Greece’s diaspora in Russia, ex-USSR

With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, relations between Greece, the ex-USSR countries and the diaspora entered a new era. Greece is once again claiming the special position that it held with Russia during the past millennium – a phenomenon of major historical, political, economic and cultural importance. From the 10th century until 1917, the Greeks and the Russians shared a common destiny, and the participation of the Russians was a crucial determinant in helping the Greeks achieve their national goals. Russia became a second home for many Greeks after the fall of Byzantium. The period from 1938-1948, however, was traumatic for the Greeks of Russia and the USSR. Thousands were uprooted by the new regime from their homes and were exiled to Siberia and Central Asia. But since 1991 Greece has rediscovered the diaspora Greeks and is attempting to revitalize its relations with the peoples of other former USSR states. According to a 1989 Soviet census, the number of Greeks was estimated at 370,000. Other estimates, however, put this figure at 700,000. But the post-Soviet period was a painful one, followed by wars between the former Soviet states, by separatist movements and civil wars and by extended political and social crises. The dissolution of the USSR was disastrous for production and trade, causing economic decline and extreme poverty in almost all new states. Millions of ex-Soviet citizens were forced to move within and between the 15 successor states of the USSR. A significant number of Greeks decided to seek their fortunes in their mother country or to move to safer areas, such as Moscow and southern Russia. Greece did everything possible to support them by adopting procedures for prompt repatriation and by organizing extensive operations, such as «Golden Fleece» in Abkhazia in 1993. Several years after the breakup of the USSR, the situation in the former Soviet republics is steadily improving, even though the ensuing crises were not dealt with equally successfully by all countries. President Vladimir Putin’s election in Russia ended a prolonged crisis in that country. The Baltic states were able to recover faster than others due to their rapid incorporation into NATO or the EU. Prospects for development remain promising in countries like Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, due to their energy resources. Other countries, like Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgystan opted recently for changes, distancing themselves from their Soviet past. Georgia, Armenia and Moldova will need more time to heal the wounds they suffered from wars and crises, while the particular problems and traditions of Central Asia make the establishment and consolidation of Western-style institutions more difficult. There remain the so-called ”frozen conflicts” (in Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Transdnistia) and other protracted conflicts such as the Chechen problem or the signs of revival of extremism in Central Asia. These problems must be addressed for peace and stability to be achieved. Despite these uneven paths of development, peace, stability and strong positive prospects for economic growth tend to prevail in the ex-Soviet region and a spirit of cooperation is developing. Bilateral and multilateral cooperation has increased in frameworks and institutions such as the CIS, the Tashkent Treaty for the collective security, the Sanghai Organization, the Customs Union between Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan and Tajikistan, GUUAM, etc. Building political and economic relations with the EU, NATO and the USA has strengthened ex-USSR states. In international relations, diaspora peoples constitute an important source of international power and a basis for cooperation. In stable and democratic environments, a diaspora group is the means for mutual understanding and benefit of the three parties concerned: the country of residence, the diaspora group and the mother country. Greece has used this element of international power to influence policies in countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia, where there is a substantial and vibrant diaspora. The Greek diaspora in the countries of the former USSR and its positive and productive role is an advantage for Greece on many levels. Many members of the diaspora have access to political power in their countries at a national and local level and so can influence issues of importance to Greece. In fact, in some areas (Russia, Ukraine, Georgia), members of the diaspora occupy high-ranking public posts. The constructive presence of diaspora Greeks also constitutes the best basis for further successful economic cooperation of Greek and local interests in the region. Greeks had a comparative advantage to other Westerners struggling to «comprehend» the post-Soviet realities (institutional problems, taxation and judicial systems, etc). Meanwhile, the cooperation of Greek businessmen with local diaspora Greeks gave them a competitive edge. A substantial number of diaspora Greeks still live in almost all countries of the former USSR. This gives Greece’s voice more impact on many issues concerning the former Soviet region. Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and the countries of the Caucasus have, for historical, religious and cultural reasons, always had a positive view of Greece. Even in areas without a historical Greek presence, where many Greeks were moved during Stalin’s purges (Siberia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan), a pro-Greek sentiment developed not only because of the positive presence of the Greek diaspora, but also due to respect for the ancient Greek civilization. Many diaspora Greeks also achieved high positions in the social hierarchy, both at a national and local level. A policy should be drafted with the aim of safeguarding and bolstering Greece’s diaspora – now believed to number around 400,000 (mostly living in Russia and Ukraine) following the repatriation of around 200,000 after the breakup of the USSR. The goals of this policy should include: providing economic and political support to diaspora Greeks; strengthening ties between Greece and the countries of the ex-USSR; improving the relationship between the diaspora Greeks in different countries of the former USSR; consolidating ties of the diaspora with the motherland; and developing strong associations of diaspora Greeks with the ability to influence policies and defend their interests. Assisting the diaspora means strengthening one of the most important bridges of friendship and cooperation to the mutual benefit of all concerned, the diaspora Greeks, Greece and the countries of the former USSR. (1) Dionysis Kalamvrezos served as head of the consular section of the Embassy of Greece in Moscow (1992-1997) and as counselor at the Permanent Mission of Greece to the United Nations (1998-2002). He has participated in special missions to the Greek embassies in Tbilisi (1993) and Nicosia (1997) on diaspora matters.