Greece unbound

A recent visit to a graduation ceremony at an American college in Thessaloniki gave me an unexpected insight into Greece’s mistakes and missed opportunities over the past 20 years. The college is a serious nonprofit venture in the field of education and one of the few to have survived and prospered despite the obstacles. It bears no comparison to the dozens of other quasi-official colleges that have emerged in Greece without any substantial control. Interestingly, the top prize went to a student from Skopje. He spoke broken Greek and fluent English, explaining how he loves Greece and how the country offered him a unique opportunity to excel. Some professors recalled the difficulties that the first students from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) had to overcome when they arrived here. Their parents would often find their cars vandalized. Most of the distinctions this year went to students from neighboring countries. They are the nascent Balkan elite that will start their professional careers having first spent some good time in Thessaloniki. I could not help but think of the damage caused by the lingering name dispute. It was easy, so easy, to conquer that country, as it were, with investments, offering scholarships to FYROM children. Greece has spent a great deal of capital that was needed to handle other, more serious threats. Now the country must reach a face-saving settlement or risk giving the impression that it is a small, vulnerable nation. Instead of organizing tacky protests against FYROM, Thessaloniki ought to have opened itself up to its neighbors, making itself a real entrepreneurial, educational, medical and tourist hub for the Balkans. At the same time, I cannot help but think that George Papandreou made a big mistake in undermining the change of Article 16 in the Constitution which would have opened the door for the establishment of private, nonprofit universities. The prime minister yielded to vested interests when he could have given the green light to innovative research centers such as those found in Turkey and Cyprus. It’s groundless fear and sentimentalism that have so often held us back. Greece can only extract itself from the crisis by breaking free of the complexes that have held it hostage to the mediocre universities and by turning itself into a modern service center for the broader region.

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