On March 25th, Greece celebrated the bicentenary of the start of its revolution against the Ottoman Empire. In 1821, insurrections began in the Peloponnese that led, after almost a decade of war, to the foundation of the modern Greek state. Measures in place to contain the Covid-19 pandemic prevented Greeks from taking part in the celebrations and the military parade that went through the centre of Athens. The Greek flag, however, waved from almost every balcony.
Among the international guests who joined the celebrations in Athens were Prince Charles with his wife Camilla and the Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Mikhail Mishustin. Britain and Russia, as well as France, played a key role in determining the outcome of the Greek revolution. At the naval battle of Navarino in 1827, the three European powers of the time sided with the revolutionaries and destroyed the Turkish-Egyptian fleet. Considered by some historians as an early example of humanitarian intervention, the Navarino battle was a decisive turning point of the revolution, which ended three years later with the birth of an independent state under the rule of the Bavarian king, Otto.
Philhellenism or geopolitics?
It is no coincidence that the great European powers intervened in Greece, whose geopolitical position, between the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean, made it as strategic a territory as it is today. But the involvement of the Western powers in the 1821 revolution was not only military. “Your freedom is our freedom”, said French President Emmanuel Macron in a video message sent to Greece on March 25th, recalling how the Greek revolution ignited the enthusiasm of Europe’s intellectual elites.
Philhellenism – which prompted revolutionaries and adventurers such as poet Lord Byron to join the Greek revolutionaries – was first and foremost love for ancient Greece, but the glories of antiquity were soon projected onto the anti-Ottoman revolutionary movement. The Philhellenes wanted to pay off the debt of civilization western culture owed to ancient Greece by bringing democratic values back to where they were born.
Philhellenism was widespread in America as well, but the US was reluctant to take an official stance on the Greek revolutionary conflict. Fearing that European powers would extend their restoration project across the Atlantic, the American president at that time was developing the strategy that would take his name, the Monroe Doctrine: the Europeans should not interfere in the affairs of the American continent, and the US would refrain from intervening in Europe – for the sake of both freedom and commercial interests. When the anti-Ottoman insurrection took hold in the Peloponnese, however, the enthusiasm of a large section of US public opinion ignited. In the end, the federal government took no official position on the Greek war of independence, but the support of private American citizens for the revolutionary movement was substantialized by both economic and humanitarian aid.
It was not, however, philhellenism – whose radical ideals of freedom were viewed with suspicion in the context of post-Napoleonic restoration – nor a purely humanitarian vocation that drew western powers into the revolutionary conflict, but rather geopolitical considerations. The British, in particular, feared that Russia, self-proclaimed defender of Christians in the Balkans, would benefit from the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. By forming an alliance against the Sultan, European great powers intended above all to protect themselves against each other’s expansionist aims.
“The military intervention of the great powers was decisive for the outcome of the revolution, but one has to give credit to the Greek revolutionary elite for convincing Europeans that theirs was not a Jacobin-style insurrection, but a national revolt against an oppressive, non-European, non-Christian ruler”, says Dimitris Livanios, Professor of Modern Greek and European History at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.
Two centuries in the western orbit
The strategic choice made by the revolutionaries to build the modern Greek state on the western liberal model has never been overturned. But, as Roderick Beaton reminds us in his book Biography of a Modern Nation, Greece’s adherence to the values of liberalism and to the Western bloc has been reaffirmed throughout the country’s modern history only narrowly and at great cost – such as in the 1946-49 civil war and the 2008 financial crisis.
“There still is, in a significant segment of Greek society, a dormant anti-westernism that cyclically re-emerges in times of crisis, fed by the intolerance for foreign interference”, says Livanios. The “foreign finger” (ξένος δάκτυλος) is often identified as the source of all evils. This was the case during the financial crisis of 2008, when there was a – not entirely misplaced – feeling in Greece that all crucial decisions were being made in Berlin and Brussels. Before overturning the result of the 2015 referendum and signing the third Memorandum of Understanding dictated by the “troika”, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras had flirted with Putin’s Russia, reviving the Byzantine tradition about the “blonde race” (ξανθό γένος) who would come from Russia and free the Christians from the Ottoman yoke.
Privatization imposed by austerity measures have increased Russian and Chinese economic influence in the country, such as in Thessaloniki and the Piraeus port of Attica. But the conservative government in office since 2019 has reaffirmed Greece’s loyalty to the Western bloc, hoping that the Biden administration will adopt a different approach from both the Monroe doctrine and Trump’s “America First” when it comes to containing Turkish expansionism in the Mediterranean.
In 2020, Ankara tried to get its hands on gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean, causing tensions with Athens to escalate. In January 2021, Greek and Turkish diplomats resumed bilateral exploratory talks that had been interrupted in 2016, but the tension between the two countries is far from over. Turkey is still hoping for its occupation of Northern Cyprus to be legally recognized, but neither Greece nor the Cypriot government are willing to accept a two-state solution for the island. At the end of April, the parties will convene in Geneva to discuss a lasting diplomatic solution for the Cyprus issue.
Athens also expects the EU to be more intransigent with Erdoğan, but so far Brussels has chosen a conciliatory approach towards Turkey. Last week, on the side-lines of a summit with EU leaders, European Commission president, Ursula Von der Leyen praised the de-escalation of recent months, renewing the desire for further collaboration with Turkey when it comes to migration policies and the modernization of the customs union. But Von der Leyen also warned Ankara: ‘If Turkey does not move forward constructively, if it returns to unilateral actions or provocations, in particular in the Eastern Mediterranean, of course we would suspend these cooperation measures’.
From crisis to crisis
The bicentenary of the revolution has brought Greece’s geopolitical role back into the spotlight for a few days, but the most delicate front is the domestic one. The pandemic inflicted yet another blow to an economy that had not yet recovered from the financial crisis. While the right-wing government was able to claim timely and effective management of the first wave, things have taken a turn for the worse in recent weeks. The country has been in lockdown since November 2020, yet the all-time peak of new daily Covid-19 infections was recorded on March 30th, 2021. The public health system, weakened by austerity policies, is struggling to cope, and the government has been forced to requisition the services of around 200 doctors from the private sector.
While struggling to keep the pandemic under control, Greece is thinking about how to save the tourist season, on which almost 20% of GDP depends. The Greek government was the first to raise the issue of a common European vaccine certificate, the “digital green pass”, and Greece has already started to welcome Israeli travellers who have already been vaccinated.
Over a decade has passed since the global financial crash, and in Greece, the “crisis” has started to look more like an existential condition than a one-time hiccup. The world has changed radically since the revolution, but if there is one lesson that can still be drawn from 1821, it is the importance of the country’s friends and allies in helping Greece stay on course, on the path it chose for itself two centuries ago.
Cover Photo: Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias (R) at a press conference with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov – Athens, October 26, 2020 (C. Baltas / POOL / AFP).
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