The spirit of Halki and the meaning of Greece

Island of Halki in the Dodecanese

On my way to this year’s Halki seminar, organised every year in summer by the Athens-based think tank Eliamep, I took along a few books on Greece (in addition to a new translation of the poems by Sappho). One was a book on ancient Greek culture, The Greek Experience,  by Oxford don C.M. Bowra; the other was a little paperback I had come across on a previous trip to the Dodecanese islands: Bitter Sea – The Real Story of Greek Sponge Diving.

It is difficult to capture the strange but very real magic of this small island.  It is about a one hour boat trip from Rhodes, almost completely depopulated in the winter and even in the summer season most of the houses in the small village of Emborio are abandoned.  Some houses are still in ruins and I was told that in the early 1980s almost all were … there is still a former settlement that is today a ghost town, overgrown and abandoned, in the middle of the island.

It is easy to understand, however, why even busy people, who receive many invitations, make an effort to attend the Halki seminar.  Eliamep is traditionally excellent at organising events, and succeeds, again and again, to attract interesting crowds. This year was no different. But the genius loci of Halki adds something that goes beyond the specific issues (this year, as most years, including the Balkans, Turkey, the Caucasus and the Middle East)  and makes these days special.

Halki is, first of all, a place conducive to clear thinking. Nature is austere, the earth parched and crumbled, the hills treeless and the small flocks of sheep look emaciated.  There are few distractions: a handful of restaurants and bars, the sound of church bells, a grocer, a baker. I was told that there are some 30 pupils in the local school.  I also learned this year that even DHL does not deliver mail to Halki.

Every few hours a ship arrives from some other Greek island, spewing out newcomers who walk around the small village square  Then they disappear in some of the restored private houses in Emborios, likely to experience what happened to Italian invaders in the 1992 film Mediterraneo (set in the small Dodecanese island of Kastollerizo): to be conquered after a little while by the landscape and the people.

This island is a very good place to read Cecil Maurice Bowra’s classic (first published in the 1950s) on the Greek experience. As Bowra sets out:

“on the whole Greece is physically much the same today as it was four thousand years ago: a land of mountains, which are not huddled together in ungainly lumps but flaunt their peaks in proud independence, and of islands, which are themselves mountains with roots engulfed in the sea … Greece is indeed a hard land, capable of maintaining only a small population, but if this population faces its tasks with decision, it will reap its reward.”

What makes Greece most special, Bowra argues, is its light. It is an experience shared by today’s visitors to Halki :

“The traveller who comes from the west or the north to Greece for the first time may feel a slight twinge of disappointment at the nakedness of its outline and its lack of exuberant colour, but he will soon see that he is faced by a commanding beauty which makes no ready concessions to his appreciation but forces itself slowly and unforgettably on him.

What matters above all is the quality of the light,  not only in the cloudless days of summer but even in the winter the light is unlike that of any other European country, brighter, cleaner, and stronger.  It sharpens the edges of the mountains against the sky, as they rise from valleys or sea; it gives an ever-changing design to the folds and hollows as the shadows shift on or off them; it turns the sea to opal at dawn, to saphire at midday, and in succession to gold, silver, and lead before nightfall; it outlines the dark green of the olive trees in contrast to the rusty or ochre soil; it starts innumerable variations of colour and shape in unhewn rock and hewn stonework. The beauty of the Greek landscape depends primarily on the light, and this had a powerful influence on the Greek vision of the world.”

Seen in this clear light, set against this stark landscape, the gods of ancient Greece were neither alien nor unapproachable. In fact, as any perusal of the biography of Zeus makes obvious, they were constantly subject to the most human of passions, foibles, and obsessions: they fell in love madly, experienced jealousy, exploded in anger, and on occasion gave in to the pleasures and perils of revenge.  They were, essentially, like men and women, with the only difference that they did not need to fear death and could thus live carefree lives. They also had more (but always limited) power.  These Gods moved among humans. Sappho writes her hymn to Aphrodite inspired by an occassion when the goddess of love appeared to her, asked what troubled her and reassured her that everything would turn out well.

This is, of course, the central theme in Bowra’s book: as ancient Greeks thought of their gods as possessing human shape and nature, they also in turn discovered the dignity of the human gift as quasi divine.  Gods and men were both children of the same soil, in the same mould, and just as Greek gods were unlike the nonhuman gods of other civilisations, from the Egyptians to the Maya or the Khmer, so Greek conceptions of the human potential differed fundamentally.

Crafty Ulysees, “famous all over the world for my tricks”, becomes the hero of a civilisation of seafarers, the quintessential adventurer, suffering the gods’ whims, negotiating with them, trying to charm, deceive and persuade them as he tries to make his way home … and in the end very much like them in his strengths and weaknesses.  Bowra concludes:

“In no matter were the Greeks more courageous or more rational than in their assessment of humanity, its limitations, its possibilities, and its worth.  They differed fundamentally from their contemporaries in Asia, who thought that the great mass of men were of no importance in comparison with the god-kings for whose service they existed, and from their contemporaries in Egypt, who believed that life in this world was but a trivial preliminary to the peculiar permanence of life in the grave. The Greeks both recognised that men are worthy of respect in themselves, and were content that they should win this in the only life of which we have any knowledge.”

If you make your way to Greece this year: put Bowra’s text in your suitcase!

On the other hand, if you are fascinated by the mysteries of economic development, you might be interested in the story – almost a fable in its simplicity – told in Bitter Sea.  This is the tragic modern story of Halki and its neighbouring islands: it explains both the beauty and past affluence apparent in the biggest houses in its harbour and the desperation that in the end drove so many of its inhabitants away.

Like all development stories it starts with natural resources and human ingenuity.  The resource in this case are natural sea sponges, aquatic animals living on the sea’s bed and on rocks.  They are biological filters, taking in water through their pores and extracting bacteria for their food.  Sponges are the traditional coal, or oil, of the Dodecanese.  Once discovered as a possible source of wealth people were in fact left with few alternatives, due to the poverty on their rocky islands, and learned to dive for them.


This generated the 19th and early 20th century wealth still visible on the Dodecanese islands of Symi, Kalymnos or Halki.  Tiny Halki once boasted a population of 7,000 at the height of the sponge trade.  Small Kalymnos gave birth to no less than six trading companies based in London.  Symi developed a whole wooden-ship building industry for the task of sponge diving.  As Faith Warn tells us in her book:

“During the 19th century the sponge trade thrived here and supported thousands of people.  The wealth it generated funded – among other things – the construction of comfortable houses, built in Venetian style around the harbour of Emborios {in Halki}”

It was wealth purchased at a terrible price. When diving suits were introduced to the islands in the 1860s, allowing divers to go deeper and be even more productive, “diver’s disease” became a plague killing whole generations ignorant about the dangers of diving so deep (without decompression chambers):

“For a very long time, the continuing use of the suit whilst failing to take the necessary precautions had the most appalling results.  It led to the paralysis or death of not just a few divers but a horrifying majority … According to figures published by the Greek government, in just twenty years between 1886 and 1910, there were a staggering 10,000 deaths and 20,000 cases of paralysis among sponge divers in the Aegean.”

And while folk songs celebrated the heroism of sponge divers, people also told the tale of how sponges came to be cursed by Jesus when, on the cross, he was given a sponge soaked in bile and vinegar by a Roman soldier:

“From that time, they said, sponges were sent to the deepest seas and it was ordained that men would suffer in bringing them to land. The many holes in a sponge represented the many men who would die whilst diving for them.”

Not surprisingly the first line of the folk song Halkitikos, originating on Halki, is “Oh sea, oh bitter sea, oh bitter-surging tide.”  But besides the occasional job as a sheppard, the island economy depended on this tragic harvest.  Not surprisingly emigration was seen by many as offering a way out.

In 1904 some 500 divers left Halki and other islands and went to Tarpon Springs Florida, to dive in the Gulf of Mexico. Today the main road on Halki is called Tarpon Springs.

Later competition from artificial sponges accelerated the decline of the trade and emigration. By the 1960s most sponge diving fleets were dismantled.  By 1980  Halki was almost completely deserted. The remaining sponge divers on Kalymnos were then hit by an environmental disaster in 1986, which Faith Warn suggests was linked to the Chernobyl disaster, which killed off sponges on the bottom of the sea in 1986.  Individual tourism, efforts to encourage cultural activities and events, such as the Eliamep Halki seminar held since 10 years, have since brought some life back to the island.

Halki, Symi and their sponges offer a stark tale of the dependency of humans on their environment.  As the poet Pindar, quoted by Bowra, has written:

“Single is the race, single

Of men and of gods;

From a single mother we both draw breath.

But a difference of power in everything

Keeps us apart;

For the one is as nothing, but the brazen sky

Stays a fixt habitation for ever.

Yet we can in greatness of mind

Or of body be like the Immortals,

Though we know not to what goal

By day or in the nights

Fate has written that we shall run.”

Recommended reading based on Halki Seminar 2009:

Red herrings in Turkish-Armenian Debate

Gerald Knaus and Piotr Zalewski

On 15 December 2008, shortly after several Turkish intellectuals launched a public apology campaign to commemorate the victims of the “Great Catastrophe” of 1915, a group of 146 retired Turkish ambassadors issued a counter-declaration. “Today, Armenian terror has completed its mission,” it lamented. “We are aware that the second phase of the plan includes an apology and the next step will be demands for land and compensation.”

The ambassadors’ response is emblematic of the sort of fears that we have come across during our research for “Noah’s Dove Returns”, a recent ESI paper on Turkish-Armenian relations. As many of our Turkish interlocutors told us, recognition of the Armenian genocide, whether in Turkey or abroad, not only threatens to undermine “Turkish prestige and honor”; it also throws into question the current Turkish-Armenian border and paves the way for compensation and restitution claims against the Turkish government.

We disagree that Turkish national prestige is at risk in this debate. The growing number of third country resolutions on the Armenian genocide since 2000 has done nothing to dent Turkey’s international standing. On the contrary: the same period has seen Turkey open accession talks with the EU, secure a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council (the first time since the 1960s), attract rapidly growing levels of foreign investments, and win widespread international praise for its domestic reforms and foreign policy initiatives. Meanwhile, the widening domestic debate on Turkey’s difficult past is boosting both Turkey’s democratic image and its chances for EU accession. A Turkey that comes to terms with its Ottoman past, evidently, stands to win – not lose – international prestige.

The question of territorial claims is another red herring in the recognition debate. Though it has been on the agenda of a vocal nationalist minority in Armenia (and in the diaspora) for decades, border revision has never been part of any Armenian government’s policy. The nationalists’ claims, based on the never-ratified Treaty of Sevres, have not managed to secure any international support. Normalization of ties between Turkey and Armenia, in any case, would put them to rest once and for all. (This, in fact, is exactly why some Armenian nationalists have had second thoughts about opening relations with Turkey.)

The third argument – that recognition, be it by countries in the EU, the US or by Turkey itself, will allow Armenians to sue the Turkish government – is also widespread. Not because it is true; but because many people believe that it involves complicated and ambiguous points of international law. This is not the case, however.

To begin with, the Armenian genocide has by now been officially recognized by 20 countries. If recognition is meant to pave the way towards restitution, these countries’ courts must surely be flooded with Armenian lawsuits? Not at all. In fact, not a single genocide-related claim has successfully been made against the Turkish government anywhere in the world – this, despite genocide resolutions having been passed in countries like France, Germany and Russia.

The European Parliament, in its 1987 resolution, even took pains to explain why. As it stressed, “neither political nor legal or material claims against present-day Turkey can be derived from the recognition of this historical event as an act of genocide.” The only international framework under which such claims could theoretically be pursued, the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide, cannot be applied retroactively. There is no serious disagreement on this point. The findings of a 2002 study on the “Events” of 1915 by the International Center for Transitional Justice are unambiguous:

The Genocide Convention contains no provision mandating its retroactive application. To the contrary, the text of the Convention strongly suggests that it was intended to impose prospective obligations only on the States party to it. Therefore, no legal, financial or territorial claim arising out of the Events could successfully be made against any individual or state under the Convention.”

In only one instance have legal claims proved successful – and even then they had no link to genocide recognition or the Turkish state. Over the past few years, a number of insurance companies have had to pay compensation to those Armenians whose relatives, having purchased insurance policies before 1915, perished in the genocide. But it was the companies themselves – and not the Turkish government – who were the defendents in these cases. The claims had nothing to do with the Turkish state. Also, despite Armenian protestations, the courts found the question of what to call the events of 1915 completely irrelevant. They were dealing not with terminology, but with individual property claims.

Even Armenian leaders have publicly acknowledged that genocide recognition has no impact whatsoever on the claims issue. It is not that Armenians have forsaken pursuing legal consequences, explained Armenian president Robert Kocharian in a 2001 interview with Mehmet Ali Birand. It’s just that these have nothing to do with whether or not Turkey or another state recognizes the genocide. “The issue is that genocide recognition does not create the legal bases to allow Armenia to present certain demands before Turkey,” said Kocharian. “I am surprised that Turkish attorneys themselves have not provided the Turkish government with such counsel and such an assessment.”

All this is not to say that restitution or compensation by the Turkish state is impossible. Armenians could, in theory, file claims against the Turkish government – but only in Turkish courts, and only if Turkey adopts a binding legal act allowing them to do so. The jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights in the area of property restitution confirms this. As the ECHR has ruled, “For a claim to be capable of being considered an ‘asset’ […] the claimant must establish that it has a sufficient basis in national law, for example where there is settled case-law of the domestic courts confirming it, or whether there is a final court judgement in the claimant’s favour.”

All of these cases, across a number of different jurisdictions, point to the same conclusion. There is no connection whatsoever between genocide recognition on the one hand and property restitution or compensation claims on the other. There is, in other words, no slippery slope leading from a non-binding US Congressional resolution to a successful lawsuit against the Turkish state to – as some of our interlocutors in Ankara seem to believe – the confiscation of THY planes at American airports. Turkish decision makers and opinion leaders should make it clear that such fears are a red herring. Dodging this conclusion – and giving unsubstantiated rumours free rein – threatens to make serious and honest discussion of Turkey’s Armenia policy even more difficult than they already are.

Visas and the Czechs – savoring success

Half a year ago I wrote on Rumeli Observer about the upcoming Czech EU presidency.

At meetings in December, which ESI had organized in Prague, Czech politicians and civil servants had defined ambitious goals for the Western Balkans in 2009:

“We are expecting your countries’ applications for membership during our presidency. We have been preparing to receive your applications for membership. We have coordinated with the government of Sweden (the second EU presidency in 2009) in order to be able to promote the cause of the Western Balkans. We are ready.”

Six months have passed. The Czech presidency is coming to a close. Our manual on Czech decision makers – in particular the government chapter – has become outdated faster than anybody expected.

There has been much negative comment on the events in Prague across Europe following the resignation of the Topolanek government. As one friend, an advisor to several EU Commission presidents told me recently, “How dare the Czechs bring down a government during their presidency? How could they be so unserious?” At the recent ECFR meeting in Stockholm another veteran EU policy maker noted that Prague had offered “the best argument” for finally getting rid of the rotating presidency … “at least in the past we could be sure that small countries took this challenge seriously. Now even this is no longer true.” And there is (almost) universal loathing of Vaclav Klaus’ performance among policy makers across the continent.

However, when it comes to the Balkans and the EU, the Czechs have actually done as well as they had promised. That is no small achievement.

It is not Prague’s fault, after all, that the Bosnian elite prefers quarreling about the prolongation of the mandate of a political corpse – the vanishing OHR – rather than focusing its energy on making the compromises necessary to submit an application for membership; something that remains impossible as long as there is an OHR in Sarajevo.

Even Sweden, though it will try hard, will struggle to bring the OHR to a close under its upcoming presidency. This became apparent at a recent brainstorming on the issue I attended in Haga castle near Stockholm (organized and chaired by Carl Bildt and Valentin Inzko).

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Haga castle near Stockholm

Haga castle has a bright future ahead of it: soon after our Bosnia brainstorming the Swedish heir to the throne was set to move in and make it her private home. Bosnia’s future, unfortunately, is more clouded. I will write more on it here soon. The conclusion, in a nutshell, is disheartening. For now put your money on there still being an OHR at the end of 2010 – an office with no mandate to do anything, and blocking any more serious progress by its very presence. Even Valentin Incko himself does not seem to believe that he will be the last High Representative …

Nor can Prague be blamed for the failure of Serbia and the EU to agree on whether or not there is now full compliance with the ICTY in Belgrade.

It would have been nice if the Czech presidency had succeeded in having Slovenia lift its veto on Croatia, or Greece on Macedonia. On the other hand, even France did not manage this. I am not sure Sweden will, either.

What Prague could achieve, however, it did achieve. The Montenegrin EU membership application was, after a few tense moments, forwarded to the Commission for assessment. This set an important precedent for Albania, which has also (finally) recently applied.

If Serbia follows later in 2009, and if Macedonia is told in the autumn that it now meets all criteria to begin real talks (even if Greece then proceeds to veto an opening), this could yet become a decent year for the region.

And perhaps more than just decent. In recent months, the issue of visa liberalization has moved forward almost as rapidly as envisaged by friends of the region. Just note the recent conclusions of the EU General Affairs Council meeting.

They state:


The Council restates its support for the dialogue on visa liberalisation with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, based on the roadmaps containing clear and realistic benchmarks and on a country-by-country assessment. The Council recalls that the countries concerned should continue to focus on full implementation of these benchmarks.

In this regard, the Council welcomes the updated assessment reports presented by the European Commission on the progress in the visa liberalisation dialogues with these countries. The reports reflect the clear progress made by these countries in meeting the benchmarks set out in the visa liberalisation roadmaps. In this context, the Council encourages the European Commission to present as soon as possible a legislative proposal amending Regulation 539/2001, as it applies to the Member States, in order to achieve a visa free regime ideally by the end of 2009 with those countries that will have met all the benchmarks.

The Commission now has a mandate to do the right thing (see also a recent op-ed by my colleague Alex Stiglmayer and myself in EU Observer): to recommend visa free travel for a group of countries.

There is, as well, a target date for a result: “ideally by the end of 2009”. This is almost as good as it gets in EU affairs. EU foreign ministers have already indicated that they will both welcome and endorse a Commission recommendation!

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Sasha Vondra and Jan Kohout – they did well for the Balkans

This means that it is now realistic to expect that all Western Balkan countries – except Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo – could obtain both EU candidate status and visa free travel sometime in 2010.

Albania – whatever its future government – can catch up as well. And if, against all odds, the OHR is closed in 2009, even Bosnia might avoid falling into a new group of hopeless laggards (with unfortunate Kosovo bringing up the tail).

Perhaps there are indeed a few people in Prague who, despite all the turmoil of recent months, deserve a quiet moment to savour this success.

Elks, Viking Zen and a Swedish theory of love


As Sweden takes over the EU presidency there is a possibility that more Europeans will feel like Andrew Brown, an English expert on Scandinavian idiosyncrasies already familiar to readers of this blog:

“I was little surprised by anything that seemed to me particularly Swedish, but this didn’t mean that I could understand it.”

Expect to hear a lot in coming months about Abba, elks, Vikings and Karlson on the roof, as Europeans who do not speak Swedish (like myself) cling to every cliche in the books to make sense of “their” presidency. I promised myself that I would write about Sweden without ever mentioning Abba (or, even worse, the 1968 shokumentary Sweden – Heaven and Hell). As for other cliches, let me indulge just once. If you like books like Luigi Barzinis’ “The Italians” or “Sixty Million Frenchmen can’t be wrong”, read on.

So let me tell you about a book I recently picked up in Stockholm airport. It is called “The Viking Manifesto.” The authors plausibly promise not only to help us outsiders better understand Scandinavia: they also offer their readers a path to salvation, success in business (without ever really competing) and great personal lives all while making money by giving things away.

All this becomes possible by following the “Viking method”, which, we learn, is all about “improving the quality of life, bringing a sense of adventure back to entrepreneurship and corporate culture, and making it all pay.” The Vikings were always good at creating brands (as well as undertake raids), from the longship to IKEA. As for their international outlook the book notes:

“The Vikings carefully picked a target and struck without warning, armed to the teeth and high on mead and mushrooms. They were strong believers in globalisation and bloodshed.”

The thought is compelling that Swedes (and to a lesser extent Danes) are fans of EU enlargement due to this particular history: after all, their ancestors were there (in Kiev, in Constantinople) one thousand years ago, sailing through the Bosporus with their frightening ships. And as this fine book notes, they have changed only a little: “A thousand years ago, Vikings were making wine snifters out of the skulls of their enemies. Today, they’re selling furniture in flat packages.” Generous Swedish development assistance in the Balkans, Moldova and Georgia appears in this light as another expression of “Viking Zen”: “do something that is honest, honourable, and interesting. Then don’t tell anyone about it. Remember: a good story can never be kept a secret.”

Well, sort of. There is not actually a huge number of books on the market (in English) that explain how Sweden itself works today. I have presented a few facts about Swedish exceptionalism on these pages before. This is a modest effort to explain it. So if you are left wanting to know more, having leaved through the Viking Manifesto, where could you go?

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If you read German, perhaps you try Antje Ravic Strubel’s Gebrauchsanweisung fuer Schweden (Manual for Sweden). Skip the chapters on Nordic skiing and on the difficulty of running into one of Sweden’s 400,000 elks. Go straight to Volk, Gender, Emotion. There you will learn that Sweden has had an Ombudsperson for children since 1993; that registered partnerships were introduced for gay couples already in 1995 (in April 2009 Sweden adopted a gender neutral marriage law – with an overwhelming majority across all political families in parliament); and that Sweden is a world power in exporting pop, a reflection of the democratic character of this genre of music.

Strubel underlines that in order to understand modern Sweden it helps to know the writing by Erik Gustaf Geijer and Carl Jonas Love Almquist. Unfortunately, it is rather difficult to find out much in any language other than Swedish about Erik Gustaf Geijer (1783 – 1847), historian, composer, ardent fan of Viking culture and creator of a Swedish national philosophy based on the idea of free, independent individuals. If you can help, let me know.

It is a little better when it comes to Almquist (1793-1866), who wrote on the virtues of Swedish poverty (in the early 19th century, when Sweden was one of the poorest places in Europe). He also wrote a lot about love, in a rather modern way. Tintomara, the main character in one of his novels (Drottninges juvelsmycke) aroused both men and woman to fall in love. In It is acceptable a woman lives with a man without being married to him. One of Almquists characters, Sara, makes clear that, while she will love and live with Albert, she wants to remain unmarried, in separate rooms, and without commitments. Romantic love must not be based on utilitarian arrangements, the argument goes; families should be based on the internal autonomy of their members. This was too much even in Sweden in the 19th century; both church and state condemned Almquist as a dangerous revolutionary. Almquist ended his life in exile.

Today, however, many Swedes appear to live by his ideas. Nowhere else in Europe is the number of women in the work force as high. At least some tables seem to suggest (for instance see here) that Sweden also has one of the highest divorce rates in the world today. (Be warned, though: international league tables on divorce are like those on comparative happiness: wherever you look, the ranking changes and other tables show the Maldives, Russia, the US or small Djibouti take first place divorcing. Whatever table one looks at, however, many of the countries in South East Europe, from Turkey to Albania or Armenia, still stand out for their very low divorce rates. That would be an issue for another blog.)

Strubel in her book points out that while the German tax code and legislation encourages spouses to stay at home (to save on taxes, which are assessed on the combined income of both spouses treated as one earner, divided by two), and requires parents to take care of their children until well into early adulthood, in Sweden fewer expectations exist for families to look after each other’s members in a material sense. Even funerals are paid for by the state. At the same time the Swedish language reflects the modern reality of patchwork families much better than German, where those who live together in a long-term relationship without being married are considered to be in a “wild marriage” (Wilde Ehe). Swedish (I trust Radic on this) has the words sambo (for those who cohabit without being married), sarbo (for those who are together but do not live together) and gift (for those who are married). And while German has the ugly word Stiefkinder for the children from an earlier marriage, Swedish speaks of bonusbarn (bonus children).

Almquist is hardly a household name outside Sweden (looking to purchase Sara on the internet I came across an edition on Amazon for $ 409 Dollars). It is therefore fortunate that two Swedish writers – Henrik Berggren and Lars Tragardh – have recently filled the gapping hole in our understanding of their country, producing a more accessible analysis of Swedish social and political culture.

They address the central paradox of Swedish politics as seen from outside: how can a country which is so non-conformist, original and avant-guard also put so much trust in public institutions and the power of the state? Are Swedes individualists or believers in collectivism? What is more important to them: a society where every individual can stand on her own feet, independent of the constraints of tradition or family, of one where the state has an overwhelming role in guaranteeing welfare?

It turns out, according to Berggren and Tragardh, that Swedes are both: and it is this fact which distinguishes the Swedish understanding of the role of the state today from that of their German neighbours.


The book which Berggren and Tragardh published in 2006 is called Is the Swede Human? Community and Autonomy in Modern Sweden (Är svensken människa? Gemenskap och oberoende i det moderna Sverige). It argues that far from being “socialist” in their outlook, Swedes are in fact devoted to personal autonomy and radical individualism more than any other people in the Western world. The authors, looking back to Almquist, put this down to a “Swedish theory of love”, according to which true friendship and love is only possible between independent and equal individuals.

This understanding has led to a state whose true function has been to liberate individuals from ties of dependency on charities, churches, even family members. This is very different from the balance struck between individual and state in either Germany or the US. Swedes are hyperindividualists … and the state helps them to be so.

It is a fascinating theory. One element, however, still needs to be added: after all, not all that long ago, even Swedish culture was patriarchal, children were beaten, the death penalty was implemented by the state. Perhaps there is a “Swedish theory of love” – there certainly is a modern Swedish theory of childhood, which affects the values and ideals with which people are brought up.

Before you go to your bookstore, though, let’s go on the road: rent a car, leave Stockholm, drive past the former heart of the Swedish textile industry along the Gota Canal, and head for a formerly deeply impoverished region that has since – through literature – become a universal landscape, familiar to millions of people who might never come to Scandinavia in their lives.

Let’s go to Smaland.

“You have seven days left” – Greeks, Turks and the diplomatic revolution of 1999


“As small states integrate themselves in a wider world, and even the larger learn how much they need their neighbours’ help to tackle the problems that face them all, the stringently patrolled and narrow-minded conception of history which they once nurtured and which gave them a kind of justification starts to look less plausible and less necessary. Other futures might require other pasts.”

Mark Mazower, Salonica – City of Ghosts

In an excellent little book published by Bilgi University in 2008, Samim Akgonul notes that in the 20th century Greece and Turkey “shared a significant ideal; that of the homogenous nation-state in which non-indigenous minorities would numerically and in terms of activity be kept at the lowest possible level.” The 20th century histories of Thessaloniki and Istanbul, two of Europe’s greatest cities, illustrate the enormous consequences of this ideal of homogenous nation-states.

Both cities have throughout history been defined by their diversity. At the beginning of the 20th century Thessaloniki was a majority non-Greek city, with large numbers of Jews and Turks. Istanbul was not only home to the Caliph, but also one of the largest centres of Christian (Greek and Armenian) culture in Europe.


The Turks of Thessaloniki were deeply affected by the Balkan wars and by the outcome of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which forced them to abandon their homes. The Jews of Thessaloniki later fell victim to the most murderous ideology in the 20th century, National Socialism and German occupation.


The Greeks of Istanbul, though spared at first by the provisions of the Lausanne Treaty, were expelled later, in the 1950s and 1960s, also victims of an ideology which saw minorities above all as threats and diversity as a weakness. Today their community is threatened by extinction, as less than 300 young Greeks still go to minority schools in Istanbul.

As Istanbul prepares to become European Capital of Culture in 2010, and to celebrate its past and current diversity, expect to find a lot more about this tragic history on these pages. ESI is also preparing to publish a discussion paper on the situation of Christians in Istanbul very soon.

In January 2009, to highlight this issue, we also organised a film screening at Bilgi university. We showed three films: the ESI film on Istanbul; the ESI film on Thessaloniki; and the wonderful award-winning Greek film A touch of Spice.


Thanks to my Open Society fellowship we were also able to invite the film’s director, Thassos Boulmetis, to the event. Boulmetis was born in Istanbul; the film explains the story of his own family’s expulsion in 1964. Boulmetis had never been at a screening of his film in Turkey and told the audience, visibly moved, in a discussion that lasted past midnight in the big auditorium of the Santral Campus of Bilgi, that this was “the most important of all screenings for him.” 

A Touch of Spice and the history of tensions in relations between Greece and Turkey – and Greeks and Turks – are also at the heart of our film Alexander’s Shadow. Here is an excerpt on the difficult legacies:

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Thassos Boulmetis: “A touch of spice” I. © 2008 pre tv. All rights reserved.

At the same time, there has been dramatic change in recent years in Greek-Turkish relations, starting in 1999. For a gripping account of this diplomatic revolution, see also the following clip:

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Georgios Papandreou on the Greek-Turkish rapprochement in the 1990s. © 2008 pre tv. All rights reserved.

If you now want to see the whole film – in full, free of charge on the internet thanks to the Vienna based Erste Foundation – all you need to do is go here, and then choose either the German or English language version.  If you like it, make sure to tell others!

Inside the ESI visa campaign – an update


A few months ago a small group of us – Kristof Bender, Alex Stiglmayer, Nick Wood as well as ESI advisory board members Heather Grabbe, Radmila Sekerinska and Giuliano Amato – met in Rome to discuss what contribution ESI could make to the ongoing policy debate on visa issues in the EU concerning the Western Balkans.

One outcome of this meeting was a declaration. Another, very subjective, outcome was vastly increased confidence on our part that this time around, in 2009, there was a real chance to actually achieve something when it comes to bringing down the Schengen Wall between the EU and the Western Balkans.


When, at the end of the day, Kristof, Alex and I sat in a cafe in Rome, looking forward to the work of the coming months, we were excited: now, thanks to the efforts by some EU member states and the European Commission, there was a clear road forward for governments of the Balkans. As long as enough people in the region would learn about what their governments needed to do – and as long as decision makers in the EU would be kept informed about what has and has not been done so far in the region – there was now every chance for new energy and real progress.

The key, we felt, was to take conditionality seriously: as something that binds both the countries of the region and the EU. This was a major inspiration: there was a road, and there was an attractive goal.

Brainstorming on EU visa conditionality

Since then we have tried to make our contribution, with the tools of a think tank.

We published analyses. We gave presentations. We produced a glossary to allow as many people as possible to take part in an informed debate. We put documents online which are crucial for any fair evaluation of what has been done so far (taking seriously the idea that the best guarantee of government performance – in the Balkans as elsewhere – is informed public scrutiny). We briefed policy makers in the Balkans when we learned new things. We met with sceptical decision makers in EU capitals.

There was obviously interest. In recent weeks we sometimes had more than 4000 individual visitors a day to our website.

Giuliano Amato, chairman of the ESI White List Project Advisory Board

Later this month (June) we will meet with our team of regional analysts who have worked with us on this project in Istanbul to discuss the next steps: one of the major arguments in favour of Istanbul is, of course, that because Turkey has had one of the most liberal entry policies it is simply easier for people from across the region to come here.

Later in July we will meet again with the White List Project advisory board in Istanbul. This advisory board now includes two former EU interior ministers: in addition to Giuliano Amato it has also been joined by former German interior minister Otto Schily.

So far everything remains in the air. Nothing has yet been decided by the EU. There is, as of this morning, not even an informal proposal from the Commission – based on its recent assessments – on how to proceed.

For this reason Alex and I sent the following letter last night to a few hundred people working on visa issues, in the European Commission, in EU member states, in the European Parliament:

The Balkans and the Schengen White List – proposal for the way forward

Dear Mrs X,

In the coming weeks and months, the European Commission and the EU member states will decide which Western Balkan countries qualify for the lifting of the Schengen visa requirement. The EU’s decision has the potential to restore the EU’s credibility and its soft power in the region. It can also balance the hopes of the people in the Balkans with the concerns of those responsible for protecting the Schengen area against illegal migration and organised crime.

On the one hand, there are great expectations on the part of the governments and the citizens of the Western Balkan countries. The visa requirement has been a matter of frustration, contributing to doubts as to whether the Western Balkans’ European perspective is real. Now, however, renewed enthusiasm and hope have appeared.

On the other hand, EU governments have stressed the importance of reassuring sceptical EU citizens that they will exercise fair, but strict conditionality when it comes to abolishing the visa requirement on Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. The conditions were outlined in the EU visa roadmaps issued last year.

Based on what has been achieved so far (acceleration of reform efforts in the Western Balkans, numerous visits to the region by EU experts, and detailed analysis of progress by the European Commission), it is in fact possible to address both concerns – to be both strict and fair – at once.

We offer the following solution for your consideration:


The Commission assessments and expert reports leave no doubt that Macedonia has earned the right to visa-free travel as soon as possible, i.e. from January 2010 at the latest. Such a decision would send a powerful signal to the region that conditionality is taken seriously, and that reforms pay off.

Notwithstanding the upcoming European Parliament elections and a new Commission scheduled to take office in November, the EU institutions must make sure that a decision to amend Council Regulation 539/2001 is taken quickly.

For Macedonians to travel visa-free as of next January, the Commission must make the relevant legislative proposal within the next few weeks. The new European Parliament should then treat the dossier as a priority after the summer break, so that the Council can take the vote on it in the autumn.

Montenegro and Serbia

Montenegro and Serbia still have a few conditions to meet. However, as the Commission concludes, even in areas where the two countries have not yet achieved full implementation, “a large majority” or “the majority of the benchmarks” have been met.

Given that the Council will vote on visa-free travel in five months at the earliest (at the JHA Council of 23 October), possibly even later (at the last JHA Council of 2009 on 30 November/1 December), it is advisable for the Commission to include visa-free travel for Montenegro and Serbia in the forthcoming proposal, while making sure that this is conditional on further reforms.

The next five or more months are long enough to assess whether both countries are serious about meeting outstanding requirements. If doubts persist, the Council could invite the Commission to conduct a final assessment ahead of the vote.


The Commission and the member states must refrain from demanding that Serbia prevent residents of Kosovo from acquiring Serbian passports. One of the roadmap conditions for Serbia clearly states:

“Serbia should ensure full and effective access to travel and identity documents for all Serbian citizens including women, children, people with disabilities, people belonging to minorities and other vulnerable groups.”

As long as Serbian governments claim, and some EU member states accept, that Kosovars are Serbian citizens (regardless of ethnicity), any open or hidden discrimination will be a breach of the principle of non-discrimination.

The EU is justified in asking for security in the process, in particular as regards the civil registries and the breeder documents that are used. But Serbia must not make the process discriminatory. As long as the EU does not offer Kosovo a visa roadmap or another process leading towards visa-free travel, it implicitly accepts that Kosovars are Serbian citizens. This means Kosovars have a right to Serbian travel and identity documents.

Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina

Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina clearly have to do more work before they qualify for visa-free travel. Being strict is as essential to the success of this process as being fair.

The policy question now is how to ensure that both countries undertake the reforms already achieved in Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro.

It would be counter-productive to exclude them from the current process. Seeing Serbia move ahead of it could prove destabilising for Bosnia – most Bosnian Croats use Croatian passports, which allow visa-free travel, and an unknown number of Bosnian Serbs have acquired, or are in the process of acquiring, Serbian citizenship and Serbian passports. This would leave the Bosniaks as the only community that is subject to the visa requirement. The new Albanian government, which will emerge from the elections at the end of June, also needs a concrete prospect. For this reason it is advisable to offer both Bosnia and Albania a new timetable.

The best option would be to include the two countries in the forthcoming proposal to amend Council Regulation 539/2001 by moving them to the “white” Schengen list – but, in doing so, to stipulate that visa-free travel for Albania and Bosnia will remain pending until all conditions are met. The proposal should also include a specific date for a new assessment to be conducted by the Commission and EU national experts in early 2010.

The Council, at the same time, should continue to communicate clearly that it will take its decisions based on technical, not political, criteria – and that there will be no place in the process for discrimination or shortcuts.

It is already obvious that spelling out clear conditions has inspired reforms throughout the region that have made both the region and the EU safer. A Council decision that includes all five countries – taking note of their progress to date – will ensure that this process continues.

ESI is grateful to the Robert Bosch Stiftung for its support of the “ESI Schengen White List Project”.

Many best wishes,

Gerald Knaus

Gerald Knaus,
Chairperson of ESI

Alexandra Stiglmayer

Alexandra Stiglmayer,
Director “ESI Schengen White List Project”

Gerald Knaus and Alexandra Stiglmayer