Recently, a friend from Northern Epirus remarked to me that in the recent European elections, he intended to vote for a Golden Dawn candidate. He also observed that not a few Greeks from Northern Epirus had begun to support that party and, had sought nomination as its candidates. This is gravely disquieting.
The issue of Northern Epirus, a region in southern Albania that has historically been heavily populated by Greeks, has seen itself transform in the twentieth century, from its original nationalistic context, whereby the dominant Greek population was considered unredeemed, its territory fuelling aspirations for annexation or union, depending on one’s perspective, to a humanitarian context, whereby efforts are made to ensure that all inhabitants of Albania, regardless of race or religion, are permitted to fully partake in the life of that country, without restriction or persecution. Albania still has some way to go in affording minorities full human rights. The government’s unwillingness to acknowledge the Greek identity espoused by the resident of Himara, the confiscation of land from Himariotes and its subsequent sale to European consortiums, coupled with vehement and paranoid attacks on the Greek indigenous minority by the press are some of the challenges facing the region.
This notwithstanding – political parties have been formed in the past by the Greek minority, notably ‘Omonoia’, whose leadership was imprisoned after a show trial in the nineties – most Northern Epirote politicians have chosen to represent their compatriots through the mainstream Albanian political parties.
Even the last of the minority parties, the Union for Human Rights, represents the interests of a range of ethnic minorities, not specifically the Greek one, and has formed coalitions with both the left and right of the Albanian political spectrum. Further, though the relationship between the Albanian government and the Orthodox church in Albania has been characterised by friction, as the Pan-Orthodox delegation to the opening of the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Albania’s capital Tirana, attended by the Ecumenical Patriarch, the Patriarchs of Jerusalem, Georgia, Serbia and a host of other European hierarchs indicates, the Northern Epirotes, their political and religious leaders, all believe their best interests lie in integration within an eventually tolerant and ethnically diverse Albania.
Across the border, in Greece, things are somewhat different. Since their arrival en masse in Greece in 1991, after the demise of the communist regime in Albania, Northern Epirotes have been denigrated and considered as second class citizens by a significant section of the mainstream. Oppressed by the communist regime because of their ethnic and religious affiliations and careful to preserve their language and customs at great personal peril to themselves, the Greeks of Northern Epirus expected, upon their arrival in Greece, to be treated as long-suffering brethren. After all, it was the Greeks of Northern Epirus that gifted to the renascent Greek state, most of its infrastructure, including hospitals, the Panathenaic stadium, the Zappeion building, the University and Polytechnic, the Academy, the National Bank of Greece and countless other institutions. Again, it was the Greeks of Northern Epirus that guided, supplied, and fought with the Greek army over the mountains in 1940, in its quest to combat Italian fascism and again, it was the Greeks of Northern Epirus who buried the dead Greek soldiers in secret graves, safeguarding their location for decades, from the Albanian state. In post-Cold-War Greece, none of this seemed to matter and instead, to their horror, Northern Epirotes were generally lumped into the same category as their erstwhile oppressors, the Albanians, and referred to dismissively as “αλλοδαποί”. Decades later, this insensitive conflation of the two identities still grates with many Northern Epirotes, even those now resident in Australia. For example, in a play currently being performed in Australia entitled In-Laws from Tirana, a girl informs her father that she is marrying an Albanian. “So he is a Northern Epirote,” the father responds. This type of endo-ethnic racism has caused untold pain among a people who believe that Greece has never truly accepted them and has, in fact, abandoned them.
The symptoms of such a belief are omnipresent throughout Greece, within the Northern Epirote community. Many young Northern Epirotes are ashamed of their origins and try to hide them. Instead they focus on assimilating within mainstream Greek culture, abandoning their own distinctive accent and traditions. Others, in increasing numbers, are drawn to extreme political viewpoints such as those held by Golden Dawn.
“Look at it this way,” my friend responded when I ventured to suggest that by Northern Epirotes supporting the extremist ravings of Golden Dawn, they’re doing more harm to their cause than good, fuelling Albanian nationalist paranoia, thus making the lives of their compatriots resident in Albania difficult: “In Greece, no political party ever speaks about Northern Epirus. Instead, over the years they have tried to fragment the political movements of the Northern Epirotes and turn them into their own puppets. At least Golden Dawn is on our side.”
Golden Dawn’s leader has repeatedly called for the liberation of Northern Epirus. Last year, led by the party’s Member of Parliament Christos Pappas and together with MPs Christos Rigas and Konstantinos Barbarousis, Golden Dawn supporters from Epirus blocked the border crossing at Kakavia. At that time, Christos Pappas stated: “We came to these artificial borders in order to demonstrate our struggle for the liberation of Northern Epirus. Albania is scared of Golden Dawn because it is the only party that includes in its program the struggle for the Greeks of Northern Epirus.”
There seems to be a tacit belief in Greece, since the time of Andreas Papandreou, in the power of the spoken word. That is, if a political party promises something, it is bound to happen and therefore that party should be supported. Public policy analysis appears to be a completely alien concept. When I asked my friend how he believed that Golden Dawn could fulfill its promise of liberating Northern Epirus, he shrugged his shoulders: “I have no idea. But at least they are talking about it.” Try as I might, I could not make him see that by supporting a party on the basis of a policy that could not in any way be effected, he was in fact being duped. In this, he, like his peers, are a far cry from the brave Northern Epirotes in Albania who, rather than trust the spoken word of Enver Hoxha, with its protestations of friendship and united class struggle, opposed his nationalistic style of communism and paid a high price for retaining their ethnic integrity. Instead, they seem to have assimilated modern Greek political immaturity, that views politics extremely superficially and thus refuses to take politicians to account. Until such time as the political culture on Greece is reformed, it is axiomatic that disingenuous parties will exist to feed off the resentment and isolation of the disaffected. In the context of the campaign for human rights in Northern Epirus and dispelling suspicions between peoples, this could have disastrous consequences indeed.
On the domestic front, the final word goes to Northern Epirote Olympian and Member of Parliament Pyrrhos Dimas who recently intervened to prevent Golden Dawn MP Nikos Mikhos from threatening independent MP, Petros Tatsopoulos, in the chamber: “I entered Parliament so that no Greek can be afraid. I grew up under a regime where fear was cultivated systematically. I learnt to confront this and not hide from it. Democracy is not subjective and patriotism is not something that can be quantified.” Dimas’ deluded Golden Dawn-fawning compatriots would do well to listen.
*Dean Kalimniou is a Melbourne solicitor and freelance journalist.