Monday, August 24, 2009


“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names,” Chinese Proverb.

Modern Greeks don’t generally hold Northern Epirotes in high esteem. They tend to equate them to Albanians, a people generally considered as culturally inferior in the common consciousness. This particular trait of self-loathing is nothing new by the way. When the Asia Minor refugees arrived in Greece, expecting to find a safe haven from persecution and intolerance, they too were segregated, isolated, and made subjects of derision. The irony is greater however, in the case of the Northern Epirotes, because their ancestor’s endeavours and bequests are responsible for the construction of most of the landmarks of Athens and the foundation of some of its most enduring educational and financial institutions.
Having endured some of the harshest forms persecution for approximately seventy years, which they did stoically, their eyes forever fixed upon Greece as a symbol of hope, Northern Epirotes generally find that apathy at best is their compatriots’ response to their plight. Sometimes, that apathy inexplicably turns into hostility, as is the sorry case among some insular Epirot groups here in Melbourne, unaffiliated to the Panepriotic Federation of Australia, and as was recently attested to in a bizarre incident in Canberra where a representative of a Sydney Epirot group purported to tear up Australian Hellenic Council submissions to Parliament on the subject of human rights for Northern Epirotes, claiming that “there is no issue,” and implying that he had been asked by ‘higher Hellenic powers,” to commit such a heinous act..
The human rights of ethnic Greeks in Northern Epirus seems to be of secondary concern when it comes to Greek government policy on bilateral relations with Albania. Just three months after the official state visit of Greek PM Karamanlis to Albania, a visit touted as a great success by his government, and his undertaking to support Albania’s accession to the EU, the Albanian PM, Sali Berisha, former doctor of the paranoid Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, has chosen to reciprocate, by announcing his plans to change all Greek toponyms in Albania to ones derived from “ancient Albanian.”
The ludicrousness of such a decision is immediately apparent. Firstly, no archaeological or literary records exist, attesting to an ancient Albanian language. Secondly, no amount of name changing can mask the fact that Northern Epirus has formed part of the Greek cultural world for over two millennia. The vast majority of toponyms in Southern Albania and coastal Albania are of Greek origin, simply because these places were or are founded and inhabited by Greeks. Dürres, for example, is Dyrrahion – the ancient Epidamnos. Gjirokastër is Argyrokastro, Himarë is Cheimarra and the list goes on endlessly. To change the names of these places is to deny their history.
One may ask why this is particularly offensive. After all Greece too has indulged in intensive name changing, especially of Turkish and Slavic toponyms. The answer lies in the fact that most of these toponyms have been altered subsequent to the passage of those ethnic groups from the regions in question. Slavs have not existed in any significant numbers in Epirus for hundreds of years. Yet the prevalence of Slavic toponyms and words in the local patois attests to a time when Serbian kings such as Stefan Dušan incorporated much of Greece into their empire. The changing of these is thus inoffensive, since the intention is not to deny the Serbian occupation of Greece, which is a historical fact, but rather, to revert toponyms to their original forms.
In Berisha’s case, the opposite seems to be the case. Given that Northern Epirus forms part of the same cultural and geographical entity as southern Epirus, the prevalence of Slavic toponyms such as Lambovo, Gorantzi, and Kossovitsa for Greek villages, is also acute. If Berisha sought to revert to original names for these places, pre-dating their inclusion within Serbian and Bulgarian medieval empires, the only names he should find would be Greek, as up until the twentieth century, Albanians had not existed in any appreciable numbers in this geographic region. Berisha’s intent is thus clear: By imposing upon villages in which Greeks still reside, Albanian names, he seeks to deny their inhabitants their basic right to freely choose their ethnic and cultural affiliation. In short, he seeks to deny the historical Greek character of those villages and towns. As David MacKay observed: “ Some people think that if they change the names of things, the things themselves will have changed too.” This is stupid, considering that wherever one goes in the south of the country and in a good many places in the north, ancient, medieval and contemporary artefacts attesting to the presence of Greeks in the region abound.
Acknowledging a people’s current and historical presence in a region does not in any way impinge upon a nation’s sovereignty. At no stage since the fall of the Albanian communist regime have the slightest hint of irredentist or secessionist intentions been made by either Greece or the Northern Epirotes. Berisha’s act is thus racist and highly offensive and it is embarrassing for the Greek government to undertake to support the accession of such a politically immature country to the EU.
Indeed, the Greek government’s lack of protest at yet another abrogation of the human rights of ethnic Greeks in Albania exposes their stated ‘concern’ as to the welfare of Greeks living beyond the borders of Greece, as mere rhetoric. During his Albanian visit, PM Karamanlis stated that the Greek minority in Albania constituted a bridge between the two countries. However, his aides arranged no official meetings with representatives or leaders of the Northern Epirotes, and the only unofficial meeting that did take place, did so at the last minute. Greek foreign ministry officials are quick to meddle in the political affairs of the Greek minority but rather slow to defend them when their rights are compromised. Northern Epirote organisations within the region and around the world have expressed their indignation at the fact that not once during Karamanlis’ expression of empty platitudes, did he substantially address the vast gamut of problems endured by the Greeks of Albania.
Even more concerning is the fact that Berisha’s announcement comes just days after the Albanian Cabinet rejected an application by His Beatitude, the Orthodox Archbishop of Albania, Anastasios, to build a private educational institution. The Orthodox Church in Albania and its saintly Primate have played a key role in the reconstruction of Albania and the provision of welfare to all Albanian citizens, regardless of ethnic or religious affiliation. Nonetheless, the Church’s application was rejected, not on its merits, but rather because the proposed name of the school was to be “Logo” (from λόγος the Greek word for the ‘Divine Word.’)
This blatant example of racism is rendered inordinately ironic when it is considered that the ruling party of Albania, which so takes exception to the use of Greek words in state-recognised institutions is the Partia Demokratike e Shqipërisë – Democratic Party (DP) – a party that employs Greek terms in its appellation, regardless of whether it is consistent in its committment to their meaning.
In the tortuous byzantine micropolitics of the Balkans though, names are everything. The New Democracy Government of Greece always seems to blindly support the DP, seeing it as a partaker of the same ideology, simply because of its employment of the term ‘democratic,’ regardless of the fact that this party has proven inimical to the interests of the enthnic Greeks of Albania. Such then is the political maturity of the Greek government when it comes to minority rights.
Paradoxically, the only official expression of disapprobation comes from a surprising quarter. None less than the foreign minister of Albania, Mr Paskal Milo condemned Berisha’s announcement as “ridiculous,” stating that his decision was: “reminiscent of the dictatorial Hoxha regime, when hundreds of villages were given “socialist names overnight.” It is, and thousands of other examples abound. When the Mayor of Cheimarra, Vasilis Bolanos attempted to implement Council of Europe guidelines as to the rendering of roadsigns in Greek minority areas, he was arrested and convicted of disturbing the peace. Was there an outcry by the Greek government or Greeks around the world? No. Instead, the former SAE youth co-ordinator had the temerity to call him a criminal. Despite any pre-conceived ideas we may have generated about ourselves, we manifestly are not our brothers’ keepers. It is meet then to remember the old adage: “From our ancestors come our names but from our virtues, our honours.”
Diatribe takes leave of you this week, with a ditty it would like to dedicate to the august Albanian PM, Sali Berisha, courtesy of Destiny’s Child: “Say my name, say my name,/ You actin’ kinda shady/ Ain’t callin me baby/ Why the sudden change?” Miru pafshim.


First published in NKEE on 24 August 2009