modern Cretan settlements.

Although excavations of the site by Sakellarakis and his widow have unearthed only a small part of the building and are still under way, it is evident that the excavators had discovered a significant Minoan site. The structure has been strongly built and is unusually well-preserved, with some of its the remaining walls rising up to 3m in height. It has a strict north-south orientation with more than 100 rooms on the ground floor alone.  Due to the building’s unusual size and careful construction, and the presence of features unique to Minoan palatial architecture, it is now referred to as the “Minoan palace of Zominthos”

Every year, the annual excavations at the site yield significant finds but this year’s excavation finds have been particularly spectacular. The 2019 excavations focused on examining the area around the central palatial building.  Archaeologists uncovered a hallway with pillars leading to a room containing the remains of a seat, which may be a throne room.  Nearby, an archive room has been identified on the basis of a clay tablet written in Linear A script, which lists 217 three-footed vessels. The remnants of clay pipes from a sophisticated drainage system were also discovered.

Zominthos is the only excavated mountainous Minoan settlement so far.  The labyrinthine building and the ceremonial artefacts that have come to light are proof of the site’s importance and its centuries-long religious role in the cult of Zeus. The twenty years of systematic excavation began by the late Yannis Sakellarakis and now carried on by his widow are continuing to reveal many the palace of Zominthos’ secrets.

Zominthos

And finally, …….is there no limit to the modernisation of the classics? Last April, we had a very interesting lecture on ”Jazz and the Homeric Question” and even the Bristol University’s august Institute of Greece, Rome and the Classical Tradition now regards the music of Bob Dylan as within its remit.  Now a University of Southern California classics professor, Brandon Bourgeois, has taken the involvement of modern music with Homer to a new level; he is intending to translate the whole of Homer’s classic, “The Iliad,” for students in the 21st century by recasting it into rap music.

Professor Bourgeois believes that the oral tradition that kept the Iliad alive bears remarkable similarities to modern rap. Both are histories; both tell tales of everyday life, hardship, violence, and of love lost and gained. He has already translated the first 55 lines of the prologue to the epic poem into rap for one of his lectures. Clad in black, a gold medallion depicting the face of Medusa slung around his neck he delivered his hip-hop adaptation of the prologue to his students in staccato bursts. A recording of rap lecture of the story’s prologue, which was uploaded to one of USC’s YouTube pages has now gone viral.

Those diverse talents and interests have coalesced into his performance project, which he calls Hype 4 Homer. His ultimate goal is to render the entire Iliad into rap to what he calls “The Trilliad”, “Trill” being hip-hop slang for true. After this he says he’ll go for the Odyssey!

Professor Bourgeois’ rap rendition of the prologue can be viewed on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMVPKLk2Prg



April 2019

At the end of March, the tensions between Greece and its eurozone partners eased as almost €1bn in long-awaited aid was released at a crucial meeting of eurozone finance ministers meeting in Bucharest.  Hopes had been high in Athens that after months of wrangling over a household insolvency scheme, which Greece viewed as key to facilitating the recovery of bad bank debt would finally go through. The debt relief is mainly from profits on Greek bonds held by eurozone banks during the crisis.

The spat over measures to protect thousands of borrowers from losing their primary homes had not only delayed this tranche of aid but once again soured the government’s relations with creditors. As the holder of the biggest bailout in global financial history, Greece has received an estimated €280bn in rescue funds since 2010.

Other News
The Greek-French director Costa-Gavras is making a film based on a book written by Greece’s controversial former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis. The book “Adults in the Room” which was released in 2017, deals with Varoufakis’ personal experiences during the six months he served as the country’s finance minister in 2015. This period covered was the most turbulent phase of the Greek financial crisis. The newly-elected government of Alexis Tsipras tried to oppose the austerity measures imposed on Greece by its creditors. Greece came to the edge of actually exiting the Eurozone in July of that year, when Varoufakis finally resigned, one day after the historic referendum of July 5, 2015. Gavras now plans to bring the tense drama of all these months onto the big screen, presenting Varoufakis’ version of the events which shaped Greece’s fate in the European Union.

Costa-Gavras is known for films with overtly political themes, such as the thriller “Z,” which was filmed in 1969, which was based on the 1966 novel by Vassilis Vassilikos.  “Adults in the Room” is his first film for 7 years.  The budget for the film is approximately six million euros including a controversial grant from the Greek state of €630,000.  Shooting commenced in Athens at the beginning of April and will last 12 weeks, with the cast and crew set to visit Paris, Riga, Brussels, Strasbourg, Frankfurt and London. Gavras has given the roles to actors according to their characters’ nationalities – hence the leading role of Varoufakis is played by a Greek actor, Christos Loulis, (not as rumoured by Varoufakis himself).  The film is expected to be released by the end of the year.

Fishing
The fish market at Keratsini (Κερατσίνι) near Piraeus comes alive at night. Under floodlights, crews in rubber waders and boots wash down the decks of boats moored in the harbour, repair nets cranes, and pack in ice the shrimps, calamari, mullet and hake they have caught that night.  Now there are other pickings for the Keratsini fishermen, objects that might never have been pulled from the sea are now being harvested to add to the fishermen’s income as well as to improve the sea and to preserve fishing for generation of fishermen to come. In a new scheme, Keratsini fishing boats are paid €200 a month to recycle any waste found in their nets rather than dump it back into polluted waters of the Saronic Gulf.

Bottles, cans, plastics, are commonplace; the boats have also trawled up such diverse items as washing machines, model planes and toy dolls. There are days when they “catch” more plastic than fish. Not that long ago the fishermen of Keratsini would have thrown this debris back into the water. Now crews are conscientious rubbish collectors, keeping whatever waste their nets pick up in a bin that nestles between the piles of neatly packed ropes on the boats’ deck

The scheme was the brainchild of a 24-year-old Greek, Lefteris Arabakis (Λευτέρης Αραπάκης). Like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him he grew up smelling the sea. Recruiting fishermen to rid Greek waters of rubbish was his brainchild; one that grew not only from his love for the ocean but a desire to re-energise fishing in a country where the sector is dying fast. The project started with 10 boats last May. Now scores have signed up with plans afoot to bring in about 100 fishing vessels by 2020.

In 2017, with backing from several Greek and foreign donors, including the Clinton Foundation, Arabakis also co-founded Enaleia (Εναλεία), a school that not only aims to augment the number of trained trawler captains and engineers but introduce sustainable ways of fishing to an older generation on Greek islands. The average age of the nation’s estimated 35,000 fishermen was 64 last year. With fish stocks dropping by a third since the mid-1990s, sustainable fishing techniques have become ever more urgent.

It is estimated that by the year 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea than fish with at least 937m tons of plastic compared with 895m tons of fish in the oceans. Although Arabakis’ project will not itself solve the problem of Greece’s polluted seas, its achievement will be in educating Greek fishermen that their future as fishermen depends on looking after their sea in the same way that a farmer nurtures his fields.

Alonissos
One place where the Greek sea is relatively free of plastic is around the northern Greek island of Alonissos (Αλόννησος), where there is an ancient shipwreck from the 5th century BC near the islet of Peristera (Περιστέρα). When the wreck was discovered in the 1990s, it was the largest wreck of its type ever to be found. Experts are still unsure about the reasons for the sinking and believe that either a fire had broken out on board or pirates had attacked it. They have yet to determine what treasures it might have carried in its hold. Now an underwater museum has been created to make the wreck site accessible to divers. It is the first time that the area has been opened to recreational divers since the wreck was discovered in the 1990s.

Greece’s rich underwater heritage has long been hidden from the general public, off-limits to all but a select few, mainly archaeologists. Scuba diving was banned throughout the country except in a few specific locations until 2005, for fear that divers might loot the countless antiquities that still lie scattered on the country’s seabed. Now that seems to be gradually changing and a new EU-funded project has opened up the site to the general public.

Underwater tours to the Peristera shipwreck started 10 days ago.  They reveal numerous treasures that lie on the seabed of the wreck. The wreck is filled with amphoras and vases amongst which fish have made their home. All that survives is the exposed area of the wooden ship creating a spectacular sight for those who dive, enjoying the artefacts in a different way to the experience one would have in a museum. Signs have been created so that divers can get more information about the site as they swim around the wreck. Because dives can go as deep as 28 metres, divers are briefed about the site and conditions of the dive before being taken in small groups to the dive site.

And finally… a new ancient DNA study* led by the Natural History Museum and University College London in collaboration with Harvard University links the prehistoric population of the west country of Britain with prehistoric Greek migrants

The paper argues that a wave of migrants from what is now Greece and Turkey arrived in Britain some 6,000 years ago and virtually replaced the existing hunter-gatherer population. Earlier DNA studies had shown that the Aegean migrants had travelled from the East Mediterranean as far the Iberian Peninsula in the west introducing farming to continental Europe and mixing extensively with the local populations. The present DNA analysis showed that the remains of Britain’s early farmers were genetically similar to the early farmers in present-day Spain and Portugal who, in turn, were descended that the Aegean migrants. Strikingly, the newcomers appear to have first arrived on our western coast before spreading to other parts of Britain, suggesting they didn’t cross the English Channel using the shortest possible course but instead braved the wilder Atlantic route to land here in the west country. There was little interbreeding between the newcomers and the darker-skinned foragers like Cheddar Man who had inhabited the British Isles for millennia and the paper suggests that those last British hunter-gatherers were relatively few in number and therefore left little trace in the genetic record.

In case you are wondering, even if your family has farmed in our west country for generations, the genetic link between the early inhabitants of the west coast of Britain and the 4,000 BCE Greek migrants is not sufficiently strong for you to be able to claim Greek ancestry and to entitle you to a Greek passport after Brexit.

*Brace S et al, “Ancient genomes indicate population replacement in Early Neolithic Britain”, Nature (2019).
DOI: 10.1038/s41559-019-0871-9, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-019-0871-9


March 2019

A quiet month this time, no big political news, the most serious news concerns the official report into the dreadful fires at Mati last July which killed over 100 people.

No one was surprised by the damning public prosecutors’ report on the fire at Mati on that dark day of July 23rd, 2018. The horrific death of so many people and the magnitude of the catastrophe were sufficient to show overwhelming evidence negligence and lack of communication between officials. The report highlighted that the incident was not a chance event; every day there was risk of catastrophic fire, every day is still just as dangerous.

The report on Mati revealed a mentality of deep and lasting indifference, not only at the level of top officials but throughout the state machinery. It showed that, on the fateful day, there was no overall plan to deal with such a fire. Senior officials were totally confused by the disaster facing them; they had not received the necessary training, they did not have access to necessary technical equipment or anything else that would have helped save lives.  The report goes on to ask the question of why was there no preparation, why had the politicians who headed the relevant ministries not noted these deficiencies? Did no one grasp the fact that preparations had to be made before the crisis, not when it was too late? Why was there no warning system for citizens, when EU funding was provided for this years ago? And, in perhaps the most damning question to arise from the prosecutors’ report: If a phone call would have been enough for people to escape Mati in time, albeit without an evacuation plan, why did no one warn them? Whatever laws and regulations may say, the answer is that no one cared enough to ensure that it was perfectly clear who would make the phone call. The government officials and others now doing their best to shed their responsibilities had shirked them before the catastrophe.

Following seven months of investigations into the deadly fires, prosecutors have now brought charges of negligent arson, manslaughter and grievous bodily harm through negligence against 20 current and former state officials. Those charged include the Attica Regional Governor, the Mayors of both Marathon and Rafina, and their fire service chiefs; I note that no charges have been brought against any government Ministers or senior politicians.

Other News
There is growing opposition to the construction of very tall buildings around the Acropolis hill in Athens

The issue of high-rises around the Acropolis rose to prominence late last year when residents of the Makrygianni neighbourhood noticed that an under-construction building on Falirou Street was much taller than all the others in the area and spoiled their view of the Acropolis. The problem arises from a small change in the zoning laws, which allow developers additional height in exchange for “green” architecture.  Although the Falirou Street building had been permitted by the government, it had not approved by Greece’s Central Archaeological Council, which is responsible for assessing all initiatives that affect the country’s archaeological and historical monuments.

Now the protests have spread many other parts of Athens who fear that their long-cherished views of the Parthenon will be obstructed by a ring fence of tall skyscraper hotels. The City of Athens has called on the government to amend its new zoning regulations that threaten to inundate the Greek capital’s skyline. A group of Makrygianni residents has appealed to Greece’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, challenging a decision by the Culture Minister to approve the erection of yet another tall hotel in a nearby street.

Amid these growing public protest campaigns, Greece’s Environment Ministry has this week announced that it is suspending all building licenses in the area around the Acropolis. The Central Archaeological Council (KAS) is re-examining an application to erect a new nine-floor building on a street near the Acropolis and reassessing the legality of the recently constructed 10-floor hotel on Falirou Street in Makrygianni.  Its surprising how effective grass-roots protests can become when a General Election is pending.

Property Prices
The real estate market in Greece is booming because of an extraordinary amount of sales to foreigners who want to receive the so-called “Golden Visa”, whilst an increase in the number of people who short-lease their apartments to platforms like Airbnb is driving up rent prices.

Real estate prices in Greece dropped significantly during the years of the economic crisis but now a new market is simultaneously opening up: that of foreigners from outside the European Union who want to receive a residence permit in an EU member state. The “Golden Visa” program in Greece gives a residence and work permit to any individual and their family if they invest a minimum 250,000€ in real estate in the country. This has had an enormous impact on real estate prices all over Greece. Just a few years ago, houses were selling well below market value, and now most of them are overpriced, with owners aiming to sell them to foreigners wishing to take advantage of the residence permit program.

The boom in the visa market coincides with an impressive growth in tourism. Financially-stricken Greek citizens have discovered in the past several years that they can earn a decent income by leasing their property to visitors from other countries. As a result, in several areas in Athens, rent prices have reached or exceeded pre-crisis levels.  More than 50,000 houses in Greece are currently registered on Airbnb-like platforms, which cater to tourists. Rents of these properties have increased an average of 35% over the last year.  This also has a drawback as the number of citizens who are unable to pay the high rents is growing.

In Corfu, there is an additional factor, the “Keeley Hawes Factor”. An article in the Financial Times described how the TV series “The Durrells” which is loosely based on Gerald Durrell’s Corfiot Trilogy has made Corfu an even more popular holiday destination over the last few years, thus impacting its real-estate market. The article attributes the increase in property prices on Corfu to the increased exposure provided by “The Durrells” and its star Keeley Hawes in the same way that property prices in the Sporades (Σποράδες) were lifted by the film “Mama Mia” about ten years ago.

But like it or not, Airbnb, the Greek visa program and Keeley Hawes have changed Greek property market perhaps forever.

Cremation
From ancient times, Greeks were taught to bury the dead.  In Sophocles’ play, Antigone chose to die rather than leave her brother unburied. Nowadays it is becoming difficult to bury the dead with overcrowding in Greek cemeteries, reflecting the country’s growing urban population since the 1950s. With graveyard space at a premium, bodies are frequently exhumed after three years so that plots can be freed up for others. Bones are then transferred to ossuaries in cemeteries, inflicting the indignity of exhumation on almost every family.  It is therefore not surprising many Greeks including the mayors of both Athens and Thessaloniki are now in favour of allowing cremation.

Orthodox clerics argue that funeral rites other than by burial defy gospel teachings and thus can never be condoned. For this reason, cremations were banned in Greece for many years. For decades, Greeks seeking cremation for loved ones have had to go abroad; usually to neighbouring Bulgaria, the nearest country where cremation is allowed. The mayor of Thessaloniki, Yiannis Boutaris, has spoken openly of his own bitter experience being forced to transport his late wife’s body across the border to Bulgaria for cremation.

In 2006, cremation was legalized as part of legislation to bring Greece in line with other EU member states. Nevertheless, more than 10 years later, not a single cremation had taken place in Greece, because no crematoria had yet been built. Greece has now moved a step closer to opening its first crematoria by passing a decree that permits the construction of crematoria land designated for public services. Three such crematoria are planned: one at Eleonas in Athens, another at Patras and a third in Thessaloniki.

Evzones
Military precision matters for Armed Forces around the world, but one Yorkshireman considering joining the British Army is slightly more prepared than other new recruits. Twenty-six-year-old Evangelos Marathos Rainey is half American and half Greek, but grew up in Yorkshire and has just completed his nine months as a conscript in the Greek Army as an evzone, one of the elite Greek Presidential Guard, whose role was to watch over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Athens.

All the evzones are conscripts and it is considered a great honour to join the Guard.  Not everybody is eligible to join. To be considered, you must be a Caucasian male, at least 6ft 2 in height, a Greek Orthodox Christian with no medical complaints and have no visible tattoos.  Every conscript guard is paid the same, the grand sum of 8.62€s a month. Members of the Presidential Guard are allowed to have a moustache, but only once they have completed 100 hours of Guard duty, meaning the facial hair is worn as a badge of honour.

With Evangelos’ conscription now complete he has returned to York and is now thinking of joining the British military.

And finally… With the Australian Grand Prix 2019 and Formula One season just one week old, gossip in Athens is once again turning to Greece’s much-rumoured F1 Grand Prix track.

Over the years, there has been much speculation whether Greece would ever have its own F1 Grand Prix and where its race track should be located. Athens was not the first proposed location of the Greek F1. Back in the 1990’s, some investors from Patras had shown interest in funding a Greek Grand Prix at Tripoli in the Peloponnese. However, after a few TV appearances, the would -be backers lost interest and the project never got off the ground. Over the years there were several other proposals for the location of a Greek Grand Prix, the old Athens airport at Elliniko, the small town of Orchomenos in Boeotia, the Patras suburb of Chalandritsa, all started with optimism before sinking without a trace.

But without doubt, the plan that came closest to becoming reality has been the Grand Prix of Drapetsona, a small suburb of Piraeus. In 2008, the civil engineer Thanasis Papatheodorou produced the sketches for the race course and after years of planning and capital raising, a company was founded in the hopes of gaining the support for the project. Former Prime Minister Antonis Samaras threw his backing towards the project and a company “Formula One Licensing” was established to run a proposed “Formula One Mediterranean Grand Prix.” However, due to the change in government, and political and financial instability in Greece, the agreement was never made, and so the nation still remains without its Grand Prix.

Or does it?  Anyone watching the traffic on the new Athens ring road cannot fail to notice the Athens yellow taxis racing away from traffic lights, weaving in and out of traffic and carving-up other drivers with commendable skill. Perhaps the Greek Grand Prix should be held on the Athens ring road with Athenian cabbie drivers allowed to compete.  They would give the highly paid professional F1 drivers a run for their money anytime!


February 2019

After saying last month that January would perhaps be the very last occasion that I would be leading with subject of Greece and North Macedonia, I am of course starting with this topic again tonight.  This month, I am not reporting disagreement, disappointment or yet another dispute between the two neighbours, but to demonstrate what progress can be made in less than a month when there is good will on both sides.

On Tuesday February 12th, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was officially renamed North Macedonia, in accordance with the Prespa agreement to normalize relations with Greece. Now a series of what are euphemistically called “practical adjustments” such as new road signs, updated passports and currency have started to be rolled out.   Already road signs at border crossings, airports and customs checkpoints all refer to “North Macedonia”. Within four months, North Macedonians will start being issued with new car license plates bearing the international vehicle registration code of NMK. By the end of this year, new passports bearing the name “North Macedonia” will be issued.

North Macedonia took a giant step toward joining NATO when it signed NATO’s accession protocol. The NATO accession protocol must be endorsed by all 29 NATO members and Greece was the first nation to ratified it. It is expected that North Macedonia will become a full member of NATO by early 2020 but, until then, it will take part in NATO meetings as a guest.

The implementation of the Prespa agreement is expected to greatly enhance trade between Greece and its northern neighbour. There are already about 300 Greek companies operating in North Macedonia, mostly in construction, telecommunications, textiles and service industries, as well as in banking. Despite the difficulties created by the naming dispute, Greek companies have already invested 473 million euros there over the last two decades making Greece the third largest investor in North Macedonia after Austria and Great Britain. The biggest hindrance now to bilateral trade is the lack of interpreters and translators who are fluent in both languages.

One problem which has arisen which was not envisaged in Prespa agreement concerns more than four thousand Greek businesses which have the terms “Macedonia” or “Macedonian” in their brand or company names. They are concerned that North Macedonian companies which already use the same names may now also have the right to use these names internationally, which would create consumer confusion and pose a real threat to the Greek companies’ interests in global markets. Although the Prespa Agreement appears to be ambiguous regarding this issue, the agreement stipulates the setting up of an international team of experts including representatives from both Greece and North Macedonia to try to resolve any such business-related disputes or issues. This panel will remain active until 2022.

Things are now starting to move fast now there is good will on both sides. For example, it was announced earlier today that Greece and North Macedonia will slash roaming charges for travelling cell phone users – a clear sign of the growing rapprochement of the two neighbours. Or is it?  Is the fear of a rumoured Greek general election in May and a likely change of Greek government the driving force?  The New Democracy party who are most likely to form the next Greek government has slammed the Prespa agreement.  Is it a rush by the current Greek and North Macedonian leaders to tidy up all unfinished business before the ND leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, takes charge in Greece?

Crete
The Greek government is about to ratify a 480 million euro contract for the construction and operation of the new international airport in Kastelli (Καστέλλι) in the centre of Crete.  It will replace old Heraklion’s Nikos Kazantzakis Airport, which was Greece’s the second busiest airport after Athens’ Eleftherios Venizelos airport. The current Heraklion airport only has a single runway, a small terminal building, and ageing air and land side facilities, which are no longer sufficient to serve the growing air traffic to Crete.

Although we talk about the new airport at Kastelli, there has actually been military airport at Kastelli from as long ago as 1940.  In 1986, Greece’s then-Prime Minister, Andreas Papandreou, proposed the building of a new international airport at Kastelli. Now, after years of indecision and postponements, contractors have been appointed, money allocated and building to start in January next year. Hopefully the new airport will come into service in about 6 years’ time.

The new airport will be situated on the south western side of existing Kastelli Hellenic Air Force Base. It will have a dual 3.2 km runway which will meet modern international standards. The construction of the new airport will become the biggest construction project ever on Crete and one of the largest private investments made in Greece. There are plans for a new highway to link the new airport with the National Road along north coast in or around Hersonissos which would speed up transfers. When the new airport is operational, the old airport at Heraklion will be closed and its site will used for a large urban regeneration plan.

The project however is not without its critics.  Although residents of Heraklion will be delighted to lose the invidious roar of jet engines overhead seemingly taking off every couple of minutes from the old airport, the old airport is a major source of employment in the Heraklion area and many Heraklion jobs will be lost. Others point to the fact that the Kastelli airport would be located almost 45km from Heraklion and this could adversely affect tourist flow to Crete’s largest city.

Anyone who has ever used the old Kazantzakis airport will be familiar with the massive check-in and security queues, especially when there are several outbounds flights close together, such as on package holiday main changeover days. I flew into the Heraklion’s old Nikos Kazantzakis Airport in June last year. The arrival hall was hot, dark and unwelcoming with its ageing creaking luggage carousels frequently breaking down.  First impressions matter; I will go back to Greece, many other visitors may not. A new airport serving Heraklion, which actually welcomes its visitors to Crete is sorely needed.

Elefsina
Elefsina (Ελευσίνα) is or rather was a rather drab, tired post-industrial town 20 km west of Athens.  Although Elefsina only became an industrial hub in the nineteenth century, it is history goes back much longer. As Eleusis (Ἐλευσίς) it was one of ancient Greece’s five sacred cities and the home of the rituals known as the “Eleusinian Mysteries”. Since those glory days, its only claim to fame has as the birthplace of the prominent Greek singer “Stelios” (Στέλιος Καζαντζίδης) and location of the highest ever officially recorded temperature in Europe (48°C).

In recent years, Elefsina has worked hard on transforming its now-inactive factories into museums portraying its industrial and technological history. The city has received awards for its urban regeneration and its performance in ecology and recycling efforts. Today, the hill containing spectacular archaeological ruins and the Archaeological Museum take pride of place in its centre. The Sacred Way (Ἱερὰ Ὁδός), the road across the city which connected ancient Eleusis with Athens, is now preserved forever. Elefsina’s Aeschylia Festival, which is named after its famous son, the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus is one of the longest standing cultural events in Attica. It is held annually at “Palaio Elaiourgeio” a former soap factory by the seafront now transformed into an open-air theatre. Elefsina has now been reborn and revitalised, its reward is being honoured as the “European Capital of Culture 2021”.

“Transition to Euphoria” is the city’s theme for the preparations leading up to the big year. The municipality is involving residents and local art and culture associations in several arts programs which will celebrate the cultural designation. The whole city is alive, with both young and older residents participating in cultural programs in residential areas and along the waterfront.  The city of Eleusis now looks like an endless workshop for the arts; exhibits with subjects ranging from artistic photography to the workers’ movement during the industrialization of the area are seen all over town.

And finally……… 2019 marks one hundred years since the first basketball team was founded in Greece.

Basketball was introduced to Greece by members of an American branch of the YMCA, who came to Thessaloniki to support the American soldiers who fought alongside Greek troops during WWI.  A group of young Greek men who were members of Thessaloniki’s YMCA started playing the game and decided to form a team. It turned out that this was not only the first team in Thessaloniki but the first anywhere in Greece.  In no time, basketball started gaining ground in all of Greece and became increasingly popular in Thessaloniki.  Since then, basketball has gained millions of fans in Greece, with both the Greek national basketball team and the country’s clubs winning numerous major competitions.

Despite its popularity at the end the first world war, Greek basketball nearly foundered ended when the Americans left Thessaloniki, their basketball equipment left with them.  Greeks however are never less than enterprising. A photograph from 1919 which is now exhibited in Thessaloniki’s YMCA’s museum of basketball, portrays a group of young Greek men playing basketball in an open area of the city. For the ball, a football was used; instead of a basket, the players used an upside-down chair with its seat removed, tied to a pole demonstrating their eagerness to play what is now one of Greece’s favourite sports.


January 2019

A shorter news roundup this time because, as usual, there is little fresh news over the Christmas period.  With news being confined to North Macedonia and the bad weather, Let’s start, perhaps for the very last time, with North Macedonia.

North Macedonia
Two weeks ago, North Macedonian MPs endorsed a landmark accord which will rename the Balkan nation “the Republic of North Macedonia” in a move that now opens the way to NATO membership. Prime Minister Zoran Zaev efforts were complicated when a small ethnic Albanian party demanded that the planned constitutional designation “Macedonian citizenship” be changed to “citizens of the Republic of North Macedonia.” to safeguard the identity of ethnic Albanians who form about a quarter of FYROM’s 2.1-million population.

The name-change deal was reached after almost 30 years of dispute with Greece, and now the poisoned chalice has passed to the Greek parliament and the Greek lawmakers will be voting on ratifying the name deal with their northern neighbours by the end of the week. The Greek government will be looking to pass the contentious agreement with FYROM signed last June and settling the decades-old dispute between the two neighbours, with an absolute majority of at least 151 MPs in the 300-seat House. SYRIZA has only 145 seats after ANEL, the small nationalist party quit the coalition in opposition at the deal. Apart from the 145 SYRIZA MPs, it is expected that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras can count on the support of independent and centrist MPs.

Although Government officials appear optimistic about the outcome of the vote on Thursday evening, Greek society and the country’s political world are still deeply divided on the name issue. The public is clearly against the deal, with up to 70% opposed to it. Nevertheless, the tens of thousands who demonstrated in last Sunday’s rally in Athens, was only a fraction of the 600,000 demonstrators predicted suggesting that although most Greeks are still against the deal, they are reconciled to the Greek parliament agreeing to the name-change.

Today the Greece’s parliament ratified the change of name from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) to the Republic of Northern Macedonia, ending a decades-old dispute and opening the way for the ex-Yugoslav republic to join the European Union and NATO.  As was widely predicted, the vote was carried by 153 votes to 146, a majority of 7.  International bodies such as the UN, EU and the council of Europe have welcomed the ratification. Opinion polls still indicate that most Greeks oppose the settlement, a fact which may not bode well for Prime Minister Tsipras with a general election coming up this October, and his party is trailing the opposition New Democracy by about 10-12%.  The New Democracy party who are likely form the next government slammed the Prespa agreement and the ND leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has threatened to veto Skopje’s accession to the European Union. Nevertheless, Tsipras has 6 months to formally agree to North Macedonia joining both the EU and NATO and the name change should become a fait accompli by October.

Weather
Although the Greek Met Office was technically correct in predicting that Athenians hoping for a white Christmas would be disappointed, Boxing Day however brought much snow to most of Greece and even Mount Parnitha in the outskirts of Athens was flecked white with snow. Since the start of Greek meteorological records in 1930, it has only twice snowed in Athens on Christmas Day in 1949 and 1968 and the sole snowy Boxing Day in the Greek capital was back in 1991.  For a short while, Athenians were able enjoyed their white Christmas but, as wave after wave of snow hit Greece, their enjoyment turned to consternation as it became an increasing difficult to keep warm and to obtain essential food and medicines. In Athens, motorists were advised to display caution and to fit their cars with anti-skid chains on the icy roads. Municipal authorities in Athens and Piraeus opened heated venues for the homeless, while teams of volunteers were out in the streets offering help to those sleeping rough

Across the rest of Greece, things were much worse. Kastoria (Kastoriá) lake in northern Greece froze solid. Authorities in northern Greece declared a state of emergency in the municipalities of Grevena and Deskati due to the disruptions caused by the recent intense snowfalls. The emergency status will remain until at least February until snow is cleared from roads leading to rural areas and from dozens of mountain villages that have been cut off for a fortnight.

Even now things aren’t back to normal.  The organisers of the world-famous Patras Carnival had even contemplated cancelling its opening day last week because of the inclement weather. Despite the heavy downpours, many thousands of doughty people had been waiting patiently in the rain for the festivities to begin, the organisers relented and allowed the opening ceremony to take place although many of the concerts which had been scheduled to take place were cancelled.

The Nikouria Stone
An ancient stone tablet bearing a historic inscription of the Resolution of Nikouria, dating back to the 3rd century BCE, has resurfaced on the island of Amorgos after it had gone missing for over 100 years.

The stone bears a copy of the Resolution of Nikouria (Νικουρία).  Its text describes the islanders’ decision to participate in a feast and games organized by Ptolemy II in Alexandria, in honour of his father, Ptolemy I. A copy of the resolution was erected on the altar of Ptolemy I on Delos (Δήλος) and other cities which had voted in favour of the games. The inscription is of great importance because it provides an insight into the balance of power during the first half of the 3rd century BCE and the transition of control from the Macedonians to the Ptolemaic dynasty.

The tablet was first discovered in 1893, in a church on the islet of Nikouria just off the coast of the Cycladic island of Amorgos (Αμοργός). It was transferred to a nearby stable where it remained until about 1908, when it disappeared. For over one hundred years; the location of the Nikouria Stone was a mystery; dozens of researchers tried and failed to track it down.   It was finally rediscovered late last year by Stelios Perakis, an archaeology student from Amorgos, and a German archaeologist with the help of local residents. The tablet was found in the Amorgos village of Tholaria (Θολάρια) embedded in the outer wall of a recently renovated house which had previously belonged to a shepherd from Nikouria. The tablet will be removed from the wall and transferred to the Amorgos archaeological collection where it will be displayed.

https://greece.greekreporter.com/files/amorgos-1.jpg
The Nikouria Stone

And finally……… with all the bad weather in Greece over this Christmas and the New Year, it was time for Greeks to batten down their hatches and to welcome in 2019 the new year in the traditional way with sweets, wine and a game of cards. According to Greek folklore, the new year will not go well if one doesn’t play cards on New Year’s Eve. But if one plays cards and loses, it augurs that the new year will be full of bad luck; if, however one wins, jubilation will reign.

The card-playing custom is observed so seriously by some Greeks, that they even allow their young children to play cards and to gamble with them. In truth however, the betting stakes are usually so little that they are merely symbolic and hardly qualify as real gambling.  Much more importantly, it provides an opportunity for family and friends to get together and enjoy each other’s company.

Nevertheless, be warned! The Greek word for a deck of cards, is “trapoula” (τράπουλα); it is derived from the Italian word “trappola” which means a trap. So, beware of Greek children bearing a pack of cards and suggesting you play cards with them.  They have been trained as card sharps by their parents from a very early age and will probably take you to the cleaners!

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