Saturday, November 26, 2011


Realpolitik, being the politics of expediency and vested interest often results in the sidelining of small nations and the imposition of treaties or status quo which are onerous and unjust. The fact that Cyprus was not permitted by the Great Powers in the fifties and after a lengthy struggle, to unite with its motherland testifies to the importance of vested interest and power struggles over the right of a people to self-determination. However, it is a little known fact that such unjust arrangements were not new to the Mediterranean. Indeed, the Cyprus debacle had its precedent in similar diplomatic constructions made one hundred years prior, causing untold suffering, misery and social upheaval to the island of Crete and even before that, to the people of the independent principality of Samos.
During the Greek revolution, Turks on the Ionian coast of Asia Minor lived in mortal fear of the pirates across the narrow straits of Dar Bogaz. The indomitable Samians, of the first Greeks to raise themselves in revolt against the Ottomans, would cruise up and down the coastline, freeing the Greek villages and marauding Ottoman camps and ports, rendering their access to the aegean Sea and to mainland Greece well nigh impossible. If the Ottomans had free access had landed, especially during the difficult years of 1823-4, perhaps the revolution would not have been successful. As well, Samians were the only Greeks who not only revolted of their own accord, but also ‘exported’ it to other regions of Greece. Lykourgos Logothetis landed on Chios on 11 March 1821 and immediately proclaimed a revolution there.
The Ottomans endeavoured on several occasions to stamp out Samian revolutionary activity to no avail. The large naval invasion of 6 August 1824 met with total disaster off the coast of Mycale and never again did the Ottomans attempt to reclaim the island and the Samians set about forming a provisional government headed by the Metropolitan of Karlovasion. Delegates from Samos attended the negotiations leading to the signing of the London protocol on 3 February 1830. In accordance with this document, all Greek areas that had taken up arms against the Ottomans were to be included in the fledgling Greek State. However, Samos was deemed to be too close to Turkey and thus of too much strategic importance to be given to Greece by the Great Powers. At a public meeting soon after, the Samians voted unanimously “that Samos would always remain an integral part of the Greek State.” The Samians also vowed to continue the struggle for enosis.
Thus the provisional government continued to send money to the Greek government as well as funding insurrections of guerilla groups in parts of unliberated Greece. It also ensured that supply lines were kept open, stepping up its naval blockade of Turkey and the re-occupation of the coast of Asia Minor. The Sultan, in an attempt to protect himself from Samian belligerence appealed to the Great Powers, who decided to grant Samos autonomous status under a Greek regent, on 10 December 1832. Henceforth, Samos would be an independent principality under the suzerainty of the Sultan and defended by a Samian home guard. All Ottoman troops were to evacuate the island. The Samian principality was to pay yearly tribute to the Sultan and was also to have its own flag, first hoisted by Phanariot Constantine Mousouros on 12 May 1834. It featured a blue background symbolising the Greek character of the island and a white triangle in the centre, to symbolize the fact that Samos was under the “protection” of the three Great Powers (Britain, France and Russia). In the centre of the triangle was a red cross, to assure the inhabitants that their religion would be respected by the Ottoman Empire. In later years, the flag was changed to the Greek flag, although the two top panels above the white cross were red instead of blue.
When Stephanos Vogoridis, the first Greek regent landed in Samos, he was met with widespread consternation. The age old class distinction between the wealthy landowners “kallikanzaroi” who tended to look upon a Samos under the Regency as a secure and stable state and the “karmanioloi” meaning supporters of the guillotine who represented the peasants and the merchants, once more began to cause friction in Samian society. Stephanos Vogoridis tended to curry favour with the kallikanzaroi who supported his regime and introduced a set of repressive measures against the populace, curbing their freedom of movement and their freedom of speech. He further alienated the populace by exiling the leaders of the Samian Revolution and through oppressive taxation of agricultural produce.
As a result of his harsh rule, repeated revolts broke out which were suppressed with surprising ferocity. Finally, in 1849, Vogoridis was swept away from power and the Sultan was forced to grant a constitution to the inhabitants. The so-called “Organic Charter” stated that Samos would be ruled by an Orthodox Christian Regent appointed by the Sultan as well as a parliament of four members, elected by a council of elders of the largest villages. These elders formed the legislative body of the island and oversaw also the function of the public service. In reality however, the Sultan saw the 1849 revolt as a means to re-introduce Ottoman troops to the island. The Regents which followed Vogoridis tended to be devoted followers of the Sultan who sought only personal aggrandizement and enrichment and as a result, they were dethroned by the Samians with surprising regularity.
However, after the demise of Vogoridis, Samos enjoyed an unprecedented cultural and economic renaissance. The efficiency of its civil administration was such that the Greeks would send their public servants to Samos for study tours and training. Samos boasted a comprehensive legal code, a three-tiered judicial system with a court of appeal, a land registry and a registry of births, death and marriages. The capital of the principality was moved to Vathy in 1854 and much time and effort was expended in beautifying the city with public buildings in the neoclassical style. Samos also boasted a system of public transport in the main cities of Vathy and Karlovassion. Tram lines run by the State ran through these cities till 1937 while other ambitious public works, such as the carriage roads that were hacked across the mountains to allow passage from Marathokambos in the far west to Vathy in the east.
The efficient and close rule of the independent principality of Samos could only be effected through the economic resurgence of the island. During the Regency, Samos became world famous for its tobacco, which was held to be of the finest quality. Vast tracts of agricultural land were given over to the cultivation of this cash crop, which was exported and processed in Samian owned cigarette factories in Egypt, Europe and the Middle East. Carathanassis & Co cigarette plants were found in China, Japan Canada and America.
The processing of hides into leather was also an important industry, especially in Karlovassion while the famous Samian wine, immortalised by Byron and by Shakespeare (King Richard drowned his brother in a vat of Samian moschato wine) continued to be cultivated and processed in Mytilenioi and other villages. Shipping also was of great importance, the deep-water harbour at Vathy allowing the embarkation of large ships.
In order to capitalize on Samian prosperity, many Greek immigrants from Asia Minor began to flood the island, at first in search of seasonal labour and often settled down.
The economic miracle of Samos allowed great emphasis to be given to education by the State. Between 1851 to 1853, a school was built in every village on the island and literacy programs were put in place. High Schools and Business Colleges were also built in Karlovassion as well as a Technical College at Vathy. Wealthy merchants and shipowners also provided funds for the erection of schools. Archdeacon Euthimios Kalymnios of Jerusalem, whose family began a slow migration from Asia Minor to the village of Mytilenioi during this time, provided the funds for the erection of the Euthimiada Scholi, a high school in this large agricultural village.
This enlightened view of the role of the state extended even further. In 1909, Samos became the first state in the entire world to legislate for the compulsory tuition of the international language Esperanto in all schools. It was believed that teaching this language would foster the worldwide brotherhood of mankind. Teaching ceased after the union of Samos with Greece. Many newspapers and publishing houses also sprung up during this time. Samian newspapers were known for their caustic wit, their defence of democracy, championing of union with Greece and burning social critique.
The late nineteenth century also sparked great interest in the rich ancient past of the island. Under the direction of the Regents, archaeological digs took place at the ancient capital at Pythagoreion, as well as at Heraion, where the largest Greek temple ever built, dedicated to the Greek goddess Hera, existed. Important historical and archaeological works such as those of Stamatiadis were published, as well as works of the Samian national poet George Kleanthis and many annotated translations of ancient Samian philosophers such as Pythagoras and Aristarchus. More so than in any other area of Greece did the re-discovery of the ancient past have such great effect. Even today, the majority of Samians bear ancient names, which their ancestors gave to their children as a popular fad during this period. Important Mathematical treatises and proofs were published by the scholar-Regent Constantine Karatheodoris, who also translated famous works of Arab philosophers in Greek in 1891.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, it was apparent to all except the most conservative that the Regency, an anachronism in the age of nationalism, was a thing of the past. Social strife began to grow once more as incompetent Regents were sent to govern the island. This caused a review of the political system so that it could be re-organised along party lines. Themistocles Sophoulis, a lawyer of Vathy formed the Progressive Movement, affiliated with the liberals of Eleutherios Venizelos in Greece. Through its newspapers, Nea Zoi and Fos, it agitated for union with Greece and encouraged popular dissent against the Regents. He was instrumental in organizing the revolt against repressive Regent Andreas Kopasis on 12 May 1908, as a result of which, he and his followers were sentenced to death, commuted to exile. Even in Athens however, Sophoulis campaigned for union. He encouraged the formation of guerilla bands in the villages, which engaged in periodic skirmishes with the Turkish garrison.
The assassination of Regent Kopasis in 1912 by Stavros Baretis was held as an act of deliverance against a hated tyrant. Sophoulis quickly landed on the island and called a national convention on the issue of union with Greece. In the meantime, victorious Greek armies were liberating Macedonia and Epirus and Sophoulis gauged that there was no time to lose. On 11 November 1912, at Vathy, Sophoulis proclaimed the Union of Samos with Greece under in front of an ecstatic crowd. The Turkish garrison was overpowered and compelled to leave the island, while a provisional government was formed. Strangely enough, there was no response from the Greek government, causing Sophoulis to fire off his famous “well do you want us or not?” telegram to the Greek government. Finally, amid tears of jubilation, on 2 March 1913, Greek troops arrived on the island and hoisted the Greek flag.
The 11 November 1912 is an important event in the Greek calendar. Samos’ fate directly influenced that of Crete, which enjoyed a similar regime and are in stark contrast to the sad fate of their sister island, Cyprus. In an aberration of history, a small island became a major player in the politics of the Mediterranean. The egalitarian ethos of the Samians, which was very sensitive to social inequality led to the formation of an enlightened welfare state with free schools, subsidized medical care and public transport decades before such concepts became accepted in the larger, industrial nations. Sophoulis lent his talents to the prime-ministership of Greece and steered the country on the path of reconciliation after the disastrous civil war in 1948 and in yet another aberration of history, Samos, the hub of the Greek revolution and the fomenter of social change, is now a sleepy backwater, albeit strewn with relics of its glorious past.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 19 and 36 November 2011

Saturday, November 05, 2011

OXI 2011

The day of OXI, commemorating the brave refusal of Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas to allow the Italian army to occupy strategic parts of Greece has a special place in the hearts of the Greek people for two reasons. Firstly, various historical parallels can be drawn from this singular act of defiance against superior forces, throughout Greek history, stemming from the Persian Wars, where various Greek city states held out against Persian expansionism, Byzantium, where an increasingly beleaguered and impoverished Empire managed, after its sack by the Crusaders in 1204 to hold out against the ravages of sundry Latins, Turks and Bulgars, struggling on until the final death blow in 1453. There are also parallels to be drawn from the Souliotes, and a multitude of battles in the Greek revolution, the fall of Mesolongi, the battle of Alamana, to name but a few. What all these events have in common is that they are touted as instances where a few heroic Greeks united to defy an aggressive foe. The qualities that are emphasized, are defiance, self-sacrifice and most importantly unity, which, it is widely held, are the catalysts for the Greek's success.
Of course, disunity and strife underlying each event are glossed over and silenced. Little is made, for example, of the fact that the Macedonians were allies of the Persians during the Persian Wars, or that the Latins were actually invited to Constantinople by claimants to the Byzantine throne. Similarly, not much is made of the internecine strife between fighters, accompanying and greatly jeopardizing the Greek War of Independence, that cost the life of Odysseus Androutsos, among many and almost took that of the great Theodoros Kolokotronis. Viewed through this more realistic prism, what should be celebrated, is not our prowess per se, but the fact that the main protagonists managed to achieve a successful or at least heroic outcome, despite their shortcomings. In short, these achievements mark the triumph of transcendence of self.
OXI is slightly different to most of the events that it is paralleled with, for the resistance against unprovoked aggression truly galvanised a nation and stood witness to countless acts of self-sacrifice, especially in Crete where it is widely held that the redoubtable Cretan resistance delayed Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union by one critical month. The emerging "EPOS of 1940" as it is termed in Greek, was thus not a myth but a fact. What is also a fact is that the unity of Greece, (even the Greek Communist Party dropped its early stance against joining the Allies in an 'imperialist' war, only to advocate the dismembering of Greece and the creation of an independent communist 'Macedonian' State, only to condemn that later), was subsequently compromised, as leftist and rightist guerilla groups receded to the mountains in order to wait until the occupiers had left, whereupon they descended from the hideouts and began to kill each other, and much of the population, during the course of a brutal civil war, whose after-effects are still felt in the poisoned political culture of Greece today.
If ground-breaking historian Marina Hill is to believed, the Communist Party in Greece was probably correct in its original assessment. For there is enough evidence to make plausible the hypothesis that Britain deliberately stationed its troops in Greece, a country of no strategic value to the Axis powers, in order to goad them into invading. The reason why? The illusory as it turned out hope, that Turkey, seeing an expansionist power invading its neighbour, would be sufficiently unnerved as to enter the war on the side of the Allies. In other words, over four hundred thousand Greeks were consigned to death, starvation, torture and devastation, as pawns of a wider chess game. Viewed in this light, the sacrifice of the Greek people is even more poignant and their betrayal, absolutely sickening.
The Athenian Greeks of 2011 will have commemorated OXI Day, in a city that has been wracked by street-fighting, vandalism and violence reminiscent of the Dekemvriana, the early stages of the Greek Civil War. To them, the ideals of self-sacrifice, of unity and of stoicism in favour of a greater cause, that of the 'nation,' will certainly ring hollow. As was the case during the Dekemvriana, many will feel that the current political regime has been denuded of any legitimacy it purports to have and certainly, the pertinent question will be asked, as to whether there is anything to be gained from adhering, or paying lip-service to such ideals, when the country's leaders do not, and have, in fact, brought the country to the brink of disaster.
Indeed, if internet postings and discussions are anything to go by, the population of Greece lays the blame for Greece's calamities squarely on the shoulders of its leaders. One posting, is particularly telling: "The people are not to blame. Our leaders are traitors." Such a viewpoint is inextricably linked to a popularly held wish: that somehow a charismatic leader will emerge, who will unite the squabbling Greeks and re-set Greece upon the path of greatness. That pious hope, is a most damaging one. Certainly we have seen Greek political culture historically coalesce around such messianic leaders as Venizelos, Metaxas, Karamanlis and Andreas Papandreou, all of whom have in some way fallen short of the mark and who are or have been the objects of as much derision as admiration. Following false messiahs is not the way to the Promised Land.
Ultimately, what the Greek people must learn is that in a western parliamentary 'democracy,' they have as much stake in the running of the country as those who they elect. Given this, they cannot divest themselves of the responsibility of ensuring the integrity of the system, even when that does not suit their personal interests. Instead of immaturely foisting all responsibilities upon politicians, who can be used as vehicles for rorting the system or circumventing regulations, and then as scapegoats when things go sour, it is time that the Greek people adopted a more critical approach to their political culture, demanding openness, fairness and impartiality. In order to achieve that, they will have to wean themselves off the teat of junkets, bribes and corruption, and demand accountability, no matter how long, inconvenient or prejudicial to their interests this may be in the short term.
The OXI of 2011, is not an OXI δεν πληρώνουμε, but rather the necessary self-sacrifice required of ordinary, frustrated and aggrieved citizens, in order to place their country on the footing it should have been on, to begin with. It is not fair that they should be called upon to make such a sacrifice and both those are responsible for the misgovernment of Greece, as well as those who are now destroying public property in the name of democracy must not be tolerated but brought to account. Greek citizens must know that they now hold the Greek State in their hands, if only they can be inspired by the heroism of their predecessors and learn cautionary tales from their shortcomings.
What emerged from the after-math of the OXI of 1940 was a self-hating, hideously traumatized and polarized Greek nation whose fault lines still exist today, in large measure due to the exploitation of political prejudices by politicians of all sides of the spectrum. It is to the Greek people to decide whether they shall take up the struggle against sloth, irresponsibility, political immaturity and self-interest in their own popular OXI, and carve a revolutionary path towards modern responsible statehood, or whether they will continue to throw tantrums and destroy their capital, preserving in their fit of pique, the divisions and discord that have brought their nation to financial and moral bankruptcy. If their petulant and immature booing of the Geek head of State Karolos Papoulias at the 28th October military parade is anything to go by, they still have a long way to go.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 5 November 2011