hellenes without borders
A Balkanized Greece?

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Greece is a Balkan country, utterly and absolutely. Having lived there, and now living in another Balkan country, Serbia, I see the parallels and similarities, both overt and subtle, every day. The illusion that we were in the West, one we began to believe and one that financial markets also “bought” in spite of ample evidence hidden in plain sight to the contrary, fell apart as yet another of the ever increasing casualties of the crisis.

It is only recently, however, that signs of Balkanization–splintering–are emerging in Greece. Greece has always been highly centralized and its identity homogenized. The dual legacy of ancient Greece and Byzantium has been grafted onto the geography of the Aegean basin–minus the Asia Minor coast–to create one of Europe’s most solid states and identities. Minorities, by and large, were expelled, exchanged, or assimilated if they were Orthodox. In an era of nationalism and the Cold War, Greece could be called a successful state.

In today’s era where economics are king and the national–particularly the European–situation is more subtle, and Greece is certainly not a particular success. In fact, among wealthy, democratic countries who are Greece’s peers, both in Europe and elsewhere in the world, it is likely that Greece is the most corrupt country in the developed, democratic world. This has consequences, both in economic, and perhaps now, in political and existential terms.

Parts of Greece are either tourist paradises with strong financial potential or strong, specialized agricultural areas also with considerable actual or potential productive wealth. Others still boast a very active and socially and financially involved Diaspora, which can be relied upon to infuse needed cash. This latter point is particularly important; emigrants from Greece were generally rural and chain migration often resulted in large communities from the same area with investments and property back in Greece. Finally, many areas in Greece have long traditions of autonomy or distinctiveness, such as Samos, an eastern Aegean island a stone’s throw from Asia Minor and so very far away from Athens.

Though the Samiots fought the Turks to a standstill during the War of Independence in 1821, geography precluded its inclusion in the original Greek state, but the Samiots created an autonomous principality within the Ottoman Empire well regarded for its progressive educational and bureaucratic regime. Samos joined Greece in the aftermath of the First Balkan War, in 1912, exactly a century ago. Might Samos, with a strong Diaspora, a tradition of autonomy, agricultural and tourist wealth and growing (re)-connections with Asia Minor, opt for a redefinition of its neglected relationship with Athens?

It seems that, in neighboring Ikaria, rumblings of autonomist sympathies or even (!) a union with Austria, are beginning according to the anchor Greek daily Kathimerini, quoting the Austrian newspaper Heute. Not content with Kathimerini, I used my college German to read the Austrian paper in the original German, though clearly the talk was tongue in cheek.

I take this with little more than a grain of salt, but might it be the makings of something? Many Greek islands have a considerable economic base (though one generally based on tourism) and a “Brand” far stronger and more attractive than anything on offer in Greece itself. Corfu has a small autonomist movement but the island is a tourist paradise with a long tradition of its own distinctive Venetianate identity. With its excellent brand and tourist offer it might be better off alone. The same for Crete, with its fantastic feast, its huge and utterly devoted Diaspora, and its tourism riches. Cretans, in my experience, are ultra-Greeks, but when the Greek state of today is a warren of thieves and cronies, might they be better off with a Cretan option (unless of course they exchange Athenian pashas for those of Heraklion, and there are plenty of mini-pashas all over Greece).

I highlighted some of these issues earlier this year in the (now sadly) defunct The Hellenic Voice. In one article about the crisis in Greece’s regions, I highlighted that the Greek state’s long neglect of its regions, exacerbated by the current economic turmoil was bound to “Balkanize” the region to some degree.

Athens has long been the monster drinking Greece’s national wealth. This mal-distribution has long lurked under the surface and has caused considerable anger in strong regional centers, most notably the northern “capital” Thessaloniki, though plenty of Macedonian cronies such as Psomiades greedily and readily participated in the rot of Greek politics. Again, the blame for the regions’ plight spreads far beyond just the guilt of Athenian pashas. The crisis and the blame are not confined to any one region, but spread throughout the rotten state of the Greek state.

However, the regions are more used to self help, and it is more the regions with their tourism, agriculture, and Diaspora connections that are likely to survive and to emerge from the crisis. They will not succeed, or survive, if their efforts are subsumed by supporting the parasitic public sector which provides no value and sucks the life out of the private sector, the regions, and the financial markets (though my sympathy for the latter is extremely limited). To go back to the Samos example, tourism entrepreneurs are hardly likely to want to remit 23% VAT and up to 40% tax on hotel income for the benefit of parasites who keep Samos often literally in the dark. What do I mean, ask the couple where the wife gave birth to their child in Samos hospital–to the light of Daddy’s mobile phone!

Greeks are survivors, history provides clear proof of this, but the current Greek state is a loser, and the Greek population is waking up to this and (perhaps) to its contributing role in this condition. The regions were always second class in Greece though in a digitized, specialized, atomized, globalized economy many regions in Greece could live better not as a part of a larger whole.

To be clear, I am NOT in favor of this. The oath I took upon becoming a Greek soldier was to defend Greece but I cannot ask anyone to commit a collective suicide. Also, after repatriating and seeing what was going on, I voted with my feet by leaving. Now, if we are honest with ourselves (uncommon among our people) we must ask this question:

Is it nobler to vote with one’s feet and leave Greece, or with one’s community and leave the Greek State, while staying in Greece?

A seriously tough question and a route I do not advocate. And yet, if the Athenian State does not shape up, parts may ship out.

Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I am from Hydra, via Salt Lake City, Utah, and though my island has its own flag, history of autonomy and self-help, I would never advocate Hydriot autonomy. To the best of my knowledge, there is no such movement.

Alexander Billinis has spent a decade in international banking in the US and Europe, most recently in London. He is particularly interested in Greece's economic and cultural position in the Balkans. He has worked with companies invested in the Balkans, and is writing a travel-historical book about the post-Byzantine states of modern Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania.

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