Skopje and Athens – can a version of the ESI proposal work?

A few months ago I visited Macedonia to present EU diplomats, ambassadors, the Macedonian prime minister, the foreign minister and party leaders a slighly revised version of the ESI proposal for overcoming the stalemate in the name dispute between Macedonia and Greece.

I also presented this proposal once again in Brussels, Berlin  and in other EU capitals.  I gave everyone a paper copy of the revised proposal. Since then it has circulated among EU diplomats.

It would be foolish to be too optimistic that anything can help overcome such a complicated dispute. And yet, there are a number of reasons to be more optimistic this time than in a long while. I remain convinced also that nothing can be forced by outsiders on either party, not now, not later. It will take  a compromise that national leaders can present to their publics in both Skopje and Athens as a step forward for their side; and one where both sides retain their leverage until actual EU accession of Macedonia.

Then, earlier this month, the Macedonian weekly Gradjanski reported the following:

drawing on unnamed diplomats, reported that Brussels was working on a‘date for date’ strategy about the country in December: start of membership negotiations would be announced for next June with Skopje being obliged to deliver by then tangible results on good neighbourly relations (improved ties with Bulgaria and Greece, including essential reviving of the name negotiations). The sources stressed the importance in this context of a constructive response of Skopje to Greece’s memorandum, which would offer ideas, but also pointed at the government being reserved about the plan. The weekly also reported on an upgraded 2010 proposal by the European Stability Initiative that the name issue be resolved in the early stage of membership negotiations but the referendum on the solution take place at the end of the process, i.e. together with the referendum on EU membership. According to Gragjanski, the upgraded document, which is reportedly supported by an influential lobby group in Brussels, foresees for the new composite name to immediately replace the current reference and its wider use to enter into force together with EU accession. Constitutional changes are expected from Skopje in order to accept the new name for international use; the constitutional name will remain official name of the country in its official languages and the use of the adjective ‘Macedonian’ will not be called in question, says the proposal.”

I have since been asked by a number of people to share the new version of the proposal. This then is the latest version in full:

Breaking the Macedonian deadlock before the end of 2012

What is needed is a way forward that accepts the bottom lines for Athens and Skopje. This can be achieved through a constitutional amendment in Skopje that changes the name of the country with a geographic qualifier today: to replace Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia where the latter is currently in use, allowing Athens to support the start of EU accession talks and to sending an invitation to join NATO later this year or early next year, but which foresees that the change will enter into force permanently and erga omnes on the day Macedonia actually joins the EU.

Such a solution is possible if the following happens:

1. There is active mediation between both sides which focus solely on finding a compromise name for the country with a geographical modifier, dealing with the issues of RM NATO accession and the opening of EU
accession talks.

2. Greece and RM agree on a compromise name, XYZ, with a geographical modifier. This will immediately replace F.Y.R.O.M. wherever that is currently in use in international

3. Greece commits to allow RM to join NATO under this new provisional name XYZ and an invitation to join NATO is extended.

4. RM changes its constitution to say something like this:
“From the day the Republic of Macedonia joins the European Union the international name of the country will be XYZ, used erga omnes in all languages other than the official languages of the country.”
The promised referendum on EU accession at the end of the negotiation process becomes thereby de facto the real referendum on the name issue (there was no referendum for F.Y.R.O.M., and until accession the new name is used only in place of F.Y.R.O.M.).
Leaders in RM replace one name their citizens do not like (referring to a state that has disappeared decades ago, Yugoslavia) with another name they do not like, both used in the same way.

Neither side loses leverage in the future. If future Greek governments block EU accession of RM or make additional demands judged unacceptable in Skopje this would also delay the entering into force of the core provision of this compromise. Greece shows its EU partners that it remains actively in favor of Balkan enlargement. Greece also keeps its leverage until the very end of the accession process

Paradise Lost? From Smyrna to Skopje to Berlin (part 1)

I have spent the past month travelling through the Balkans (Skopje, Tirana, Pristina, Belgrade) and visiting Sweden, Bratislava and Chisinau. I presented on and drafted texts about a lot of different issues: debates in Greece and Macedonia about identities; debates in Turkey about Turkish Christians and their rights; debates in Germany about Islam and Turks; Swedish, Slovak and European debates on the future of Balkan and Turkish enlargement. In all these seemingly unrelated debates there was one common thread, however, always leading back to the question of what is at stake in the future of EU enlargement today: why enlargement matters.

For some time I have wondered whether the current discourse on the importance of South East European enlargement, its significance for the European project (and not just for the 20 some million people of the Western Balkans) has not become stale, unconvincing, full of wooden language and cliches.

If EU enlargement is to go ahead and not to turn into an agonizing technocratic exercise, in which very few people actually believe, a different narrative is needed. European leaders and thinkers have lost the vision of enlargement, and it is vital to recapture it (on the charge that this might be too elitist a way to think about this political project more later).

To try to explain this let me start from where I sit at this moment: in a cafe on the pier of Izmir, looking out at at the Aegean Sea and Mount Pagus.

Gerald Knaus

The Destruction of Smyrna

If you arrive today in Izmir, the leading city of Aegean Turkey with 2 million inhabitants, the standard guidebooks tell you little. To quote what I first read, arriving here three days ago: “despite a long and illustrious history, most of the city is relentlessly modern – even enthusiasts will concede that a couple of days here as a tourist are plenty”; this is a city “not entirely without interest” due to its natural setting and ethnological museum. No wonder most of the tourists who flock to the Aegean coast do not pause here on their way to Ephesus or the coastal resorts.

However, there is one way to make any visit to Izmir unforgetable. Chose a day like this Sunday, when sun sets gloriously over the mountains of the Bay of Izmir. Then pick up Giles Milton’s gripping account of the fate of this city in the early 20th century: Paradise Lost – Smyrna 1922 – The Destruction of Islam’s City of Tolerance.

One century ago Izmir, then known as Smyrna, boasted 11 Greek, 7 Turkish, 4 French and 5 Hebrew local daily newspapers; it had a Greek population of some 320,000, at least twice that of Athens at the time; it was famous for its large Jewish, Armenian, European and Turkish quarters; and it was reknown for a cosmopolitan business elite which included multilingual Levantine families (to find out more about who these go here: ; a city which had

“long been celebrated as a beacon of tolerance – home to scores of nationalities with a shared outlook and intertwined lives. It was little wonder that the Americans living in the metropolis had named their colony Paradise; life here was remarkably free form prejudice and many found it ironic that they had to come to the Islamic world to find a place that had none of the bigotry so omnipresent at home.” (Giles Milton)

Even skeptics, of which even then there were many in Europe, were vulnerable to the appeal of Smyrna:

“Visiting European intellectuals were fascinated to observe such a racially mixed city at close quarters. When the Austrian savant, Charles de Scherzer, had visited Smyrna in 1874, he brought with him a most negative image of the Turks, yet he went away with all his preconceptions shattered. “In matters of religion”, he wrote, “they are – contrary to their reputation – the most tolerant people of the Orient.”

And yet, as we all know, one century ago cities like these – fin-de-siecle Czernowitz or Vilnius, Wraclaw, Vienna or Prague, late Ottoman Thessaloniki or Istanbul – lived under a dark shadow, cast by the dominant ideology of the age: romantic nationalism.

Early 20th century Smyrna was a majority-Christian city located in majority Muslim Anatolia, a land increasingly torn by religious and ethnic hatreds. At that time European leaders were about to “turn off the lights” for a century and allow a descent into collective madness. Those decisions were taken in Berlin, Vienna, Moscow and Paris, but they directly impacted on Istanbul, Athens and the people of Smyrna

In today’s terms Smyrna was “multicultural”: many communities living side by side, interacting, mingling, while preserving with some pride their own identities. It was multicultural at a moment in European history when the future belonged to nationalists, promising ethnic purity, the creation of nation states, and the need to assimilate or expel minorities, not to tolerate differences and live with them. It was an age which looked at pluralism with suspicion, where minorities were increasingly looking nervously to their mother countries for protection, and were simultaneously viewed by their co-citizens as fifth columns and security threats.

All of this was already clearly apparent in Anatolia at the time, where hatreds were fueled by the military defeats of the Ottomans in the Balkan wars in the early 20th century.

When the Ottomans lost control of all of Macedonia during the six-week long Balkan war in autumn 1912, a large number of Muslim refugees was expelled from the Balkans. This led the leaders of the Ottoman Empire to cast aside all ideas they might have had as late as 1908 about creating an Ottoman citizenship, and to embrace instead an increasingly racist and exclusivist vision of their state as a land of the Turks.

Anatolia’s hatreds erupted again during World War I. And they exploded into a savage war with the 1919 Greek invasion to annex Western Anatolia and the atrocities committed by the Greek invading army, dreaming of recreating a Byzantine Empire. This is a complex, but familiar story with one key theme: the idea that brutalities were permitted to destroy multiethnic life in order to create modern nation-states.

And thus it came that in September 1922 multicultural Smyrna literally went up in flames. 70 percent of the city burnt down following the reconquest by Turkish soldiers. The entire Christian population fled in terror. The destruction of Smyrna coincided with the uprooting of all of Anatolia’s Greek population.

And just as many of the Muslim refugees who had streamed into the Ottoman Empire following the Balkan wars had come from Macedonia, so many of Anatolia’s (and Smyrna’s) Greeks were directed to settle in Greek Macedonia following the tragic loss of their homeland.

More on that, and on the relationship between the debate on multicultural democracies and enlargement in Europe today, in my next entry.

Obama, Wulff and Christians as enemies of Turkey

US President Barack Obama speaking to the Turkish Parliament on 6 April 2009
US President Barack Obama speaking to the Turkish Parliament on 6 April 2009.
Photo: White House / Chuck Kennedy

On 5 April 2009 US president Barack Hussein Obama came to Ankara and delivered a speech in the Turkish Grand National Assembly. In addition to praising Turkey he also touched the issue of the position of Turkey’s Christians:

“Freedom of religion and expression lead to a strong and vibrant civil society that only strengthens the state, which is why steps like reopening Halki Seminary will send such an important signal inside Turkey and beyond. An enduring commitment to the rule of law is the only way to achieve the security that comes from justice for all people. Robust minority rights let societies benefit from the full measure of contributions from all citizens”

German President Christian Wulff speaking to the Turkish Parliament on 19 October 2010.
Photo: Bundespräsidialamt

On 19 October 2010 German President Christian Wulff came to Ankara for the first time ever to address the Grand National Assembly. He noted the importance of Turkey as a partner. He also touched the sensitive issue of religious freedom. First in the context of the German debate on integration: in Germany, he said, Muslims were able to practice their religion, pointing to the growing number of mosques being built there. Then he continued:

“At the same time, we expect that Christians in Muslim countries be given the same rights to practice their beliefs in public, to educate new religious leaders and to build churches.”

This is, in fact, one of the most baffling problems of Turkey today.

Given that Turkish politicians are (rightly) noting that the EU should not be discriminating against people or indeed countries just because they are Muslim it is all the more remarkable that so little is done to improve the position of Turkey’s Christians. This seems one area where it should be easy and painless to do the right thing for Turkey’s citizens without paying a big domestic political price. In addition this would be a real boost for Turkey’s international image: initiatives such as opening the Halki Seminary (near Istanbul) for Orthodox clergy, addressing the Patriarch by his official name (Ecumenical) or allowing the small groups of Christians the right to set up churches or register associations would be widely noted and praised outside the country. So why is this proving so hard?

One answer is “technical”. As Orhan Kemal Cengiz noted in an article this week:

“Due to amendments made within the framework of EU harmonization laws (2004-2008 amendments), restrictive provisions in the Law on Associations and the Law on Foundations were eliminated and non-Muslim groups achieved the means of obtaining legal personality, even if not in an entirely satisfactory form. Whereas there were previously verdicts indicating that foundations and associations could not be established on behalf of a congregation, today some foundations and a number of associations in various provinces established by non-Muslims are in operation. While this unquestionably represents a step forward, it cannot be said that these associations and foundations fully meet the needs of the congregations in question. Turkey’s laws and legal practices are in conflict with the main model in Europe, which is that religious communities and institutions are recognized as such and “allowed to register and obtain legal personality, without having to go [indirectly] by way of other institutional arrangements.””

“In its present state, the legislation that provides for non-Muslim groups to gain legal personality is confusing and open to potential abuse. In reality, granting non-Muslim groups the possibility of establishing an association limited to the purpose of “founding a church” creates ambiguity regarding the legal status of these associations.”

But the real explanation – and the reason behind these technical problems – is political.

In order to anwers this question ESI has set out to do extensive research over the past two years, which is going to be published soon on our website. We focused on two groups in particular, both tiny in terms of numbers: Turkey’s Orthodox Greek community (largely in Istanbul) and Turkey’s tiny Protestant community.

One of the most striking things in this matter (which will also be explored more in our report) is the position of the Turkish Armed Forces, supposed guardians of Turkish secularism. In May 2009 Emruhan Yalcin, a retired captain in the Armed Forces and graduate of the Turkish Land Forces Academy, who has spent some years in Germany in the 1990s, published a whole book on the Halki Theological School in May 2009. Its title: “The Last Crusader Fortress” (Son Hacli Kalesi). The final chapter of the book is as clear: “Why the Theological School on Heybeliada should not be opened”. For Yalcin the reopening of the Theological School “has to be evaluated as a political demand symbolizing Hellenic and Orthodox aspirations” Religious education of “men who are enemies of the Turks” will

“transform Istanbul under the roof of a cultural and tourism centre into a Vatican-style religious city with the status of a state, dividing Turkey and building on the divided parts, following the framework of the “Megali Idea”, a Great Byzantine Empire.”

This is not, however, an isolated view at all among men of Yalcin’s background. The view of the orthodox patriarchate or of protestant missionaries as a serious national security threat is taught to generations of conscripts in Turkey’s military as part of their ideological training. In March 2006 the editor of mass-daily Hurriyet, Ertugrul Ozkok, complained openly about this in an op-ed addressed to Yasar Buyukanit, then the commander of the Turkish Land Forces:

“several commanders appointed by the general staff … openly mentioned that the Phanar patriarchate is an enemy institution seeking to destroy Turkey. … In these speeches it has been mentioned that Christians are continuing their missionary activities by which they aim to destroy the Turkish state. It is openly mentioned that those who support the European Union are traitors.”

This is striking indeed: Turkey, a founding member of the Council of Europe, a member of NATO and a candidate for accession to the EU has a military that teaches young Turks that Christians are trying to destroy the Turkish state!

Such views are not only prevalent in the Armed Forces, of course: it is noteworthy, however, how in Turkish civil society, in the media, in academia and in the arts such views are increasingly challenged. This too is a sign of a deeper change and it dates to the most recent years. This also means that Wulff’s views on this issue will be welcomed not only by Turkey’s minorities. Recent years have seen legal changes to improve the position of Christians. They have also seen a new debate emerge attitudes and policies behind discrimination in the past decades.

It is noteworthy that the almost complete destruction of the Greek population of Istanbul took place in a period of peace, in a Turkey already member of both the Council of Europe and NATO. It was the result of specific politics pursued and expressing a specific mindset.

In 1940 there were still more than 100,000 Greeks living in Istanbul. In 1965 the Turkish census asked (for the last time) questions about the mother tongue of people living in Turkey. It found that there were then 127,037 who spoke Greek (48,096 as their first and 78,941 as their second language). In 1965 there were still 42 Greek primary and 6 Greek secondary schools, attended by 6,002 pupils.

Table: Istanbul and its Greek population

Total population

Greek orthodox

















(1980) 2,773,000




1,200 – 5,000

By the end of the 1970s the total population of Greeks in Istanbul had fallen to below 8,000. In 1991, the year Bartholomew became patriarch, the number of students in all Greek schools in Istanbul was 415. Today it stands at 220.

Note that this means that even if recently things improved, there is an obvious need for the state to be more proactive. In fact, there is a risk today that both the Greek community and the Orthodox Church might disappear in Istanbul by the time the Turkish republic celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2023.

Patriarch Bartholomew. Photo:

This week the German President will also meet with the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew. They are likely to get on well. Perhaps Christian Wulff will then also be able to quote Bartholomew when he returns to Germany, to convey his message that Turkey’s aspiration to be accepted as a full member of the European Union is also in Europe’s interest. In September 2008 the patriarch told the European Parliament:

“Turkey is a country that belongs to the big European family. … We are interested in this as citizens as well as a religious minority. … For accession to the European Union, some set criteria and European values must be respected. In Turkey, we can see efforts being made in this direction, to modernise the country and to fully implement the EU regulations in the national law.”

When a journalist asked him “do you think the process to bring Turkey closer to the EU can help its modernisation?” he responded:

“I am sure it can. In addition, I think the fact that we are a country with a very large Muslim majority should not be a problem, because the European Union sets itself as a reality that respects cultural and religious diversity.”

How better could Turkey advance its intereststhan by embracing both the message and the man, who is after all also a Turkish citizen, born in Turkey, who even served in the Turkish military?

And what could be a better message for Wulff to take back to Berlin and to share with his Christian Democratic friends?

UPCOMING ESI REPORT (soon to be found on the ESI website):

  • Turkey’s Greeks in Istanbul
  • Turkish Protestants and the Future of Ultranationalism

A pledge to Zoran

It was a fascinating, deeply emotional event: a commemoration gathering in Belgrade, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the 5th of October, the day Serbian citizens took their country back from Slobodan Milosevic exactly 10 years ago. The most poignant moment came at the very end, when a visibly moved Greek prime minister, George Papandreou (who had come in from Brussels on the way to Athens), told his audience about a promise he had made, after Zoran Djindic, Serbia’s prime minister, was killed in 2003, in his eulogy at Djindic’s funeral:

“There and then I made a pledge, to Zoran, but also to the Serbian people. It will continue to ensure that Serbia arrives in her natural home, the European Union. The EU is not complete without the Balkans. Anyone who argues against the Balkans joining the EU is arguing against geography, against economy, against history. Do not believe those who talk about enlargement fatigue. The EU is a long-term historical project and you have to be part of it.”

Papandreou recalled the first time he met Sonja Licht, the spiritus movens behind the whole anniversary event, at the time of the creation of the Helsiniki Citizens Assembly in Prague twenty years ago in 1990, and how much has changed since then. Sonja, sitting next to him, recalled that their’s was a friendship at first sight, “because, despite everything, we both realised that we were proud to be from the Balkans.” He then took her hand, and for a moment both seemed to be glowing, like two teenagers who had just jointly discovered a great romantic poem, as he added: “we are still proud to be from the Balkans.  And the European future is the way to find unity amongst our diversity. This is what makes Europe special for the Balkans”

This vision, so often evoked in other settings, can seem banal, boring, mundane at times;  the sort of thing EU and Balkan politicians evoke because it is the polite thing to say. But here, presented against the background of memories of another, darker Europe in the 1990s, recalling a velvet revolution that marks one of the happiest days in the tragic recent past of the region, recalling leaders who paid for it with their lives, not long ago, but recently, the vision of a European Serbia in a European Balkan seemed to recapture all its sparkle.

Papandreou managed to express, with a few, heartfelt words, the sense that our generation of leaders and activists are privileged, not only to watch, and also to try to contribute, to the writing of the next chapter in a book that might well be called in a hundred years the “book of European miracles”: that after the miracle on the Rhine (Franco-German reconciliation), the miracle on the Vistula (Germano-Polish reconciliation), the miracle on the Bosporus (the ongoing Europeanisation of Turkey) we are now in the middle of the miracle on the Sava and the Drina.  And then the ghosts of that past, the Balkans of the 1990s, will be banished to their graves, never to return to haunt us.

(I could not help thinking of the day when, in the very same hotel this meeting took place, the mafia-paramilitary leader Arkan was shot in the lobby. The former Intercontinental has its own ghosts hanging around its corners).

But there was a more that made this event fascinating, and inspiring.  It is also a reality that the transformation that received such a boost in 2000 is still incomplete.  There are still enormous problems to be solved. The story of the past decade is one of many false starts, delays, failures to accept the new realities; of clashing visions, also and particularly in Serbia, as Goran Svilanovic recalled: of false priorities, and of denying realities when it came to ICTY, Serbia- Montenegro, and Serbian-Kosovo relations.

On the other hand, there is today real change in the air. Compared to previous meetings I attended in Belgrade, just slightly more than a year ago, the fact that the president himself could speak for 30 minutes without once mentioning the word “Kosovo”, talking about Serbia and the lessons from the past decade, reflects a new ordering of priorities. The fact that the foreign minister only mentions Kosovo in passing, as one of many challenges, without elaborating, is no less striking.  There was also a remarkable intervention by the foreign minister of Slovakia, Dzurinda, calling on Serbia to embrace the “tough choices” lying ahead, and lauding the day the EU and Serbia had passed the joint UN resolution a few days back as the day Serbia’s leaders embraced reality and a European future.  This obviously remains mined territory, and the fact that Serbia’s leaders are moving carefully, and not – as so often in recent years – recklessly does not mean that the problems are solved. Nor, and this was the key message of my presentation here, are all European leaders as clear about their vision of a European Balkans as Papandreou or Dzurinda are. It would indeed be tragic if shortsightedness leads some governments now to delay what used to be a mere bureaucratic step in the past, forwarding the Serbian membership application to the Commission to write its opinion. What is worse, most European and Serbian diplomats here seem to expect just this to happen, and whoever works on EU integration in Belgrade is not only exhausted but permanently on the verge of giving up …

But those practical concerns are for tomorrow, when we must descend from the mountain peak that offers a wider view of the distant lands that we try to reach, back to the planes where it is so easy to get lost.  It is still good to rejoice, just for one instance: the past decade, for all its false starts, has led us to a moment where the vision of a European Balkans remains more alive than ever. As inspiring. And as vital.

A name compromise now. Or perhaps never? (Interview in Dnevnik)

Here is the most recent interview on the ESI proposal on the name dispute between Macedonia and Greece which I just gave to the Macedonian daily Paper Dnevnik. The Macedonian version is online as well.

Previous press coverage and reactions to the proposal you find here.

Your proposal was discussed in Macedonia but not in Greece. Do you think that Greece could accept such an arrangement?

Yes, I do. There is a simple reason why both Macedonia and Greece could accept this: it is better than the status quo for both. At this moment EU Balkan enlargement is completely blocked. Serbia is blocked because of Kosovo; it is simply inconceivable that the EU will admit another country with an unsolved territorial dispute, as it has done in the case of Cyprus, and this is slowly becoming clear to Belgrade. Bosnia and Kosovo are blocked because they are still protectorates. Turkey is negotiating but moving at snail’s pace because of the Cyprus issue. And Macedonia, the frontrunner among the Balkan states so often in the past, is blocked because of the name. Some EU member states, eager to postpone the next wave of accession for another generation, hide behind these unresolved issues. The current government in Athens does not like this. Remember, Papandreou has taken political risks before to promote the EU integration of the region: in 1999 he changed decades of Greek foreign policy to support, rather than to oppose, Turkey becoming a candidate for EU accession. He put a lot of energy behind the Thessaloniki summit in 2003 to persuade a skeptical EU to give the Balkans a clear perspective.  The same team in Athens is now trying to create new momentum in favour of Balkan enlargement again, which they see as a matter of Greek national interest.

Why would your proposal be acceptable for Greece?

Here is what could happen.  First Macedonia and Greece agree on a name, such as “Republic of Macedonia Vardar”, or something similar, to replace Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia wherever FYROM is used now: in the EU, in the UN and in other international organizations. Macedonia changes its constitution to say that from the moment it becomes an EU member its international name will be, for instance, “Republic of Macedonia Vardar”. In the Macedonian language the country would remain “Republika Makedonija”. Next, Macedonia joins Nato and EU accession talks begin still in 2010. So what would happen in Athens? The Greek government would be attacked, of course. That is what oppositions do, and Samaras is not famous for his moderation in this particular matter. They could complain: “You allow Macedonia to join NATO and unblock the EU accession talks without a solution of the name entering into force now.” But Papandreou could say that this compromise is still better than what any other Greek government, including those in which Samaras served, have achieved in two decades. First, to have Macedonia join Nato and to see EU enlargement continue is in Athen’s vital interest. Second, he can point to the constitutional amendment and he could warn that those in Greece who want to press for further concessions from Skopje would risk losing everything. And third, he can ask what the policy of the past two decades has really achieved even for the most radical Greek nationalist? This compromise makes it unattractive for any future Greek government to use its veto at any stage in the accession process. Objectively it then becomes a Greek interest to see Macedonia join the EU rather sooner, whoever is in power in Athens.

Diplomatic sources in Athens say that the last deadline for Papandreou to find a solution for the name issue is end of August or mid September because the autumn will be difficult for the Greek government. How credible is this in your opinion?

I think it is credible. Papandreou is still popular in Greece, but the hardest economic and social reforms are yet to come. No unpopular Greek government would be able to make any compromise, which still has to be sold to the public. This promises to be a hot autumn in Greece, and managing the economic reforms and likely protests will absorb all the government’s attention. At this moment there are two strong governments, both in Skopje and in Athens.  There will not be a better opportunity to resolve this than exists in the next few weeks. Perhaps not for another decade or more. Perhaps never.

How much the Greek crisis influences the search for the name solution?

I believe that this government in Athens would have wanted to solve the problem even without a crisis, but the economic crisis has given it additional arguments. First, it can argue that Greece needs to have good relations with all of its neighbours for economic reasons. It cannot afford to alienate either potential tourists or potential markets if it wants to get out of its economic hole. If South East Europe develops, it will also help Greek companies. Second, Greece has seen its European reputation undermined due to economic mismanagement. Any success in foreign policy would restore it as a credible actor in Brussels.

Have you had some contacts in the Macedonian government and do you believe that they could accept your proposal?

Yes and yes. Of course, some will say that there should never ever be a compromise. Some still believe – ignoring what the European Council hast now stated repeatedly – that perhaps the EU will not demand a compromise before opening accession talks. But even if you are opposed to ever changing to name you might like this particular proposal! Here is what the government could tell those who want no concession at all, ever: “First, we get Macedonia into Nato.  At a moment when there is growing uncertainty again about the future of the Balkans this is good for investors, for interethnic relations and for Macedonia’s position in the world. Second, we start EU accession talks. This is also good in itself, even if in the end we decide that we do not want to join. Since Turkey started accession talks, it has seen its economy grow faster than ever before. The same has been the experience of other countries. Third, when our EU accession talks are completed the Macedonian public can decide in a referendum whether it actually wants to join the EU and change its international name or whether it does not want to join and keep the current name. This is a decision that will be taken then, and it is one that the people will make directly once they have a real choice. In the meantime, Macedonia reasserts its position as a frontrunner in the Balkans. In the very worst case, if a future Greek government or another EU government blocks Macedonia’s EU accession, nothing is lost. It is a win-win situation. So, even if you live in Australia and do not care much about Macedonia joining the EU, you might think that this is, at least, a tactical gain. If you live in Stip or Kumanovo or Ohrid or Skopje, you certainly do.”

If you have to say who is more credible saying that they want a compromise on the name issue, who would you choose between Skopje and Athens?

Both say that they want a compromise. What I do not know is whether the leaders will have the courage to take any decision, because clearly previous generations of leaders did not on this matter.  As I said before, Papandreou has proven in the past, most spectacularly with Turkey, that he is capable of taking unpopular decisions if he believes they are in Greece’s long-term interest. In the context of implementing the Ohrid Agreement leaders in Macedonia have also shown courage and determination, which is why Skopje is now quite far ahead of Belgrade. At the same time both countries have red lines. No Macedonian leader will be able to change the name simply in return for the opening of talks, with no guarantee that there will not be more demands later, once a concession is made. And no Greek leader can give up totally on the idea of a change in the name. This means simply that both Skopje and Athens need a compromise they can defend, because in both countries, whatever is agreed, it will be attacked by some.

Do you believe in fast solution that would allow Macedonia to get into NATO and start EU talks?

If a solution is found in the next weeks, both NATO and the start of EU talks will happen very soon. This would be a very encouraging signal, benefiting Athens, Skopje and the whole Balkans. What makes me nervous is the alternative. If there is no solution now, when circumstances are better than they have ever been before, then there might not be another breakthrough for the next two decades. The name issue would become a truly frozen bilateral conflict, like Spain and the UK’s disagreement over Gibraltar, which nobody believes will ever be resolved. This is a very realistic danger.

You were recently in Brussels. How would you qualify the mood concerning the name issue? Are people there impatient or become more and more indifferent?

You have both. Those who work on enlargement are cautiously hopeful, but in a sense they have to be: the future of their job depends in part on finding a solution.  People who work on enlargement believe that a solution has never been closer: this is what they have been told by the parties involved as well.  As a result there would be tremendous disappointment if this fails. On the other hand there are people less keen on enlargement, which is a large number.  They have become indifferent a long time ago. They think that this is simply another irrational Balkan dispute, which shows why it was a mistake to admit any Balkan countries to the EU in the first place. They fear the day when even more Balkan countries might join and welcome any reason for delay. They read the German paper Frankfurter Allgemeine a few weeks ago, which wrote that our proposal has only one problem: “it is too reasonable.” They do not believe that reasonable solutions ever work in the Balkans.

Does Brussels still believe that the name issue could be solved rapidly?

Few people believe in a rapid solution after 19 years without one, but some people certainly hope that it will be solved soon.  This is particularly true for those who work in DG enlargement. They know that the credibility of an EU perspective cannot be stretched out forever. They want an end to this conflict almost as badly as people in the region.  But I did not find many people in Brussels willing to put their own money on a breakthrough. When it will happen, it will still be a tremendous surprise to everyone. As one of the most optimistic officials told me: “While I believe that this time a breakthrough could happen, and ought to happen, and would be in everybody’s objective interest to happen, I still cannot believe that it will happen.”

EC is not satisfied with the reform process in Macedonia. Can Macedonia expect more critical remarks from Brussels in the following months?

Yes. The problem is, however, that without a credible enlargement perspective any critical remarks from Brussels, however justified, are unlikely to achieve much. If a country does not believe it will ever join, whatever the state of reforms, why worry about a critical report from Brussels? The next weeks will also decide about the future of the EU’s leverage and influence, not only in Skopje but in the whole Western Balkans.

Dnevnik, Monday 16 August 2010

A Proposal for breaking the Macedonian deadlock: A matter of trust

What follows is a concrete and simple proposal how to break one of the most important deadlocks undermining the stabilisation of the Western Balkans. The aim is to bring to an end a situation that has made a mockery of European aspirations of having an effective EU foreign policy in the Balkans, a region of major strategic interest to the EU.

The issue in question is the dispute between Skopje and Athens over the name “Macedonia”. As the 19 year old conflict has grown more complicated, the breakdown of trust between the two sides – the conflict’s underlying problem – has taken on an increasingly poisonous role. This is also negatively affecting the accession prospects of the entire Western Balkans at a time when there are already strong signals that some EU member states want to put the process on hold altogether.

This may well be the last moment to try to resolve the dispute. If efforts fail now, it is perfectly possible – as some in the EU are already predicting – that the conflict will remain unresolved for another 19 years, keeping Macedonia outside the EU for the next two decades and beyond.

What is needed is a way forward that recognises the bottom lines for Athens and Skopje. It must address the most important issue directly: how to ensure that any compromise reached between the two will actually stick. Such a compromise must come soon. People on both sides, as well as in Brussels and Washington, have grown tired of a conflict that appears impossible to solve. As people give up, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as in so many frozen conflicts.

Here is the core problem. Greece realises that its only leverage to ever get the Republic of Macedonia to change its constitutional name is to use its position as a member of the EU to block Macedonia’s path to EU membership. Nothing else – not even Greek pressure to block Macedonia’s NATO accession – will do the trick.

At the same time, most politicians in Athens realise that they have a vital interest in Macedonia’s stability. Athens is in favour of Balkan enlargement. And it does not want to be used by those in the EU who have an interest in stopping Balkan enlargement for good. How can this circle be squared?

The other problem for the Greek position is that the trend in Skopje in recent years has been towards greater intransigence. It is clear that any constitutional change needs broad support in Skopje. Prime Minister Gruevski currently enjoys a strong political position, but constitutional changes will require a two thirds majority in parliament, as well as the support of both ethnic communities. There is almost certain to be a referendum as well.

Finally, although officials in Skopje and across the EU believe that the current Greek government of George Papandreou would like to see a solution – and although an intense effort for bilateral talks is currently under way – overall trust in the Greek political establishment is scarce.

People and leaders in Skopje might be prepared to make a concession on the name of the country, but only under one condition: that it ensures the country’s EU accession. To change the name for the mere promise of starting talks with an uncertain outcome at this moment is unlikely to be accepted. No Greek government can guarantee Skopje that any concession made today – to unlock the door to EU accession talks – will actually stick once a new Greek government comes to power.

At a time of great political tension due to the economic crisis, Greek leaders not only have the problem of explaining any compromise to their voters – they also fear that if Greece allows the EU accession of Macedonia to proceed today it will lose leverage, no longer being assured of a favourable compromise at a later stage.

Greece is adamant that any change of name must be erga omnes, i.e. must be part of the Macedonian constitution and used in relations with the entire world, not just with Greece or international institutions. (Some in Greece want to go further and also change the name of the people (“Macedonians”) and the language (“Macedonian”), something that stands very little chance of ever being accepted by Skopje.) In fact, the fear that a concession on the name of the country will only be a prelude to further Greek demands is what keeps leaders in Skopje from making any concession whatsoever.

In other words, both countries are trapped.

Here then is the challenge. Both Greece and Macedonia have a vital interest in ensuring that other enlargement-sceptical countries in Europe not hide behind them and their dispute to undermine the whole Western Balkans accession agenda. Yet Macedonians will only change the name erga omnes if they know that they will then actually join the EU – and that this is the last word. And Greece will only open the road to EU accession (starting with the opening of accession talks) if Macedonia changes the constitution.

How can this conundrum be resolved? It can be done through a constitutional amendment in Skopje that changes the name of the country today, allowing Athens to support the start of accession talks later this year, but that also foresees that the change will only enter into force on the day Macedonia actually joins the EU.

The constitutional change could be simple, a single paragraph that says something to the effect of:

“All references to the Republic of Macedonia in this constitution will be replaced by a reference to XX (a compromise name such as Republic of Macedonia – Vardar) on the day this country joins the European Union.”

Nothing more, nothing less.

If for some reason Skopje never joins the EU, it will never have to change its name.

If future Greek (or other neighbours’) governments find new reasons to block Macedonia’s accession in the future (there are no less than 70 veto points where unanimity in the EU is required before a candidate joins the club) the name will not yet have changed.

On the other hand, the constitutional provision will guarantee that once Macedonia is a member, the name change will become effective immediately and automatically. It can also be written into Macedonia’s accession treaty.

This solution would allow both countries and their leaders to claim a victory today. The government in Skopje will also turn Greece into a genuine ally (based on mutual interest) to facilitate its timely accession. Athens can argue that it is only opening the path to accession in return for genuine and lasting constitutional change: something no previous Greek government has achieved.

What would make this deal even more attractive – and a referendum on the constitutional amendment even more likely to succeed in Skopje – would be a parallel Greek promise to allow Macedonia to join NATO under the name FYROM (the name under which Macedonia joined the UN) once the constitutional changes have been passed.

This is still a difficult compromise for both countries. If it is adopted, however, it will end a major deadlock and send a tremendously beneficial signal to the whole of the Balkans.

Greece would be part of the solution in the region, not a source of problems. Macedonia would show that it is indeed a country ready for the complex and painful compromises that are expected of full EU members. It could once again become a trailblazer for the rest of the region, and the first to begin full accession talks before Croatia joins the EU. And it would gain a genuine ally in Greece.

PS: Cutileiro’s vision

And here is the alternative to compromise. I recently came across an interesting little book with essays on the future of Europe published by Brookings. Its title is Europe 2030. It includes a series of essays, some of which also touch on the issue of enlargement. Will any of the countries of today’s Western Balkans, aside from Croatia, be EU members by the year 2030? Will all be? Or will only some manage to accede, while others stay on the outside looking in? The authors of these essays offer all three scenarios.

The first and most pessimistic comes from one of the biggest proponents of EU enlargement, Joschka Fischer. Fischer was Foreign Minister (1998-2005) when the German government was pushing hard for what later became the EU’s biggest enlargement ever in 2004. Fischer also played a key role in pushing for Turkish candidate status in 1999 and the opening of accession talks with Turkey in 2005. He sees enlargement as a powerful tool for transforming the European neighbourhood:

“The prospect of EU membership therefore offers nothing less than successful rejuvenation of a country’s economy, society, government, and legal system. By projecting power in this way, the EU has pioneered a policy that recognizes that security in the twenty-first century must be founded not primarily on military dominance but on complete and transformative modernization as well as on the harmonization, and even integration, of national interests.”[1]

At the same time, Fischer notes, “while almost all of the EU’s neighbours wish to join, its own citizens increasingly oppose not only further expansion but also deeper political integration.” His conclusion is that this (unfortunate) tendency will likely prevail:

“I doubt that Europe’s malaise can be overcome before 2030 … While the partial creation of a common defense system, along with a European army, is possible by 2030, a common foreign policy is not. Expansion of the EU to include the Balkan states, Turkey and Ukraine should also be ruled out.”[2]

The second scenario for the Balkans is proposed by Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform in London. Grant predicts that the “entering into force of the Lisbon treaty will help the EU speak with one voice, when it has a common position on a foreign policy question.”[3] Grant also expects enlargement to continue:

“By 2030 the EU will include all of the Balkans, Switzerland, Iceland, and Norway; Turkey, Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus probably will be members; and some of the Caucasus countries may have joined.”[4]

It is not altogether surprising that the most pessimistic scenarios for the Balkans come from Germany (the Berlin scenario of a never-ending accession process), while the most optimistic ones are heard in the UK (the London scenario of enlargement within this generation).

But the third scenario is in some ways the most interesting and it directly concerns Macedonia. Jose Cutileiro, a former Portuguese diplomat and general secretary of the Western European Union, expects that Turkey, Albania, Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina are all likely to be in the EU by 2030. However, he argues, even 20 years from now not all the Balkan states will be in the EU.

“Kosovo on its own could not join because it remained unrecognised by a number of EU countries, and Macedonia had been kept at the door by insurmountable Greek objections concerning its name, first raised in 1991, when the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was dissolved. Except for those two small, landlocked patches, the whole of the western Balkans was now part of the EU.”[5]

It is a realistic fear that unless a compromise is found now between Skopje and Athens, Macedonia might never join the EU. In this case, however, the German scenario for the whole Western Balkans becomes all the more likely, as the failure of Macedonia, the most advanced Western Balkan state, would bode ill for the whole region. Athens and Skopje, as well as the Balkans and the EU, would all be on the losing side.

[1] Europe 2030, p 6.

[2] Europe 2030, p 10.

[3] Europe 2030, p. 73.

[4] Europe 2030, p.70.

[5] Europe 2030, p. 17.

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:

“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:

[media id=9]
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:

[media id=10]
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!