Iannis Carras, International Hellenic University, Thessaloniki.The basis for any sense of understanding of the way Greeks relate to Ukraine is to realise that Greeks know very little about Ukraine.
This is true in general, Ukraine is a secondary foreign policy issue for Greeks. But it is even more true for the period between 2010 and 2016. From the outset of the financial crisis at the time of the government of George Papandreou to the current set of crises under Alexis Tsipras, the Greek people have turned their gaze almost completely inward. The events of the last years in Ukraine do not constitute an exception.
There is data that points to a correlation between Greeks’ view of the European Union and Greeks’ view of Russia, however. Even after six years of economic crisis most Greeks still evaluate their participation in the EU positively (69% in April 2015 falling to 60% in November 2015 at the height of the crisis, Dianeosis). Negative views towards the EU correlate closely with a support for “privileged relations” or an “alliance” with Russia. Of those who had a positive view of the EU only 13% thought Greece should be allied to Russia, of those who had a negative view of the EU though 58% thought Greece should be allied to Russia.
Those under twenty-four who have only lived through economic crisis have a far more negative view of the EU. By extension, they are more likely to think Greece should be allied to Russia. The crucial variable, however, is not Russia per-se. It is not even a left-right divide. It is the degree to which the respondent has a positive or negative view of the EU.
In order to attain a fuller understanding of Greeks’ view of Ukraine it is necessary to go beyond this summary provided by opinion polls. Ukraine with its Black Sea littoral is part of Greece’s perceived neighbourhood, and through the role of historic Greek communities on Crimea, around the Sea of Azov, in Nezhin and Lviv and above all in Odessa, plays a role in collective representations of Greece’s past, especially its pre-national past.
The role of migrants both Greeks from Ukraine and Ukrainians in Greece in mediating the relationship between the two countries should not be underestimated. Ukrainians in Greece (and there are some forty thousand of them) have appeared in the Greek media over the last years, and have organised themselves around the website Greeks for Ukraine. Many Greeks from Ukraine are Pontic Greeks (estimates of their nos. vary, but they are about 150.000 from Ukraine, Georgia and Russia in Greece today). They tend to define themselves with reference to the genocide of Eastern Christians that took place in the Ottoman Empire of the early 20th century. They are increasingly visible in Greek public life, including this year’s Greek entry to Eurovision which is about refugees and is in Pontic Greek. Many view the Russian Empire as their haven, even if they were later deported by Stalin. This and the policies of the Georgian state at the time of transition to independence mean that they look on events in Ukraine over the last two years with anxiety.
The role of religion in mediating the relationship between Greece and Ukraine is, if anything, even more important. Religion is important to Greeks (65% see religion as important in their lives, November 2015, Dianeosis). Greek religious news sites focus on Ukraine more than the media at large. When Greeks read about Ukraine today, they focus on religious subjects. The Archbishop and Soviet dissident, St. Luke the Doctor, from Kerch in Crimea who lived parts of his life in Kiev, serves as an example. A biography of St Luke’s life by Nektarios Antonopoulos, now Metropolitan of Argos, is one of Greece’s best sellers over the last years, having sold more than 100,000 copies. A very popular cult of St. Luke has now developed in Greece, and his name is associated with miracles.
Another of Antonopoulos’ books, this time with a much smaller tirage, is the novel Two Bullets for Donetsk whose subject is the conflict in Ukraine today. The book portrays two kind, intelligent young men, Ukrainians and friends, who end up killing one another because they find themselves on different sides of an ideological divide. The underlying premise is that Ukraine is separated by two different nationalisms.
In the case of religion, a further source of conflict stems from the fact that the Patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow have been seen as rivals for leadership of the Orthodox world. This conflict played out throughout most of second half the 19th century up until the Russian Revolution, when Greek foreign policy was broadly pro-British and anti-Russian. Constantinople cannot afford to break up the Orthodox union by unilaterally recognising the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (Kiev Patriarchate, Philaret) as a canonical church. At the same time, there have been indications that it would view a union of the Churches in Ukraine positively.
Perhaps the closest connection between Greeks and Ukraine however stems from the similarity of their situations vis-à-vis the Empires of which they previously constituted a part. The resulting cultural hybridity that is typical of a post-colonial situations helps Greeks understand and sympathise with Ukraine’s predicament. Greeks have both opposed and are bearers of the inheritance of the Ottoman Empire in which they sometimes played a leading role. This hybridity also explains the difficulty even educated Greeks feel in distinguishing between Ukrainian and Russian historical figures (examples mentioned in interviews conducted by the author include Leon Trotsky, Kasimir Malevich and St. Paisy Velichkovsky). Further, as constant violations by the Turkish airforce of Greece’s airspace in recent months and days serve to remind us, in both Turkey and Russia we are confronted with militarist imperial or post-imperial powers which are uncomfortable with their current status.
The place where this similarity with Ukraine may most clearly be seen is Cyprus. In Cyprus in 1974 as with Ukraine today, we were/are discussing great power rivalry, the fragility of a newly independent state, invasion by a former imperial power, fatalities and refugees, the constitutionality of a change in government, and sanctions. And in Ukraine, as with Cyprus, the West’s response to foreign aggression has been limited. Greek foreign policy circles are very much aware of the parallels between Cyprus and Ukraine.
So what then are the reasons why the Cyprus question is being ignored as a precedent for Ukraine today? Due to Greece’s historical competition with Turkey, also a member of NATO, Greece has never felt secure within the Western security framework. This resulted in a geopolitical view of the USSR as a stabilizing factor in global affairs. This view has been carried over to Russia, and, as such, has been a constant from the days of the elder Constantine Karamanlis up until the current government of Alexis Tsipras. Karamanlis was the first to triangulate Greece’s foreign policy with his famous visit to Moscow in 1979.
From the point of view of Ukraine, a comparison with the Cyprus issue may also seem unwelcome, because proposed Western solutions to overcome the division of the island, such as the Kofi Annan plan (Annan V and Referendum held in 2004), go far beyond Russian demands for the occupied territories of Ukraine, except of course for the Crimea. And also perhaps because such comparisons fit uncomfortably with recent moves to increase Ukrainian-Turkish economic and military cooperation.
All in all, however, Greece is rooted in NATO and the EU. This is even clearer today than when SYRIZA came to power. As a result, Greece will not take a lead in ending sanctions on Russia except following France or Germany.
Though it has not yet been reunited, the precedent set by Cyprus offers reasons for hope for Ukraine. The work of building a functioning modern Cypriot state has been successful. Where the UN’s secret diplomacy has failed, Cypriots own public diplomacy continues. Turkish and Greek Cypriots have been reaching out to one another in an ongoing effort to build trust and cooperation on issues that affect their common home. Last but not least, Cyprus has become a member of the EU, with all the benefits and obligations associated with that organisation.
The visit of Ioannis Karras was organized within the project “Study Visits of Foreign Experts to Kyiv to Dispel the Myths about Ukraine in the European Union.”
This initiative is conducted within the “Initiative for Development of Ukrainian Think Tanks” project, implemented by International Renaissance Foundation (IRF) in cooperation with the Think Tank Fund (TTF), with the financial support of the Embassy of Sweden in Ukraine (SIDA).