NEWS

Motherland’s initiative comes to aid diaspora

Greece was unprepared to respond effectively to the particular problems that emerged after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 for its diaspora. One embassy alone, in Moscow, had, for a long time after the fall of the Soviet Union, taken upon itself the difficult task of assisting diaspora Greeks in all states of the former USSR. Despite the aforementioned problems, Greece responded adequately in helping the diaspora, in some cases carrying out interventions that merited international recognition (such as Operation Golden Fleece). Initially, her interventions were assessment missions and of a humanitarian nature: They aimed at determining the basic problems and then proceeded to save the threatened Greeks, either by offering humanitarian aid, facilitating their repatriation or by organizing missions to evacuate Greeks trapped in war-torn regions. In the second phase, the Greek interventions were of an institutional character and followed midterm and long-term policy objectives (e.g. establishing embassies and consulates, taking measures for the promotion of the Greek language and promoting trade relationships with the Greek diaspora, etc). Assessment missions Representatives of the Greek Embassy in Moscow conducted on-site visits after 1991 in order to fully assess the problems faced in areas with a Greek population. These visits were essential because, as there were no consular authorities at the time, neither the collection of any information nor the evaluation of the data was possible otherwise. We must note the mission to Yerevan (winter of 1991) in order to prepare and organize the transportation of the applicants for repatriation to Greece; to Georgia (April 1993) in order to assess the situation and to establish contacts with local authorities; to Southern Russia in 1993 in order to aid the Greek refugees of Abkhazia, and to organize their repatriation to Greece. Representatives of the embassy took part in congresses and meetings of diaspora Greeks, and conducted studies of their problems and their requests and were thereby able to give the government a reliable picture and estimate. During the same period (May 1995), members of our embassy in Moscow also visited Almaty and Taskhent in order to examine the special problems of the Greeks of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. These visits provided moral support to the diaspora Greeks, many of whom saw official representatives of Greece for the first time. Moreover, each visit raised the prestige of the diaspora in their local communities, since it showed the interest of their mother country. Golden Fleece The operation of rescuing and evacuating the ethnic Greeks (omogeneis) in Sukhumi, Abkhazia and the surrounding villages trapped between the warring parties, which began on July 20 and was completed successfully on August 18, 1993, was the most important intervention by Greece during that period, and one of the most noteworthy Greek initiatives beyond our borders. According to a decision by the government, four experienced officers of our embassy in Moscow and the National Foundation for the Reception of Pontian Greeks (EIYAPOE) were sent to Georgia to prepare for this operation of locating and organizing the Greeks and then transporting them to Greece. On July 31, as soon as the truce was agreed upon, the team went to Sukhumi, a city without water, electricity or food. For 10 days, the team visited all the neighborhoods of the city and the surrounding villages with a significant Greek population in order to warn the omogeneis. They set up a temporary «consulate» in the house of a Greek in Sukhumi and arranged the travel documents of 1,484 people, under difficult and very dangerous conditions. The team afterward returned to Tbilisi (August 8, 1993). On August 12, the now enlarged group with 11 military men from Greece returned to Sukhumi with the necessary supplies and arranged the final details of the operation which began at dawn on August 15. By nightfall, 1,015 Greeks had boarded the ship that Greece had sent and on the 18th they arrived in Alexandroupolis. Chechnya refugees Immediately following the beginning of the crisis in Chechnya, in December 1994, representatives of the Moscow embassy settled in the city of Mozdok, in North Ossetia, on the borders with Chechnya, and in cooperation with the Russian authorities and local Greek community organizations, took charge of the approximately 250 Greek refugees. The Greek government assisted their resettlement in other areas of southern Russia after an understanding with the Russian authorities. New embassies The existence of only one embassy and consulate in the vast area of the former USSR, coupled with the high number of people who visited it daily, led to many problems in the functioning of the consulate and the serving of the members of the Greek diaspora. There were even cases where the Greeks were forced to sell their last belongings in order to purchase a plane ticket to Moscow, to stand in line and arrange their papers. Initially, in 1992, Greek embassies were established in Kiev, Erevan and in Baku but they were followed by others between 1995 and 1996 (embassies in Tbilisi, Almaty and consulates in Mariupol, Odessa, Novorossiysk and St Petersburg). Rapid repatriation Since 1989, a special procedure for repatriation has been instituted for diaspora Greeks from countries of the former USSR. Until 1997, the only consular office that issued repatriation permits was the one in Moscow, which was understaffed and lacked the infrastructure necessary to deal with the hundreds of claims that were submitted daily. As a result, long queues formed outside the Greek Embassy in Moscow. The scenes that unfolded in front of the consulate were truly dismal as hundreds of people, especially during the difficult years 1990-1993, tried to jump over the fence and enter the embassy. Many fell prey to swindlers and counterfeiters. It is estimated that by the end of 2002 about 150,000 Greeks had been repatriated. Economic initiatives Our embassy in Moscow turned its attention to undertaking initiatives of an economic nature, primarily since economic diplomacy is a branch of foreign policy that our country could effectively practice in the former Soviet Union, and also because a large majority of the Greeks being repatriated were, among other things, economic refugees. The primary goal of these initiatives was the financial development and strengthening of the diaspora. In December 1994, our embassy in Moscow in collaboration with the private, entrepreneurial sector in Greece and Russia, organized the «Conference of Economic and Commercial Relations in Moscow,» aiming at furthering Greco-Russian economic and commercial relations as well as strengthening the diaspora. One of the main demands of the diaspora during the first post-Soviet period was that Greek teachers be sent to teach the Greek language. Even though this issue has been a high priority for Greece from the beginning, it has been plagued by the lack of an appropriate bilateral framework as there have been no educational agreements. Such agreements were signed and a few teachers were assigned to departments of Greek studies at some universities in areas with a large Greek population (Moscow, Krasnodar, Stavropol, Mariupol, Tbilisi, Piatigorsk, etc). Subsequently, other important steps were taken, such as the introduction of Greek courses into the school curriculum in areas where Greeks live and the funding of the teachers working there. Other measures After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the resulting skyrocketing prices and the lack of economic means, many diaspora publications and newspapers survived thanks to sponsorship, support, and donations of equipment and technical infrastructure from Greece, private institutions and Pontic Greek associations. Financial support from the government and private institutions for diaspora federations, societies and individuals was necessary in the difficult years after 1991. Furthermore, Greeks of Russia, Ukraine and Georgia have participated in educational programs organized over the past few years by the Greek services for the further education of journalists of the diaspora. Other measures have been the education of prominent members of the diaspora and hospitality for senior citizens and children. Prospects Some years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the situation in the various former Soviet republics is steadily improving, even though the ensuing crises were not dealt with equally successfully by all countries. Despite these uneven paths of development and prospects for future growth, peace tends to prevail in the area and a spirit of cooperation is being developed, as the nationalistic sentiment following the breakup of the Soviet Union, which was responsible for many conflicts before and after 1991, subsides. Hence, considering the relative pacification and cessation of armed conflicts in the region and the improvement in relations and cooperation between the countries as well as the great importance of the region for the future energy supplies, one can easily see the importance of maintaining close ties with all of those countries. The presence of our diaspora in the countries of the former USSR and its positive and productive role constitute a «comparative advantage» for our country at many levels: political, economic, diplomatic, cultural and educational. To assist our diaspora is not only our moral duty but also an important way to reinforce our influence in the countries of the ex-USSR.