ATHENS – Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Greek political parties – including the major opposition SYRIZA that has a hard-core nuclear of Communist sympathizers – were quick to denounced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but Greece still has a lot of pro-Russian sentiment.
Just as rabid anti-vaxxers said COVID-19 vaccines aren’t safe or effective or are part of an international conspiracy to alter their DNA and control their minds – some saying the pandemic is a hoax – some Greeks disbelief what they see in media reports about the invasion.
In a feature, The Voice of America (VOA) showed Greece has many admirers of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who critics around the world said is committing war crimes and acts against inhumanity, but his zealots disagree.
Mitsotakis made clear where he stood despite the two Orthodox nations having traditionally close ties, as he stood in Parliament and backed European Union economic sanctions against Russia and attacked the war.
“There can be no equal distances. You are either with peace and international law, or against them,” he told lawmakers, after announcing a shipment of medicine and arms for Ukraine.
“We were always on the right side of history, and we are doing the same now,” he said as Putin lovers snickered in derision and wondered what all the fuss was about attacking and killing Ukrainian citizens, or for what purpose.
“Greek public opinion has a Russophile dimension, friendly feelings linked to history, a common culture based on Orthodoxy and for some, mistrust towards the West,” Nikos Marantzidis, Professor of Balkan, Slavic and Oriental Studies at the University of Macedonia told the site about the pro-Russian attitude.
A post-invasion poll in February showed 20 percent of Greeks are “closer” to Russia while 45 percent support Ukraine and only 8 percent said they would boycott Russian products, and a mere 2 percent said they would avoid contact with Russians in Greece.
There’s also nearly 600 Russian investors who were able to buy Greek Golden Visas that came with residency permits and EU passports for themselves and their families, no word whether their properties would now be taken.
While 75 percent of respondents condemned Putin’s attack, which he said wasn’t an invasion or war but a “military operation,” some 60 percent of Greeks were also critical of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, the Kappa Research poll showed.
“There is a minority, not an insignificant one, that continues to view Putin positively,” Marantzidis said. “Whatever happens, a hard core of (about 10-15% of the electorate) will continue to see him as a great leader,” he told Agence France-Presse.
Greeks have fought alongside Russia since the 18th century, with the fellow Orthodox state historically seen as a protector and powerful counterweight to regional rival Turkey, said VOA.
In 1827, Russia joined Britain and France in the decisive naval battle of Navarino that helped Greece gain independence from the Ottoman Empire and as recently as 2015-16, Russia was looked to by the then-ruling Radical Leftist SYRIZA for an economic bailout, but Putin nixed the idea.
THE HERO PUTIN
Marantzidis also noted lingering anger in Greece over almost a decade of austerity and an economic crisis that crippled the lifestyle of many middle-and-lower class Greeks with pay cuts, tax hikes, slashed pensions and firings.
There’s also vivid memories of NATO bombing fellow Orthodox Serbians in 1999 during the Kosovo war where it was said they committed barbaric atrocities, overlooked by their Greek supporters.
Russian tourists are also a big market for Greece and have largely been shut out by EU sanctions barring Russian airlines although Serbia – an EU candidate country – has refused to go along and is flying them in to that country, from where they can get to others.
In 2021, noted VOA, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin was among the guests of honor in Athens’ celebrations of the bicentenary of the Greek 1821 revolution there’s a chill in the air now, with Greece also moving, in line with the sanctions, to seize the assets of Russians.
The Russian Embassy in Athens criticized what it said were “threats and insults” against Russians living in Greece and asked the police to investigate but there weren’t any initial reports of violence or trouble with people or businesses.
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias was among the last heads of diplomacy to see Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov just days before the Feb. 24 invasion but their relationship is on ice now too.
Greece is especially angry over the killing of 10 ethnic Greeks in Ukraine in the now-besieged city of Mariupol that has had an history community of as many as 150,000 of them.
Greece said Russian air strikes killed them but Russia, which has been accused of using disinformation and propaganda and shutting down the country to social media to avoid independent reporting on the invasion, denied it, blaming Ukrainians without any proof.
On Feb. 27, the Russian Embassy in Athens said Greek politicians and media should “come to their senses” and should stop parroting “anti-Russian propaganda,” but got fierce blowback from Greek policitians and society.
The Greek Foreign Ministry said the language was undiplomatic, and government spokesperson Yiannis Economou said it wouldn’t work because, “Nobody can sow dissent among us in any way.”
He added that, “Greeks are not historically naive or forgetful to be swayed by external voices,” trying to counter the Russian attempt to mute critics or persuade those already not convinced the invasion is just.
On the Russian Embassy’s Facebook page, pro-Russian Greeks and Ukraine supporters trade insults, with most shocked over the invasion that has seen 2.6 million made refugees and some 7,000 in Greece, ready to host 30,000.
“Your people resisted and beat the Nazis, now you are walking in their footsteps,” said user Leila Rosaki.
But many remain defiantly pro-Putin. “Putin will be remembered and go down in history as a great and worthy leader,” writes Stelios Markou.
“Bravo, chase them all the way to Germany like before,” applauded Ilias Karavitis.
“Zelenskyy is begging Europe and NATO to get involved, he is trying to start World War III. Pray that he shuts up,” said Nelli Ign.
“May God protect President Putin and all the Russians fighting for freedom,” said Thiresia Sakel.