The Ukrainian president did not flatter the Greeks with niceties and half-truths. Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his nation are on the edge of the abyss. He says what he has to say, knowing that his country faces immediate and overwhelming danger.
That is why the focal point of his address to the Greek Parliament on Thursday was the basic bond that unites the Greeks and Ukrainians today. “‘Freedom or Death,’ your revolutionaries used to say,” he said. “We say the same today.” He spoke of the Greeks’ presence in his country since antiquity and the humanitarian and military support that Greece provides today. He referred to the founding of the Friendly Society (Filiki Etaireia) in Odessa before the Greek Revolution and the Greek foreign minister’s recent visit to the historic city. His speech included a videotaped message from two ethnic Greeks who are defending Mariupol. And here things went awry, as they tend to do in our political arena.
One of the fighters, Mikhail, stated that his grandfather had fought the Nazis and had been wounded three times. Now he was fighting the “Russian Nazis,” he said, “participating in the Ukrainian defense in the ranks of the Azov Battalion.” This was the spark for the main opposition party, SYRIZA, to slam the government for “an historic shame,” and for the three smaller parties that had boycotted the speech to crow triumphantly that they were vindicated.
The Azov Battalion is widely associated with the Ukrainian neo-Nazis who established it in 2014, even though it has been absorbed into the country’s armed forces and people of various opinions serve in it. Zelenskyy was elected on a platform of unity.
But is a battalion’s past (on which Russian propaganda focuses intensively) sufficient reason for Greek political parties to equivocate, to tolerate the Russian invasion and the slaughter of civilians? Used to overanalyzing everything to justify our choices, we wonder why Zelenskyy chose to spring this surprise on his hosts. But perhaps this was not a matter of choice, nor carelessness, but a matter of fact.
When a nation is fighting to survive, then “Freedom or Death” is a real and brutal choice, not a slogan. And our choice is equally clear: Are we on the side of freedom or death?