Way back in 1960, just around the time when the leader of the USSR Nikita Khrushchev suggested to the paranoid leader of Stalinist Albania Enver Hoxha that autonomy be granted to Northern Epirus, as the majority population in this region along the border with Greece, was of ethnic Greek origin, George Papandreou, the grandfather of the current Greek Prime Minister, known also by the sobriquet: “Grandfather of the Republic,” said the following in Parliament:
“What all Greek Governments need to know is that the Northern Epirus issue continues to exist. And what should be forbidden down the ages, is the denial of our sacred claims. With regards to Northern Epirus, these claims are sacred and indelible.”
Fast forward some fifty years later to the government of George Papandreou’s grandson and his namesake, and a totally different state of affairs exists. Recently the Greek Consul in the southern city of Korytsa (Korçë), Theodoros Oikonomou-Kamarinos was recalled to Athens in disgrace after mentioning at a meeting celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the ethnic Greek political party OMONOIA in that city, that “this region is referred to as Northern Epirus,” and that “your grandfathers were Greek.” That the grandfathers of members of the Greek minority in Korytsa were Greek seems axiomatic. During 1914, bloody battles between Greeks and Albanians took place in order to secure the city for the autonomous Greek state of Northern Epirus and Korytsa’s inclusion within that state was agreed to by the Albanian government of the time. Further, between 1916-1918, the region of Korytsa was annexed by Greece and local representatives represented the region in the Greek parliament. As late as 1940, the Greek inhabitants of Korytsa jubilantly welcomed the Greek army into their city, fighting off the Italian invaders. The Greeks are therefore…Greek.
Enver Hoxha did not consider the Greeks of Korytsa to be Greek. When he created a small minority zone – the only region in which the Greek language could be taught or spoken – he made sure to include only one hundred villages along the valley of Dropoli and exclude most Greek inhabited territory from it. As a result, the Greeks of Cheimarra on the west coast, the Greeks of Premeti, Korytsa and Moschopoli were denied education in their language for fifty years. For some strange reason, these Greeks continued to remember that they were Greeks. Paradoxically, considering that they possessed the same culture and history as the Greeks south of the border, they, north of the border, considered themselves to be living in Northern Epirus. Funnily enough, there exist maps and treatises from Roman times that corroborate their claims. Epirus is a geographical and cultural entity that extends from the Ambracic gulf to the gulf of Avlona. It is not, unless defined as such by nation states, a political entity.
The Greek government would disagree. Ever since the PASOK government came to power, it has displayed a marked aversion to use of the term Northern Epirus, despite the fact that this is the term by which Greeks of the region identify themselves. In its inept attempts to pacify and conciliate Albanian governments who from time to time raise irredentist claims concerning western Epirus, the Greek government has taken upon itself the Orwellian task of making use of the term Northern Epirus a thoughtcrime –considering all those who employ it, rabid nationalists.
This could be excusable if successive Greek governments had a coherent policy concerning the Greeks of Northern Epirus and the rest of Albania, but they have, over the decades, proved they have not. Since the eighties, government representatives purported the fiction that Stalinist Albania was a worker’s paradise, that no Greeks lived there and that if they did, they were more privileged than the Greeks in Greece. Consequently in 1987, the official state of war existing between Albania and Greece since the forties was declared over, without the Greek government extracting any concessions as to the protection of human rights of the Greeks in Albania and ever since, Greek government policy in the region could be characterised as a mixture of inept meddling in and undermining the Greek minority’s attempts to organise themselves politically, while making no real attempt to safeguard their rights as a minority.
This deprecating attitude towards Northern Epirus and its people can also be evidenced by Greek consulate representatives here in Australia. In a manner eerily akin to the brave Consul Kamarinos, I was warned by a former Greek Consul-General that I had better: “stop talking about Northern Epirus, or there would be consequences.” Another, relatively benign and friendly Consul General once remarked to me: “So what do you want us to do? To invade Albania, kill the Albanians, and make room for the Northern Epirots?” Try as we might, we have never been able to convince Greek officials that the fact that hundreds of thousands of Greeks just across the border are subject to a corrupt regime that cannot protect and sometimes cynically abrogates basic rights such as the right to free elections, the right to Greek education and the right to non-discrimination is of grave concern. For them, the whole issue is a joke.
Why should Greece attempt to prohibit use of the term “Northern Epirus,” thus denying to its people, the right to self-identification? Why is this term considered offensive and having expansionist connotations when at the same time we freely use terms such as Constantinople (instead of Istanbul), Asia Minor, (instead of Turkiye), or Pontus (instead of Karadeniz Bölgesi), without consideration as to whether these carry similar connotations to a larger and eminently more important neighbour? Obviously this inconsistency can only be explained by cynical, arbitrary policy considerations, not reality.
What the pompous and short-sighted Greek officials who have recalled the feisty and unrepentant Consul Kamarinos to Athens for discipline fail to realise in their arrogance is the fact that for over half a decade, the Greeks of Northern Epirus have been isolated and have stoically retained their Hellenism under the most harrowing conditions – treated as class enemies owing to their bourgeois pursuits and as enemies of the state owing to their ethnic affiliation. These are the descendants of Zappas, Tositsas and so many other benefactors who donated their entire estates towards the construction of the public buildings of Athens and the founding of the modern Greek state. Today, their beneficiaries, the bureaucrats and the politicians show their gratitude by pouring scorn upon their people and abandoning them to their fate, despite their valiant efforts to cling to their identity. They, and those who are concerned for them are, for neo-Hellenes, nothing more than objects of derision.
The arrogance of Greek officials who persecute those of their brethren who seek to encourage and console their compatriots comes at a most crucial point in the history of Northern Epirus. Finally, after years of refusing to do so, the Albanian government is poised to conduct a census that will reveal much about the status of minorities within that country. All Consul Kamarinos wanted to do, was to remind his long suffering compatriots that he recognizes their heritage and encourage them not to be afraid to freely express this. His masters in Athens however, have other ideas, none of them coherent.
What the Greek foreign ministry implies, by its conduct, is that there is no point for Greeks living without the borders of Greece to cling to their traditions and their customs for these are considered quaint by the metropolis and our efforts of no value. If ever the time comes that we will need protection and a voice of support, it is questionable, in the light of the abandonment of the Northern Epirots – a group of people who have contributed to the welfare of Greece far more than us, whether we will find it in our country of origin.
It is sad that there is so much truth in the Cheimarriot folk song: «Τα Γιάννενα ονειρεύονται, η Κρήτη ξαποσταίνει, βουβή η Θεσσαλονίκη, η Αθήνα ξεφαντώνει… Ποιος βογγάει σα να πεθαίνη; -Χειμάρρα, όλορθη.» It is also sad that we, along with brave Consul Kamarinos were led to believe that our culture included values of solidarity, concern and mutual assistance. We have Greek officialdom to thank, for disabusing us of our illusions.
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