Saturday, February 28, 2015
During the month of February, when Epirotes around the world commemorate the declaration of the autonomy of Northern Epirus, now part of the Republic of Albania, my thoughts often turn to one of them most remarkable of the Greek people, one time Greek foreign-minister, businessman and president of the Autonomous Republic of Northern Epirus, Georgios Christakis-Zografos. His portrait, as it appears in the Gallery of the National Bank of Greece, is of a middle aged bearded man, sitting with his hands clasped together. Yet his is not the self-satisfied countenance of a smug, venal Greek politician of his times. His eyes are searching, his posture uneasy, as if he is gravely worried and longing to spring out of the canvas and into action. One of the most luminous of expatriate Greeks, he made lasting contributions to his country of origin but also, in many aspects of his life, mirrored the outlook, triumphs and failures of one of his great heroes, the first prime minister of Greece, Ioannis Kapodistrias.
Born in Paris, Zografos was born into privilege as the son of the entrepreneur, benefactor, founder of Greek schools and charitable institutions both in Greece and Constantinople, Christakis Zografos, who hailed from the village of Kestorati, in Northern Epirus. Owing to his background, Zografos was able to study law and political science in leading tertiary institutions of Paris and Munich and immerse himself in the latest intellectual currents regarding governance. When he returned in Greece, he applied himself to advocating much needed land reform within Greece, starting with his father’s own expansive agricultural holdings on the fertile plain of Thessaly. During this period he was, in contrast with others of his class, an outspoken proponent of the concept that the large feudal estates known as tsiflikia, which included most of the arable land in Thessaly and which were in the hands of a few wealthy notables who exercised an unhealthy influence in the manner in which the region was governed, should be expropriated and redistributed to those who owned no land. Putting his ideology into practice, he sold his family’s holdings to landless peasants for extremely low prices. Unsurprisingly, this earned him the enmity of the traditional landholding classes of Thessaly.
Conversely, his advocacy of the rights of the dispossessed earned him unprecedented popularity among the broader population of Thessaly and owing to this groundswell of support, he ran for office and was elected to Parliament in 1905, representing prefecture of Karditsa. In 1909, he served as Foreign Minister under the Dimitrios Rallis administration. It is here that similarities with Kapodistrias begin. As foreign minister of Russia, Kapodistrias dreamed and schemed for the liberation of his homeland, Greece. Similarly, as foreign minister of Greece, Zografos maintained a foreign policy whose purpose was to re-claim all those lands in which Greeks were living and which at the time belonged to the Ottoman Empire and to unite those with Greece. He especially emphasized the need for the liberation of his particular homeland, Epirus. It is probably for this reason, that after the First Balkan War, he was appointed Governor-General of the part of Epirus that had been newly liberated by the Greek Army and which corresponds to the geographical region of Epirus as it is defined within the Greek state today. Zografos served as Governor-General of Epirus from March 1913 until December of the same year.
At the same time, Greeks and Albanians were advocating the inclusion of the northern parts of Epirus within Greece or the newly constituted state of Albania. Demographically, the adherents to both ethnic identities were almost equal in number. When the Great Powers finally decided to award Northern Epirus to Albania, and asked the Greek army to evacuate the area, the Greek Prime Minister Eleutherios Venizelos agreed, hoping that the Great Powers would by exchange recognize Greek sovereignty over the islands of the North Eastern Aegean.
The Northern Epirotes were incensed at this turn of events. No provision had been made for the recognition of their distinct ethnic identity under an Albanian administration. Zografos resigned his office in disgust and travelled to Northern Epirus where, on 28 February 1914, he declared the Autonomous Republic of Northern Epirus in Argyrokastron and the formation of a provisional government, with Zografos as president, formed to support the state's objectives. In his speech on 2 March, Zografos stated that the aspirations of the Northern Epirotes had been totally ignored, not only by the Great Powers, but also Greece:
“ Because of this inalienable right of each people, the Great Powers' desire to create for Albania a valid and respected title of dominion over our land and to subjugate us is void before the fundamentals of divine and human justice. Neither does Greece have the right to continue in occupation of our territory merely to betray it against our will to a foreign tyrant. Free of all ties, unable to live united under these conditions with Albania, Northern Epirus proclaims its independence and calls upon its citizens to undergo every sacrifice to defend the integrity of the territory and its liberties from any attack whatsoever. ”
The Zografos administration was able to see off attacks by armed Albanian nationalists and to occupy the entire area his government claimed. Further, seeing through his diplomatic experience that a union of the region with Greece would not be countenanced by the Great Powers, through effective political maneuvers, he ensured Northern Epirus gained an internationally recognized autonomous status within Albania. This was effected via the Corfu protocol, where the two provinces of Korytsa and Argyrokastron would be completely autonomous, under the nominal Albanian sovereignty of its monarch. Greek would be the official language of state and schools and there would be proportional recruitment of natives into the local gendarmerie and the prohibition of military levies from people not indigenous to the region.
Had the Corfu protocol been given time to work, perhaps it could have been a model of inter-ethnic co-operation, providing a blueprint for the peaceful co-existence of nationalities in the Balkans. However it was not to be. World War I intervened and as various armies occupied the region, the Autonomous government was compelled to dissolve.
Zografos returned to Greece and became an executive of the National Bank of Greece, a position he retained until September 1917, with a shot hiatus between 25 February to 10 August 1915, when he became Minister of Foreign Affairs under the cabinet of Dimitrios Gounaris. Zografos supported Greece’s entry into World War I on the side of the Triple Entente, believing that this would bring about various advantages to Greece and his homeland of Northern Epirus as well. Retiring in 1917, he died in 1920, knowing that his beloved homeland had, despite Greece’s efforts, been awarded once more to Albania, under a monarchy that used as many means at its disposal to erode the Greek character of the region.
As a statesman, visionary and reformer, Zografos’ memory lives on in the hearts of all of those Epirotes who remember and appreciate his vision for his country. While largely unknown outside of Epirus, during the Communist regime in Albania, Zografos and his father were stigmatised as 'enemies of the state'. Anyone from his ancestral village who held the name 'Zografos' was deliberately persecuted. While the Zografeio school in Kestorati, founded by his father, has survived and operates as a museum today, Zografos is reviled by Albanian nationalists, who see him as a historical threat to the integrity of the Albanian state. To Epirotes however, he is romantic and enigmatic figure, wiling to sacrifice his wealth, career and his life in order to secure the safety and well-being of a people he did not grow up with but whom, he always considered his own.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 28 February 2015