ΑΤΗΕΝS – It may seem odd in a country known for sun, sea and beaches, but Kastoria in northern Greece has for generations been home to a major fur industry, now at risk because of European Union sanctions against Russia for the invasion of Ukraine.
In a feature, the Reuters news agency reported the dire effect on the fur businesses in a city on Lake Orestiada, west of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city in Macedonia, where the firms have been a mainstay.
Antonis Disios said he fears he will lose a fur business that has operated for decades, with wealthy Russians who are major buyers now locked out by the sanctions that exempt Russian oil and gas because Greece and the EU need it.
He had to close the business in March when the sanctions went into effect, lay off 23 workers and hope it would be able to open again because there is no domestic market in Greece for the furs.
There are hundreds of fur workshops there and they’re all in the same position of waiting and trying to hang on while essentially put of business, the New Democracy government providing some subsidies for now.
“This city is going through its worst,” Disios said, standing in his silent showroom. “We’re in despair,” he told the news agency, showing a coat made from Russian sable that sells for 30,000 euros ($30,722) because it’s one of the most expensive furs in the world and there were plenty of buyers.
“They must set us free. Or they can come take them and sell them themselves,” Disios said, pleading for the sanctions to be lifted the same way the EU has made concessions over Russian energy.
Kastoria is the center of a centuries-old fur industry in Greece, the last in the EU where fur farming is still allowed despite unrelenting pressure from animal rights group domestically and abroad who hope the sanctions will bring the businesses’ death knell.
What could also bring the end is that major fashion houses such as Gucci and Prada said they will turn to selling fake fur under pressure from animal rights groups who said the industry is “morally bankrupt.”
“Russians have traditionally been big buyers. The war has obviously stopped that, which is extremely good news,” Mark Glover, a spokesperson for Fur Free Alliance, a coalition of more than 50 animal protection groups, told Reuters.
But it could also decimate Kastoria which, like US steel towns that became almost abandoned when that industry shifted to other countries, relies on the fur business and its income, no word why the government doesn’t provide more aid.
A MATTER OF MINK
A main road in the city is named Furriers’ Avenue, and the streets are lined with now-shuttered fur boutiques with signs in Russian as well as Greek, reaching out to Russian buyers who want to pick out their own.
For some 30 years, Russians have been the main target for the fur companies which have tried to find buyers elsewhere with little success, as far away as South Korea as fashion tastes change and challenges increase.
The sanctions ban shops from selling to Russian tourists in Greece, because fur is considered a luxury good, although with Russian airlines also banned there are few Russians in Greece anywhere.
“We go where we’re wanted. We’re not like apples. We can’t just find a new market, there need to be certain conditions,” said Apostolos Tsoukas, the federation’s president. “It’s a matter of time before businesses close, no matter how much help they get from the state,” he said.
There are some 2,000 mostly family-run fur firms in Greece, employing about 4,000 people, a small market and not a ripple on the economy – but a wave of fear in Kastoria if they go.
State aid to prevent the laid-off workers from being fired outright will be in place until the end of September and lets the businesses suspend contracts of 80 percent, who will get government benefits.
Fur garments are among Greece’s top 10 exports, but they have been declining over the years amounting to just 14 million euros ($14.34 million) in 2021, state statistics showed, a blip on the screen of the economy.
The number of mink farms fell to 92 in 2020 from 131 in 2018, according to animal rights group VeGaia, the news sites said, but it’s been the pandemic’s bite that’s been the deepest and ongoing.
During a visit to Kastoria in June, Minister of State Akis Skertsos said the industry “will be supported – and we will do whatever we can for it to remain viable,” but said there’s a need to diversify.
Jo Swabe, EU Public Affairs Director at animal protection charity Humane Society International said that, “The Greek government has made a serious miscalculation in continuing to prop up this industry. It’s a dying sector anyway.”
That’s hard for those in Kastoria to think about and accept because it’s all they’ve known for generations, the hum of machinery and workers using the fur they took off animals they cultivated for what critics said are vanity buys.
“You would come in here and there was so much noise from all the (sewing) machines working away, and all the people working in here,” said 84-year-old Christos Papadopoulos of the past.
He’s been in the business for 67 years, since 1955, but sees the handwriting on the wall. “We’re finished,” he said, standing in his empty workshop. “I avoid coming down here. I’ll have a heart attack.”