The other Greeks: New volume sheds light on often neglected minorities

Until the early 1990s, before communism collapsed in most of the Balkan countries and before Yugoslavia came apart in an orgy of civil strife and ethnic cleansing, the existence and fate of minority populations within Greece’s national contours was clearly off the agenda. This changed suddenly, however, when the Balkans began to disintegrate as secession spread throughout the peninsula. The Balkans were turning irrevocably into a huge laboratory for statehood, but the real watershed for Greece was the birth of an independent Slav-Macedonian state to its north in 1991. Pushing minority and territorial claims against Greece, the newly born state immediately touched off a heated debate in Greece, a country which had always taken pride in its ethnic and religious homogeneity. «Minorities in Greece: Aspects of a Plural Society» (Hurst and Co, 2002) does not raise doubts about the country’s oft-praised trait. It does not, in other words, try to paint a picture of a country that resembles a patchwork of ethnic minorities but rather to sketch the historical background and provide some basic information on Greece’s main minority groups. Thus the book, edited by the famed Oxford-based expert in Greek history, Richard Clogg, comes to remedy a lack in English publications on the subject, albeit a bit belatedly, given that it brings together 10 papers presented at a 1994 workshop at St Antony’s College in Oxford. To be sure, little has changed regarding the status of the minority populations presented in the book, save that of East European immigrants who are covered in the last chapter under «foreigners» – a section which is somewhat outdated given the swift, though not always smooth, transformation of Greek society by the influx of thousands of, mainly Albanian, economic migrants and refugees. But, in any case, economic migrants are one thing while minorities – which are the main subject of the book – are quite another. The volume offers a lucid survey of the main minority populations, Old Calendarists, Catholics, Evangelicals, Jews, Muslims (Turks, Pomaks and Roma), Armenians, Vlachs, Slav-Macedonians and Sarakatsani. The surveys must have been difficult to conduct given the lack of official data on the social groupings in question, and much is based on the personal experience and anthropological fieldwork of the writers. Moreover, being the product of scholarly work, the volume contains interesting footnotes and a useful index that make it of considerable historical value. Although the surveys are independent from each other, there are certain themes which surface in most tales. It’s interesting, for example, to see how minorities read and reread their own history so as to serve current interests and exigencies. Indicative is the case of the modern descendants of the Sarakatsani, Greek-speaking transhumant shepherds, who are keen to stress their (genuine) connection to the heroic, pastoral klepht tradition (itself a somewhat romantic construction) in an attempt, as John Campbell writes, to «claim an identity within the wider Greek society, whose attitudes towards them were at best ambivalent, often contemptuous.» The various accounts also highlight how the national elite, in the process of nation-building, reconstructs history through the recruitment of an ethnic, linguistic or religious mythology so as to build a national conscience that encompasses the minorities in question. In a similar manner, as Tom Winnfrith notes, contemporary historical and linguistic scholarship in Greek universities tends to identify the Vlachs (or Aroumanians) with the Greeks «when there are no philological grounds» for linking them and when the «mixed language merely reflects a long period of contact.» The «Hellenization» of minorities has often been carried out by means of repression, propaganda and education. In her study of Slav-Macedonians, Anastasia Karakasidou indicates how the Greek State tried to assert control in Macedonia by resorting to a dual policy that involved education, on the one hand, and police and military surveillance, on the other. She puts particular emphasis on the anti-Slav measures during the Metaxas dictatorship (1936-1941): Night schools were set up in which adult men and women were taught Greek, individuals were forced to give up their Slavic names for Greek ones, while nationalist rituals were held on a regular basis. At the end of the day, however, and regardless of all the state measures, the author notes, people from Macedonia learned Greek in order to secure a position in the work force. «Many parents came to realize that their children had little chance of improving their relative socioeconomic position if they continued to learn only Slavic.» Foreign policy Overall, however, most authors seem to lay less emphasis on material conditions and place more weight on how official foreign policy considerations have historically dictated Greece’s minority policy. In his account of the Muslim minority in Thrace – the only officially recognized minority, whose status is enshrined in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne – Ronald Meinardus describes how the Pomaks, a group of Slav-speaking Muslims living on the southern slopes of the Rhodope mountains, became a victim of organized «anti-Bulgarianism» in the early Cold War years when the bordering communist states to the north were perceived by Athens as a major security threat. The Pomak population was hence seen as potential ally of Sofia (a Moscow satellite) and subjected to systematic «Turkification.» Such policies of communist containment, so to speak, receded in the light of the escalating rift with Ankara, which culminated in the Turkish invasion and occupation of northern Cyprus. As a result, Meinardus writes, from the 1970s and particularly in the 1980s, state policies were aimed at strengthening Pomak identity and disengaging the minority from the Turks. This revisionist strategy was to no avail, however, and as the author says, most Pomaks today feel themselves to be Turks. Meinardus also refutes the popular belief that while the Greek minority in Istanbul has been liquidated, the Muslim population in northern Greece is, in the words of late Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou in 1982, «growing and flourishing.» «This notion,» Meinardus notes, «is clearly not confirmed by the existing data. They suggest not a growth in the size of the minority but rather numerical stagnation.» However, despite occasional protests of Greece’s anti-minority attitude, allegations of the ill-treatment of minority populations by the Greek State are herein said to be exaggerated. For all the comfort that this can offer, Clogg asserts that «in a regional context, minorities have generally fared significantly better in Greece than have those in neighboring countries.»