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Double-headed bogeymen

Dean Kalimniou responds to the recent controversial photograph showing a group of Greek soldiers of Albanian ethnicity linking their outstretched hands to form the double-headed eagle

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08 February 2017

Talented photographer Ari Hatzis once related how, on a trip to Antarctica, he took with him a Greek flag. His plan was to unfurl the flag once on the icy continent's surface and take a photograph of it, in order to immortalise the incongruity of that flag, used to flying over a sunny land, now being located in the world's most extreme icy wastes. No doubt he also wanted to send the message that Greeks crop up in the most unlikely of places. Sadly, in his excitement to follow in the path of the Hypernoteians, he left his flag on the ship and the coveted photograph was never taken.

It is in this vein that I view the latest controversial photograph that has so vexed Greek public opinion within that country, both in Greece and abroad. A group of Greek soldiers, of Albanian ethnicity, allowed themselves to be photographed in their military uniform. All of them have linked their outstretched hands in such a way that, when first viewing the photograph, I thought that the defenders of the fatherland were either very bad at affecting rapper attitudes or performing the children's song Μια ωραία πεταλούδα.

However, I am reliably informed that they were, in fact, forming a representation of the Albanian national symbol, the double-headed eagle, and it is this that has incensed and outraged the Hellenes.

Demands for the Albanian Greeks' court-martial and deportation abound. Apparently, forming the symbol of the double-headed eagle is an act of treason, because it indicates that the soldiers' loyalty is not to the country whose army they serve. Pundits lamenting the state of Greece go further and opine that this type of heinous behaviour proves that multiculturalism in Greece does not work − that Greece must belong to the Greeks and that one cannot become a Greek, they must be born a Greek, simply because these so-called 'Greek' of diverse descent cannot be trusted to have the best interests of Greece at heart, especially when they try to make images of avian endothermic vertebrates with their hands.

It is worthwhile wondering if the level of outrage and bile would have been any different had the soldiers in question been of Serbian, Montenegrin, Russian or Karnatakan (in India) descent, for all those cultures use the double-headed eagle as a national symbol. I would venture to say that it would not be. The real problem here lies not, as the infuriated would have us believe, with soldiers of any race displaying an inability to cleanse themselves, by means of psychosocial colonic irrigation or otherwise, of their ethnic affiliations, thus compromising their ability to serve the Greek state, but specifically with cultures or ethnicities that are perceived to be 'enemies' of Greece and thus, their presence within the Greek army is deemed to be a security risk and they themselves, as potential fifth columns. As such, despite the fact that they may be Greek citizens, their position in the Greek armed forces is considered untenable.

There is ample historical precedent to support such a view. The modern Albanian state was created out of a form of Albanian nationalism that aped and was largely a reaction to Greek nationalism. Its creation compromised the right to self-determination of a large population of native Greeks in the south of that country, sparking the Northern Epirus issue, which is yet to be resolved, as successive Albanian governments pursue largely hostile policies towards the Greek minority. Further adding fuel to the conviction that Greek-trained Albanians represent a fifth column is the knowledge that most of the leaders of the Albanian independence movement were educated in Greece, specifically in Ioannina, and it was these leaders who went on to curtail the ethnic expression of the Greeks of Northern Epirus.

Add to that the persistent irredentist policies of Albanian governments who have claimed as their own territories comprising the entirety of Greek Epirus, the appalling manner in which the collaborationist Albanian government and the Cham Albanians, who were Greek citizens, firstly annexed Greek territory in Thesprotia and then proceeded to commit genocidal acts against its Greek citizens, the appropriation of Greek history in that, according to Albanian historiography, the ancient (and modern) Epirots are ethnic Albanians, and the fact that the Albanian government actively assisted Serbian Albanians to commit treason against their country of citizenship, violently rebelling against their government and creating the state of Kosovo in the process, and one can begin to appreciate the roots of Greek paranoia.

Of course, against these incontrovertible facts one must balance many others − that Albanian speakers have existed within the bounds of the Greek state for at least a millennium, that Albanian-speaking revolutionaries all over Greece fought as hard as any other fighter for the liberation and continued freedom of Greece, and that at least until the middle of the 19th century, serious consideration was given by all interested parties in the creation of a federal Greek-Albanian state. These examples, however, serve only to illumine the sources of fear and suspicion where they exist. They do nothing to allay them.

It is quite plausible that many Albanians living in Greece harbour prejudices against Greeks commensurate to those harboured by Greeks against Albanians, created either by 'history' or by their experiences living within Greece. Some of those prejudices, related to me by them, appear eerily similar to those harboured by first generation Greek migrants against Australians. What the Australian experience should teach us, however, is that petty prejudices of this nature seldom, if ever, translate to anything more serious. But then again, the Australian multicultural paradigm is built on a myth of its own, that of terra nullius, whereby all nations have the right to co-exist here (as long as they acknowledge the ascendancy of the dominant Anglo-Saxon culture) because there were no competing nationalisms to contend with the ruling culture in the first place, Aboriginal cultures being conveniently effaced from the discourse.

The success of the Australian multicultural model thus stems from the ability of the dominant culture to control and define the cultural narratives of the minorities it has permitted to settle within its sovereignty. This is markedly different from the experience of Albania, Greece and other Balkan states where nationalisms compete, collide, contend and overlap, continuously. It is of no benefit to gloss over the fact of this acrimony.

I don't think we will ever know the motivation of the young men who assumed the butterfly position in the now infamous photograph. Were they, as I suspect, merely highlighting the incongruity of men of Albanian background serving in the Greek army, given the known historical background of Greco-Albanian relations? Were they parodying competing nationalisms, or merely expressing sub-cultural solidarity with each other? Were they indeed, as many contend, setting out to insult the Greek state? It is impossible to fathom the inscrutable workings of their young minds. What is certain, however, is that the ensuing hysteria clearly is a product of a deeply-felt insecurity about the changing face of Greece, where recourse to threadbare tropes of collective national self-indulgence no longer assist in any meaningful way to interpret the world around us.

No amount of wishful thinking will bring Greece to the almost ethnically homogenous state it believed itself to be between the end of the Second World War and the downfall of the Communist bloc − itself a temporary aberration in two millennia of continuous population movement. Many of those population movements, such as those of the Avars, Slavs and Goths, caused upheavals that directly threatened the security and existence of the Greek-speaking people. Yet despite the immense human cost of those almost continuous upheavals, eventually, over a long period of time, Greece was able to absorb those populations and make them their own, despite the state of insecurity it found itself in. Such a long view of history makes the hand gestures of little boys pale into insignificance.

Ultimately, we cannot hope to know now whether it will be government policy or social attrition that will determine how ethnic non-Greek peoples will be accommodated as Greek citizens and what form any type of multiculturalism, if any, will take. The social and ethnic realities of Greece do not bear any resemblance to those of western multicultural countries, created largely as a result of colonialism or de-colonisation, and thus any comparison or translation of their ideologies is unhelpful. The pre-existing, though not-consistent practice, of not permitting 'risky' groups such as Thracian Muslim citizens to bear arms with ammunition while serving in the Greek army suggests that the creation of distinct 'classes' of citizens is a possibility, with all the implications for the bilateral relations between Greece and the target's country of origin that these entail. This is especially so considering that over the border in Albania, the Greek minority and its politicians' commitment to the Albanian state is called into question on a daily basis by the media and Albanian politicians, often, most crudely.

Of paramount importance, therefore, is to keep ethnic and social tension from bubbling over, as the unique processes of dealing with the new social realities resolve themselves over time. The best we can do to assist such a process is to exhort all concerned, little Albanian soldiers and Greeks alike, to keep their hands firmly in their pockets, where we can see them.

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