Cosmopolitan visionary – Boutaris and Thessaloniki

Yannis Boutaris, Mayor of Thessaloniki

Sometimes you meet a person that is a force of nature. A person of convictions, with the modesty that comes from true charisma and the confidence that comes from not having to pretend. A person inspiring others by personal example, making words like engagement, citizenship and dignity shine in all their splendour. Somebody who makes you feel proud to belong to their generation. And who makes you wonder whether you are really doing enough yourself.

In recent weeks I felt this sense of awe working on old and new European dissidents. Meeting Khadija Ismayil and other human rights defenders from Azerbaijan, has this effect. So does rereading the writings of Havel, of the Russian Memorial generation of human rights defenders, of Adam Michnik and other Poles of his generation.

And so does meeting the mayor of Thessaloniki, Yannis Boutaris, to talk about what is possible in local politics at a moment of deep crisis. In a city shaped by decades of deep conservatism and fear of neighbours, from the Cold War to the Balkan wars of the 1990s and later. 72 years old, chain-smoking, with an ear-ring and tatoos, for decades a succesful entrepeneur, a recovered alcoholic, a long time civic and environmental activists, and now twice elected mayor of Greece’s second city.

I have come here this Sunday at the invitation of the Navarino network, a local civic organisation which has worked for a long time to open Thessaloniki to the world. I am to speak about the state of the Balkans in 2014, about false confidence and complacency.

I tell the tragic story of Soviet dissidents like Sergei Kovalev, who went to jail under Brezhnev, then became government human rights officials, and in 2014 face renewed pressure from their state. It is a tragic story with no happy end, with Russia like that fabled creature from Greek mythology, the Ouroboros: a snake that devours itself. Often history is like this. Too often.

Ouroboros – societies sometimes resemble this ancient creature,
devouring themselves

 I also speak about what Greece – and Thessaloniki – might do to prevent future vicious circles in the Balkans. In the end  I present the ESI proposal for how to address the name dispute with Macedonia.  (see in the annex of this report:  Vladimir and Estragon in Skopje. A fictional conversation on trust and standards and a plea on how to break a vicious circle) The only – encouraging – reaction I get from a big auditorium full of Thessaloniki dignitaries and young people is one comment: “Greece is ready to do this, do you think Skopje is ready?”


Then I meet with Boutaris for an interview. This was already a rich and memorable Sunday. It only got better.

Boutaris explains the value of civic engagement, voluntarism and how he strives to make his city embrace a multiethnic past. He explains how even conservatives silently tell him that they approve of his open support for gay pride … though lack the courage to say so openly. He explains why opening to Turkey, Israel and Jews across the world is vital for his city, given its history. And why having a Holocaust museum (at a cost of an estimated 25 million Euro, the design has already been done) will be so important.

How he is happy to have a Durres Park in the city now, and hopes to build many more links with other Balkan cities. How reaching out to Izmir is vital – proposing to have “days of Izmir” in Thessaloniki, and “days of Thessaloniki” there. Why having a Muslim cemetary is the most obvious thing in a city like Thessaloniki. How “Turks are our bothers and Europeans are our partners.” And how, as a Vlach, he recognises the common regional heritage when he visits the village of his ancestors in today’s Republic of Macedonia near Krusevo.

He explains how it is possible to cut the public administration (from 5,000, when he came into office in 2011 to 3,500 today) and reduce the deficit, while moving towards green urbanism and a different traffic policy. How he is encouraged that the number of bicycle shops has gone from 2 to more than 20 in a few years. And how much remains to be done.  How he has worked to encourage budget flight connections and direct links by ferries to his city, with increasing success. How this has resulted in sharply rising numbers of foreign visitors.

How his political goal is to make people proud of this, their liberal and open city. With the new slogan “I love my city and adopt my neighbourhood.” How he hopes city employees will be able to walk in the streets and citizens will respect them for their honesty and competence.

Remember: this is Greece, the EU country in its deepest economic and social crisis in decades. This is the country where the self-proclaimed fascists of Golden Dawn won 16 percent in recent local elections in Athens. With a prime minister who made his name by fostering nationalism in the early 1990s. A country all too often described in the foreign press as a hopeless case, a patient at best, an ungrateful recipient of aid at worst.

But this is also now the Greece of Boutaris and the cosmopolitanism of the new Thessaloniki.

When he became mayor, he tells me, Thessaloniki had a number of big taboos, including Turkey and the Jewish history of the town (where Jews were the largest ethnic group until 1912 and the port was closed on the Sabbath). Not long ago the City Council declared Mark Mazower, author of the great book Salonica, symbolically a persona non grata – for having described the multiethnic past of the city. This was the time when the local bishop called on people not to vote for Boutaris.

Now Boutaris looks forward to the day when citizens of Thessaloniki will be proud of the history of their city, as described in Mazower’s book. The book ends with the observation, true for all of Europe:

“As small states integrate themselves in a wider world, and even the largest 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 may require other pasts.

The history of the nationalists is all about false continuities and convenient silences, the fictions necessary to tell the story of the rendez-vous of a chosen people with the land marked out for them by destiny. It is an odd and implausible version of the past …”

As Boutaris tells it, being open to the past and to others is simple good sense: “if you accept differences, life is better”. This explains his support for gay pride in this orthodox city, and how he sees attidues changing. He talks about this priorities for the second term: moving towards a green city, a city in which “rich people are proud to take public transport” instead of poor people required to have a car.

When we made the 2008 ESI film on Thessaloniki Boutaris was still in opposition. Now he has been twice elected. The first time by the narrrowest of margins (some 300 votes). The second time with a clear and strong majority and 58 percent. In some elections ever single vote matters. Civic engagement matters. Having convictions matters. And fighting for them for decades can bring results.

If Bosnia had just one mayor like this in one of its big cities, ideally young and full of eneregy, so that he or she could then go on to show what is possible: the country might be a different place If only Greece or Turkey had more independents, former entrepreneurs and social activists, entering politics like this.

Thessaloniki, thank you for the inspiration. It is great to be back.


PS: Some further reading:

Thessaloniki’s exemplary revival:

“The mayor’s greatest legacy, however, may be the city’s much-improved performance in tourism. However, his unconventional approach has made him some enemies among traditionalists. Between end-2010 and end-2013, Thessaloniki achieved 19% growth in tourist arrivals according to data from the Association of Greek Tourism Enterprises (SETE), compared with a decline of 13% for Athens over the same period.

To a great extent, this has been achieved through approaching a “traditional enemy” such as Turkey as a potential tourism market, leading to allegations that the mayor was “serving foreign interests”. Mr Boutaris is unapologetic about his bid to present Thessaloniki as a Balkan “melting pot”, stressing the city’s multi-ethnic history, a place where Greeks, Turks, Jews and Slavs lived together until the upheavals of the early 20th century, when the Turks left, the Greeks from Asia Minor arrived and the Jewish population was decimated in the Holocaust. The attraction of Thessaloniki to Turkish visitors stems from the fact that it is the birthplace of Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of the modern Turkish state. In addition, the Boutaris administration has made much of the fact that for centuries Thessaloniki had a large and vibrant Sephardic Jewish community. In broadening the city’s tourism profile, a previously rather claustrophobic city is starting to become a more open one, embracing its multicultural past.

The rebranding of Thessaloniki based on this new perception of its past has managed to increase the influx of visitors from Turkey and from Israel. Overnight stays at the city’s hotels increased during the past four years by 226% for Turks and 358% for Israelis, reaching 80,000 and 50,000, respectively, by the end of 2013. Coinciding with a period of deepening national economic crisis, the tourism revival has been welcome. The shift in public opinion in the city has been radical, and previous detractors now firmly support a similar rapprochement with all neighbouring countries … “

Meeting the Mayor


Presenting on the Balkans in 2014



An exchange between ESI and Gotovina’s lawyer – who is distorting facts?

A few days ago ESI put a short excerpt of the new documentary on the transformation and EU accession of Croatia on our website: Twilight of heroes. Croatia, Europe and the International Tribunal. You also find it here. (We will show the complete film in English in London next week; and in Berlin the week after).

The film tells the story how Croatia’s EU aspirations and the demand that some of its former generals be handed over to the ICTY to be put on trial for alleged war crimes triggered the escape of Ante Gotovina, and a man hunt that finally led to his arrest in Spain in 2005. It is a dramatic story, which ended with Ante Gotovina being sentenced to 24 years in prison by the first instance court. And it is not over: in a few days the appeals court will announce its judgement in this matter.

Vesna Pusic – Ivo Sanader – Ante Gotovina – Carla del Ponte – Stipe Mesic – Ivo Josipovic
Some of the protagonists in the ESI documentary: Vesna Pusic – Ivo Sanader – Ante
Gotovina – Carla del Ponte – Stipe Mesic – Ivo Josipovic

It is against this background that Luka Misetic, the lawyer of Ante Gotovina, reacted to the excerpt from our film on his blog. He accused ESI of distorting facts, and writes that he was “stunned by the level of factual inaccuracy in the film.” He posted on the ESI facebook page:

Luka Misetic The European Stability Initiative @ESI_eu distorts the facts about Ante Gotovina. See my blog criticism here:

This is a charge which deserves an answer. Luka Misetic writes on his blog:

Thursday, November 8, 2012
European Stability Initative Distorts the Facts about General Gotovina

The European Stability Initiative has recently broadcast a film about General Gotovina entitled, “Twilight of Heroes.” Admittedly, I have not been able to view the entire film because it is not yet available for viewing in the United States. Nevertheless, I was able to review the nine minute preview clip on YouTube. I was stunned by the level of factual inaccuracy in this documentary, and viewers should be warned that the factual claims in this film are demonstrably false.

At the outset, the film shows Carla Del Ponte speaking about Operation Storm, which was led by General Gotovina. Del Ponte claims:

“They thought if you are doing a legitimate war, you must not consider if crimes are committed, war crimes or crimes against humanity. It is collateral damage. But that is why the International Tribunal was created. A war is not the permission for the commission of crimes.”

One minute later, the film’s voiceover speaker ominously claims, “Prosecutors suspected that murders and intimidations of Serb civilians during Operation Storm were not isolated incidents, but the result of a policy to ethnically cleanse these parts of Croatia of their Serb population. A criminal conspiracy planned and implemented by Croatia’s leaders.”

What the filmakers fail to tell the viewer (at least in the preview clip) is that the Trial Chamber in its Judgement rejected Del Ponte’s claims that the Croatian leadership “did not consider if crimes were being committed against Serbs, war crimes or crimes against humanity.” Furthermore, the Trial Chamber rejected the Prosecution’s claim that Croatia’s leaders had planned and implemented a criminal conspiracy to allow murders and intimidations of Serbs in order to pursue a policy of ethnic cleansing. As I noted in one of my earlier posts, the Trial Chamber found:

“The Trial Chamber finds that the common objective did not amount to, or involve the commission of the crimes of persecution (disappearances, wanton destruction, plunder, murder, inhumane acts, cruel treatment, and unlawful detentions), destruction, plunder, murder, inhumane acts, and cruel treatment.(Judgement, paragraph 2321);

Rather, the evidence includes several examples of meetings and statements (see for example D409, P470, and D1451), indicating that the leadership, including Tudjman, disapproved of the destruction of property. Based on the foregoing, the Trial Chamber does not find that destruction and plunder were within the purpose of the joint criminal enterprise.” (Judgement, paragraph 2313);

In light of the testimony of expert Albiston, the Trial Chamber considers that the insufficient response by the Croatian law enforcement authorities and judiciary can to some extent be explained by the abovementioned obstacles they faced and their need to perform other duties in August and September 1995. In conclusion, while the evidence indicates incidents of purposeful hindrance of certain investigations, the Trial Chamber cannot positively establish that the Croatian authorities had a policy of non-investigation of crimes committed against Krajina Serbs during and following Operation Storm in the Indictment area.”(Judgement, paragraph 2203).

The Trial Chamber thus established that the Croatian leadership (1) did not have a policy to allow crimes like murder and intimidation to be committed against Serbs, and (2) did not have a policy of non-investigation of crimes committed against Serbs.

Accordingly, two things were very clear to me within the first five minutes of viewing the preview clip: (1) Carla Del Ponte continues to mislead the international public about what the ICTY Trial Chamber concluded, and (2) the producers of this film did not bother to read the Trial Judgement or interview anyone who had actually read the Trial Judgement.

If the filmakers don’t have time to read the Trial Judgement before making a film about Gotovina, then I don’t have the time to watch their film.”

Mr. Misetic writes correctly that the film excerpt which he saw quoted the leading ICTY prosecutor at the time, Carla Del Ponte.  He also correctly quotes the voiceover in the film:

“Prosecutors suspected that murders and intimidations of Serb civilians during Operation Storm were not isolated incidents, but the result of a policy to ethnically cleanse these parts of Croatia of their Serb population, a criminal conspiracy planned and implemented by Croatia’s leaders.”

However, where is the distortion of facts that he claims to have observed? Even he as laywer of Ante Gotovina should be able to agree that – as a statement of fact about what prosecutors at the ICTY suspected at the time of Tudjman’s death, which is what the film describes here – this voiceover is both true and factual. After all, the film also quotes those in Croatia who at the time and later argued the opposite: that Gotovina was a hero, that Tudjman just did what leaders have done throughout history, or that, as one prominent supporter of the general is quoted, Mrs. Del Ponte is a “crook.” These are obviously not ESI’s views: our aim was to give an objective sense of the arguments and emotions which made cooperation with the tribunal such a difficult issue for Croatia’s leaders to address.

ESI responded to Mr. Misetic on our facebook page. We wrote:

Later the court asked Croatian state authorities to hand over Gotovina and other generals to the ICTY. It was backed in this demand by the entire European Union. Nothing else is either being said or implied here. So which facts are being distorted?

As for the first instance sentence of Ante Gotovina, which comes much later in the film (which you admit you were not yet able to see) there is no voiceover at all, but the original material from the Hague. Here the court explains why it sentenced Ante Gotovina in its own words.

To this Mr. Misetic responded by continuing to accuse us of “distorting facts”:

Dear ESI: Your post suggests that the film later acknowledges that ICTY rejected the Prosecutor’s allegations that there was a “criminal conspiracy planned and implemented by Croatia’s leaders” to allow murders and intimidations of Serb civilians as a matter of policy. Does the film actually come out and make this clear? Also, please advise as to the “original material from the Hague” which you used in order to make this clear to the viewer. In contrast, if the film does not make clear that Del Ponte’s allegations (which you use to promote your film in the first 5 minutes of the preview clip) were in fact rejected by the Court, then I stand by my assertion that this is a clear “distortion” of the truth, because your film continues to reinforce the myth that Croatia had a policy of allowing crimes to be committed against Serbs. The Trial Chamber convicted Gotovina because it found that 5% of artillery shells out of 900 fired in the town of Knin fell “too far” from known military objectives, killing and injuring exactly zero civilians, but nevertheless these 5% of shells caused fear in Serb civilians and triggered their flight from Croatia. If your film makes this point clear, and makes clear that Croatian leaders in fact did NOT have a policy of allowing crimes against Serbs, then I will withdraw my criticism. If not, I stand by my comments.

But is it really ESI that is distoring facts concerning what happened at ICTY? Take Mr. Misetic’s claim (above) that

“… is a clear “distortion” of the truth, because your film continues to reinforce the myth that Croatia had a policy of allowing crimes to be committed against Serbs. The Trial Chamber convicted Gotovina because it found that 5% of artillery shells out of 900 fired in the town of Knin fell “too far” from known military objectives, killing and injuring exactly zero civilians, but nevertheless these 5% of shells caused fear in Serb civilians and triggered their flight from Croatia.”

In the documentary the prosecutor, the court and Mr. Gotovina’s supporters are all speaking for themselves. When we describe the sentencing in 2011 we use original footage from the ICTY and have no voiceover at all. But make up your own mind: read the judgement, or, if you want a synapsis of the ICTY’s view, read what the court, in its official press release, said in 2011 about why Mr. Gotovina was sentenced to 24 years:

“These crimes were committed as part of a joint criminal enterprise whose objective was permanent removal of the Serb population from the Krajina region by force or threat of force, which amounted to and involved deportation, forcible transfer, and persecution through the imposition of restrictive and discriminatory measures, unlawful attacks against civilians and civilian objects, deportation, and forcible transfer. The Chamber found that the joint criminal enterprise came into force no later than the end of July 1995 in Brioni where the Croatian President Franjo Tuđman met with high ranking military officials to discuss the military operation which commenced a few days later on 4 August.

The Chamber found that Tuđman was a key member of the joint criminal enterprise and that he intended to repopulate the Krajina with Croats. Other members of the joint criminal enterprise included Gojko Šušak, who was the Minister of Defence and a close associate of Tuđman’s, Zvonimir Červenko, the Chief of the Croatian army Main Staff. The members of the joint criminal enterprise also included others in the Croatian political and military leadership who participated in Presidential meetings and were close associates of Tuđman’s.

The Chamber found that Gotovina participated in the Brioni meeting and contributed to the planning and preparation of Operation Storm. Gotovina’s conduct, including his order to unlawfully attack civilians and civilian objects through the shelling of Benkovac, Knin and Obrovac on 4 and 5 August 1995, amounted to a significant contribution to the joint criminal enterprise. The Chamber further found that other charged crimes, although not part of the common purpose, were natural and forseeable consequences of the execution of the joint criminal enterprise, including to Gotovina.”

(see the full press release and link to the judgement on the ICTY website)

We hope that Mr. Misetic will acknowledge that the charge that ESI distorted facts, is neither fair nor accurate nor warranted.

PS: Twilight of heroes is also not a film about Ante Gotovina as Mr. Misetic writes. It is a film about Croatia, and how this country managed to break out of its isolation in 1999, faced its past, and transformed itself.

Why Croatia’s accession will strengthen the EU (in German)

Adriatic Croatia

Opinion piece (in German), 19 Oktober 2012

Warum Kroatiens Beitritt die EU stärken wird

Gerald Knaus und Kristof Bender

Den Anfang machte eine Schlagzeile der Frankfurter Allgemeinen am 9. Oktober: „Brüssel ermahnt Kroatien: ‚Bedingungen für Beitritt noch nicht erfüllt’.“ Dann meldete sich Gunther Krichbaum (CDU), Vorsitzender des Europaausschusses des Bundestages, zu Wort: “Zum jetzigen Zeitpunkt ist das Land nicht beitrittsfähig.” Bundestagspräsident Norbert Lammert erklärte: “Wir müssen … den jüngsten Fortschrittsbericht der EU-Kommission ernst nehmen: Kroatien ist offensichtlich
noch nicht beitrittsreif.“ Und am 15. Oktober schrieb Martin Winter in der Süddeutschen Zeitung, dass Kroatien in der Tat „nicht reif genug ist“, doch dass der Zug schon abgefahren sei. „Nur leider: Lammert kommt mit seinem Einwurf ein wenig spät.“

Es sind beunruhigende Nachrichten, verstörende Warnungen: Wird die EU durch eine überhastete Aufnahme eines unvorbereiteten Landes geschwächt? Hat die EU heute nicht schon genug Probleme?

Kroatien ist ärmer als Deutschland oder Österreich. Allerdings ist sein Durchschnittseinkommen vergleichbar mit dem in Ungarn und höher als in allen anderen Ländern des Westbalkans oder als in Rumänien und Bulgarien.

Kroatien wurde während seiner Beitrittsverhandlungen mehr geprüft als jedes andere Land, das bislang versuchte der EU beizutreten. Es stellte seinen Antrag auf Aufnahme 2003. Vor dem Öffnen und Schließen der 35 Verhandlungskapitel mussten immer konkrete Reformen umgesetzt, nicht (nur) EU-konforme Gesetze verabschiedet werden.

War das Europäische Parlament blauäugig, als es Anfang Dezember mit 564 gegen 38 Stimmen für Kroatiens Aufnahme stimmte? Was ist den 16 EU Mitgliedsstaaten, die Kroatiens Beitrittsvertrag bereits ratifiziert haben, entgangen? Denn man kann davon ausgehen: wäre Kroatien heute noch nicht reif für die EU, dann würde es das wohl auch zum vorgesehenen Beitrittstermin im Sommer 2013 nicht sein. Ernste Probleme lassen sich nicht in ein paar Monaten beheben.

Doch um welche Probleme geht es eigentlich, aufgrund derer dieses kleine Land (mit gut 4 Millionen so viele Einwohner
wie Rheinland-Pfalz) eine mögliche Belastung für die EU darstellen könnte?

Ein oft hervorgehobenes Thema ist Korruption. Hier ist allerdings im Fall Kroatiens der Grundtenor des von Lammert zitierten Kommissionsberichtes positiv. Die einzige konkrete Forderung der Kommission ist eine Selbstverständlichkeit: Kroatien müsse den Kampf gegen Korruption und organisiertes Verbrechen fortsetzen. Im neuesten Korruptionsindex von Transparency International schneidet Kroatien so gut ab wie die Slowakei und besser als Italien und als alle anderen Länder Südosteuropas, einschliesslich der EU Mitglieder Griechenland, Bulgarien und Rumänien. In den letzten drei Jahren gab es eine Serie von Anklagen wegen Korruption, unter anderem gegen einen ehemaligen Premierminister, einen ehemaligen Vizepremier, gegen Minister, den Chef der Zollverwaltung, Manager von Staatsbetrieben und sogar gegen die frühere Regierungspartei. Natürlich gibt es weiter Korruption, in Kroatien so wie in Italien oder Österreich, aber es ist auch gerade in diesem Bereich sehr viel passiert.

Bezüglich der Umsetzung von EU-Gesetzgebung in Kroatien stellt der Kommissionsbericht fest: „Kroatien hat weitere Fortschritte in der Verabschiedung und Implementierung von EU Gesetzgebung gemacht und vollendet nun seine Angleichung mit dem acquis.“ Nicht alles ist gut: „Die Kommission hat Bereiche identifiziert, in denen weitere Bemühungen notwendig sind, und eine begrenzte Zahl von Aspekten, für die verstärkte Bemühungen erforderlich sind.“ Die Kommission nennt überdies noch zehn offene Punkte, auf die sie besonderen Wert legt, darunter die Vollendung der Privatisierung dreier Schiffswerften; die Verabschiedung eines neuen Informationszugangsgesetzes und einer Migrationsstrategie; den Ausbau zweier Grenzposten; oder weitere Anstellungen bei der Grenzpolizei (das wird, bis zu Kroatiens Schengenbeitritt, ein Thema bleiben).

Das sind alles sinnvolle Ziele. Doch entscheiden diese Punkte darüber, ob Kroatien als Mitglied die EU stärken oder schwächen würde?

Denn der tiefgreifendste und wichtigste Wandel in Kroatien seit 1999 ist neben der Umsetzung der EU Gesetze die Veränderung seiner politischen Kultur. Noch 1999 unterstützte Präsident Tudjman separatistische Kroaten in Bosnien. Er weigerte sich mit dem internationalen Strafgerichtshof zusammenzuarbeiten. Er trat Minderheitenrechte, Pressefreiheit und andere demokratische Grundwerte mit Füßen. Als er im Dezember 1999 starb, war sein Land international isoliert.

Danach begann sich Kroatien dramatisch zu verändern, angefangen mit der Politik gegenüber Bosnien. Die Rückkehr vertriebener Serben wurde ermöglicht. Es kam 2003 sogar zu einer Koalition zwischen Tudjman’s ehemaliger Partei, der HDZ, und der Partei der kroatischen Serben. Alle vom Den Haager Tribunal angeklagten mutmaßlichen Kriegsverbrecher
wurden ausgeliefert.

Kroatien ist heute ein anderes, offeneres, liberaleres Land als 1999. In Serbien werden weiterhin von manchen die Massaker in Bosnien in Frage gestellt. 2010 besuchte Kroatiens Präsident Josipovic hingegen Bosnien und bat für im Namen Kroatiens
begangene Verbrechen um Verzeihung. In Belgrad wurde die Gay Parade erneut abgesagt; in Kroatien nahmen Minister an der Parade in Split teil.

Genau darin aber liegt auch die wichtigste Botschaft eines kroatischen Beitritts an seine Nachbarn in Südosteuropa: um eines Tages EU-Mitglied werden zu können, braucht es Verantwortung, Führung und den Mut, politische Risiken einzugehen. Es
braucht Ausdauer und einen starken nationalen Konsens. Es ist in jedem Fall ein Marathonlauf, wenn nicht gar ein Triathlon, und kein Sprint.

Auf absehbare Zeit wird keiner von Kroatiens südlichen Nachbarn der EU beitreten. Verhandungen brauchen auf jeden Fall viele Jahre. Bislang ist es nur Montenegro gelungen, diese zu beginnen. Doch ist es im Interesse, sowohl der EU als auch der Region, dass dieses Ziel glaubwürdig bleibt, in Belgrad, in Sarajevo, in Tirana, in Skopje.

Der Beitritt Kroatiens im Sommer 2013 wird die EU nicht schwächen. Im Gegenteil, schon jetzt haben die Veränderungen im Land, die das Versprechen eines EU Beitritts verursacht hat, den Einfluss der EU in Südosteuropa gestärkt. Es gibt viele Gründe, sich über den Beitritt Kroatiens zu freuen und diesen als kleinen, aber wichtigen europäischen Erfolg zu sehen.


Am Sonntag, 21.10.2012, wird auf ORF 2 um 23.05 der von ESI mitgestaltete Dokumentarfilm „Kroatien: Heldendämmerung“, eine neue Folge der preisgekrönten Serie „Balkanexpress – Return to Europe“, ausgestrahlt.

Why most Turkish liberals oppose genocide resolutions

In my last entry on Rumeli Observer I shared some recent reaction to the US resolution on the Armenian genocide from Turkey. Let me share some more responses here today.  It did not take long for reactions to the most recent ESI newsletter on the Armenian-Turkish debate on 1915 to reach our mailbox. As always, these reactions included the good, the bad and the ugly: the silly/aggressive, the thoughtful/dissenting, the thoughtful/supportive and the deeply moving.

Let me share one that falls into the last category.  One Turkish reader wrote about a personal experience very much reminiscent of the story of Fethiye Cetin, the courageous lawyer of Hrant Dink:

“I got your newsletter about the Armenian issue and wanted to tell my personal experience with it. I heard lots of stories about the issue and follow the issue as a individual. My parents told me the following Story.  My grandma is saved during the “incident” in Sason, she “became” muslim and was named “Naze” and thereafter she is married to my grandpa. All her relatives probably were killed.

Once a man who was involved in killing her family was guest of my grandpa and she was supposed to server dinner to him.  We do not know anybody of her family. I sometime bump into people whose ancestors are from Sason in Germany and UK. It is a pattern of many similar stories. As I returned to Istanbul I planned to visit Hrant Dink and speak to him about my personal story and possibly contribute to Agos in some way. I was in Istanbul as he was killed. I only could join his obsequies.

I hope the whole or part of the ancestor of the Armenians and Greeks who suffered because of nationalistic nonsense, will be again a part of peaceful Anatolia one day.”

Fethiye Cetin
Fethiye Cetin, in our documentary Istanbul Truth Fear And Hope (2008)

This hope – that confronting the past will bring about a very different future – is the most important concern for Turkish liberals and most Turkish Armenians. This hope also moves Fethiye Cetin, as she explained in an excellent article in the New York Times to Dan Bilevsky earlier this year (read it if you have not yet):

““Most people in Turkish society have no idea what happened in 1915, and the Armenians they meet are introduced as monsters or villains or enemies in their history books,” she said. “Turkey has to confront the past, but before this confrontation can happen, people must know who they are confronting. So we need the borders to come down in order to have dialogue.”

And how did she deal with the issue of terminology? Dan Bilevsky writes:

“Ms. Cetin published a memoir about her grandmother in 2004. She said she purposely omitted the word “genocide” from her book because using the word erected a roadblock to reconciliation. “I wanted to concentrate on the human dimension,” she said. “I wanted to question the silence of people like my grandmother who kept their stories hidden for years, while going through the pain.”

As always, human rights activist and columnist Orhan Kemal Cengiz also wrote a thoughtful article.  He explains why he both opposes the parliamentary resolutions and Turkey’s reaction:

“As I have written before, this resolution is a perfect example of political usage of human rights discourse, which is inherently in conflict with the spirit of defending human rights. It came forward with political force, and it was stopped by political force. It has no potential to contribute to anything. But the Turkish way of stopping it is deeply embarrassing.

Turks do not discuss the substance of the resolution, and they just threaten American politicians to halt its passage. All Turkish governments have done this, and this government has just followed what others did in the past. They gave a billion dollars to lobbying firms and made alliances with anyone who would support them for their “cause.” Turkish governments threatened arms manufacturers with embargos, and in return these arms dealers pressured the US government. Some see this as a strength and confirmation of the importance of Turkey. It is like silencing someone with the threat of using physical violence against someone who said to you that you are rude. It is really tragicomic.

Turks do not care how they stopped the passage of this resolution. Did we convince American congressmen that what happened in Turkey in 1915 was not genocide? No. Did we stop them by saying: “This is none of your business. We ourselves are discussing it, and we will find a peaceful way with our Armenian brothers to solve this problem, just stay out of this”? No. Everyone knows what American congressmen think about this matter, but we want them not to say what they are actually thinking. And some Turks call this “power”; for me it is just an indication of weakness, sorry.”

This is similar to an argument made by Omer Taspinar in 2008, who pointed out at the time that in the past Turkey had always failed to convince even those in the US who voted against genocide resolutions in Congress:

“The reason Ankara won the battle was because important newspapers such as The Washington Post and The New York Times picked up the “genocide” story and humiliated the House of Representatives with columns and editorials such as the one written by Krauthammer. Yet, this was not a sight any believer in Turkey’s version enjoyed. Yes, these articles opposed the Armenian resolution. But none of them believed Turkey’s version of history about “the events of 1915.”

Turkey won an important battle but ended up losing the war. Just like Krauthammer’s, most of these articles argued that what happened in 1915 was genocide. But Turkey was geo-strategically too important an ally to offend in the middle of mayhem in the Middle East. In other words, the opposition to the genocide resolution had nothing to do with the sudden discovery of new historical facts proving correct the Turkish version of history. The discussion was only about Turkey’s geo-strategic importance and bad timing.”

Orhan Cengiz Kemal in his latest piece also underlines what, in his view, is the real priority:

“Another thing this resolution would do is to kill democratic discussion in Turkey on the Armenian question all together. Do not forget, we had an “apology campaign” last year. Including myself, more than 30,000 Turks signed the petition apologizing to Armenians for the great tragedies that happened to them while the Ottoman Empire was falling apart. We couldn’t imagine something like that happening in Turkey without some people being assassinated. Thanks to the Ergenekon case, no one was killed or hurt during this campaign.

Turkey has made serious progress since we had the first Armenian conference in 2005 at Bilgi University. This conference caused much tension and anxiety back then. However, when I looked at this week’s Turkish newspapers I was able to see at least a dozen columns encouraging Turks to confront their past.

Confronting 1915 is one of the most important and most difficult parts of the democratization of Turkey. Some would like to live with these lies officially created and protected in Turkey. Some believe if Turkey confesses what happened in the past it would be devastated. The day Turkey confronts this first “sin,” the shadow that has darkened our last hundred years will disappear. The spirit that created 1915 has never died. It has continued taking lives and sucking our blood up until today. When Turkey confronts its past not only will it serve justice but will also get rid of this ghost that wants to keep Turkey hostage forever. I wish this kind of unwise interference would not postpone Turkey’s confrontation with its past.”

Sleepless in Bucharest – Talking Balkans in Vienna

It was a stressful trip to Vienna, coming here straight from the Bucharest Nato summit, where I had slept through the unique chance of attending an early morning lecture by George Bush (having worked all night to complete and send out a discussion paper on Turkey’s Dark Side early in the morning). I sometimes enjoy conferences and among such events this Bucharest jamboree – a big conference organised by GMF always in parallel to the annual Nato summit – was certainly noteworthy for the prominence of its speakers. Then again, it helps having slept, or even the most interesting event can turn into a painful exercise of trying to stay awake (the worst thing about this event was the cameras zooming in on the audience and displaying their faces on huge screens hung up next to the speakers – this was NOT a conference that was kind to a secret nap in the last row),

Thus I noticed, on the way back from Bucharest, before dozing off on the plane, that there were really only three things that I took away from this rich event: I had had coffee with an old friend from Berlin, sneaking out of the conference centre (and skipping most of the session with the Afghan president). I had another occasion to marvel at Nato’s security operation, essentially closing off most of the streets in the Romanian capital so that guests were taken on empty roads around town. And I had a short but interesting chat with Wolfgang Ischinger, the Kosovo negotiator and German ambassador to London, sharing a taxi with him on the way to the airport. Efficient networking this was not …

My mood was not helped by the fact that my father had been hospitalised in Vienna due to a heart problem, which looked complicated, and had just been operated. But then in fact there was another urgent reason to come to Vienna, for what would otherwise have been a joyful occasion: to present – for the first time – the whole Balkanexpress – Return to Europe documentary film project to a broader audience.

The event, hosted by ORF, was well organised by Erste Foundation. Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer turned up, as did the CEOs of Erste Bank, OMV (the Austrian oil company), the Austrian National Broadcaster ORF and many others – a who-is-who of people interested in and involved in SEE in Vienna. The event became even more colourful as a result of the many guests from the region, including many members of the generation of Balkan change-lovers whom we featured in our films (you can see pictures of the event and who actually came here)

I delivered my introductory presentation. I had been uncertain until the last moment whether the trick of embedding video clips from the films into a power point presentation would actually work: it would be embarrassing to stand on a podium in front of all these august Austrians, having to improvise because the technology mixes up clips or the sound cannot be heared.  I had prepared some lines to laugh away any mishap or confusion.  But, when everything worked, I noted the usefulness of strong images. It is so much easier to move people emotionally when there is a moving picture.

Following the event, on the afternoon of the second day, I gave a little interview (see below). There is also a nice little trailer that sums up the whole atmosphere nicely.

Now we can only hope that TV audiences will also want to see the films. And that the films will soon be available also in English. I will keep you informed where and when you will be able to see them!


Balkan Express – Talking Balkans – Symposium in Vienna on 3-4 April 2008 © 2008 ERSTE Foundation/Igor Bararon. All rights reserved.

Balkan Express – Talking Balkans – Symposium in Vienna on 3-4 April 2008. Interview with Gerald Knaus. © 2008 ERSTE Foundation/Igor Bararon. All rights reserved.