The lynch mob attack on Thessaloniki Mayor Yiannis Boutaris during a gathering to commemorate the Pontic genocide – the systematic killing of ethnic Greeks by the Turks during World War I – and while the national anthem was playing in the background, should give us pause.
On Saturday, Boutaris became a victim of the toxic climate that is being cultivated in northern Greece and in the city of Thessaloniki in particular over certain specific national disputes that remain unsettled and other events.
The Thessaloniki mayor is the kind of politician – if we can really call him that – who never hesitates to express his opinions boldly and to go against the grain for what he believes to be the right thing. It is this that put him in the crosshairs of sundry self-proclaimed defenders of the nation, some of which found an opportunity on Saturday to lash out. That they were protected by the organizers and also by the police is a matter that needs to be seriously addressed.
Let’s be honest: Boutaris has rubbed certain people the wrong way because of the many windows he has opened for his city onto the world. He has transformed the northern port from a “hedgehog” – a city that was always on the defensive because of the complexes cultivated by various political leaders regarding (what else?) its Greekness – into an attractive tourism destination for nationalities that were shut out, viewed practically as hostile, until he took over.
Everybody is aware of this and those who don’t want to admit it only have to ask the shopkeepers in the downtown area to ascertain that the city is alive right now thanks in great part to the money spent there by thousands of visitors from Turkey, Israel and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, among other “enemies of the nation” who flock here in their thousands.
When Boutaris invited a delegation of major Turkish businessmen to the city several years ago, he was met with jeers and threats by a group of people much like the ones who attacked him on Saturday, chanting, “We live to see you in your grave.”
It was only a matter of time before such an attack was carried out against the mayor, who walks around the city like a regular citizen, without riot police flanking him, a free man who expresses himself freely. It was this freedom to express unpopular opinions on taboo issues – embodied by Boutaris – that was attacked in front of the White Tower during the lowering of the Greek flag. The irony is that Turkey’s genocide of the ethnic Greeks and the Armenians was spurred by similar sentiments, though evidently on a very different scale of magnitude and savagery.
The attack on Boutaris is a sign that things are getting out of hand. Some of the things I heard at the rallies over the name talks with FYROM from organized mobs that enjoyed the tolerance of the organizers sent chills down my spine. The shouts, insults and vulgar slogans that accompanied the “patriotic correction” of the mayor should serve as a warning bell.
This time it was Boutaris; tomorrow it will be someone else, an MP, a journalist, an academic or a citizen who falls into the bad graces of all those who publicly claim to represent patriotic sentiment.
I remember the former Greek Communist Party (KKE) chief, Aleka Papariga, being violently lambasted in Thessaloniki in 1992 because she dared to talk about a composite name for FYROM. Now the mayor has been beaten, not because he failed in cleaning up the trash, but because he is seen as a Trojan Horse for the enemies of the nation, because he believes and publicly expresses beliefs that are contrary to those of his accusers.
There are, unfortunately, those who invest politically, socially and economically in this dangerous atmosphere that is being cultivated in regard to national (and other) issues. All of these people who use hate speech to address sensitive issues are effectively targeting anyone with a different opinion and are accomplices to those who punched and kicked Boutaris.
It will be interesting to see what will happen with the case from this point on. We are waiting.