The Greeks of Istanbul have learned not to talk about politics too much. Some don’t like to discuss the present tension between Greece and Turkey at all, others will only whisper about it on the telephone and even those that will talk are guarded.
“There’s a lot I know but much we cannot talk about the same way we think about it. It’s all a bit hush-hush,” Antonis Parizianos, the head of the Association for the Support of Greek Community Foundations in Istanbul, told Kathimerini recently. “We’re all a bit on edge,” he added.
“The Greeks in Turkey are reacting the same way now as they do during a crisis – they keep their heads down and go into survival mode. They’ve learned not to express themselves,” according to Dimitris Triantaphyllou, an international relations professor at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, where he’s lived for the past 10 years.
Parizianos, who was born in Istanbul in 1948, has witnessed a number of very difficult events – he was a child during the September 1955 riots against the Greek community, a teenager during the 1964 expulsions and an adult during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974.
The situation today cannot be compared to those awful times – they feel protected by the state and have no problems with their Turkish neighbors, said Parizianos – but that sense of being on the edge is almost always present with the Greeks of Istanbul.
“Whenever there’s trouble, it comes down on our heads. Those events back then, too, were the result of a deteriorating political situation, so I am worried about something similar happening today,” he said, adding that while relations between the Greek community and the Turkish state are not tense, there appears to be more reticence from the Turkish side in recent years.
There are around 2,000 Greeks in Istanbul, trying to preserve the Hellenic presence in a city of 15 million. There are still three Greek schools – the Zografeion, the Zappeion and the Phanar Greek Orthodox College, known in Greek as the Great School of the Nation – a few Greek Orthodox churches and, of course, the Patriarchate. Nevertheless, the Greek minority stays under the radar – which might just be the thing keeping it safe in times of tensions like these.
‘Lost in the crowd’
“We’re insignificant; they don’t hear our voice that much anymore, they don’t see us, so they’ve kind of lost our trail,” Iraklis Millas, a political scientist who was born in Istanbul but has lived in Athens for several years, told Kathimerini. “We used to run businesses with our names on the sign outside,” he said, adding that the Greeks are now “lost in the crowd” and no longer live in fear, in contrast to the Armenians, who have had to deal with increased hostility in recent weeks because of the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Ioannis Grigoriadis is head of the Turkish program at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP). He warns that the situation with Armenia may be more dangerous for Greeks in Turkey than Greek-Turkish tensions. “The presence of the minority is almost invisible, nonexistent beyond the Patriarchate, but in Turkey, all minorities are lumped together into one category,” he told Kathimerini.
“There’s no reason for us to have a bad experience right now because we are, as always, somewhat invisible; we’re not a target for these people,” said 39-year-old tour guide Yiannis Kourtesoglou. His wife is Turkish and has learned Greek in private tutorials, along with their two children, who have been baptized Greek Orthodox, and they often discuss relations between the two countries. They both believe that the present tension is an effort to deflect the public’s attention from the economic crisis in Turkey.
“We tell each other that this is not something we’d ever argue over because it’s political. It has no direct effect on the citizen who is educated and informed. Thanks to the internet, people can do their research,” he said. Kourtesoglou adds, however, that if you venture into more conservative parts of the city, “where religion is the only thing that matters,” the situation is different.
Alexandros Gargaridis, a 33-year-old lieutenant in the merchant marine, told Kathimerini that he would like to relocate to Greece because the situation in Turkey has grown worse, both financially and specifically for Greeks there. He admitted that he doesn’t speak Greek in public with as much ease as before, that he gets a few looks when he does and has even had people being rude to him. He recounted an incident on the border when guards told him to switch off his engine and wait when they saw his Greek license plates. When he spoke in Turkish and explained that he was a Turkish citizen, they let him go, saying, “OK, we thought you were Greek.”
“If something bad does happen, an accident between Greece and Turkey, the first person to be killed will be one of us, a Greek in Istanbul, because that’s what happened [in 1955]. My dad is frightened of his neighbors right now. It wasn’t like that before because he had no reason to be frightened,” Gargaridis added.
‘We keep our voices down’
Professor Triantaphyllou, from Kadir Has University, admitted that he is more careful nowadays and that if he’s with a Greek friend, they “keep their voices down.”
Stefania, 26, however, believes that the situation between Greece and Turkey will not get worse. She also believes that the reactions from Turks are more intense toward Armenians.
Another Greek from Istanbul, who spoke to Kathimerini on condition of anonymity, said that she didn’t want to talk about politics over the telephone because she was afraid of being overheard. “These are such sensitive issues that we’re scared to talk because of [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan; they listen to everything,” said the 63-year-old.
What frightens Millas, the 80-year-old political scientist, is the fact that this is the first time he doesn’t really know what is going on. “I don’t know what’s happening and neither do my Turkish friends, and that is not a good sign,” he said, stressing that the answer lies with a single person. “To understand Turkey, we must understand one man, Tayyip Erdogan, and he doesn’t know what he wants.”
Millas said that it’s the first time Turkey has been so isolated from the rest of the international community, and that apart from the country’s financial woes, Erdogan has also alienated the Kemalist intelligentsia and the Gulenists, whom he describes as the intellectuals of the Islamists. “We are facing a rival, an enemy who has no consistency, who is unpredictable and does not know what he’s doing,” Millas added.
ELIAMEP’s Grigoriadis believes that the Greek government understands the seriousness of the situation and is trying to prevent an escalation, but says that the possibility of an accidental incident cannot be ruled out. The fact that Turkey is being hostile against the West as a whole, and not just Greece, is in the interest of the Greek minority in Istanbul, as it spares it from being targeted, he added.
“Turkey has come to realize that neither does it want nor is it able to join the European Union, so it has chosen a path of autonomy,” explained Professor Triantaphyllou. However, he added, “this autonomy is not easy to accomplish right now, which is why we’re under pressure.”
“This is the tensest the situation has been in 20 years,” according to 40-year-old Manolis Minaoglou. “I hope this ends soon,” he added, stressing that the tension is not between the two peoples.