[ Philhellenic Perspective
[ April 1997 ]

Greece - where the whole idea of the west began - now seems isolated and on the edge. We'll look at that, and at ways the seemingly deadlocked Cyprus situation might move forward.
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Greece: The center of all peripheries

Take a look at the map for a minute. List the hot spots in the Mediterranean and their relationship to Greece. First, we have the Balkans. Several countries sit on the edge of that conflict - Italy and Greece among them. Yet, at a conference on world affairs held in Boulder recently, a question addressed to a U. S. diplomat who had spent two years in Sarajevo at the height of the conflict produced only the most vague answer about Greece's involvement: "well, people say they support the Serbs...."

How about oil in the Caucasus. An oil field as big as the Middle East, with conflicts about how that oil will get out - through Turkey, through Russia, through the Bosporus. Yet, despite the connection of the Bosporus to the Aegean, and Greece's maritime prowess, Greece seems not be a player in that dispute.

The Middle East. Magazines on the Middle East will cover Turkey and its involvement with the Kurds and Iraq as well as its agreements with Israel, but Greece is apparently as irrelevant to the Middle East as Iceland.

And North Africa may as well be on the moon for all the connection there seems to be between those countries and anything to the north across the rather narrow Mediterranean sea.

And its not as if we're talking about huge distances here. Athens cannot be more than 1 to 2 hours flying time from any of the places we've mentioned.

But this list doesn't complete list of the peripheries Greece perches on. What about Europe itself - lately the public debate is about Turkey's orientation, but is Greece "European" or "Balkan" or "Byzantine"? perhaps all of these. And what region of Europe is it in - Southern? Eastern?

Then there are the landscapes of the mind, that serve up more centers that Greece isn't a part of. There is the realm of the first world and its technology and wealth that Greece shares in only as a slightly poorer relation. Greece got cell phones only this year; its internet access is there but expensive. Then there is "globalization" that threatens to destroy all peripheries, if you participate in it, but Greece doesn't quite participate in it to the same extent as "western" Europe.

Perhaps the world places Greece on the periphery of time itself. Go into a book store in the United States, even a large bookstore, and chances are you will not find a single book on modern Greece. There will be a section on the "ancient world" and all references to Greece will be there, as if the landscape itself is locked in the mists of the past along with Rome and Persia.

This chain of ruminations was set off by an editorial in the New York Times on March 8th of this year. The editorial, titled "Delicate Relations With Turkey" revealed that Greece is seen, apparently, as at the periphery of Greek-Turkish relations as well.

The editorial explained the "pivotal importance to American foreign policy" of Turkey by listing things Turkey was at the center of: Europe and Asia's connection, the Middle East and even the Persian Gulf (!). This feat of geographical topology apparently did not bring Greece with it into any of those areas.

There was one mention of Greece. It is worth quoting verbatim: "Ankara's application [to join Europe] cannot and should not succeed so long as its military and police forces trample the rights of the Kurdish population in the name of a war against violent Kurdish separatists. But beyond that, Turkey's claim seems to be unfairly blocked by Greece's bitter hostility and the anti- Muslim prejudices of other European states."

There are several delicious contradictions here. Turkey can't join Europe because of its Kurdish human rights problems, but Greece's veto of that (due to Turkey's Cypriot human rights problems) is unfair? Then there is that wonderful word that Greece "seems" to be doing this. Greece apparently lies in some geographic netherworld beyond the reach of telephones and databases, we can only speculate about what "seems" to be going on there.

We note how the motives of various parties can be taken seriously or dismissed depending on need. The United States has "vital interests," Turkey can have a "decisive impact" but Greece only has "bitter hostility." In this way Greeks themselves are pushed out of the center of civilized people who have economic interests and placed on the barbarian periphery with those savages motivated, apparently, only by dark, irrational emotion.

But it is time to switch gears, for this situation that Greece finds itself in, as unfair as it is, is not solely due to the injustices of the world. It's self-inflicted as well, and to that we should attend.

It hasn't helped Greece's cause that, until very recently, its politics and foreign policy have been so often based on clientist cults of personality, on a state sector worthy of the depreciative adjective "Byzantine", and driven by machismo and bluster.

And Greece simply needs to understand that since there isn't much within the territory of Greece to interest the big powers -- no products critical to big economies, no raw materials to speak of - - that Greece will be pushed to the sidelines unless Greeks make themselves indispensable.

I grew up in Kansas - the perfect parallel to Greece for being on the periphery of everything in the United States. Kansas lies at the utter center of nowhere, right in the middle of what the coasts refer to as "flyover country" - land to be flown over in the trip from the western center to the eastern center.

Kansas has tried, in various ways, to try to make itself important, usually without success, and usually without a plan of success, rather like Greece's indecisive efforts to promote itself in the United States. From being a Kansan, I think I can suggest some better strategies for Greece.

What can a country on the edge of everything do to make itself the center? I think there are several directions to go. If Athens were seen as a more attractive place, and had the airports, telecommunications and roads of a modern capital, Athens could become a center for people concerned with any and all of the flash points I listed at the beginning of this article. Rome is too far from the Middle East, Ankara too isolated in the interior, Jerusalem too far from the Balkans. Athens seems a place that deserves to be the sort of cosmopolitan center for a region like Nairobi serves for most of sub-saharan Africa: a pleasant oasis where most things work. A place to have as home base for ventures into less stable or functional situations. Athens' ready access to so much attractive local geography could also be a plus.

Secondly, I think Greece needs to give up on the ancients, at least as a crutch. The sort of talk that assumes that because Pericles was a genius, the modern Greeks don't need to be, doesn't cut it. If Athens gets the Olympics, and a huge snafu of logistical breakdowns ensues, the fact that Greeks built the Parthenon will not serve as either explanation or excuse. The ancient achievement is worth remembering and defending, but it plays into the idea that there is nothing current going on in Greece.

Thirdly, Greece should claim its role as stable democracy at the center of so many unstable situations. Greece can use its 'good offices' in assisting the Balkan conflict, can be a neutral player in Middle East affairs, an advocate for the rule of law, responsive to treaties for open trade and safe passage on the high seas, a partner in peacekeeping efforts. The safety of dealing with a democracy should put Greece at the center of efforts to promote peace and stability in the surrounding areas.

A stable environment should also prove to be a boon to being an economic center. Greece is firmly part of the western systems of economic exchange and banking, committed to do what needs to be done to fully join the European system. Never mind what name FYROM takes, Greece should be influencing it economically and delivering foreign aid: in this context, Greece is the center, FYROM is the periphery.

Long ago, the rugged geography of Greece was known to shape its people for struggle and achievement. C. M. Bowra, in his magisterial book, The Greek Experience says it thusly: "Greece is indeed a hard land, capable of maintaining only a small population, but if this population faces its tasks with decision, it will reap its rewards. ... Such a land demands that its inhabitants should be tough, active, enterprising, and intelligent."

If indeed Greeks face the current global geography with action and enterprise, Greece should be well positioned to be at the center of progress in the next century. Athens and Greece could become the center of all of these peripheries.

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2. Why should Turkey deal?

To Greece and the Greek Cypriots there is a problem in Cyprus: the occupation of the north and the threats of further violence. To Greeks there is a problem in the Aegean: Turkey's periodic and inconsistent land claims. But does Turkey think there is a problem? From their point of view, Cyprus is a solved situation: they have what they want, and have the ability to forcibly take more. They are risking losing nothing in the Aegean, the worse that could happen is that they wind up with what they've got. So why should Turkey deal with Greece?

At a talk at the Hellenic American Cultural Association of Colorado on April 12th of this year, Prof. Van Coufoudakis of Indiana University addressed that question as part of his review of current Greek affairs. He speaks not only as dean of the School of Art and Sciences, but also as founder and chair of the Foundation for Hellenic Studies and as an advisor to Greek officials. He had just returned from a trip to Cyprus involving consultations with the heads of both communities.

He pointed to two interesting factors. First, Turkey wants to "join" Europe, and there is strong concern in Europe about the need to resolve the Cyprus situation. If Turkey wants to join Europe, then it will be forced to offer concessions on Cyprus, he feels.

Secondly, there is a "backdoor" to the Cyprus problem. Joining Europe brings about the elimination of borders, creating the free movement of goods and people. If Cyprus and Turkey both join the European community, then the boundary between Cyprus and occupied Northern Cyprus becomes an internal European border, and -- presumably -- forces Turkey to allow free movement on the island. Whether that would prove to be true in fact, and whether Europe will persist in this issue remains to be seen.

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3. Name endings in Greece

Escaping from the heavy world of politics, let me share a discussion that took place on the internet a few months ago. I had asked if there was any connection between Greek names and what part of Greece they came from. It turns out there is, at least historically. Due to population movements and intermarriage, these connections aren't as strong as they used to be. But here is the list, as assembled by the group. Patrick Leigh Fermor's book, "Mani" also served to confirm some of these and suggest others. Please note that this list comes from the contributions of several people, and that none of us are professional linguists, nor have I checked this against any literature.

-akis     Crete
-akos Laconia or "deep Mani" (son of)
-atos Kefalonia (Ionian island)
-adis Pontos
-eas Messenia or "outer Mani" (son of)
-ellis Lesbos (son of)
-idis Pontos or Macedonia
-inos Zakynthos
-odoulos Cyprus
-opoulos Peloponnese
-oglou Asia Minor (son of)

The inner and outer Mani designations came from Fermor. [ Top of the Page ]

4. More about Greece avialable at my web site

I invite you all to wander around my Greek web site where there is more information, and some pictures about this country. Be sure to take the Patmos visual tour.

Coming Up in the June-July issue

Time to due some travel stuff with web sites. See you then.

Philhellenic Perspective

is published six times a year by John P. Nordin who is solely responsible for its contents. You may reproduce this material, in whole or in part provided you provide proper acknowledgement of the source, and you don't distort the content. [ Top of the Page ]

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