Letter from Thessaloniki

The legend of Arta’s most famous landmark – its historical bridge, immortalized in an old folk story and the Nikos Kazantzakis play «The Master Builder» – goes something like this: To make sure the bridge was strong enough to withstand the wear and tear of time, its creator sacrificed his wife by walling her into the structure. Following this example, Constantinos, the main hero in Theodoros Kanonidis’s «The Bridge of Triha» – a play first performed in the Soviet Union in 1931 – also sacrifices his beloved Kali for a higher, superior goal. The play, written in the Pontic dialect and following the tradition of orthodox socialist realism, recently opened the season for the National Theater of Northern Greece. According to the communist doctrine of the time, the play preaches that all material goods and means of production belonged to the community. Morals – such as how one must support principles instead of money – abound in this very old-fashioned play. How times have changed, indeed! Today, millions of euros pour through Europe, moving surreptitiously from mysterious bank accounts to dummy companies in the tax haven of Liechtenstein. Meanwhile, our own Greek «web of corruption appears to have grown stronger,» as Kathimerini’s economic analyst Nikos Nikolaou pointed out recently, and the new version of the budget to be submitted to Parliament in November promises no good. Speaking in Parliament on Friday, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis answered a comment by former Coalition leader Nikos Constantopoulos by saying society should be enlisted to a «united front» against corruption and graft. It is, after all, that simple: Nobody is above the law. Rules of law are essential. Everybody, from the top on down, is bound by a country’s laws. Anybody suspected of breaking these laws will face the judicial process. On Wednesday, October 12, independent MP Stefanos Manos published a letter in Kathimerini stating those cardinal democratic principles. The Minister of Finance, Giorgos Alogoskoufis and his newly appointed vice deputy economy and finance minister, Antonis Bezas, have a difficult autumn and winter ahead of them. By putting forward proposals to reform things like welfare and pension benefits, they have committed the government to that most dangerous of activities – a long and complicated attempt to redistribute incomes. Therefore, that allegoric old stone bridge across the river of Triha – tactically naive and moralizing as it may be – is a kind of solace as it affronts both past and possibly present situations enabling millions of euros missing in suspicious deals with outside contractors. Thessaloniki, with a system less rife with sleaze than Athens, is full with old and new Greek Pontics. They first came in masses together with the multitude of Greek immigrants from Turkey in 1922 and 1923 after long death marches and the persecution that followed the Treaty of Lausanne. Further immigration of Pontic-speaking Greeks followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. Today, one can see them gathering around the statue of Eleftherios Venizelos on Egnatia Street. They will certainly fill the vast auditorium of the Lazariston Theater. Fleeing two empires – Ottoman and Soviet – Pontics had to give up their ancestral homes after years of glorious and productive history and helped build a nation-state. The presence of Greeks at the Euxeinus Pontos, the Black Sea, dates back to about 1200 BC. Greek mythology refers to Jason and the Argonauts who passed Ellispontos and arrived to Kolchis (Georgia) to reclaim the golden fleece that Frixos, the brother of Elli, had left there. Until 1910, the Greeks dominated economically in Pontos, that is northeastern Turkey. After 1923 – after the overwhelming humanitarian disaster on the Turkish coast known by us Greeks as the «Catastrophe» – many Pontians managed to escape and found refuge in Russia. They settled in central Russia, Caucasia, Crimea, Georgia and Armenia. With such a glorious past, it is odd that Pontics are pejoratively referred to as «repatriated» Greeks from the Black Sea. In Thessaloniki – coined the City of Refugees by local author Giorgos Ioannou – Pontics abound and, contrary to the jokes, are alert and intelligent. Consider Panayiotis Psomiadis, the elected prefect of the region and an illustrious Pontic. In 1998, an «Application for Summary Measures» against the notorious «Greek Language Dictionary» edited by Professor G. Babaniotis was heard by a Thessaloniki court for the entry of the abusive meaning of the word «Pontic.» Today, there are more important things to discuss in northern Greece. For instance, the dispute over the name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is simmering once again. To power-conscious Americans it is «…a shame for Greece to oppose a veto» in FYROM’s effort to join the EU and NATO, as US undersecretary Nicholas Burns was quoted as saying in Skopje last week. To dreamy Greeks the hope of changing FYROM’s name is always alive and kicking.