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For a Generation of Greeks, is Cyberspace the new “Thalassa”?

By on January 10, 2016
Alexander Billinis

Alexander Billinis

My readers will know that I have not been particularly bullish about Greece in the past few years.  Who has, really, and in contrast to some, I have not pointed the finger outwards at others, but rather inwards at ourselves.  I believe strongly that civic and cultural factors, more than any external factors, brought us to the perfect storm of today.

Now I had heard stories of revival, in agriculture, tourism, and a nascent tech scene.  But let’s face it, this year that has been drowned out by a disastrous political climate, capital controls, and the wave of refugees into a country lacking the infrastructure, competence, or will to handle it.

And yet, I feel my own “green shoots” of confidence.

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of meeting a couple of Greek digital entrepreneurs, in the US seeking funding and contacts.  I had been introduced to them by a Greek American friend as a “writer/content provider.” As we talked about their offerings, a “back story” was filling my mind as they patiently answered my tech clueless questions, either in Greek or English flawless and completely at ease with an accent equal parts American, British, and Greek.

Actually, it was more of a question than a story.  Are these Greek techies the new Greek shipowners?  And is Cyberspace their “Thalassa”?

In listening to them, I had to think so, for a number of reasons.  From time immemorial, Greeks have been an entrepreneurial people whose homeland is unproductive.  This was true in a purely agricultural era, when Greeks fanned out to the Black Sea basin, and to Sicily and Southern Italy, or in times closer to ours, when twentieth century Greeks literally and figuratively upped anchor for America or Australia.  The rocky shores of their barren island sent my Hydriot ancestors to sea, and in a couple of generation these Arvaniti landlubbers boasted one of the best fleets in the East Mediterranean/Black Sea area.

Greeks have the entrepreneurial spirit, a built-in cosmopolitanism, and the guts.  These guys, and so many like them, are proving it again.

Yet that alone was not what made me certain that they would succeed, and that my maritime analogy made sense.  It was, rather, an interview I had with a good friend of mine in Greece, a former banking colleague, now a shipping company finance director.  Among the other reasons he cited that Greek shipping was so successful is “that it never had anything to do with Greece.”  By this, he meant the Greek government and Greek bureaucracy.  Ships were by definition mobile, as were capital and the ships’ markets.  The owners and (in the past) the crew were Greeks, and the money fed their families, but the owners kept their profits and registrations abroad.  When I was a banker in Greece, I used to get a kick out of trying to decipher the corporate structure and ownership of Greek shipping companies, and I’m a lawyer!

Greece’s bloated, venal, and chaotic bureaucracy is nothing new.  Greece has been that way from the beginning, in part a cultural legacy from the Ottomans but also, in its bloated size and inefficiency, an absorber of excess labor in patronage jobs.  This creaking system should have died a quiet death years ago but the EU funds and the cheap interest rates of the Euro kept a comatose system alive, and now Tsipras wants to squeeze blood further out of a turnip.  Knowing this, Greek shipowners limit their footprint in Greece, and in current times, may remove themselves altogether.

These Cyber-Greeks are operating in similar fashion.  Their markets are abroad, the very nature of the digital environment is global and instantaneous.  The nature of their business cannot be compatible with a creaking state structure which is hardly digital and utterly unfriendly to business.  It is why ideas that would have been stillborn in Greece often have to spirit themselves to America or elsewhere to see the light of day.  Just as their companies and ideas, these entrepreneurs, with ideas and skills in demand, may abandon Greece altogether.

The two I talked to, however, like many others, while having a presence abroad, were determined to make their business in their country, and to employ their fellow Greeks, a labor of love and faith I absolutely admired.  When I asked about how the dealt with those of us who know Greece call “The Greek Reality,” they nodded knowingly and called it a challenge and cost of doing business.  They saw themselves at the forefront of a change that Greece needs, and every sentient Greek knows this.

As I sipped my coffee, I listed to one of them, “We are hoping that in several years’ time, efforts such as ours will bring back the [hundreds of thousands] of Greeks who have left in the past few years.”  I admired his will to optimism.  “That’s a big IF,” I said.  “Yes,” he agreed, laughing sadly.

I too must believe in this “if,” as I love my country, and as a father of two young children who deserve the optimism I grew up with, I close this year’s column saluting the optimism of two young Greeks sailing bravely on the digital waves.  Islanders such as my Hydriots say, “The good captain shows himself in the storm.”

About Alexander Billinis

Alexander Billinis is a writer and lawyer in Chicago, Illinois. He and his family returned to the US after nearly a decade in Greece, the UK, and Serbia. He writes prolifically on Balkan topics. His books, The Eagle has Two Faces: Journeys through Byzantine Europe, and Hidden Mosaics: An Aegean Tale, are available from Amazon.com.