Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Striking Greek unions accuse government of leaving them powerless

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.
Supporters of the labour union of the Communist Party of Greece marched through Athens on Tuesday.

Greece’s three month-old conservative government faced its first public sector strike on Tuesday, as it presented a bill it says will bring growth and jobs.

Athens city buses and electric trolleys remained parked, as did light rail and passenger shipping. The result was gridlock when commuters took to their cars. Government services were shuttered. Public schools closed and hospitals operated on skeleton staff. The civil aviation authority grounded flights for three hours.

Although Tuesday’s strike was primarily a public sector strike, private sector unions were present. Banks remained closed and some retail, construction and telecommunications workers’ unions joined protest marches to parliament. The private sector will hold its own full-blown strike on October 2nd.

Greece’s tourism industry left reeling from Thomas Cook collapse

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

Almost one in ten of the 600,000 Thomas Cook travellers left stranded by the holidaymaker’s collapse were in Greece on Monday.

The government said 15 aircraft were en route to fly them from the islands of Corfu and Zakynthos, in the Ionian Sea, and Kos in the Aegean, back home. It estimates that as many as 22,000 of the roughly 50,000 stranded travellers in Greece will be repatriated by Wednesday. It appeared that all of these flights were being chartered by the UK Civil Aviation Authority.

“The expenses, overnight stays and flights home for tourists who flew with Thomas Cook from now until the end of their booking have been secured,” a Greek tourism ministry announcement said.

Monday, 16 September 2019

Greece vows to “simplify” asylum process, then appears to reconsider

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

Greece’s announcement that it will “simplify” its asylum procedure has met with such concern from human rights groups and the judiciary, that the government may be reconsidering its course of action.

The two month-old conservative New Democracy government issued a statement on September 1 accusing the previous, leftwing Syriza administration of creating an “absurd… unique, complicated” legal framework for asylum leading to “endless recycling of asylum applications”.

“The government will simplify this system,” it said.

The legal profession believes this likely means an abolition of the appeals process to which an asylum reject may apply, and which is mandatory under European and international humanitarian law.

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Is PM Mitsotakis the austerity-hit Greek economy's best hope?

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

THESSALONIKI, Greece - As Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis mounted the podium at the Thessaloniki International Fair to unveil his vision for a robust Greek economy, he already seemed to have a fair wind behind him.

“People believe there will be change for the better in all things - in the market, in the economy, in education,” says Mariana Valetopoulou, a second-generation business owner in this northern port city’s market district.

She looks back on the left-wing Syriza government’s four-year rule with dread. “There was no police,” she says looking at the street outside her shop that sells sewing and knitting goods. “They didn’t intervene for any reason. There was lawlessness… There’s already more police. You don’t have this licentiousness.”

Thursday, 11 July 2019

How family and politics shaped Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis

This article was published by Al Jazeera International

The election of Greece’s reformist prime minister could mark a change in political culture after decades of overspending and a decade of austerity

When Kyriakos Mitsotakis assumed his first cabinet post in 2012, Greeks broadly agreed that he’d been seated before the poisoned chalice. Under the terms of a freshly signed, €130bn emergency loan from the Eurozone, the conservatives had to dismiss up to 25,000 state workers over two years and bring down the cost of government. It was Mitsotakis’ job to get it done.

Over two years, he dismissed more than 5,000 people, including the entire municipal police force and two thirds of the state television payroll – something no Greek government had done in living memory.

He also introduced evaluation. “Impunity in the state is over,” he told parliament in March 2014. “We will pull skeletons out of closets and we will send people home who’ve provably engaged in illegal practices.”

Asked about it on state television during his 2016 election campaign for the party leadership, Mitsotakis said, “The dismissals were a difficult political decision and I shouldered it myself without much support, but it was a government commitment. I don’t appreciate ex post facto criticism.”

Sunday, 7 July 2019

Conservative New Democracy poised for victory in Greece election

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

Athens, Greece - Greece’s conservative New Democracy party is poised to take power in a general election on Sunday, after nearly five years of leftwing rule. The latest polls show the centre-right opposition party of Kyriakos Mitsotakis leading the ruling Syriza by 9-11 percentage points and taking as many as 165 legislators in the 300-member parliament.

A jubilant Mitsotakis, the son of a former prime minister, promised hundreds of supporters in the Greek capital, Athens, prosperity after a decade-long financial crisis.  

“The warmth of your reception is a sign that tomorrow Greece is lifting its head high, but it's also pulling up its sleeves to build a new future,” the 51-year-old former banker said beneath the Acropolis.

The snap election on Sunday comes three months before the end of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ term runs out. The embattled leader called the poll hours after New Democracy trounced his party in May’s European elections.

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

In Greece, an organic rebel farm goes against the grain

 A Greek family’s quest for seeds, sustainability and independence

This article was published by Al Jazeera International 
Yiorgos (L) and Antonis Antonopoulos on a hill overlooking Dilofo.

DILOFO, Thessaly - On the Greek government’s list of certified organic farmers, Antonis Antonopoulos has the serial number one.

What really makes Antonis and his brother, Yiorgos, a singular phenomenon, though, is not that their model farm pioneered organic methods in Greece; it’s that they were among the first to realise that organically grown, local varieties of wheat and barley other farmers had cast aside could be a commercial hit.

The Antonopouloi have branded and shipped their organic flours made from indigenous grains to specialty shops and bakeries for years. Two years ago, their branded Zea flour, derived from a double-kerneled wheat bred in their town of Dilofo, became the key ingredient in an eponymous sliced bread that is distributed nationwide. Although sales figures are a closely guarded secret, it is clear that Zea’s commercial success has brought an ancient grain back from the brink of extinction.

“Demand is growing,” says Yiorgos Antonopoulos, who won’t divulge his annual turnover or how many hectares he cultivates. “Suffice it to say that I’m better off than anyone else in the area.”

This success is important because Greece is a natural gene bank. Its archipelago, varied terrain and microclimates favoured so many divergent evolutionary paths that today it has the highest plant biodiversity in Europe, with approximately 6,000 wild plant species or subspecies, and thousands of cultivated plants. Should this vast genetic vocabulary be lost, scientists and farmers could lose a vital resource in the fight to keep feeding the planet in a rapidly-changing climate.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Kyriakos Velopoulos: From TV salesman to European Parliament

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.
Kyriakow Velopoulos denies he sold "letters written by Christ" in a television appearance on 15 May 2018.
Athens, Greece - Famous in Greece for selling "letters written by Jesus" on television, Kyriakos Velopoulos, a ranting far-right populist and telepersona, managed to pull off one of the biggest surprises of last week's European Parliament elections.

His party, Greek Solution, was an unheard-of party to most Greek voters until May 27. Its capture of 4.2 percent of the national vote in European Parliament elections that day caught the country off-guard.

It also puts the party in place to take more than a dozen seats in the 300-seat national parliament when Greece holds a national election  on July 7.  

Kyriakos Velopoulos, its rags-to-riches founder, a former journalist, attributed the party's popularity to the fact that he met many of his voters personally.

"I crossed the country three times, door to door," he said in a television interview the day after the election. "Politicians today are too far from the people. If everyone had done their jobs, we might not be here today."

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Greek conservative party well placed ahead of snap election

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis greets supporters in Thessaloniki, on his final campaign speech for the European party election on May 24.

ATHENS - Greek voters punished the ruling Syriza for broken promises in Sunday’s European Parliament election. Conservative New Democracy’s nine-point lead over Syriza was so devastating, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced that he will call a snap general election at the end of June, four months early. “The result… is not up to par with our expectations,” Tsipras said.

Tsipras was referring to more than a billion dollars’ worth of handouts he had announced three weeks before, in the form of a halving of sales tax in supermarkets and restaurants, and a bonus pension. Voters were not taken in.

“Tsipras’ handouts acted as a boomerang,” says Nikolaos Nikolaidis, a lawyer with good connections inside the conservative party. “If you look at how pensioners voted, the bonus pension was more of an annoyance. It reminded them of all that had been taken away in previous years. It was also announced just before the election and was clearly connected to it.”

Iran tension highlights EU’s subordinate role

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

US-Iranian tensions have revived concern over the European Union’s difficulty in speaking with authority on the world stage.

“I don’t see that there’s greater unity in Europe than there was in 2003,” says Thanos Dokos, Director of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, referring to European divisions over the Second Gulf War. “If anything, there is less.”

In the runup to European Parliament elections this month, Iran threatened to depart from a deal struck in 2015 with US President Obama, that lifted trade sanctions against Tehran in return for a vastly scaled down nuclear programme.

Friday, 17 May 2019

Syriza unnerves creditors as it reaches for voters

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

Greece’s Syriza government on Wednesday approved a slate of tax sweeteners and handouts worth well over a billion euros, as it tried to boost its popularity days ahead of European Parliament elections.

Opposition parties joined Syriza in voting for a measure that allows tax debtors to schedule their arrears in 120 instalments.

They also supported the government in lowering sales tax on food and restaurants from 24 percent to 13 percent.

More controversial was the government’s handout of a 13th monthly pension to 2.5 million retirees.

Syriza has promised further fiscal relaxation ahead of a general election due by October.

“We have a brand and we have recognition value in Europe. It is a left wing brand and we shall contest the next election as the left and win it as the left,” finance minister Euclid Tsakalotos told parliament.

Monday, 13 May 2019

Second Tree picks up the challenge of refugee integration

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

Students in Second Tree’s English class near Katsikas camp

Sarah hands out slips of paper to her class, each with a verb in the present tense. Her 13 students must come up to the whiteboard and write the appropriate past tense for their verb, and then pronounce it.

Reza, from Afghanistan, correctly writes “tried”, but he produces peals of laughter from Riat, a Somali, when he says, “I cried to learn.” Riat is clearly the star of the class. She whispers everybody’s answer correctly to herself; but even she doesn’t understand how the aorist of leave can be “left”. Nor does anyone else. “Left, right?” asks one student.

Sarah is an English teacher for Second Tree, an aid group made entirely of volunteers. Her wards are adult refugees from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They assemble every weekday morning in a 25sqm schoolhouse of unfinished lumber hammered together by volunteers. It sits in the parking lot of a defunct furniture factory across the street from Katsikas refugee camp, near Ioannina in northwest Greece.

Friday, 12 April 2019

How refugees die

This article was published by The Sewanee Review and Longreads.

I met Doa Shukrizan at the harbormaster’s office in the port of
Chania, in western Crete. She sat with her back to a balcony
 overlooking the street, and the strong morning light enveloped
 her delicate figure, so that there appeared to be even
less of her than there was after her ordeal with the sea. Doa’s face 
had peeled from extreme sunburn; she spoke softly. Between the
cavernous ceiling and polished concrete floor, the only furnishings
 were tables, chairs and ring binders, so that voices, however slender,
 resounded. There were no secrets in this room. During the hour
 that we spoke, three coastguard officers sat at their desks not doing
 any work, transfixed by what she said.

Doa and her fiancé had been among some five hundred people
 who boarded a fishing trawler at the port of Damietta in the Nile
Delta on September 6, 2014. Many, like Doa, were Syrian. Others
 were Palestinian or Sudanese. All were fleeing war and had paid
 smugglers to ferry them, illegally, to Italy.

Doa’s family had fled their native town of Daraa soon after the
Syrian uprising began there in March 2011, when Doa was just sixteen. They spent more than two years in an unofficial refugee camp
 in Egypt, and pooled enough money to pay Doa’s and her fiancé’s 
passage, so they could start their lives in Europe.

Why Greeks abhor and applaud Brexit

The secret appeal of Britain’s imperiousness to Europe’s disenfranchised South

This article was published in the Spectator US.

Pavlos Eleftheriadis is as Anglophilic a Greek as they come. His wife and children are British, and he is a professor of public law at Oxford. But Brexit has altered Eleftheriadis’ view of life in Britain.

‘Psychologically, it’s difficult to accept that half of the society you live in is against the presence of Europeans,’ he says. ‘This came out very strongly, including from the prime minister herself. She said we have to stop the free movement of workers from Europe. It’s her primary objective. This wounds you. You wonder why they say this and what led them to it.’

Eleftheriadis says that he’s never seen a hint of racism or prejudice in professional life. But he’s hedging against the attitudes of the next generation. This year, he’s taking a sabbatical, partly in order to acquaint his children with their Greek roots.

‘My children have Greek names. I’m not sure I want them to grow up here 100 percent British. I want them to be Greek, too… so they can have a choice in case things become very ugly in Britain.’

Political divisions widen in Albania as EU decision nears

Poverty, crime, corruption and political instability are testing the EU-aspiring country

 This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

The perception that Edi Rama’s socialist government has embraced special interests, and especially the illegal drug trade, is widespread in Albania. Two interior ministers have resigned under suspicion of taking bribes from organized crime. The opposition Democratic Party is refining that sentiment into political fuel.

Last month it walked out of parliament and took to the street, beginning a series of protests outside Rama’s office. On Thursday it is inaugurating a new practice of demonstrating outside parliament every time there is a debate.

“Amendments we proposed were voted down without discussion. Whenever ministers were called to report before parliamentary commissions, they declined,” Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha tells Al Jazeera. “Investigative committees never worked because contrary to the law they refused to submit evidence of investigations we initiated of collusion between organized crime and senior ministers, including the two former ministers of interior. And finally they even denied our right of parliamentary debate. So finally we just became a piece of a picture-perfect parliament with government and opposition, which was effectively a façade.”

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Why Greek-Turkish turbulence is likely to worsen

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.
Alexis Tsipras meets Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on February 5.
Turkey chose the day of the Greek prime minister’s visit to place a $6.1mn bounty on the heads of Turkish eight army officers seeking asylum in Greece. This emphasis had been suggested days earlier, when the powerful National Security Council in Ankara issued a demand for their extradition, despite the fact that the Greek Supreme Court has forbidden this on humanitarian grounds.

The court’s decision is unreviewable, but the Turkish government suspects the men of helping to plot a failed coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July 2016. The men commandeered a helicopter to escape Turkey and seek asylum in Greece.

To the conservative Greek opposition, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras had walked into a trap. “This visit is poorly prepared by the Greek side, and augurs ill for Greek interests and Greek-Turkish relations,” declared Greek shadow foreign minister Yiorgos Koumoutsakos.

“For the last 18 months, Turkey has toughened its rhetoric and backed that up with actions. The result is that the two countries are in a state of constant confrontation. Nothing has occurred to make us believe in a breakthrough,” says Angelos Syrigos, an expert in international law at Panteion University in Athens, and a candidate with the conservative New Democracy party.

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Greece, North Macedonia have their work cut out for them

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

NATO and the European Union celebrated Greece’s ratification of the Prespes Agreement on January 25, whereby it recognizes its northern neighbour as North Macedonia.

But the agreement has yet to enter into force. “It has been adopted, but not implemented. It’s an interim period,” says Greek foreign ministry spokesman Alexandros Gennimatas. “As soon as we ratify the NATO Induction Protocol, we shall inform Skopje and they will reply saying that “we are now called North Macedonia.”

This is to happen over the next ten days. Then North Macedonia’s induction will have to be ratified by the parliaments of all 29 NATO members. “Last time this took year,” says Gennimatas, referring to Montenegro’s induction in 2017.

In the weeks following, Greece is also expected to notify the EU that it supports accession talks with North Macedonia. The two countries will upgrade their liaison offices to full embassies.

Within five years, North Macedonia is to rename all its public bodies, adjust its internal official documents and replace all passports currently in circulation.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

What's next in the Greece-North Macedonia agreement

The Greek parliament on January 25 ratified the Prespes Agreement with 153 votes in the 300-seat chamber, whereby it recognises its northern neighbour as North Macedonia. 

Over the next two weeks: Once the Prespes Agreement is published in the Greek government gazette and NATO informed that it is law, NATO will invite member states to accept North Macedonia as a member. Once Greece ratifies the NATO Accession Protocol, North Macedonia will inform the United Nations and other international bodies that the Prespes Agreement is in force.

In the weeks following: Greece is also expected to notify the EU that it supports accession talks with North Macedonia. The two countries will upgrade their liaison offices to full embassies.

Within six months: North Macedonia will convene a committee to review its monuments and public buildings and how they "refer in any way to ancient Hellenic history and civilisation," and take appropriate "corrective action". (8.2).

Some substantive changes may take longer. Trade and education are the most prickly areas. The two countries have set up a joint committee of trade experts this year to discuss trademarks and brand names containing the term Macedonia or Macedonian. The committee must conclude an agreement within three years on mutually acceptable uses of such names. (1.3.h)

A Joint Inter-Disciplinary Committee of Experts on historic, archaeological and educational matters formed last year will revise school textbooks, maps and teaching guides to remove "irredentist /revisionist references" to ancient Macedonia or other Greek heritage, and in the process is redesign the next North Macedonian generation's identity. (8.5).

The two parties are also supposed to establish an Action Plan of cooperation on a range of issues like transport, civil protection, agriculture, energy, the environment, infrastructure, investments and defence. They are to establish a High Level Cooperation Council to oversee that plan. (14).

Within five years: North Macedonia is to rename all its public bodies, adjust its internal official documents and replace all  passports currently in circulation. (1.10)

Friday, 25 January 2019

Greek parliament set for historic Macedonia name vote

This article was published by Al Jazeera International

On Thursday night, Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) are scheduled to put to rest a 27-year dispute over the latter country’s name.

That’s when the Greek parliament is scheduled to ratify the Prespes Agreement, reached last June. FYROM agrees to abandon “Republic of Macedonia” - the name it chose for itself when it declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 – and call itself North Macedonia. Greece agrees to lift its veto to North Macedonia’s membership in NATO and the European Union. A source of instability and ill feeling in southeast Europe is thus removed. There are economic dividends, too. North Macedonia’s premier, Zoran Zaev, reports an 18.7 percent uplift in mutual trade over the past ten months.

To the casual observer, an incomprehensible dispute has been resolved. Yet the compromise has brought political turmoil in both capitals. In Skopje, social-democrat Zaev was soundly beaten in a referendum on the deal; he ratified it in parliament by luring eight MPs from the nationalist VMRO party across the aisle.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Chronology of the Macedonian Issue

1805 – Serbian revolution against the Ottoman Empire

1821 – Greek revolution against the Ottoman Empire

1830 – founding of the Greek state

1844 – Greece’s first prime minister, Ioannis Kolettis, first articulates the ideology of the Great Idea in Greek parliament.

28 Feb / 12 Mar 1870 – Under Russian pressure, Sultan Abdul Aziz grants Bulgaria suzerainty (exarchy) over a broad swathe of the Balkans stretching from Balkan Mts. to Danube, essentially what is today northern Bulgaria. This is an idea the Bulgarians had been working towards since 1856, and their efforts intensified after Nikolai Ignatieff was installed as Russian ambassador to the Porte in 1864. Majority Greek areas are excluded but article 10 allows them to join the exarchy if 2/3 of the population wish it. The patriarchate held a Holy and Great Synod in 1872 to condemn tribal nationalism (εθνοφυλετισμός) and the period marks the beginning of Greek-Bulgarian rivalry in the Balkans.

1875 – revolution in Bosnia-Herzegovina

1876 – Serbo-Ottoman war

April 1876 – Bulgarian revolution

Monday, 14 January 2019

Greek government splits over Macedonia

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

ATHENS, Greece - Defence Minister Panos Kammenos and his Independent Greeks party quit Greece’s ruling coalition on Sunday, potentially leaving it without a governing majority in parliament.

Kammenos disagrees with a deal struck with former Yugoslav Macedonia last June, which would rename that country North Macedonia. Many Greeks believe that any name containing the term Macedonia would imply territorial claims on Greece’s northern province of the same name, incorporated into the Greek state in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13.

“We cannot, for the sake of membership in the government, sacrifice Macedonia for which blood has been spilled,” Kammenos said on Sunday.

In Greece, Merkel embraces former Eurosceptics

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

Angela Merkel left Greece on Friday after an unusual show of support for the leftwing government of Alexis Tsipras and disdain for her fellow-conservative opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

What caused this reverse-polarity was the Syriza government’s agreement with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) last year to change that country’s name to North Macedonia.

That agreement has led to a series of constitutional revisions by Greece’s neighbour, expected to be finalized this week. The onus will then be on Greece to ratify the agreement. Greece’s veto on North Macedonia joining NATO and the European Union would then be lifted.

“I am especially grateful to Alexis Tsipras for taking the initiative on a very difficult problem,” Merkel said on Thursday, praising his “great courage”. Merkel had less kind words for Mitsotakis, leader of the New Democracy party, which vows to vote against the agreement.