The fall of the Berlin wall in November of 1989 has a major impact on Greece. Almost overnight hundreds of thousands of ethnic Greek minorities are able to return to a mother country that most of them have never seen.
There are half a million Pontian Greeks in the Soviet Union who after falling out of favor in Stalinist Russia had been sent from the
hospitable shores of the Black Sea to the wastelands of the Central Asian republics. Communists who had left Greece after the civil war were also scattered around former iron curtain countries. Their numbers were large enough to be minority populations of the new independent nations, but the awakening nationalism of these nations, not to mention wars and revolts, make Greece seem like the best place to be for many. The biggest impact though are the ethnic-Greeks from Albania, as well as the non-Greek Albanians
who can buy visas for $400 a pop from corrupt Greek consular officials who allegedly sell several hundred a day. Not that they need a visa to get across a border that is now like a sieve. Though blamed for a rise in crime, the new immigrants make up the most important part of the work force, doing the jobs the Greeks no longer want to do, building roads and stone walls (which they are experts at), farm and construction laborers, restaurants and factories. Though Greeks complain about the Albanian problem, the
legal immigrants contribute a higher portion of their salary to social security than the Greeks do while demanding fewer services. The illegal immigrants work at lower wages and enable some businesses to prosper that might not exist were they do to things by the book. Of course thrown into the mix are those Albanians, and ethnic Greeks who don't fit in and without a family to help them get on their feet drift into the world of narcotics and crime mostly in the large cities. On the islands and in the villages
the Albanians take the place of those who have left for greener pastures. On the island of Kea for example, half the population is Albanian, building summer houses for Athenians, doing farm work and house repairs, buying homes of their own and raising families.
In 1992 the Olympic committee has their final round in the voting that will decide where the 1996 Olympics will be held. Athens is the sentimental favorite and expected to win since after all, it will be the 100th anniversary of the first modern Olympics. In Athens everyone expects their city to be named and fireworks are ready to be set off for the inevitable celebration. But in a shocking upset Atlanta comes from behind to win the vote with a public relations barrage
a big pile of money. This led Greek Minister of Culture Melina Mercouri to exclaim that "Coca-cola had won over the Parthenon". And the fireworks in Athens? They shot them off anyway. But few people really enjoyed them. The Athens 96 T-shirts became instant collectors items.
The Kostas Simitis Era begins with an incident with Turkey known as Imia affair, named for a small islet between the two countries. On January 30th, 1996 a group of Turkish 'journalists' tear down
the Greek flag that had been placed
on the small island by the mayor of Kalymnos, and replace it with the Turkish flag. They then wait around to film the results and perhaps the coming war. They are not disappointed. The two countries nearly go to war and finally after some saber-rattling and serious diplomacy the crisis is averted. In truth it is a tricky situation because though according to the International Law of the Sea Treaty, Greece's territorial waters extend 12 miles, some
these small islands are only a few miles off the coast of Turkey. Despite the incident, relations with Turkey continue to improve with Greece's entry into the European Union and Turkey's desire to do the same. When both countries are hit by earthquakes, with the one in Turkey especially devastating, it is an opportunity to show what good neighbors are for as Turkish and Greek rescue teams work side by side to free victims from the rubble. One minor setback in Greek-Turkish relations occurs is the strange affair
involving Kurdish leader Obdullah Ocalan of the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party). After the government had declares it is not willing to offer him asylum he is secretly flown into Greece anyway, given a Cypriot passport and just as secretly shipped out. He surfaces at the Greek embassy in Nairobi. When he is asked to leave and told that he will be taken by plane to Amsterdam he is abducted by the Turkish secret police and flown back to Turkey for trial. The whole affair is an embarrassment for the Greek government
and three ministers are forced to resign including outspoken and confrontational Foreign Minister Theodoros Pangalos. On the positive side this opens the door for George Papandreau to take over his post and begins an era of positive diplomacy that improves Greece's relations with just about everyone, including Turkey and the
In 1999 The US and its NATO allies begin the bombing of Serbia. The Greek people are opposed and there are regular demonstrations but the Greek government stands in solidarity with its fellowNATO members. On June 10th theUS Marines land on the beach in Litohoro to the shock of bathers. 2,200 U.S. Marines bound for Macedonia as potential Kosovo peacekeepers come ashore in giant hovercraft troop transports while Greek riot police stand by to protect them from the protestors who have gathered. The troops had been stuck on U.S. Navy ships off the coast ofThessaloniki , held up by Greek reluctance to let them cross itsterritory while the bombing of Yugoslavia continued.In an effort to confuse the US soldiers protestors remove road signs sending jeeps and armored vehicles on meandering journeys through the back streets of Thessaloniki and down endless country roads. The Greeks feel an historical and religious affinity with their Orthodox Serb neighbors and the war is immensely unpopular.
A visit by President Clinton coincides with the usual massive demonstrations on November 17th commemorating the student rebellion of 1973. The fact that the white house did not realize that this could be a poor time to visit makes one question the intelligence of the administration or the intelligence of their intelligence. The annual November 17th march has beengoingon since the first anniversary of the student uprising at the Polytechnic during the dictatorship, when more than one million people marched to the US embassy. Schedules are adjusted by both the White House and the demonstrators to 'accommodate' each other. A few days before Clinton's visit, the statue of Harry S Truman which has once again been blown up, is placed back on its pedestal for the President to see. Simitis is under pressure by the US to ban the march to the embassy, and at thesame time realizes that in doing so he will lose support of the young Greeks of the left should he do so. He bans the march which is then broken up by riot police with massive amounts of tear-gas and other chemical agents courtesy of NATO. However in the course of Clinton's visit he takes a major step in reconciliation between Greece and the US by apologizing for his government's support of the dictatorship.
"The United States allowed its interests in prosecuting the Cold War to prevail over its interests I should say, its obligation to support democracy, which was, after all, the cause for which we fought the Cold War. It is important that we acknowledge that."
George Papandreou, Greece's popular foreign minister, states that President Clinton's apparent apology is likely to help overcome three decades of anti- American resentment and the violent protests during his visit. "That turns a page. It was certainly a gesture toward history in terms of our Greek-American relations."It is the first time that a U.S.president has made such a conciliatory remark. Clinton also weighs in on the Elgin Marbles, taken from the Acropolis during Ottoman rule by Lord Elgin and now in the British Museum. 'If it would be me, I would give them back immediately." he tells Greek Minister of Culture, Elisavet Papazoi, who accompaniedthe president as he visits the Acropolis in Athenswith his daughter Chelsea. As for the demonstrations an unnamed U.S. official says the president "is certainly not taking this personally." The visit is cut short by two days and Clinton spends just 22 hours in Greece. Read President Clinton's Speech.
In 1999 the Athens Stock Exchange looks like a good bet. Greeks who had never even thought about putting money into stocks are investing. Money that has been hidden in mattresses or buried in the back yard is put into stocks.Amateur investors who have no understandingof the market are making money and telling their friends and family who also invest. People invest their life savings. Shepherds sell their sheep and buy stocks. The market is at 6000 and climbing. Greek businesses like the ferryboat company Minoan Lines have so much money they don't know what to do with it. Minoan buys out every ferry company it can in the Aegean. Suddenly the whole bubble bursts and just like that all the money is gone. A handful of people get out early but almost everybody has eitherlost everything or knows someone who has. Fresh in people's minds is the pyramid scheme which had collapsed what was left of Albania's economy a few years before and caused massive riots in that country. But this seems to be more of a case of collective greed rather than a scheme to rob everyone. The greed of those who pulled their money and got out making billions and the greed of those seduced by the prospect of easy money. In another important money issue on 19 June 2000,the EU, having assessed that Greece fulfils the requirements of the Maastricht Treaty, approves its accession to the euro area as a twelfth member. On January 1st 2001, the drachma is replaced by the Euro and street venders selling calculators became instant millionaires as Greeks struggles with the conversion. Gradually the drachmas all are taken out of circulation though the price of real-estate continues to be shown in drachma for many years. Perhaps the biggest winners in the conversion are the street musiciansand beggars who instead of being handed ten drachma coins (about 3.3 US cents) are getting half a euro. The psychological effect of the euro is another story. Suddenly things seem more expensive, perhaps because with drachmas being spent by the thousands even for just a meal, one stops paying attention.
This period also sees the rise in popularity of two more members of Greece's ruling families. GeorgePapandreou from St Paul Minnesota, son of Andreas, becomes a very popular and successful foreign minister and by the end of 2003 the leader of PASOK. Papandreou is progressive, intelligent and something of a visionary in a society where those in power like to keep things as they are. He is a leader of the International Olympic Truce Foundation to promote the Olympic Ideals, to serve peace, friendship and international understanding and touphold the observance of the OlympicTruce, calling for all hostilities to cease during the Olympic Games and beyond, and mobilizing the youth of the world in the cause of peace. In two separate tenures as Minister of Education, he laid the foundations for a number of new institutions and took measures to reform and improve the educational system. He showed particular sensitivity to education for minority groups creating a system of Intercultural Education to address the needs of students with special cultural needs, such as the students of minorityschools in Thrace, the Roma community, and immigrants. As Foreign Minister he worked at improving relations between Greece and its neighbours, and particularly with Turkey. For his contribution to Greek-Turkish relations he was named Diplomat of the Year 2003 by the European Voice newspaper. At the 4th World Conference on the Future of the Internet, George Papandreou was voted as one of the 25 people who have changed the world through the Internet. He is exactly the right kind of leader Greece needs at thispoint in history.
Then again you might say the same of Costa Karamanlis (in photo with American friend) the nephew of his famousuncle Constantine Karamanlis, who takes over the leadership of ND. Karamanlis studied law and economics in Athens. He graduated from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Boston with a Masters degree in Political and Financial Science and a PhD in Diplomatic History. He also studied economics at Deree, in Agia Paraskevi (my alma matter). He was president of the peace organisation KIPAEA and the Greek Center for the Promotion of European Unification. Notverywell known, besides having a name that is familiar to every Greek, he rises through the party ranks through the 1980s and emerges as the last-minute surprise winner during a leadership challenge following ND's 1996 election defeat. He is the country's youngest political party leader in living memory and in 2004 becomes the youngest Prime Minister in history at 48. In a country where Prime Ministers and Presidents can be well into their seventies and eighties before taking power, Karamanlis and Papandreou havefreshideas and appear to rise above the corruption and power-mongering that has been the world of Greek politics. In Karamanlis' own words "Our goal is to serve the collective interest responsibly with diligence and effectiveness....we are servants of our fellow citizens, not their rulers....anyone who has not fully comprehended this is foreign to our mission."
In September of 2000 the Greek ferry Express Samina owned by Minoan Flying Dolphins hits a rock near the entrance to the port of Paros and sinks in 45 minutes, making news all over the world and bringing attentionto Greece's aging ferry fleet.Though fishermen on the island brave rough seas in the darkness to rescue passengers 82 people drown. During the investigation the manager of the ferry company commits suicide by jumping from his office window. As compensation claims pour in, the fortunes of Minoan Flying Dolphin dwindle putting the company at risk and unable to update the older boats of their fleet. This creates a problem for the smaller less popular islands when their ferry service gets cut because of a lack of boats and the reluctanceof ferry companies to waste their new boats on non-lucrative routes. Greece's membership in the EU also opened the door for foreign companies to come in and compete in the ferry business though by 2005 this has still not happened. However it did hasten in the new fleet of modern high-speed ferries like the Aeolos Express owned by NEL and severalother boats that are impressive in their speed and comfort.
There have been 22 known murders by the November 17th Terrorist Organization, the 23rd comes on June 8th 2000, the assassination of British DefenseAttache Richard Saunders. November 17th is finally caught in the summer of 2002, just in time to help people breathe easier about the coming Olympics. The ease in which the organization unraveled once the first member was caught (he was injured in an explosion on his way to plant a bomb in the Hellas Flying Dolphin office) made people wonder how they could have gotten away for so many years. When the police raid a members apartment they find a number of incriminating pieces of evidence, foremost among them aNovember 17th flag. One has to wonder why a terrorist organization that had remained secret for a quarter of a century would even need a flag and why they would keep one around for someone to find? (Did they have little parades around the apartment once a year?) Obviously these were not the smartest guys in Greece and their elusiveness can only be attributed to luck, or a lack of effort by authorities until the time that it really mattered (before the Olympics). But their capture makes everyone rest a littleeasier and though to some conspiracy-minded Greeks it appears that a deal has been made to appease Americans fears, just putting the issue of November 17th to rest makes the Olympics an easier sell if anyone wants to take the responsibility of doing the work to sell it. In the year leading up to the summer of 2004 there are few if any advertisements on American TV or the print media. It is almost like having a party but not sending out invitations because you are not sure it will be a good one. But with November17 behind bars and a billion and a half dollars spent on security, it should be a safe one.
In the summer of 2004 Greece finally hosts the summer Olympics in Athens. As August approaches the world is holding its collective breath and wondering if the Greekscan actually pull it off with constructionprojects months behind schedule and costs rising astronomically. Complicating matters, at least in the eyes of the International Olympic Committee is a change in government when Constantine Karamanlis and New Democracy defeats George Papandreou the new leader of PASOK. The American and international media make a point of reporting anything negative having to do with the Olympics with a number of editorialists questioning Greece's ability and maturity. But as the summer wears on and one major project after anotheris completed many are forced to concede that the Olympics may actually happen. When Greece stuns the world of soccer by winning the Euro-cup people are suddenly believers in miracles. For three weeks the entire country had watched in amazement as the Greek National Football team knocks off one talented opponent after another. After each victory celebration the feeling is that this is great and lets enjoy it while it lasts because next we have to play the French, or the Czechs or.... but by the time it had narroweddown to Greece and host Portugal, who had already lost to the Greeks in what was probably the biggest opening game upset in history, everyone in the country knew that when the game ended Greece would be Euro-champions. The party in Athens featured several million celebrating Greeks and several thousand tourists who came along for the wild ride. Even the cops were dancing in the streets. What a warm-up for the Olympics.
On the day of the opening ceremony the spectators who had chosen despite the negative press to come to Athens, witness the most spectacular opening ceremony in the history of the Olympicsand one of the most entertaining gamesever, both in the venues and in the sparkling streets of Athens where it seemed every square and plaza had something going on. The Olympic visitors stay in newly renovated hotels, ride on the new metro system and the new coastal tram, walk on miles and miles of newly pedestrian-ized streets that have turned roads into parks. They drive on miles of new highways around the city and even travel on the new suburban railway from the airport into the city. Greece's stunning runtothe European soccer championship and the overwhelming success of the Athens Olympics finish #1 and #2 in an Associated Press poll of the top sports stories of the year. In a CNN poll the Athens 2004 Olympics are voted the best ever.
One of the biggest stories of the Olympics is the Greek baseball team. Made up of Greek-American players in the minor leagues with a handful of former major leagues, the team's fortunes are dealt a crippling blow right off the bat when their coach Rob Derksen who had put the team together, dies of a heart attack in New York a month before the games. The team gains the appreciation of the Greek fans and all their games are sold out. They don't fare too well, with a lack of pitching, but in their second game they have the Cuban team on the ropes in the last inning before falling with the tie-ing and winning runs on base. It takes awhile but they finally win their last game against the Italians. By then the Greek fans understand the game and continue coming to the stadium and throwing their allegiance to the Cubans, who beat the Australians in the finals. Anyone sitting in the stands that night with the sun setting on Mount Hymettos and the Patriot missiles in right field had to be hoping that baseball had come to Greece to stay.
Unfortunately those in power don't take advantage of the publicity the Olympics will give them, to promote not only the Athens games themselves but Greece as a tourist destination in the years which follow the games. Rather than flood American television with positive images of Greece to counteract the reports of bombs and construction delays, the Greek National Tourist Organization and the Athens Olympic Committee decide to sit back and let CNN do their work for them. Unfortunately until a week or so before the Olympics almost all the news is bad, which is of course the nature of the news-media. When suddenly people have second thoughts about skipping these Olympics and decide to come, it is too late. So while the Olympics are a success, the empty seats put an asterisk on the word successful. There are no terrorist attacks and everybody there had a great time, but it was a missed opportunity and the total bill for the games is 13 billion euros and counting. The Olympics compelled the government to make changes to the infrastructure that needed to be made and it is doubtful all of them would have been done without the Olympics. When the whole world is watching you then you follow through on your responsibilities. On the other hand there were lost opportunities and lost money from construction delays, and corruption. One hopes that an Olympic hangover does not take too much of a toll on the economy of the country.
(For more on the Olympics see www.greecetravel.com/2004olympics)
The popular music of Greece in the nineties and into the next century, as in the USA, can be summed up in the old southern proverb "You can put lipstick on a pig and dress it up. But it is still a pig." A lack of talent and creativity is disguised with incredible studio production, spectacular live shows, and media hype. Good looks and sexy bodies are as important as having a good voice or decent songs, maybe more so. But just as in America, the young people in Greece love pork. 'Artists' of limited musical ability become superstars and role models imitating western style and fashion. Still there are a handful of talented singers and composers who plug on, maintaining a base of popularity that enable them to continue performing and selling CDs to people who recognize and enjoy good music.
The most artistically successful are those who realize that there is a goldmine of material in traditional and popular Geek music of the last century who give these songs new life by combining them with the technical abilities of contemporary producers and modern studio magic. George Dalaras and Babis Tsertos, though not composers are probably the most well known of these artists. Dalaras with worldwide appeal and Tsertos mostly in Greece. Both are able to recognize quality songs, some that had been lost in the past, others that are known by every Greek, and create a recognizable musical identity not just for Greeks but for the world to hear. From the sixties to the present Dalaras has released perhaps 100 albums in a variety of musical styles from Byzantine to Theodorakis and everything in between. He performs tribute concerts playing the songs of Tsitsanis, Bambakaris, Hadzidakis and playing with such musicians as Al Dimeola and the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, even turning up onstage at a Jethro Tull concert. Tsertos plays the small clubs and does some summer concerts, and puts out a half dozen or so excellent albums of traditional, rembetika and laika music with impeccable playing, singing and production. What these artists have discovered is that the highest form of music is the song and that the pain of unrequited love, the misery of exile, or the joys of wine and dance that someone sang 50 or 100 years ago can affect us emotionally today. Other artists who have embraced the traditional are Glykeria, Haris Alexiou and an Irishman named Ross Daly who moves to Crete and almost single-handedly resurrects traditional Cretan music, putting out dozens of albums and becoming one of the most respected 'Greek' musicians. The closing ceremonies at the Olympics ends with a celebration of Greek song put together by Dionysis Savopoulos and features some of Greece's biggest stars.
Unfortunately while these people are introducing the world to Greek music, the guardians of that music, the Greek equivalent of ASCAP and BMI have fanned out all over the country charging every taverna, coffee-shop, cafeneon and ouzerie royalties for playing Greek music on tape, CD or even on the radio. Overnight, music seems to disappear from the smaller hangouts, to be replaced by the television which has embraced the worst aspects of American TV, namely game shows, soap operas, reality shows and talking heads arguing about every aspect of Greek society. It's a potentially lethal anti-culture cocktail as televisions seem to replace conversation and fishermen spend their day watching the Bold and the Beautiful. Those ouzeries and cafes that can afford it continue to carry the torch as is evident in an evening walk through the streets of Psiri, the new nighttime capital of Athens, with live or recorded music coming from every door. At the same time Greece's musical heroes are being joined by international stars and other respected musicians to concert venues like the outdoor theater on top of Mount Lykavettos and clubs such as The Half Note Jazz Club, Rodon, House of Art, Gagarin 205 and the An Club. A large number of galleries and museums are added to the cultural mix and even the ancient theater of Herod Atticus below the Acropolis, known more for performances by international ballets and orchestras, has opened the doors to rock and roll with a performance by Jethro Tull in the summer of 2003. With faster and more comfortable ferries from Italy combined with inexpensive flights Athens is truly becoming a European city and the cultural mecca of the Eastern Mediterranean. By 2004 there are dozens of television channels (up from 2 in the sixties) and there are so many FM radio stations that there is no more band-width available.
The period of rule by New Democracy, led by Costa Karamanlis is comparable to the George W Bush years in the United States with jobs and positions awarded to loyalists, family and friends instead of people with ability and experience. Several major scandals threaten to topple the government but each one is quashed by parliamentary maneuvering and
cover-ups and few perpetrators (if any) are punished. In the meantime the frustration of the Greek people grows and the smaller parties begin to take away votes from the two major parties. The Sieman's scandal features millions of euros in bribes over telecommunication contracts. The Vatopedi Monastery Scandal features a land trade, valuable property owned by the government for useless land owned by a wealthy monastery on Mount Athos that again cost the Greek people millions. Other scandals include a shipping
company bribing a minister for subsidized ferry routes, over-paying for stocks and bonds for pension funds, broken agreements with workers, and a million other things. While ND and PASOK hurl insults at each other the country is falling apart. In August of 2007 fires rage out of control all over Greece and once again bring the country international recognition of the wrong kind. Some of Greece's most beautiful forests are burned to cinders. In the Peloponessos fires burn all the way to Ancient Olympia,
threatening the ruins themselves and scorch an area of south western Greece that coincidentally had been targeted for tourist development. An under-manned, under-equipped and under-organized firefighting service joins with locals to save trees and property but entire villages are consumed and at least 75 people die. Two years later the government shows it has learned nothing and done nothing when miles of forests just north of Athens burn for days, destroying the most beautiful land in Attika and
reaching all the way to the suburbs of Nea Pendelis.
But it is in December of 2008 when the New Democracy government shows how powerless it is when a policeman in the student neighborhood of Exarchia shoots a 15 year old boy which sets off a wave of violence as the clubs, which were full on Saturday night, empty and young people burn and smash
any building that houses a business that even appears to be part of the global conspiracy. The following night they gather in Syntagma where they burn the Christmas tree in the square and several buildings nearby before marching down Fileninon to Syngrou where they smash windows of banks, travel agencies and small car rental companies for the TV cameras. The police stand by and watch, hoping to contain the violence and not instigate more. But the people of Athens see it differently, that the government
is not able to protect them. Some people take advantage of the violence to loot, others to settle scores with their neighbors and competitors and use the violence to serve their own purposes. Oddly, the malls which have been slow in the pre-Christmas buildup are suddenly full of people, which make many Athenians think the whole thing was planned to scare people out of shopping downtown. A month later when a group of young people run through the upscale shopping streets of Kolonaki smashing cars and
the windows of expensive shops the more conspiracy-minded people of Athens(most people) see this as further evidence that a hidden hand controls the so-called anarchists. The student who was killed is elevated to martyrdom by some of the media and the events are used by political parties to further their objectives, some to the point of encouraging the violence. But in the end the 'riots' peter out and life in Athens goes back to normal meaning daily demonstrations and occasional skirmishes between
anarchists and the police instead of battles, and the smashing of ATM machines instead of the burning of banks. (You can read about the events of December at www.greecetravel.com/matt-blog and going to the December 2008 section)
On the positive side the worldwide economic recession does not seem to have as big an effect on Greece as people feared. At first the talking heads in the media are whipping people into near hysteria about the suffering that is about to befall the country. Tavernas are empty as people stay home to save their money for an uncertain future. But as summer approaches and things still seem kind of normal people start going out again and when a feared collapse of tourism only brings
a decline between 10 and 20% many people believe that disaster has been averted and it is life as usual. Still a growing illegal immigrant problem and the lawlessness in certain areas of Athens bring the police out of their December doldrums as they begin to patrol the city in groups on foot and on small motorcycles, asking for identification and if not solving crime, at least deterring it. Though violent crime seems to be confined to the underworld with people being shot for gambling debts or in turf
wars, there is a spike in petty crime as professional and amateur pickpockets use the metro and crowds in public squares to ply their trade, often targeting tourists. Other high-tech criminals install scanners and cameras on ATM machines scattered around Athens which enable them to get credit card and pin numbers. But what makes big news in the world of crime is when armed robber and kidnapper Vassilis Paleokostas and his Albanian sidekick Alket Rizai who were in Athens Korydalos prison for their helicopter
escape from the same prison in 2006, do it again in February of 2009. The helicopter is found a few hours later. Paleokostas and Rizai are not.
In September of 2009 Karamanlis, with the popularity of his party falling and his ability to govern being question by everyone, calls for snap elections in the hopes of either stealing a victory or believing that a PASOK victory would be so close that they would be unable to form a government. The plan backfires when George Papandreou wins in a landslide and within days has promised to protect all Greece's forests and close them off from developers, starts a peace initiative
for Cyprus, promises to end the corruption, nepotism and the scandals that have been a part of every Greek government, and asks his ministers to each trade in their gas-guzzling armored Mercedes for Toyota Prius Hybrid.