Minorities: Sacrificial Lamb at Greek Democracy's Silver Jubilee
Nafsika Papanikolatos - Minority Rights Group - Greece
July 29, 1999
Alternative Information Network (AIM) - Athens
An historic appeal To the Speaker of the Greek Parliament and the Party Leaders
We welcome tomorrow's 25th anniversary of the restoration of democracy in Greece. We would like to note, however, that, in spite of the unquestionable improvements in the domain of human rights during the last 25 years, the Republic of Greece has an important weakness: it does not recognize the existence of national minorities on its territory, regardless of the fact that many Greek citizens identify themselves nationally as Turks or Macedonians. The undersigned, who either belong to these minorities, or defend as non-governmental organizations their rights, call upon the Greek state:
1. to recognize the existence of a Macedonian and a Turkish minorities
2. to ratify promptly the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities of the Council of Europe without any conditions for its implementation
3. to implement the principles of the Convention, as well as of the related OSCE documents, so that all forms of discrimination or persecution against members of these minorities cease and, on the contrary, their rights be respected.
This public appeal was sent on 23 July 1999 to the Speaker of the Greek Parliament and the party leaders. It was signed by all three Turkish minority deputies, seven Turkish and three Macedonian minority organizations, as well as three human rights non-governmental organizations, including Greek Helsinki Monitor and Minority Rights Group - Greece. Macedonians and Turks in Greece make up no more than 1%-1.5% of the population. They have been denied the right to their respective ethnonational identities: Turks are recognized as a mere "religious, Muslim" minority (which nevertheless is educated in Turkish), while Macedonians are not recognized even as a linguistic minority. The use of the word "Turkish" or "Macedonian" has repeatedly led to the prosecution of its users, with courts handing down prison sentences or banning minority associations.
The reactions to the appeal confirmed that, regrettably, Greek democracy is indeed weak and feels insecure when it comes to minority rights. It also provided, on the very day the Third Greek Republic was celebrating its silver jubilee (democracy was restored during the Cyprus crisis in July 1974), an unfortunate and sad example of how intolerant the whole Greek society is when faced with minority issues.
Rejecting the appeal, the Speaker of the Parliament, Apostolos Kaklamanis (of the socialist PASOK), said: "It is well known that in Greece there is no Turkish or Macedonian minority. There is a Muslim religious minority, which is respected. Whatever constructs, especially at this moment, serve other purposes and will be handled in the appropriate way."
On behalf of the (PASOK) government, Minister for the Press Dimitris Reppas added: "Greece is a democratic society where individual rights and personal freedoms are respected. The Muslim minority enjoys equality before the law and equal standing in the state that have been consolidated in contemporary Greece. All Greek citizens, regardless of religious beliefs, are obliged to contribute to efforts towards the country's progress and the prosperity of the people. Unhistorical and unrealistic constructs will fall by the wayside."
Foreign Minister George Papandreou was the last to make a statement, which was the calmest one, and probably not reflecting his real views (see below why): "Greece, in a difficult region, is carrying out an exemplary policy in the area of minorities; whichever problems emerge are dealt with in the best possible way." But Alternate Foreign Minister Yannos Kranidiotis had rushed to say that "it is a pointless action that does not serve the interests of the Muslim minority which enjoys full individual and human rights and freedoms." The third in the hierarchy of the Foreign Ministry better reflected the country's political mood. Indeed, Deputy Foreign Minister Gregory Niotis declared that "the text [of the appeal] is based on personal absurdities and unfounded opinions."
Many other socialist ministers and politicians reacted too. Defense Minister Akis Tsohatzopoulos spoke of "phantasies." The most extreme case was former Minister of Macedonia and Thrace Stelios Papathemelis: "this action of the three deputies is very provocative and from all aspects repulsive. I should tell them in their language "Ai sihtir" [Fuck off!] In a televised interview on 28 July (Channel Seven) he made a defamatory reference to the Spokesperson of Greek Helsinki Monitor.
Official opposition (New Democracy) spokesperson Aris Spiliotopoulos commented: "Groundless and vacuous positions, like those recently publicized and referring to the existence of national minorities in Greece, have no connection with reality. Greece, with the significant contribution of New Democracy that makes us very proud, has consolidated a democratic social framework that recognizes and respects without any exception all individual rights resulting from international law... Any attempt to artificially twist the truth and the democratic reality prevailing today throughout the country is not accepted by any Greek citizen, regardless of their religious beliefs."
Two of the three Turkish deputies who signed the appeal belong to PASOK (Galip Galip) and ND (Birol Akifoglu). The third one, Mustafa Mustafa, belongs to the small leftwing party Progressive Left Coalition. The latter's statement: "The Coalition is opposed to the action of the three Muslim deputies and the content of what appears as their public appeal. The respect of minority rights in the framework defined by international law and international treaties is the policy Greece should strictly follow. The Coalition is opposed to any action that aims at the revision of the existing international treaties. Just as the Coalition is steadfastly opposed to any challenge to minority rights, and has proven it, it is also opposed to practices that address minority rights in ways that cause confusion or destabilization. The best answer to the danger of the development of destabilizing tendencies is the strengthening of the effort, with broad political consensus, to achieve equality before the law, development and stability in the area of Thrace."
By 28 July, the press had reported that all three deputies were summoned for explanations by their parties, in low level disciplinary actions. The other two parliamentary parties made even more strongly worded statements.
Greek Communist Party (KKE) leader Aleka Papariga referred to the appeal as "more than odd and hardly innocent" and added that, "we believe that the issuing of such statement is less related with the anniversary of the restoration of democracy than with whichever dialogue is being carried out between Greece and Turkey. In the end it gives the US the opportunity to impose their conditions on this dialogue. The perpetrators of this action can be found not only in Greece." "ND, PASOK and the Coalition are responsible because, in the name of the globalization and of international cooperation, they have accepted international interference and intervention in the name of human rights. Minorities should fight for their rights in the framework of the countries they live in, in unity with the people of that country. Secessionism and autonomy are not genuine demands. They are matters that, in the current context, are harmful for the peoples."
The president of the socialist splinter DIKKI Dimitris Tsovolas said: "It is an insolent provocation that stains the 25th anniversary of the restoration of democracy in our country. Greece does not have to defend itself to anyone, since the rights of all Greek citizens, regardless of political or religious beliefs, are fully respected. Such unacceptable, provocative, unhistorical actions are part of Turkish propaganda and of other anti-Greek circles."
With the exception of the leftist daily "Avghi" (with an April 1999 average daily circulation of 2,000 and with a pro-Coalition position), all other 21 Greek national dailies reacted with extreme hostility and hate speech to the appeal. Some even engaged in unscrupulous misinformation. How could it be otherwise when the Athens Journalists' Union (ESIEA), in the name of all Greek journalists, proudly claims that "Greece is unique in Europe reaching 100% homogeneity" (from a paper presented in a June 1999 IFJ conference in Ohrid)?
"Raw provocation by three deputies for a Turkish minority" was the 24 July 1999 front page title of the largest selling daily "Ta Nea" (91,000, center-left). In the internal page story it was mentioned that "A government source called this action a provocation and did not exclude disciplinary action by their parties against them, following a consensus of the parties on how to handle this issue (
) In a statement, Mustafa confirmed his signature of the appeal, defended its content, and spoke of hypocrisy." On 27 July, the paper, in its editorial, accused the deputies and the Greek and international human rights NGOs of wanting to "light up a minority problem" on the orders of Ankara.
"Eleftherotypia" (73,000, center-left) had a simple informational coverage on 24 July, mainly because of the personal decency of the journalist handling the story. But, by 26 July it had fully adapted to the prevailing mood. It ran an article by Howard University (Washington DC) Professor Nicholas Stavrou, a Greek-American, on "the US with its human rights industry behind the travails of the Balkans." The author saw "Ankara and its patrons in Washington with the support of the human rights industry in the US and its affiliates in Greece" behind the appeal, which the paper itself called the next day a "provocation."
The political and financial weekly "Ependytis" (66,000) said in the 24 July front page: "Muslim deputies provoke." The inside story informed the readers: "In a low key response and in an effort to mitigate the importance of the issue, the government attributed the responsibility to Greek Helsinki Monitor and its spokesperson P. Dimitras. According to our information, the matter was discussed yesterday in the meetings of the Prime Minister with the KKE and the Coalition leaders. Karamanlis' associates said that ND will try to come to an agreement with the government, the Speaker of the Parliament and the parties for a uniform way to handle it."
"Ethnos" (49,000, center-left), on 24 July had a front page title: "Turkish bomb on the anniversary" Its editorial read: "Their parties must expel them today." The coverage included expressions like "fifth column of Turkey's agents," "traitors" with an "allegiance to foreign masters." It too attacked the human rights NGOs which had the initiative of the appeal: "the provocative and insolent 'initiative' of some organizations that implicated also the three Muslim deputies is carrying out the orders of Ankara." On 26 July, a front-page title "informed" the readers of the alleged "plan of the three Muslim deputies: they had appealed to the Council of Europe, but following Greece's vindication they sent the provocative appeal." To substantiate that, it used an otherwise classified document of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which the head of the Greek delegation, PASOK deputy Sifis Micheloyannis, had unscrupulously leaked to the paper. Never mind that this document, written by the Moldovan MP Mr. Solonari, did insist on the contentious issue of the name of the minority (Muslim or Turkish): that part was not translated in Greek, as the purpose of the newspaper and the Greek deputy was to show that "Greece was found innocent by the Council of Europe and was considering the matter closed."
"Rebellion of Muslim deputies in favor of Ankara" announced the front page of "Eleftheros Typos" (46,000, rightwing). "Sources close to ND President Karamanlis stated that he will raise the issue in his Monday meeting with [Prime Minister] Simitis aiming at a common bipartisan attitude, probably leading to the expulsion of the Muslim deputies." The paper also mentioned ironically the role of "well-known 'NGOs' that have recently become the official interlocutor of the Greek Foreign Ministry and of G. Papandreou".
"Suspicious provocation" was the front-page title of "Kathimerini" (40,000, center-right), which engaged in the most blatant disinformation. "Unprecedented provocation yesterday by 'obscure circles' which circulated a 'public appeal' that was allegedly signed by the three minority deputies asking the recognition the existence in Greece of 'a Macedonian and a Turkish minorities,'" It was an "unprecedented provocation with criminal consequences at the expense of Hellenism by 'unknown' individuals who are obviously playing the game of the nationalist circles of Ankara and others." "The suspicious intentions become evident as the three minority deputies, with statements, deny they had any knowledge or participation in that action." "According to Mr. Akifoglu, the whole story is an activity of the GHM Spokesperson Panayote Dimitras." Never mind that all three deputies had been appearing repeatedly in the private electronic media confirming and explaining their signature. "Kathimerini" never bothered to retract its story in the following days.
On the contrary, the state media (radio ERA and television stations ET-1 and NET) kept quoting the "Kathimerini" story throughout 24 July, confirming the suspicion that it was an orchestrated government attempt to use one of the country's supposed authoritative newspapers to discredit the appeal and attack its initiator. While the Balkan-oriented state Macedonian News Agency also ran many stories on the "provocative" actions which it never fully mentioned; its articles included though the full texts of reactions even by hardly known nationalist organizations.
A quick look at the 24 July front page of the other newspapers with a daily circulation higher than 10,000 copies showed that "Apogevmatini" (30,000, rightwing) said: "Suddenly three Muslim deputies raise the issue of minorities in Greece." The next day, in its editorial, it made its appeal: "Parties should expel immediately the provocatively lying deputies."
The also supposed authoritative center-left paper "To Vima" (25,000) announced in its front page: "A strange text on alleged minorities in Greece." The political and financial daily "Exousia" (17,000) read: "Provocative statement just before the Greek-Turkish dialogue. The Muslim deputies suddenly raise minority issues." "Turcophile deputies light up under Ankara's guidance" added in an internal page "Adesmeftos Typos" published by D. Rizos (15,000, rightwing).
The KKE newspaper "Rizospastis" (12,000) had a front-page headline: "An initiative raising many questions." In its internal page coverage it mentioned that the appeal "objectively strengthens the imperialists' destabilizing plans in the region and facilitates the imperialists' pressures on our country while strengthening the Turkish side vis-a-vis the Greek one." While, finally, rightwing "Vradyni" (11,000) said in its front page: "Lightning in clear blue skies from the three Muslim deputies of Thrace. They ask for the official recognition of a 'Turkish' and a 'Macedonian' minority."
The exception was "Avghi" which noted very accurately that "a political turmoil that led to an attempt to lessen the importance of the appeal as 'unhistorical and unfounded' was created yesterday." It was also the only one that had an objective presentation of the initiative along with related previous ones on minority rights. The next day, "Avghi" added: "many politicians of ND and PASOK and some parties (DIKKI, Political Spring [of A. Samaras], KKE) have linked the demand with the Greek-Turkish dialogue so as to state their opposition to it." While, on 27 July, it characterized the whole turmoil as "petty politics," implying that even the party this paper is close to was implicated in it.
The intellectuals' silence was eloquent. Until 29 July, only a minor extreme left party (OAKKE) and a leftist political organization (the Network for Social and Political Rights) had publicly backed the appeal. On the other hand, besides the Stavrou article mentioned above, the Chairman of the Department of Sociology at the Panteios University of Political Science, Neoklis Sarris, said: "Anyone who feels a Turk should move to Turkey" ("Ethnos" 24/7).
Pericles Vassilopoulos (Director of the NGO "Citizens' Movement" and of the magazine "Civil Society"), in his weekly state radio (ERA) program, made a rhetorical question to the minorities: "Do you want to move to the Northern Balkan countries? You will be worse off!" His interlocutor Athens University Law Professor Spyros Flogaitis joyfully agreed. Questioned in the same program, Dimitris Christopoulos, secretary-general of the Greek League of Human Rights, defended the individual right to self-assertion of minorities but opposed the claim to state recognition of national minorities. It was probably for that reason that his League did not sign either this appeal or a previous one (of 21 March 1999) calling just for the unconditional ratification of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. It is indicative that in that program no one from the signatories was called to explain and defend the appeal; instead that role was supposedly given to one who has consistently opposed such demands.
Finally, indicative of the mentality of the judges who, in the 1990s, have repeatedly convicted dissenting voices and minority members, was the statement of the Honorary Chairman of the Supreme Court, Vassilis Kokkinos: "This anti-national, traitorous, and unacceptable action of the three deputies should lead to their expulsion from their parties, regardless of political cost and expedience."
Twice before in 1999, when near-unanimity threatened freedom of speech, in the Ocalan case and during the NATO strikes against Yugoslavia, many prominent intellectuals including journalists publicly voiced their disapproval of this effort to intimidate and therefore silence all voices critical of or opposed to the "nationally correct" positions. Most of these voices of protests usually belonged to the critical minority of opinion as well. One had suspected then that their struggle was not to defend freedom of expression in general but merely their freedom of expression. As usual in Greece, the ultimate test was a situation related to the taboo of minorities. The suspicions were proven right. With the rare exception of a handful of journalists or politicians of the Coalition party, the silence was deafening.
The difficulty to engage a substantive public debate on minorities in Greece was shown by three contradictory sets of positions of Foreign Minister George Papandreou, the Coalition party, and the latter's deputy Mustafa Mustafa.
Coincidentally, Papandreou had given an interview to the monthly magazine "Klik" (August 1999) a few weeks before, which appeared though on 26 July. Inter alia, he had said: "no one doubts that there are many Muslims of Turkish origin. Of course, the Treaties [of Lausanne] mention only Muslims. If no one contests the present borders, I couldn't care less if one calls himself a Muslim or a Turk, a Bulgarian or a Pomak." However, when he was compelled to make a statement in reaction to the public appeal (see above) he had to state an almost different position.
The 1996 Coalition platform on foreign policy clearly stated that the party backed for the Muslims "all rights emanating from the international documents, including the right to self-assertion according to the OSCE principles." In mid-1999, the above Coalition's reaction to the appeal seemed to remember only the Treaty of Lausanne, and in a distorted interpretation that claims it defines the character of the minority exclusively as religious.
Finally, the Coalition's deputy Mustafa Mustafa drew most of the heat for that appeal, as his party compelled him to issue an apologetic statement reminding all that "his struggle to help solve real minority problems was never aimed at destabilizing the country". A statement that the ill-meaning media used to claim he had distanced himself from the appeal. However, in the morning of 23 July, before the negative reactions started, he gave an interview to the local paper "Paratiritis tis Thrakis." There he stated that "this initiative like so many other ones help to both strengthen democracy in the country but also to go beyond some perceptions that had erroneously developed through time." Asked to explain the inclusion in the appeal of a reference to the Macedonian minority, he added: "Since some people like me defend the same right of self-assertion, I joined the initiative as a principle without having to judge their choices or analyze their blood or carry out a research about their identity." He concluded that "the existence of minorities does not depend on conventions but on what life brings out and this is why with this and with a previous initiative we have been calling for the ratification of the [Framework] Convention."
The silver jubilee of an insecure democracy
Professor of International Law and current Vice-President of the European Court of Human Rights Christos Rozakis had published a study acknowledging the ethnic character of the two minorities ("The international protection of minorities in Greece" in K. Featherstone and Kostas Ifantis "Greece in a changing Europe" Manchester University Press 1996). There he mentioned that "reference in the Treaty of Peace of Lausanne to the religious elements of these minorities did not automatically reduce them to religious minorities which deserved protection of their religion and only that." In Thrace, "the minority is an ethnic minority, and not solely a religious or linguistic one." Concerning Western Macedonia, Rozakis wrote that "there are certain islands of resistance to the integration of Slavophones in the form of militant groups (
) professing the ethnic character of the minority." The article was coincidentally published while he was Deputy Foreign Minister: his realistic positions on the Greek-Turkish relations caused a wild anti-Semitic attack against him, during which he was also denounced for his position on minority rights. The attack led to his resignation in disgust on New Year Day 1997.
The way the whole Greek society reacted to the appeal on national minorities on the very day it was celebrating the silver jubilee of its democracy confirms that the constant excessive doses of nationalism in Greece make the country and the dominant Greek nation still feel insecure while they had no reasons to. Another opportunity was unfortunately lost on that symbolically important day to show that Greek democracy had finally grown mature.