By Nick Malkoutzis
Jorgo Chartzimarkakis knows what it’s like to be at the sharp end of criticism. His Greek descent means that he is left in no doubt about German discontent with the country of his forefathers, while the fact he is a politician in Germany means he regularly hears about how unhappy Greeks are with Chancellor Angela Merkel and her policies. So, who better to front an initiative to break down preconceptions and to connect people?
Chatzimarkakis, a member of the European Parliament for Germany’s Free Democratic Party (FDP), revealed to Kathimerini English Edition that he has launched with the help of several volunteers a new website aimed at building a bridge between his troubled homeland and the Greeks of the diaspora, for whom the economic crisis has been a source of pain, anger and confusion.
“I am basing this initiative on the ancient Greek idea of participatory democracy,” he says.
The MEP has set up a website whose name sums up its goal perfectly: www.resetgreece.gr. Chatzimarkakis says he is trying to transform the negative image of Greece and provide people, particularly young Greeks, who have good ideas with a way out of the crisis.
“It all starts with a good idea,” he says, explaining that the site will act as a portal for Greeks abroad to find out about positive things happening in Greece. But he also intends it to be a forum, like the ancient Agora, where people will be able to exchange information, get in touch and perhaps work together on new projects.
The primary aim is for entrepreneurs and innovators in Greece to showcase their ideas to as many people as possible. Chatzimarkakis hopes that the site will then be able to link these hopefuls with any funding that is available within Greece or from European Union structural packages. A third step will be to foster a dialogue between the budding entrepreneurs with angel investors from abroad, perhaps Greek-Americans or Greek-Australians who are interested in investing in promising schemes.
“Our job is to give those who have good ideas access to information about how they can find money to promote their products,” says the MEP, citing the example of two friends in Drama, northern Greece, who have developed their own type of cured ham, similar to the Italian prosciutto.
“Or maybe there are Greeks abroad who want to invest in Greece but want their money to go directly to the entrepreneurs, not to the state, which they don’t trust.”
The idea of rebuilding trust and understanding between Greece and the diaspora is at the heart of Chatzimarkakis’s effort. He understands the tarnished Greek image abroad and often finds himself taking on politicians and journalists in Germany about the views they express about Greece. Last month, the MEP challenged his own party leader, Phillip Roesler, also Germany’s economy minister, after he speculated about a Greek euro exit. Chatzimarkakis slammed Roesler’s comments as “reckless” and pondered: “What planet does he live on?”
Chatzimarkakis is also the vice president of the World Hellenic Inter-Parliamentary Association (WHIA), which consists of more than 200 MPs of Greek origin from more than 20 countries. He believes that changing Greece’s relationship with the diaspora is fundamental to its recovery.
The MEP recounts how in the past Greek politicians had a dismissive attitude toward WHIA members when they visited Greece. There has been a noticeable shift in their approach over the last couple of years, the liberal politician says, and there is now more willingness to listen.
WHIA is backing the MEP’s effort and according to fellow member Ted Rokas, a member of the House of Representatives in New Hampshire in the US, there is a desire on the diaspora’s side to foster a more productive relationship with Greece.
“Greek-Americans want to see changes in Greece,” he told Kathimerini English Edition. “We have started to see some progress but we want to see results. We haven’t seen enough yet.”
Rokas points out that Greeks abroad have been wary of bureaucracy and the business environment in Greece. He backs Chatzimarkakis’s assertion that they would be much more comfortable -- at this stage, at least -- investing in people rather than via the Greek state.
“You have to create an environment in which Greeks abroad who feel for Greece can invest,” he says. “They need the right investment conditions.”
One of the key problems in overcoming the skepticism between Greece and the diaspora is bridging the perceptions gap. For instance, the pace of change that Greeks abroad would like to see in their homeland is unrealistic given the country’s devastating economic recession and troubled political transition.
Those in the diaspora who really want to see Greeks succeed will need patience and stamina. Chatzimarkakis says he has both. “I’m thinking of the normal, decent people in Greece -- the 90 percent,” he says. “So, I have the staying power.”
For his next project, the MEP says he is going to publish a book called “The Hellas Factor,” explaining why only Greece, or at least its ancient ideals, can save Europe.
Chatzimarkakis’s stamina for improving Greece’s image shows no sign of abating.
[Kathimerini English Edition]