Friday, May 31, 2019

Greek elections not for the faint of heart!

Sunday, May 26th was election day throughout Greece. Greek citizens 17 and older voted for municipal mayors/councils (DIMOTIKES), local councils (KOINOTIKES), regional governors/councils and European Parliament representatives -- marking 4 separate paper ballots by hand in 2 adjoining rooms (mostly in schools), each with 2 secrecy booths and 2 acrylic ballot boxes. And at the end of the day, the votes were counted by hand.

By joining the campaign of the only woman running for mayor of the Naousa Municipality ("DIMO"), I got to be a poll watcher with a birds eye view. And while the above might sound practically impossible to execute, I am proud to report that voting went amazingly well -- certainly no "hanging chads"or malfunctioning voting machines. Each polling place was run by a designated lawyer; ours was extremely capable and cordial. Everything was clearly done "by the book."

For Naousa mayor, the 5 candidates had each formed a "parataxi" or grouping. Each group had a name like "Koinos Topos" or "Ena Mazi." Pre-voting activities included 2 debates, public speeches, articles in local newspapers, videos on Facebook, and campaigning that extended to the 19 surrounding villages -- not to mention political pressure applied every which way and lots of decisions being made strictly according to personal relationships.

Each mayoral grouping was on a totally separate ballot -- paid for by the campaigns! -- with a list of Council candidates that was at least 40% women. On Election Day, each voter was handed  a white envelope and all 5 ballots (+ a blank sheet or "lefko" for abstentions) and could choose one, automatically giving that mayoral candidate one vote. The voter then made a cross next to up to 4 names on that ballot, sealed it in the envelope and dropped it into the ballot box. Polls closed at 7 pm, and by 10 pm we had the top mayoral results from 71 polling places.

Official Turnout: 64.32% of 33,102 voters registered throughout the Naousa DIMO with 1.27% "lefka" and 3.53% nullified because of the way they were marked. (Voting up to the age of 70 is compulsory, but many elderly voters did turn out. Also exempt were voters who were 200 kilometers from their place of registration. Conversely, many voters traveled even great distances to go back to their places of registration. Citizens are automatically registered and listed by the government when they turn 17. And there appears to be no current penalty for not voting.)

In Greece (as in most European countries and many others) there is no "winner take all"; it's the percentage of votes that counts. No Naousa mayoral candidate got a majority, and only 37 votes separated the two top vote-getters. But the top vote-getter got 12 seats on the City Council by virtue of the percentages, and the top vote-getters on his list won those spots. The breakdown by candidate was 12, 11, 4, 3, and 3 = 33 total seats. And each candidate not becoming mayor automatically gets one of the Council seats his or her group won.

On Sunday, June 2nd, there will be a run-off for Naousa mayor between the incumbent Nikos Koutsoyiannis and upstart Nikolas Karanikolas. Unfortunately, Ilia Iosifidou did not make the cut, even though some say she was the most qualified.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras acknowledged that his SYRIZA party was thoroughly beaten in the European Parliamentary elections by calling for "snap" Greek Parliamentary elections. They will be held on July 7th instead of October as previously scheduled, and during a summer month for the first time. At the moment it looks like SYRIZA will go down to the New Democracy Party largely credited with steering Greece into the financial abyss in the first place circa 2008...

Greek elections are indeed not for the faint of heart!

Monday, April 1, 2019

Archbishop Stylianos Harkianakis buried in his beloved Australia (as promised)

Surreal. That's how it felt to watch the funeral of Archbishop Stylianos Harkianakis in Sydney, Australia, live via YouTube this past Saturday while sitting in Northern Greece. On the one hand I was heartbroken to hear that my forever friend had left us on March 25th -- but on the other uplifted by the fact that he passed away on Greek Independence Day and the feast day of The Annunciation, coincidentally the name of both his church in Sydney and mine in North Miami. I am not a super-religious person, but it was a lot to take in. 

It also brought back many memories of precious time spent with His Eminence when he was Abbot at the Moni Vlatadon in Thessaloniki circa 1970; things were a whole lot simpler then. Next he was unanimously elected Exarch of Mt. Athos, and in 1975 made Archbishop of Australia (Exarch of Oceana). A brilliant theologian/writer and charismatic leader, he was at the time only 40 years old!

Many years later, I couldn't even begin to fully describe or list the Archbishop's many accomplishments and good deeds -- from establishing churches, day schools, St. Andrew's Theological College, a myriad of benevolent organizations, and so much more. In his spare time, he served -- for more than 2 decades! -- as the Orthodox Church's lead in the official "Theological Dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church." A prolific poet, Stylianos Harkianakis earned many accolades for his 40+ published collections, including the Award for Poetry from the Academy of Athens. (Details can be found in the beautiful 16-page memorial booklet published online by the Australian Archdiocese in both Greek and English.)

On a personal note, I will never forget the kind, gregarious man born in Crete who did not take himself very seriously. I remember him pulling his hand away when you tried to respectfully kiss it as prescribed by our Orthodox faith.  He was happy to meet my parents when they visited Thessaloniki in 1972 and to see them again years later when he visited the USA. Nearly 4 years ago, I wrote about that friendship and rekindled correspondence. But I knew then that the Archbishop was is poor health and so was not surprised when his letters became shorter and shorter...

A Facebook post reported that his nephew Nikos Kaliouris -- now a lawyer in Athens and like a son to him -- had been by His Eminence's side night and day for the past nine months. I was very moved to watch Nikos stay close to him  right up until the very end .

In his first days and months in Australia, the newly-minted Archbishop was often moved to tears by the Greek people so far from home. He totally dedicated himself to their needs and well-being...doubling down by saying that when the time came, he would be buried amongst them in Australia.

And so before my very eyes it came to pass on Saturday, March 30, 2019, after nearly 44 years of service in Australia.  Stylianos Harkianakis' wooden casket was lowered into the ground at the Rookwood Cemetery in far-away Sydney (as promised).

May his memory truly be eternal.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Ammochostos "Ghost Town" ridiculously inhumane -- and also forgotten?

I recently returned to Cyprus with a traveling team of 10 Girls School graduates.  We covered a lot of ground in 5 days, but aimed primarily to reconnect with a group of  17 Cypriots who became students at the American Farm School in October of 1974, most as war refugees. Our visit was amazing -- we toured, we laughed, we danced, and were duly appalled at what we saw firsthand in the occupied town of Ammochostos (aka Famagusta).

In case you have forgotten, Turkey invaded Cyprus on July 20, 1974, bombarding primarily the north including Lefkosia and subsequently occupied 36.5% of the third largest island in the Mediterranean. The occupied areas are recognized as an entity only by Turkey. The rest of the world recognizes only The Republic of Cyprus, member of the European Union and a country wrongly partitioned.

(Too many people have either forgotten what transpired in Cyprus or simply have no clue about the politics of the region. A recent email from a friend in California admitted: "I was not aware there were still occupation issues between Greece and Turkey." Cyprus is an independent country populated mostly by people of Greek/Orthodox origin; until 1960 she was ruled by the British and never joined with Greece. The Turkish invasion came in  response to a coup supported by the Greek Junta, while the USA stood idly by...Click on this LINK to my previous Cyprus report for more background information.)

Not only did 200,000 Cypriots become refugees in 1974, but occupied Cyprus was Turkefied in every possible way -- including the illegal transfer of Turkish citizens to occupy lands and homes that belonged to Greek Cypriots. We were privileged to be shown around the occupied areas of Cyprus by refugee friends, a couple that was living peacefully in Ammochostos when word came that Turkey was about to bombard the city. People fled south fearing for their lives, leaving everything behind. 30 years later, Sophocles and his wife Koula were allowed back just to have a look. They knocked on the door of the home they had built and went in to see the possessions they had left behind: glassware, furniture, rugs, etc. - all carefully preserved/used by the  not  particularly friendly Turkish woman living there. How would you feel about that?

In Ammochostos  we suddenly came upon what is called "The Ghost Town" of Varosha -- a sealed-off area which before the Turkish invasion had been a modern, high-end tourist enclave and home to 39,000 Cypriots...and a favorite of Elizabeth Taylor's, no less.  Now it is surrounded by barbed wire fencing decorated  with ominous signs forbidding people to enter or even take photos. Hotels, homes, churches, schools, and  stores  are in a perpetual state of decay -- a monument to both the 1974 invasion and the ongoing unwillingness of Turkey to allow reunification of Cyprus. In 1984, UN Security Council Resolution 550 ordered Turkey to hand Varosha over to the UN for resettlement by the people who were forced out; Turkey did not comply.  Varosha has become nothing more than a bargaining chip for the firmly entrenched Turkish president and provocateur Recep Ertegan.

So what about the ghosts of said "Ghost Town?" They happen to be real people, watching and waiting for justice.  Have they been forgotten, too?

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Year-End Report: Greek glass half full at best

For the record, I have lived part-time in Greece for the past 3 years, or 18 months out of 36 -- mostly in a rented studio apartment in my father's hometown of Naousa, a traditional yet modern town of about 20,000 people in Central Macedonia about one hour northwest of Thessaloniki. From there I have visited a number of Girls School/American Farm School grads in their villages around Northern Greece and beyond. In September I spent 5 days in Cyprus. You have read many of my "Dispatches from Greece"* -- so you won't be surprised that I have mixed feelings about the Greek reality as we gear up for the New Year. Let's call it a glass half full at best.

Naouseans are preparing for the holidays enthusiastically just like you and me. Christmas decorations have filled store windows for weeks. "Kazania" -- the traditional boiling of grape skins to produce stronger than ouzo tsipouro (together with a requisite on-site party) -- continued well into November.  Religious and other holidays are surrounded by name days, concerts, seminars, organizational events (like those hosted by the Pontian or Vlach Associations) and pretty much any excuse for a party. Education may be king, but skiing is now in ascendance after the first big snows at 3-5 Pigadia. Naousa also has admirable programs for the elderly, people with special needs and families who need assistance. And on the weekend of December 7-9, she becomes the "City of Wine" celebrating the renown Xinomavro grape. Opa!

The devastating economic situation, however, has not exactly gone away despite published reports to the contrary.  Unemployment may be down, but that's from 28% to 20.8 %.  And "the brain drain" continues, over half a million people having left the country since 2008. You may not realize that the now extended Russian embargo of EU food products in retaliation for sanctions has taken it serious toll on exports of meat, fish/seafood, vegetables, fruit (especially in Naousa!) and dairy products. 35% of all Greeks live in poverty or close to it...

On August 20th Greece officially exited the bailout program, but at what price? After 3 "Mnimonia" (memoranda of virtual servitude to the European Union) and pursuant demands for privatization, Greece has sold control of the Port of Piraeus (China), 14 airports (Germany), and a railway system (Italy). Greeks -- including me! -- pay the most for electricity in Europe, 42% in taxes and fees. Heating oil is more expensive this year with record snows predicted for year's end, so how will 60K refugees living in "hotspots" fare? Official reports may peg the average monthly income at 1000 euros, but too many people live on about 400 euros due to severely reduced pensions or part-time jobs.  Things are happening, investments are being made, but the reported turnaround has simply not yet trickled down to the average Greek citizen.

Pensions are scheduled to be cut one last time in a few weeks per Greece's contract with the banks. For awhile the Tsipras government said it wasn't going to happen, but the Lenders came back with, "Not so fast, a deal is a deal." May 19th elections are looming on the horizon, so those last bailout bits have become predictable political footballs. The Syriza government -- which has dealt with this mess with a proverbial gun to its head for 4 years -- is down in the polls by double digits to the New Democracy Party which helped create the disaster in the first place. Who should Greeks trust? (And most basically trust no one.)

On the bright side there is a woman running for mayor of Naousa, which has never put a woman in charge. Ilia Iosifidou is a civil engineer and mother, who is smart and energetic in the face of 4 male opponents. For some time I have been asking, "When will Naousa have a woman mayor?" After years of uninspired leadership, Naouseans now have a chance to elect a woman who seems to embody transparency and hard work over grandstanding and unfulfilled promises. 

Will Greece really turns the page in 2019? Greeks have swallowed a lot of very bitter medicine no matter what we think about the historic economic meltdown. They now deserve our very best wishes for a Happy, Healthy, and Prosperous New Year.  Kali hronia, to you and yours, too!

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

What do you really know about Cyprus?

Especially now as the plot surrounding the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi thickens with Turkey and its President Recep Ertogan right in the thick of things. Turkey is always front and center here in Greece.  And certainly no less in the Republic of Cyprus -- an island surrounded by Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt. Cyprus won independence from the British Empire in 1960...only to be partitioned in 1974 when Turkey invaded in response to a coup cultivated by the Greek Junta to overthrow Archbishop/President Markarios and join Cyprus with Greece. The coup failed, 3,000+ Cypriots lost their lives (many more, including children, still unaccounted for), and 200,000 Greek Cypriots became refuges overnight. 

On the plus side, Greece suddenly became a democracy again following the collapse of the Junta and return of Konstantinos Karamanlis -- but not before a rather scary (I lived through it!) General Mobilization of many thousands of military reservists in anticipation of war. Turkey would eventually claim 36.5% of the island and create the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognized today only by Turkey. The two parts are separated by a UN buffer zone, the Green Line, and a Turkish flag flashes brightly over Lefkosia every night from the "katehomena"  (occupied  territory) to add insult to injury. Many thousands of Turkish nationals have been repatriated to occupied Cyprus in defiance of the Geneva Convention. And 44 years later, Greek and Turkish Cypriots are in perpetual reunification  talks constantly complicated by the hostile demands/actions of Recep Ertogan.

By now you might have forgotten about that Green Line and focused more on oil/gas drilling confrontations or a financial crisis (now mostly resolved) caused in part by a sudden influx of big Russian money. But did you know that 3 percent of Cypriot territory is still under foreign military control? And did you notice that during her recent confirmation hearings, the new US Ambassador to Cyprus had trouble acknowledging the events of 1974 as an invasion by Turkish troops? Ouch!

It's no wonder that there is not a whole lot of love lost between Cyprus and the UK because of the military bases, Greece for their role in the ill-fated coup, and the USA for supporting the coup and doing nothing to thwart the Turkish invasion. Thank you Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. 
Last month I revisited that Green Line in Lefkosia (aka Nicosia), which bears little resemblance to what I saw in 1976 when barricades were manned by Greek and Turkish soldiers screaming obscenities at each other while UN Peacekeepers patrolled a tiny strip in between them. I had gone then to visit with the families of 17 boys we took as students at the American Farm School after the Agricultural High School of Morfou had been closed by the invaders. The students adjusted incredibly well at the School. But in Cyprus things were super bleak as many lived in refugee camps or over-crowded homes. From certain vantage points we could see untended crops that had simply dried up. At that point in time there was precious little to look forward to.

Today one can cross back-and-forth through checkpoints along the Green Line. In Lefkosia, show your ID at passport control and go right ahead. The Turkish side is sadly dated; I saw a man in a small, dingy shop actually stuffing a comforter with cotton by hand.  No Burger King or Starbucks there. You can buy cigarettes and pharmaceuticals sans EU taxes and then have a leisurely lunch -- just don't be thinking you can get your property back.

My Farm School graduate hosts Spyros and Nikos introduced me to their wonderful/most hospitable families and drove me all around free Cyprus. We visited a raft of towns, villages and other sites, including the front gate of the British airbase along the beautiful southern coastline of Akrotiri.  Then, of course, a pilgrimage to the final resting place of Archbishop Makarios  at Kykkos Monastery in the Troidos mountains -- about 11 km from mountaintops planted with British radar stations. You can read about it, but not fully feel it until you are suddenly told "You cannot be here" by a British soldier on an idyllic Saturday afternoon.

Most memorably, I was able to visit with half of those students who came to the American Farm School in 1974 at a special "mini reunion" dinner. There were stories, laughter, selfies, great food (love that sheftalia and halloumi!) special music. While several grads do work in agriculture, Andreas is a music teacher and Tony Solomou a well-known singer/composer/activist. Tony was especially touched when I showed him a photo of me and his family circa 1976 (see above), as his mom had died about a year ago. His singular compositions about occupied villages like his own Aghia Marina are both wistful and defiant. Have a listen.

Then think about what you really know about Cyprus.