Ioannina Mayor Moses Elisaf has taken the baton from his former Thessaloniki counterpart Yiannis Boutaris in “city diplomacy,” having recently conducted a series of important meetings in Albania as part of an initiative to promote his city and develop closer ties with the neighboring country. Ioannina is among a number of Greek cities with significant ties with communities across the border – including ethnic Greeks – and an immensely multinational and multicultural history, assets that Mayor Elisaf is trying to capitalize on in a bid to boost growth in both Ioannina and the impoverished mountain villages of Epirus, but also to strengthen relations between the two peoples.
The cities of Florina, Kastoria, Kilkis, Serres, Drama, Alexandroupoli, Kavala and, of course, Thessaloniki are also close to the border and share traditional bonds with the communities on the “other side” with an important cultural legacy that endures to this day. Boutaris made a point of “selling” this legacy – successfully, according to composed observers – as a tourism product that bolstered Thessaloniki’s economy but also, objectively, helped Greece’s foreign policy initiatives on a bilateral level. Elisaf is aiming for something similar by putting out the welcome mat, first for the country’s Albanian neighbors and later, he has said, for Israelis and Turks, both of whom have historical ties with the city stretching back to when it was a major commercial and cultural center. Other border cities are also making some hesitant progress in this direction – in Epirus, Macedonia and Thrace – though not without obstacles stemming from enduring prejudices.
But cultural heritage and monuments, not to mention natural attractions, are not enough on their own to make our border towns permanently attractive to our neighbors and to create strong relationships between the different communities.
The experience of Ioannina – which receives thousands of visitors from southern Albania, from Tirana down, for its sights, but also its hospitals, doctors, university and stores – is evidence enough that local leaderships should not be investing exclusively in tourism.
Mayor Elisaf’s charm offensive toward Ioannina’s Albanian neighbors will be no walk in the park. The mayor may not make foreign policy, but just as Boutaris had to deal with the Macedonia name dispute, Elisaf too will have to address the thorny issue of the Cham minority.