Saturday, August 25, 2012
Mention the word SAE to members of the Greek community and chances are you will most likely obtain the response: «Τζάμπα τουρίστες.» The reason for such a cynical response can be ascribed to the singular fact that for most of its sordid existence, the Council of Greeks Abroad, at least its Australian component, was comprised of delegates of defunct or marginal community organizations, who in no way represented the consensus of opinion of the Greek community and whose sole aim, as it seemed, was to cadge free tickets to the motherland, in order to go through the motions of attending a conference, being photographed with a few politicians, upon the conclusion of which, they could all repair to their villages, there to eke out the Grecian summer months in thermidorian torpor.
Attending a SAE conference was an experience not to be missed. Having had the privilege of being a «τζάμπα τουρίστας,» on four separate occasions, I was shocked at how at each successive conference, both delegates and organizers alike took the proceedings less and less seriously. While the lengthy and often televised speeches by politicians and luminaries still took up most of the conference agenda, the rest of the time was devoted to the propounding of empty proposals that lacked a framework for implementation. Dealing with anything from Greek language education, to the affording of the vote to Greeks abroad, most national issues and everything in between, these proposals were heavily debated after each regional council had split off from the plenary, raising questions as to why such regional councils would not have been better served staying home and debating their empty proposals there. Such debates were not without humour. It would be invariably be expected at each conference, for example, that an eruption of angry Cypriots, voicing their dissent at proposed solutions to the occupation of Cyprus, in their colourful, staccato tones would erupt, causing more than one Greek politician to ask wryly: "If they can't figure out what they want, how do you suppose we will ever get the Turks to do what we want?"
Nonetheless, after lengthy resolutions were agreed upon, they were voted on by the delegates in plenary sessions, mostly according to party lines. For that was another insidious element of SAE - the fact that it, like most other aspects of Greek public life was coursed by deep fracture lines where the undercurrent veins of Greek party factionalism would flow. This was evident in that most of the conference seemed to be devoted to byzantine negotiations, skullduggery and lobbying designed to elevate the nominee of New Democracy or PASOK to the presidency of the World Council. Indeed, this was the reason why most delegates were in attendance: to indulge in the stultifying micro-politics that have already blighted their own communities, on a wider playing level, egged on by Greek politicians whose sole aim was to distract delegates through petty politicking, thus keeping them away from a consideration of substantive issues. At any rate, it became apparent that the only functioning constituent of SAE was its European regional council, solely because its proximity to the motherland lent it political force and a stake in the wider Greek discourse, and to a lesser extent, the American council, owing to its being a source of funds.
The youth component of SAE, in which I played a small part, was even more of a parody, for it was comprised primarily of 'youth' delegations of organizations that had no youth participation. However, while some of the youth delegates also treated the conference as a means for a subsidised holiday, most took it very seriously, considering it a vital opportunity to establish relationships with delegates from such unlikely places as Kazakhstan or Russia, to revel in the concept of world-wide Hellenism and forge links of shared experience and mutual assistance. Unfortunately, such idealism was marred by the fact that while the conference organizers were perspicacious enough to determine that a youth component to SAE was needed, not much thought was given as to what it should do. At the commencement of the four successive youth conferences I attended, delegates were commanded solely to draft and then re-draft ab initio a constitutional framework for the operation of SAE Youth, completely disregarding previous attempts, in a lame attempt again, to divert the youth from other pursuits.
In their own way, the conference organizers were wise to do so, for youth delegates, especially those from Australia, unlike their European counterparts, do not partake of the servile approach towards politicians and are notoriously outspoken. From the by now famous exclamation by a Northern Territory youth delegate to the plenary that: "I haven't washed for three days, travelling to a conference that is so poorly organized," to the walk out that was provoked by an ex-deputy foreign minister's attempt to ridicule an assertion in one of my speeches that the Greeks of Northern Epirus were enduring persecution, Australian youth delegates, unlike their older exemplars, challenged not only other delegates but the entire framework of the conference. Some of the verbal jousts were actually quite amusing. At the last world conference in 2006, I referred, in my address, to the fact that though it had been announced that the SAE Youth were being dissolved, they were going to be re-structured into a new entity, that hopefully would achieve great things. Minutes later, I was accosted, or rather spat at by a livid now ex-deputy foreign minister who, not having listened to the speech, was advised that I had actually announced the walk-out and non-participation of youth delegates. When he had the recording of my speech played back to him, rather than calm down and offer to apologize, he merely commanded: "Go back up there and refute those things that you didn't say." I turned my back on him and walked off.
Australian SAE Youth delegates also made history in another respect. At the November 2006 Melbourne regional conference, the Australian SAE Co-ordinators announced that places for youth at the imminent World Conference in Thessaloniki had been drastically reduced from twenty or so to three. They urged the dismayed youth to elect the delegates from among themselves, causing no small amount of bickering and in-fighting. At some stage, it occurred to me that a) if "youth" are the future, in drastically reducing their numbers, are not the powers in SAE really signaling that the so-called future is not so high on their list of priorities? And b) is there anything to be gained by a token youth presence at a conference organized by persons who manifestly do not respect them? Minutes later, I led the entire corpus of Australian SAE Youth delegates onto the podium where I announced that as SAE does not respect the youth, the youth would not participate in the World Conference. In the ensuing chaos and disbelief that we would give up a free ticket to Greece, and in fear of losing face with their Greek Supreme Overlords, the senior committee played right into our hands. Somehow, places were found for all of us.
In light of the above, Deputy Minister for Greeks Abroad Konstantinos Tsiaras' recent announcement that SAE is to be re-launched as a re-vamped, self-funded entity justifiably raises eyebrows. Quite simply, SAE did not work, because the vast majority of Greeks are disengaged from the entities that were recognized officially as representing them. Rather than affording rights of representation to defunct community groups, a grass roots movement has to be launched from within the community to provide effective representation, rather than have this being imposed from above, by the would be-arbiters of Hellenism in the motherland. Our community is much more diverse and complex than many of us believe, comprised of families of mixed ethnicities, interests, gender orientation and concerns. Surely if their voices are to be heard, this should take place first on a local level and only then should we consider re-plunging into the heady stream of global Hellenic politics. That is not to say that much good did not arise from palaio-SAE. The Pan-Hellenic Games offered a unique and unprecedented outlet for otherwise disengaged youth to engage in sporting competition. It was also through SAE that the Panepirotic Federation of Australia was able to organize the building of a technical college in Argyrokastro for the Greeks of Northern Epirus. These projects, and others like them initiated by other regions of SAE are what any revitalized organization should concern itself with: fostering links and methods of mutual assistance between communities of Greeks Abroad and ensuring that Greeks abroad are treated as Greeks rather than strangers within Greece. Arguably, this can be done by nuanced policies within Greek consulates by enlightened diplomats rather than through the talk-fests in which a great deal more is ever said than done. The revival of Neo-Sae will also pose the perennial question. Who are we going to vote in as president? My money is, as always, on Vladimir Putin. until next time, then, say ΝΑΙ to ΣΑΕ.
First pubished in NKEE on Saturday 25 August 2012.