Monday, March 15, 2010


What! shall such barbarian swarms/ Impose their rule upon our homes?
La Marseillaise

Peruse any travel guide from about twenty years ago and invariably you will find Greece described as a “homogenous” society, with few significant ethnic minorities. Save for the large muslim minority in Thrace, the existence of other minorities was largely regulated through population exchange: the Turks in 1923, the Bulgarians in 1927 and the Çamërian Albanians in the aftermath of the Second World War, when they abandoned their homes in the face of reprisals over their reign of terror over Epirus. It is probably for this reason that a professor of history at Athens University once remarked to me: “Greece is the land of Achilles and Homer. It is not the land of Boris and Arben. In fact, Modern Greece owes its existence in spite of the appetites of Zlatko and Arben for Greek soil.”
In one sense, this is absolutely true. The history of Greece, as understood by the Greeks, is primarily a narrative that concerns itself with the struggle of the Greeks to keep other nations out of their country, whether they be Persians, Illyrians or Romans during ancient times, Goths, Huns, Avars, assorted Slavs, Vlachs, Bulgarians, Russians, Arabs, Normans and Turks during Byzantine times, and Turks, Bulgarians, Albanians and others in Modern times. What is celebrated in the commemoration of the Revolution of 1821, is the securing of a part of the traditional Greek homeland solely for Greeks. Often this was done through ethnic cleansing, as was the case in Tripolitsa where the Muslim population was subjected to heinous atrocities and massacred. (This terrible crime is generally left out of the popular narrative or excused as ancillary to the struggle for emancipation.) The Balkan Wars commemorate the securing of parts of Northern Greece for the same reason, while OXI commemorates the national struggle to keep the Italians out of Greece.
The almost continuous struggle since the migration of the Greeks into the southern extremity of the Balkans for survival as a people, in the face of foreign invasions, has left within them, an abiding fear of foreigners and expectation that their country is a haven to be preserved against the encroachments of others. Simply put, the xenos, already a social institution in ancient times, with intricate regulations developed as to his proper place on the fringes of Greek society, has had absolutely no place as a part of the Greek ethnos in the common consciousness. In ancient Athens, metoikoi were as foreigners, permitted to live in the city of their choice, as long as they understood it did not belong to them and they displayed no desire to have a say in how it was run. Toleration of their existence was reward enough.
The inability of the Greek people to do more than tolerate foreigners within their country also derives from the fact that from the outset, they have been a nation of migrants, expecting other peoples to permit their settlement in their lands, but without assuming the reciprocal responsibility of accepting the settlement of others in the pristine homeland – which is to be preserved in its homogenous state at all costs. The mass settlement of migrants in Greece during the past twenty years has, it appears, disrupted all historical precedents. Today nearly ten percent of Greece’s population and almost 20% of the workforce, is comprised of immigrants,.Now, in between trying to deal with one of Europe’s worst economic crises and a crippling series of strikes, the Papandreou government proposes to allow the children of immigrants to apply for Greek citizenship, provided that:
(1) their parents have lived legally in Greece for at least 10 years, and

(2) the child has completed at least three years of schooling in Greece.
Hitherto, citizenship by naturalization was is almost unknown in Greece. Greek law recognizes citizenship jus sanguinis, “by blood”, through at least one Greek parent. Otherwise the naturalization process is so difficult that the number of new Greek citizens from naturalization is a few hundred per year.
Previous Greek governments operated under the assumption that Greece simply did not want non-Greek citizens, and that guest workers were just that — temporary guests. The system was thus designed to keep immigrant workers on a perpetual treadmill, always either applying for a new permit, about to apply, or nervously waiting for one after the old one expired. They were, in effect metoikoi.
But this consensus is now breaking down. Part of the reason is simply the passage of time. 20 years after the first wave of immigrants arrived, there are now tens of thousands of Albanians and Bulgarians who have been in Greece nonstop for most of their adult lives. They own houses or apartments, speak fluent Greek, and are settled members of their communities. Furthermore, there are now about an estimated quarter of a milllion children of immigrants living in Greece.
If a child is born in Greece, speaks perfect Greek, wants to live in Greece, and is willing to swear loyalty to the Greek state — should that child be allowed Greek citizenship? In Australia, the general tendency among elderly Australians is to link the issue of the granting of citizenship of migrants with the doctrine of jus sanguinis – that is – recognize and grant citizenship to the children of Greek living abroad first, and then sort out everything else later. While understandable, this view also raises pertinent questions as to the idea/image of the foreigner within Modern Greece. Why should a child or grandchild of Greek immigrants, born in Australia, having limited or no knowledge of the Greek language, culture or society, be given preferential treatment and citizenship over a child who has been born in Greece, speaks perfect Greek and partakes in Greek society?
Is it racist to say that they should not because they are not Greek by blood? Israel is a country that affords to all Jews the right to emigrate to it. Like Greece, Israel is considered by its people to be a haven against persecution and a place where they can be themselves. In parallel with Greece, it has experienced great difficulties in absorbing or including its minorities within its borders especially given that the leaders of those minorities dispute Israel’s right to exist. Yet while Greece does afford persons of Greek blood the right to citizenship, it has absolutely no program for absorbing such antipodean citizens – who increasingly, are seen by their compatriots in the homeland as culturally, if not racially, foreign.
Whether Modern Greeks like it or not, foreign migrants are here to stay. And despite the myth of homogeneity, there have always been foreigners in Greece. In the 7th century, the Slavs settled in such great numbers in the Peloponnese that they caused a major demographic shift. The Arvanites, most probably ethnic Albanians of the Orthodox faith have been living in Greece for centuries and fought for the independence of Greece. Over the years, they came to consider themselves, not Albanians, but Greeks who happened to speak Albanian at home.
Arvanites have been Presidents and Prime Ministers, generals and admirals, artists and businessmen and scholars. The current Archbishop of Athens, head of the Greek Orthodox Church, is an Arvanite. Nobody gives it a moment’s thought. Being an Arvanite is a complete non-issue in Greece, just as being a Vlach does not impinge upon identifying oneself as a Greek. Indeed the Hellenistic Kingdoms and the Byzantine Empire were Greek-speaking, multi-racial entities that united various races under common ideologies, whether these be worship of the god-king or Christianity. The number of Armenian Emperors and Hellenistic Kings ruling from Constantinople over Greeks, Slavs, Armenians, Syrians, etc did in no way compromise Hellenism. So there is enough precedent to prove that Greek culture is not incompatible with mutliculturalism.
Over time, the immigrants of Greece will be absorbed and assimilated. Even if they do for a few generations, cling to the ethnic identity of their place of origin, over time, as they lose contact with it, this will become tenuous and eroded. In Australia, ethnic minorities have had no problems in retaining their traditions while adhering to Anglo-Celtic imposed social structures, laws and participating in their own culture. No great cultural change is to be expected from the granting of citizenship to the children of immigrants who in their majority are of a similar cultural background. Indeed, if Vassilacopoulos and Nicolacopoulou's ever relevant study: "From Foreigner to Citizen: Greek Migrants and Social Change in White Australia 1897-2000," is correct, then the mere act of regulating the relationship between minorites and the ruling nation causes them to recognise the legitimacy of their rule over Greece.The granting of citizenship to migrants is not, as one caller to SBS radio opined, symptomatic of “George Papandreou’s secret design to ruin his country as he has been taught to hate Greece from his mother’s womb,” but rather a mature and considered way of absorbing a productive population within society and heading off the social unrest that would emerge from treating a significant sector of society as of a lower class. Yet along with the privileges come responsibilities. To be a Greek is no easy task and it should be fully expected of new Greek citizens that they should honour and serve the country that has accepted them as one of its own. Ours is a long and glorious history. The fact that persons wish to partake of this is a testament to the enduring legacy of our forefathers. Instead of being mean-spirited, let us embrace them. With our brains and their beauty, we shall rule the world.


First published in NKEE on 15 March 2010