Saturday, March 26, 2011
"The decorations are like those of the embassy of a nation about to go into voluntary liquidation." Colin McInnes. Entering the diplomatic quarter of Tirana, the capital of Albania, is like stepping into an entirely different world. Gone is the grime and grittiness of the street; the bustle, noise and congestion banished beyond the checkpoint at the threshold of which one has to provide police with a legitimate reason for entry before going further. Yet in two steps, an eerie hush falls upon an empty and disconcertingly tidy street. Embassies and other official buildings face each other, assuming a polite and yet cool, give-away-no-secrets, do no favours demeanour. In the dark, Victorian-style restaurant on the corner, diplomatic staff revel in their privileged status by eating ham sandwiches and alluding to exclusive knowledge of secrets of whose import they know nothing. A street away, one navigates beyond the inordinately long line of Albanians patiently waiting entry for a visa and passes through the gate into the Greek embassy. At once, one enters an environment comfortable in its familiarity. Seated at his desk, poring over official documents while his cigarette lay forgotten, burning an arc of ash over an ashtray buried amidst newspapers, pens and a box of cakes, was my friend, an employee of the embassy. I sat with him, watching him work, discussing with him various aspects of the perspicacity, discretion and tactfulness that are prerequisites of his position, attributes the lack of which would ensure that I could never be suited to a career in diplomacy. I hesitantly ventured that my mental image of a fitting diplomat posted in Albania would be that of the world weary, ponderous countenance of poet laureate George Seferis, who was posted in the city of Korytsa during the period 1936-1938 and found the experience interminably boring. You really couldn't have it any other way. To do so, would be to invite chaos, schism and general disruption. "Do you want to meet the Ambassador?" my friend riposted. "He is the most amazing man. You should see what he has been able to do here." Indeed, unlike Seferis, the Greek Ambassador sported an amazing chestnut toupe of such implausibility that one could not do other than remain fixated upon it and truly it constitutes the yardstick by which I have measured the prowess of Greek diplomats ever since. However, in the brief time I spent with the Ambassador, I was greatly impressed by his exposition of the import of his duties to the maintenance of good relations between the two countries and his commitment to carrying these out. My friend no longer works at the Tirana Embassy owing to budget cuts as a consequence of Greece's burgeoning financial crisis. A member of the reek minority in Albania, he has been compelled to abandon his homeland and seek employment in Greece, which is a shame as he was masterfully adept at his role. Yet he is not a sole victim of the culling that is taking place in Greek embassies throughout the world. Cleaning staff and drivers at the Greek Embassy in Ankara are threatening to sue over unpaid wages, as the effects of the Greek financial crisis hit its Foreign Ministry hard. The economic crisis - the largest in the country's history - has the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs cutting back on expenses. This is leaving many embassies around the world without basic necessities such as heating and internet service.Ambassador to Turkey Xydas, who previously, served as Ambassador of Greece in Australia, while denying the non-payment of local staff, acknowledged that the situation was dire: "We, regular diplomats, don't have contracts. Salaries were cut, not only for Greek diplomats, but also for many Portuguese, Spanish and Irish colleagues. We understand this and don't complain," he added. Nonetheless, many Greek embassies throughout the world have also been late in paying their employees, angering their staff. At some embassies, Greek diplomats are paying the bills and doing the chores to keep the facilities up and running. The embassy in Russia is among those that have been unable to provide paychecks for their staff; without cleaning workers, the task has fallen to the diplomats themselves. The Greek Embassy in Ukraine is unprotected, as its police staff was not paid.Billing complications have left at least five embassies with no electricity, heating or internet service, and it is reported that many have received only 7 percent of the funds necessary to run an embassy. Recently, a frustrated ambassador in an African country wrote to the Foreign Ministry, outlining that its staff has not been paid and asking whether it was Greece's intention to present its worst face to the outside world. Budget cuts too are rumoured to have been felt keenly at the Greek Consulate in Melbourne, as a directive of etiquette, the locus of emanation from which is unknown, circulate among leaders of various Greek organisations, not to invite our new Consul-General to too many functions on weekends, as the traditional petrol allowance afforded to those in her position has been cut. Embassies truly are the face of a country within another. As such it is greatly distressing to perceive the difficulties facing the Greek Foreign Ministry in maintaining its embassies under the extremely difficult prevailing conditions and we can only sympathise with embassy and consular officials who have not been paid in months. Not only does this create a crisis of confidence in the Greek state but also retards the world mission of a country that has up until now, punched above its weight in the diplomatic stakes, with some success. It is for this reason that the presence of the three-man Greek parliamentary delegation, sent to attend our celebration of Greek Independence Day is uniquely mystifying. While consular staff go unpaid, are reduced to using power only for certain hours a day and have their freedom of movement severely circumscribed, somehow enough money can be conjured out of the black hole that is the Greek public purse to send some politicians and their entourage to Australia, simply to witness the flower of our youth march from the foot of the Shrine of Remembrance to the stairs of the Shrine of Remembrance and pronounce the tired and tawdry mantra, that we are more Greek than the Greeks. After all, this mantra assumes that we are not Greek and is thus, particularly hurtful. That is not to say that any guest from the homeland, especially one who represents the populace at large in its House of Babblement is not welcome within our communal bosom, especially during the time of our national festivities, which provide us with a unique opportunity to celebrate who we are and how far we have come. Nonetheless, one cannot but question the propriety of such a visit, the necessity and effect of which, not withstanding it imparting a token official Greek presence which translates into an official validation, conferring approbation upon our endeavours, is entirely questionable. Surely no further representation, especially during financial straitened times, is necessary than that of our Consul-General, Ms Lianidou, who though newly arrived upon our shores, has managed to win the hearts and admiration of the entire Greek community. She is after all, the representative of our motherland in Melbourne and is more than capable of conferring the necessary soothing words of praise, commendation and eulogy upon us that will make us feel less estranged from the Hellenic family, all at a tsarouhi-string budget. Personally, I would have ascribed kudos to the Greek Foreign Ministry, had it embarked upon the pursuit of procuring three relatively obscure members of the Greek community, obtaining for each of them a suit and then have them pose as visiting Greek politicians. This, gentle readers, is how the battle to get the budget back into the black is won. All Greek battles have been won against superhuman odds and only through the exercise of inordinate Hellenic ingenuity. Not to do so on this, our most auspicious and hallowed national celebration casts a pall upon what Modern Greece has become. If money can be found to send three most welcome and respected Greek members of Parliament to partake of our national celebrations, then surely money can be found to pay local staff and embassy employees, or what does this say about national priorities? Perhaps further money can be saved by replacing Consular staff with local impersonators and why stop there? Why not populate the Greek parliament with the local unemployed until the crisis is over. Who says they cannot lend to that august institution that has led Greece to the brink of fiscal disaster the requisite verisimilitude to maintain the illusion that they are still running the country? To our Parliamentary guests and our beleaguered friends in embassies all around the world, we place our hands tightly in our pockets and cry in unison: Ζήτω το Έθνος!
First published in NKEE on Saturday 26 March 2011