The recent visit by Greek Premier Alexis Tsipras to New York to attend the United Nations’ annual General Assembly created some turmoil in the Greek-American community over the decision of some community officials to attend an official event in the former’s honor. Ordinarily, this kind of event is a no-brainer. It’s typical protocol and a show of hospitality for a political leader representing the Hellenic homeland. However, the current situation is anything but ordinary.
The current government’s handling of the negotiations with Greece’s orthonymically challenged northern neighbor has been nothing short of infuriating. A great majority of the Greek population is opposed to the agreement tentatively brokered between the current governments of Athens and Skopje. The results of last month’s referendum held in Skopje, with a paltry turnout that registered less than 37 percent – including marked demographic voting delineations – suggests that FYROM’s Slavic majority feels the same way, rendering the agreement unenforceable.
Sadly, the people of FYROM at least had the chance to express their will through a referendum, while their parties were kept fully apprised of the negotiation process. The same cannot be said of the situation in Greece, where the government has opposed calls for a referendum – even from within its ruling coalition – and has been criticized by other parties for the secrecy with which its foreign minister conducted the talks.
To make matters worse, the manner in which Hellas’ current government chose to handle the protests represents a threat to freedom of expression, and, ultimately the nation’s democratic polity. The protests organized throughout Greece – and in the Diaspora – by concerned citizens were colossal in size. Since last January, people of all ages gathered in the streets and squares of cities to uphold the undeniable and historical truth that Macedonia is Greece. Their protests were peaceful and their request was just. In exercising their civic duty, they also began to pose a major threat to the current government, so tangibly manifesting the popular disapproval of the deal brokered between Athens and Skopje at the cost of historical truth.
The Tsipras Administration chose to deal with these protests in a very dishonorable way. Lacking the arguments to refute popular sentiment through logical persuasion (namely, because there aren’t that many to defend such a lousy deal), it chose to handle the rising tide of protest threatening to permanently sink its hopes of retaining power through two highly undemocratic methods: 1) character assassination and 2) violent suppression.
On the day of that the name agreement was signed (but fortunately not yet ratified) by the nations’ two foreign ministers at Lake Prespes, the Greek government ordered riot police to violently disburse the rally in Pisoderi, Florina through the use of tear gas. Sixteen people were hospitalized with respiratory problems as a result. Women and children were also present at this rally, but this fact did not dissuade the authorities. Some citizens even reported sustaining physical injuries at the hands of riot police. The same sad story was repeated in September at a large-scale protest organized on the day that the Pemier was due in Thessaloniki to make his annual address at the Thessaloniki International Fair. Eyewitnesses have attested to the use of additional chemicals causing a painful burning sensation to the skin, together with the tear gas – once again, in the presence of women, children, and the elderly.
Meanwhile, opponents of the Prespes Agreement relinquishing naming rights to Skopje have been widely dubbed as “fascists” or “rightwing extremists” by government officials, ruling party cadres, and pro-government media. The ideological bullying and intimidation is encompassing people of all ages and social standing, and has not even spared historic figures from the left, including world-famous composer Mikis Theodorakis.
In the wake of this undemocratic display, the prime minister’s arrival in New York could not help but spark controversy. Through an official resolution, the Pan-Macedonian Association of USA labeled him a persona non grata. Rumors of a mass protest forced a last-minute change in the prime minister’s itinerary, with the venue for the event planned in his honor being changed to the Millennium Hilton, located at UN Plaza. Conveniently, protests there are forbidden because of the proximity to the UN. There may not have been tear gas and riot police involved, but the current Premier once again demonstrated his disdain for popular opinion opposing his agenda.
Despite all this, some elected officials from the community chose to attend the event, including, among others, the presidents of the Hellenic Societies of Greater New York and the Federation of Hellenic-American Educators. Their decision to attend was sharply criticized by some of their colleagues in the organized community, including officials from the Pan-Macedonian Association and members of the media.
It remains unclear whether these individuals attended in their official capacity or privately, but this point is practically moot, because it is obvious how their private and public personas could easily be misconstrued. It also remains unclear what goals they hoped to achieve through their attendance. Were they purely self-serving, limited to the vanity of a selfie with a prime minister whose popularity is rapidly dwindling, or did they hope to sensitize him to some of the concerns and issues facing the Greek-American community?
No one has yet to give an accounting, and therein lies the crux of the problem. Dialogue and the democratic process seem to be limited to election day – at best – both in Greece and the Diaspora. At the very least, the prime minister’s visit showed that a unified front does not exist among Greek-American leaders and that the apparatus for the forging of such a front is not in place. As a community, it sometimes seems that our egos overshadow our collective decisions and exhibition of solidarity.
The adoption of a unified position that could readily and unequivocally be communicated to government officials both symbolically and expressly isn’t about partisan politics. It’s about finding our collective voice and using it to participate in the affairs of Hellenism – affairs that directly concern our future.
Today it was Macedonia. Tomorrow it will be voting rights, etc. If we don’t want to permanently be labeled as easy marks who will agree to anything for a selfie and a pat on the back, we’d better start rethinking our own collective decision-making processes.
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