Perusing a recent well meaning article in the Greek media exhorting members of the community to attend the annual Justice for Cyprus march, I was astounded to encounter the following phrase: “We call upon the Cypriot and Greek people...” So disconcerted was I that I compelled myself to re-read the offending phrase another two times, by which time the question had to inevitably be asked: Are not Cypriots in fact Greeks? Since when are Cypriots and Greeks two separate people?
In order to solve the quandary, I sought the sage advice of some Turkish friends who were born in Cyprus. To the question, “to which people do you belong?” they invariably answered: “We are Turks,” scoffing at the suggestion that the appellation of “Cypriot” could ever signify a people and affirming that the Greeks and Turks of Cyprus are two distinct and separate people.
If one was to be charitable, the reason for the propagation of a supposed “Cypriot” ethnic or social identity could be justified by the fact that a) Cyprus, by accident of history and against the will of the majority of its inhabitants is an independent sovereign state, at least de jure, and b) that ethnic fractures on the island could be papered over by the propagation of a neutral ‘Cypriot’ identity that all ethnic groups find acceptable. The problem however, rests in the fact that the only people who appear to adhere to this view happen to be Greeks. Quite often, their well meaning but ill conceived attempt to construct a non-existent identity leads them towards bizarre acts, such as claiming that they speak “Cypriot,” in the last census here in Australia and diminishing the Greek component of their identity in favour of an identity that is, well Greek, but divested of this appellation.
Only time will tell whether a “Cypriot” ethnic identity will ever plausibly remain. Yet the propagation of such a fantasy is of great interest, as Cyprus has historically not been the only part of the Greek –speaking world to have enjoyed independence, whether de facto, de jure or otherwise. The inhabitants of those regions displayed a conception of their identity markedly different to that of their modern ‘Cypriot’ counterparts. As far back as Ottoman times, in 1537, the seven villages of Cheimarra, Northern Epirus were granted autonomy, a Christian flag, exemption from tribute and interference in the day to day running of their affairs. From 1537 to the present day, the Cheimarriotes, have, in the face of extreme pressure by successive Ottoman and Albanian regimes, steadfastly maintained their Greek identity and their desire to be part of the Greek state. The United States of the Ionian Islands, formed in 1815 under British auspices functioned as a sovereign entity under the British crown. Its inhabitants steadfastly maintained their Greek identity until the islands were ceded to Greece in 1864.
Various regions of Greece present further instructive parallels with the case of Cyprus. Regions whose inhabitants fought particularly stubbornly for the overthrow of Ottoman rule and their unification with Greece, in popular uprisings were generally denied the object of their desire. As a stopgap measure, they were generally granted autonomous statehood as principalities, connected to but not ruled by the Ottoman Empire. Crete formed such a principality under Prince George, between 1898 to 1913. As Nikos Kazantzakis’ fictional account of the Cretan uprisings “Kapetan Mihalis” attests, at no stage did the hardy Cretans pursue a separate ‘Cretan’ identity but instead pursued their dream of union with Greece with fanaticism. Luckily for them, they had not long to wait.
Other regions enjoyed autonomy for generations. The principality of Samos was in existence from 1835 to 1912, a much longer period than Cypriot statehood. During that time, it became a trading entrepot and centre of the tobacco industry. It also conducted interesting social experiments such as the institution of Esperanto as its official language but during their long independence, at no stage did its doughty inhabitants ever abjure, or seek to diminish their Greek identity, and pursued union with Greece with single-minded fervour. Much like in the instance of Crete, the architect of enosis (Venizelos for Crete, Sofoulis for Samos), eventually became the Prime Minister of Greece.
The island of Ikaria also enjoyed autonomy, for four months in 1912 before joining Greece. Nonetheless, at least if the Austrian newspaper “Heute” is to be granted credibility, it appears that the Free State of Ikaria is about to make a comeback, though not necessarily peddling a fantasy “Icarian” identity. According to this august publication, the island of Ikaria is joined to Greece by a century old treaty that has expired. It now wishes to secede from Greece and become the tenth member of the Austrian Federation. Several Austrian publications add further that the proposed method of secession will be via a referendum in which the eight thousand inhabitants of the island, headed by their mayor, Christodoulos Stafrinadis, will be asked to turn their backs on Athens, whose mismanagement of Greece is held to be the reason for this unprecedented political redefinition, in order to embrace Vienna.
For reasons that cannot be understood, the reporting of this spectacular event has enraged the Greek Embassy in Vienna, which has caused to be posted on its website, the following caveat: “Icaria is an inseparable part of the Greek state and there exists no expired treaty between that island and the government of Greece. On 17 July 2012, the one hundredth anniversary of the revolution was celebrated, via which Icaria, an eastern Aegean island, gained its independence from the Ottoman state. Pursuant to Article 12 of the Treaty of Lausanne, it is confirmed that the islands of the eastern Aegean, including Icaria, belong to Greece.”
One can only guess at the reason for such a knee jerk reaction. After all, Greece and the people of Icaria would have everything to gain from the proposed union with Austria. For Icaria is considered one of the world’s “Blue Zones,” enjoying the highest percentage of 90 year-olds on the planet, where nearly one out of every three people make it to their ninth decade. Furthermore, Icarians have about 20 percent lower rates of cancer, 50 percent lower rates of heart disease than average and almost no dementia. Given such a surprising propensity towards longevity, the hearty but hale Icarians can, as full Austrian citizens, prevail upon their generous social security system to bear the full cost of their lengthy retirement. Add to that a cultural infusion of Viennese opera, Viennese coffee, sliced Vienna bread and Wiener schnitzel and one veritably has, heaven on earth – a jewel of an Aegean isle, financed and run with Teutonic thoroughness and Mozartian grace. If this was not enough, it has been calculated by a professor of the University of Linz that corollary to the Anschluss of Icaria with Austria, the new Austrian Federation would be compelled to assume liability for the Icarian component of the Greek national debt, which comes to two hundred and fifty million euro. The Teutonification of Icaria therefore, truly is in the national interest, that is, as long as its neo-Austrian citizens remember not to fly to close to the sun.
The above notwithstanding, a system whereby regions of Greece decide to construct, much like some Cypriots, a bogus national identity and declare their own independence would be much more advantageous than having those apostatizing regions arbitrarily deciding to attach themselves to the bosoms of foreign motherlands. The more independent Greek speaking nations we have, the more seats we will obtain in the United Nations Assembly and the more votes we shall be able to trade with each other in the Eurovision Song Contest, except that is for the unspeakable Icarians who will grant douze points to Austria and the detestable denizens of Frangonisi, who will invariably favour the French, not to mention the voters of Tourkolimano who could swing either way….
From the autonomous Greek-speaking despotate of Brunswick, not to be confused with the serene Hellenic-speaking Republic of Northcote, or the Cypriot-speaking sultanate of Sunshine, or the Pontian speaking Principality of Parkville, disunion or death!
First published in NKEE on Saturday 21 July 2012