Thessaloniki Mayor Yiannis Boutaris turned up at our interview appointment right after meeting with a group of Chinese businessmen.
?Who are they?? I asked him as his visitors left his office.
?Chinese tourism agents from Shanghai,? Boutaris replied. ?They were sent to me by Turkish Airlines, with whom the city has a collaboration. They came to talk about the possibility of adding Thessaloniki to their tourist destinations and they seemed very interested. Imagine what good it could do the city if it was included in Chinese tourism package deals.?
Boosting tourism is the cornerstone of Boutaris?s policy to bring money into the city he became mayor of just over a year ago.
?Thessaloniki is a claustrophobic city; it is conservative and introverted, and has some serious guilt,? explained Boutaris. ?It has an ambivalent relationship toward Turks, Jews and Slavs, even though visitors from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia [FYROM] are among our best clients. As a result of our recent overtures, tourism from Israel has grown 300 percent, while arrivals from Turkey this year reached 40,000, a number that would have been much greater if there were no visa restrictions. This is one of the initiatives we are working on — creating revenues for the city with zero investment.?
Boutaris?s campaign to promote Thessaloniki as a tourism destination, meanwhile, is also expanding to other parts of the world apart from Turkey and Israel, with which the city has historical ties. The mayor is planning trips to Durres in Albania, and Nis and Belgrade in Serbia in order to discuss partnerships, to Skopje in FYROM to improve ties, to Sofia and Odessa on a promotion drive, and to Moscow to meet with tour operators.
?I always take people from the industry with me on these trips,? said Boutaris. ?The goal is to bring money to the city, because money is what it?s all about.?
Another area where Boutaris has made headway since becoming mayor is in improving municipal bureaucracy and making it more friendly toward citizens. To achieve this, he chose deputies who are in their 40s, who are professionals and not affiliated with any political parties, and gave them real jurisdiction with a relatively free rein.
?I don?t try to control everything,? explained Boutaris. ?I support the efforts of each individual deputy and push them toward the goals that we have decided. Another important thing we achieved with the administrative reshuffle was creating an organization that actually makes use of its officials. Until now, one director would pass a task off to another. There was a rivalry between them and a hostility that ultimately became the citizens? problem. I can?t allow it to take two months for a piece of paper to go from one office to another. Of course I doubt whether the complete restructuring of the municipality can be achieved within my four-year tenure. I sometimes wonder whether I am too romantic hoping that something like this can be achieved in Greece, but then I tell myself that if I succeed I will have done something very important. It seems to be working so far. It is not enough to get me re-elected of course, because it is the sort of thing that doesn?t really show even though services should get significantly better.?
Boutaris readily admits that he will be running for mayor again come the next elections. ?I am starting to have fun with it and I have also become quite stubborn about a few things, so why not try again? Looking at what I?ve achieved so far, I?d give myself a score of six out of 10. If by the end of my tenure I?ve achieved a score of seven, then I?ll run again. If I?ve dropped to a five, then I?ll go.?
Atypical city official draws media interest
Never has the election of a mayor in Greece been observed with so much interest by foreign media as that of Yiannis Boutaris in November 2010.
The New York Times, The Observer, ITN, Fortune, Cyprus Mail, The Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, Maariv, Israeli state television, Hurriyet, Zaman and Albania?s Panorama are but some of the newspapers and television stations that have interviewed the Thessaloniki mayor since his election or written stories on the work he is doing.
What Boutaris has effectively achieved is throwing open the windows of a city that has for decades struggled under the weight of its history and gone to great pains to shield its multicultural past. He has also not hesitated to clash head-on with the conservative elements of the city and to challenge the stereotypes and biases that have resisted change.
Boutaris is not just any old mayor; he represents a different breed. Aged 70 and sporting an earring and a backpack, he walks around the city and cycles to work, stopping to chat with people on the street or defend his work. He has traded in his black service limousine for a small town car and can be seen getting into debates with the public or sharing a smoke with them, listening to their views and their complaints.
?Aren?t you afraid of getting yogurt thrown at you?? I asked him in reference to a choice of missile popularly aimed at politicians by disenchanted members of the public in Greece.
?So what? [former leftist leader Alekos] Alavanos took a yogurt to the face and nothing happened to him,? responded Boutaris.
Boutaris?s greatest charm, however, is his manner of address. He neither talks down nor up to people; he does not use the stilted rhetoric of most politicians, whomever he may be addressing, be it local youths hanging out at a cafe or Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu during an official visit. His close associates praise him for his work ethic and tenacity, while some see him as a dangerous experimentalist and others as a politician worth watching.
Maybe it is this combination of hard work and innovative ideas that has made Boutaris so popular with the foreign media.