News for Wombats

ERTArabic

One particularly memorable episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus features a series of sketches, starting with “News for Parrots” (“… and now the news for parrots. No parrots were involved in an accident on the M1 today…”) and culminating in the utterly absurd “News for Wombats”. This is what I was reminded of when the Greek public broadcaster ERT launched its “news bulletin for refugees” last week, aimed at the 50,000-odd refugees and migrants stranded in Greece. Other observers took the news far more seriously.

ERT claims to have received several hundred complaints from viewers following the broadcast. Right-wing (and more extreme) commentators were quick to comment on social media using terms like “shame”, “debasement”, “national capitulation” and “muslim colonisation”, and questioning why public funds were spent on it. The outrage reached its peak when a screenshot featuring a female newsreader in a hijab made the rounds of the social media as well as some mainstream news sources. It was eventually exposed as a hoax, in which someone had photoshopped a screenshot of a Saudi news presenter from a BBC report onto the ERT backdrop, but the debunking did not gain nearly as much prominence as the initial outrage. The fake headscarf controversy dovetailed neatly with a real headscarf controversy when an Egyptian student marched with her school in the Greek independence day parade on the 25th March in a hijab. Then some viewers selectively picked out the word “Macedonia” in the spoken Arabic ERT and assumed (wrongly) that the newsreader had used the M-word without its mandated qualifiers – taken to be a sign of a further national debasement. And it all went downhill from there…

What was most noticeable in the public “debate” which ensued is how much ground needs to be covered in very short order, for Greeks to be able to cope culturally with the dawning reality that many of the new arrivals will be around for quite some time.

All of which fuss, however, is not real reason to criticise ERT for its “News for Refugees” initiative – unless you have an agenda. Here I will take at face value the public broadcaster’s initiative to reach beyond its native audience, and instead outline how I think it is failing the refugees and migrants in terms of language, message and medium – in fact, in just about every possible way – and what might be the subtext.

The language

At a very basic level, there is a limitation in terms of the language chosen, namely Arabic. Although the most of the migrants and refugees (according to UNHCR figures) come from majority Arabic speaking countries (Syria and Iraq), they also include a substantial minority of Dari and Farsi speakers from Afghanistan and Iran, as well as Kurdish speakers from across the region and to a lesser extent Urdu (among Pakistanis). Local radio stations, including Athens municipal radio have already been broadcasting in several languages (including Arabic) aimed at visitor and immigrant communities for some years. But leaving that limitation aside, there are more fundamental flaws in the way the ERT project has been conceived and implemented.

The message

I use quotation marks around “news” because the content of the bulletin isn’t exactly news. It sounds (or reads, in my case, as I rely on the Greek subtitles) more like a public service announcement in a dystopian communist regime that has just been struck by a disaster – something like Chernobyl perhaps. It starts by reminding migrants that the borders are closed, and directing them to disband in an orderly manner from makeshift camps like Idomeni and Piraeus and avail themselves of the free bus service to organised accommodation; it asks people to not believe information from non-official sources; it gives information on where to register for relocation and assistance programmes; it lists the regulated prices for bottled water and sandwiches; and it closes with a weather forecast.

The urge to convey this information is understandable – for months, the Greek government has been criticised for allowing disinformation and price gouging to run riot around the migrant camps. However, to the extent that the bulletin reaches its intended audience (more of which below), we might question whether the tone and format will engender trust in people who are in many cases fleeing authoritarian regimes, and who are presumably fed up to the back teeth of being directed by anything with the whiff of official propaganda.

And then there is that title – “News for Refugees” – that lingers on screen, as if to remind the viewer that this is intended for a different class of person, one as distant from normal everyday reality as a parrot or a wombat perhaps…

When ERT addresses the Greek viewing public on the subject of the refugee crisis, its coverage is just as cloying, condescending and sensationalist as any of the private channels. Recently, a man featured on an ERT news report about volunteering as a temporary host for refugee families complained that the report had systematically misrepresented his situation and that of his guests. He detailed how the crew arrived without a translator to interview his guests, and subsequently edited the interviews to remove any reference to the complexity of the refugee crisis and the situation in Syria, the exploitation his guests suffered by Greek taxi drivers, and any personal details that might have served to humanise them in the eyes of the viewer. He accused ERT of trying to fit everything into the “easily digestible schema of beleaguered refugee vs. charitable Greek”.

The medium

Under normal circumstances, one would expect a rudimentary element of audience research before launching a new service, especially one as challenging as this. Even in these circumstances, you don’t need to be a market research genie to quickly conclude that very few (if any) of your intended audience are dedicated TV viewers – for a variety of practical reasons, mainly to do with living on the run. Beyond that, some information can be gleaned for free from the surveys that the UNHCR has been conducting  on recent arrivals in Greece. For example, among Syrians arriving in February, 24% said that they had sourced information on their journey from social media, mobile apps or specialised websites. Only 8% of Afghans arriving over the same period cited these sources. The top source for Syrians were travel companions (43%), friends and family at destination (25%), calling someone ahead on the route (23%) and people smugglers (16%). Afghans had relied overwhelmingly on people smugglers (73%) for information. In neither group does television feature as an information source – presumably because they have not spent their journey in four- and five-star accommodation with satellite TV.

Internet media, rather than conventional phone networks, are what many migrants and refugees use to communicate as they travel – so even as they get their information from a person (traffickers, friends and family) they get it via apps and social media. The smartphones (which have been the focus of resentment by sceptical European observers) act as telephone, mail, bulletin board, navigation aid and location beacon, as they pass through countries where their native language is not spoken.  The people traffickers have in fact been using social media to drum up business for some time. A risk report issued by the European border agency Frontex in 2014 cited examples of Facebook pages touting for business in Turkey and flagged social media as an area of concern for combatting human trafficking. Several media reports have also highlighted the social media strategy of the smugglers, also using platforms like Twitter, WhatsApp and Viber. Local support groups also use Facebook more legitimately to gather and disseminate information in a variety of languages.

This is an on-the-go version of technological “leapfrogging”, where the bush telegraph and the mobile app shake hands, bypassing the old media of newspapers and television. Last week, three people died and several hundred were apprehended by the Macedonian authorities and returned to Greece after following directions circulated in a photocopied leaflet – a very low-tech medium indeed. On Sunday, a few hundred refugees and migrants were attracted back to Idomeni by rumours that the border was about to reopen, apparently spread on Facebook. So, to cut a long story short, a tiny bit of common sense would have told that people living in tents don’t watch TV (unless they are European families on a “camping” holiday with their satellite dish), and a little bit of research would have pointed to existing successful models for “penetrating that hard-to-reach audience”.

The subtext

But then, our public broadcaster seems to have only a passing relationship with, or interest in, their native audience. Very few Greeks get their news from ERT. The Syriza/ANEL government restored the public broadcaster to its original identity (and staffing levels) last year, reversing its forcible closure and restructuring under the Samaras government. However, despite the heavy political significance invested in it, most Greeks who also pay compulsory fee to fund it through their electricity bills, do not watch it. ERT’s evening news bulletin is stuck at the bottom of the ratings – the latest figures show it reaching an audience of 153,000 – or 3.6% share. The channel directors are so unhappy with this state of affairs that they have announced their intention to challenge the ratings, in a move reminiscent of the government’s initiative to regulate polling organisations. In this context it is hard to trust ERT’s own claim that the Arabic news bulletin has had a “great response among Arabic-speaking migrants staying in our country.” It is also hard to assess how many of the “approximately 30,000 viewers” who watched the first bulletin online were the intended audience rather than curious Greeks clicking to be outraged by the scarfed woman saying the M-word.

These are blindingly obvious weaknesses that suggest that the originators of the idea, however well-intentioned they may have been, operate in some kind of state-sponsored media bubble. In the best case they merely missed their target by a wide mile. More likely they had other targets in mind – like flattering a domestic audience with the illusion that the government is doing its humanitarian best to manage a chaotic situation, but that ultimately all we can do is be charitable and not bother ourselves with the messy complexities. Such a smug and self-serving approach, however, will ultimately backfire. The initial reactions suggest that we ignore the nuances at our peril.

 

 

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News for Wombats

This is not a refugee camp

I can’t see what is going on in Idomeni, the sprawling tent city on the Greek-Macedonian border. Nor can you. It doesn’t matter how many pictures you see in the newspaper and on the evening news, or how diligently you monitor your social media feed. We are inundated with visuals of the refugee crisis, to the point where one could receive a wire photographer’s reel, frame by frame, in real time if one chose to. Even we you try to opt out, newspapers will print them in full colour on the front page (“see p.5 for the report”) and people will retweet them or post them on Facebook with comments like “the picture says it all”. But it doesn’t. We still won’t see a refugee camp, because we will be seeing photos of a refugee camp.

Policy on the refugee crisis has been driven by images. 350,000 people had already crossed the Mediterranean by sea and 2,600 had died in 2015 but it took a photo of a drowned toddler to mobilise national leaders to start confronting the problem. Images are powerful, but there is a simple principle we fail routinely to apply:

This is not going to be a blog post about how photos are posed or faked or fabricated to serve political agendas. Errol Morris who wrote the tweet above is not given to throwaway statements. He is the director of documentaries like The Thin Blue Line (uncovering a miscarriage of justice long before Netflix’s Making a Murderer), Standard Operating Procedure (about those Abu Ghraib photos) and The Unknown Known (in which he slowly and methodically dissected Donald Rumsfeld); as a student he antagonised his way out of Thomas Kuhn’s classes in history of science at Princeton University (him of “paradigm shift” fame). A few years ago he wrote a fascinating book called Believing is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography). In it, he researched famous and controversial photographic images to demonstrate how false the sense of objectivity is that they convey, and how easily they lend themselves to distortion – without the aid of photoshop, and often without real intent. All photos, even the most trustworthy ones, from war photography to holiday snaps, are always framed by the photographer and constrained by the circumstances in which they are taken; they never tell the whole story.

In one example, Morris considers a well-known photo showing a Mickey Mouse toy in the ruins of an apartment block in Tyre after an Israeli shelling, which was accused of being fake or staged. He interviews the photographer and together they dissect forensically the circumstances under which the photo was taken, the decisions the photographer took, and the reason why it was seen to be so appealing and so controversial. The photo has an emotional appeal – it suggests that a child may have been made homeless, injured or killed in the shelling – but no such event can be confirmed from the interview. The photographer insists that he only included the toy to convey the fact that the the photo was of a residential area. It was not staged or faked, but the subject matter was chosen and framed, despite the pressurised conditions in the midst of a war zone. Whatever its maker’s original intent, the photo escaped it once it hit the wires. The same image was used to support anti-Israeli arguments (for shelling residential areas without regard for children’s lives) and anti-Hizbollah arguments (for using civilians as human shields), and to argue for the mendacity of the media (by suggesting that and similar photos were staged to support particular agendas). I recommend reading the investigation in full because I can’t do its thoroughness justice here.

The compulsion to produce a meaningful image that will have real impact is what drives their makers to grapple with the practical, moral and emotional challenges involved in crafting them in crisis situations. Here is a statement from one of the leading photographers covering the refugee crisis today: “I believe in the power of the image. It’s time to shock people. It could be a way to prompt people into action.” Could it be though that the image overload is stopping us from seeing?

Now consider a photo closer to home. The image of a man and a woman bathing a newborn baby by the entrance to a tent in muddy terrain was tweeted by photographer Iker Pastor on 6 March with the caption “… And life goes on in #Idomeni”.

When it was published in the press a few days later it was captioned along the lines of “a woman has just given birth to her child in a small and dirty tent”. According to the Daily Mail (12 March), it was The baby born in hell: Tragic migrant mother gives birth in the squalor of Idomeni’s tent city and washes the child in a PUDDLE . On 12 March, the Spanish newspaper El Español published the background story, having interviewed the Basque photographer and tracked down the Syrian family featured in the photo. Pastor himself had not had time to speak with the family, he had just taken the photo on the fly and moved on. It turns out the baby was 20 days old when the picture was taken; by the time they were interviewed they had thankfully been moved to better accommodation. A further article, this time in the German newspaper Bild revealed that the baby had been born on a beach in Turkey after his mother went into labour and had to abandon the boat they had boarded to go to Greece. Perhaps because this background information was published in Spanish and German, it did not make the rounds of the internet as quickly as the photo. Some news websites corrected their online copy (but hey, who goes back to re-read old news?), the TV news did not revisit the story. No one corrected the bit about the baby being washed “in a PUDDLE”, such is the power of suggestion that it caused people to ignore the water bottle clearly visible in the photo.

It made me wonder about the stories behind photos such as these, also depicting children in varying states of distress and discomfort.

The photo of the crying girl (top left) standing in the middle of a busy highway in the rain in a flimsy makeshift poncho was also shared widely on social media. Without context, many assumed the girl was lost and started a campaign to identify her and reunite her with her family. It turned out this was not the case; her isolation was an artefact of the way the photo was framed. The photo of the little boy carrying a bag, also seemingly walking alone along the the highway (top right) was used in many media sources to illustrate a Europol report revealing that 10,000 unaccompanied minors who entered Europe as migrants were missing, and vulnerable to exploitation by criminal networks. A different shot shows him walking as part of a group. The photo of the children in the Idomeni camp holding up signs is clearly staged, and it is unclear who provided the signs in matching handwriting and idiomatic English. Though the situation is new and specific, these images fit easily into the well-established genre of “images of refugees” which has trained our eye to “read” these situations in generic ways and seek generic solutions.

You might object, with some justification, that this pedantic quibbling over details does not alter the fact that a newborn has been living in a tent in a muddy overcrowded field; or that over one third of the approximately 13,000 people camping in the (undeniably real) mud in Idomeni are children, many of whom are ill or at risk of illness; or that children are at risk of trafficking on the migrant routes, and even the ones posing for the cameras are living in miserable conditions. But since the baby photo and its original (faulty) story has taken on a life of its own, it has become a symbol of the heartlessness of Europe and the inhumanity of the Balkan countries who have sealed their borders. The photo has come to stand for Idomeni, and Idomeni to stand for all the refugees stuck in Greece, and those beyond waiting to enter Europe. It might be worth asking what this and photos like it are actually showing, and what they are hiding. Here are some relevant facts that the photos won’t tell you.

Almost two thirds of the estimated total 45,000 refugees and migrants stranded in Greece at the time of writing are not in Idomeni (UNHCR provides daily updates here). Idomeni, along with Piraeus, where migrants arrive by ferry from the islands after crossing from Turkey, are informal camps that have sprung up at natural “choke points” on the route north. They lack facilities because the Greek government does not want to encourage staying there long, if at all (Deputy Immigration Minister Mouzalas stated recently in a TV interview that became notorious for other reasons, “we did not want an official state facility on the border to facilitate and establish that route”). The same was the case with Victoria Square in Athens, which hosted an informal encampment and muster point for people-traffickers, before it was evacuated overnight by police. This “arm’s length” approach is not due to lack of funds or resources or organisation, it is conscious policy choice. Resources are being withheld from Idomeni in the hope that its occupants will abandon it for less contentious locations.

The government is committed to evacuating Idomeni too, but has ruled out using force to do it. This is justified on humanitarian grounds (though police have been used on a small scale on previous occasions), but at the back of their minds must also be the reaction that the French authorities have provoked by forcibly clearing the “jungle” at Calais. The milestone that both the government and the migrants are holding out for is an anticipated EU agreement on managing migrant flows: the migrants are hoping it will result in open borders; the Greek government is banking on their disappointment from the more likely opposite decision, to abandon the camp. Until then, they try and dissuade people from travelling to the border by issuing official entreaties and providing transport to official reception centres, without much success. In Idomeni, the residents would rather believe disinformation encouraging them to break the law with potentially fatal consequences, than be guided by official advice, which in any case appears to be sparse and confusing; three Afghanis drowned trying to cross a swollen stream following a rogue leafletting campaign earlier this week.

There are official hosting facilities for migrants established by the Greek state. Most have been thrown up in the last couple of months, in decommissioned army camps and municipal facilities scattered across the country (a map with the locations and numbers of people hosted can be seen here). Officially, Greece will have 50,000 places in migrant hosting facilities this week (UNHCR reported Greece’s reception capacity at just 11,865 at the beginning of February) and want to encourage migrants to move from the open camps to these sheltered facilities. The authorities were slow to act on this front, and the reason was not just the dire state of public finances; there were policy choices here too (we have documented the Greek national politics of the refugee crisis in previous posts, here, here and here). For a variety of reasons, either because the government did not wish to encourage migrants to stay, or to avoid providing political ammunition to the opposition by appearing to encourage migrants to stay, the local policy impetus was against providing official infrastructure. In addition, the governing Syriza party had been vocal campaigners against immigration detention centres in opposition, and therefore the optics of a camp of any sort went against their political instincts.

We see no photos of the official hosting facilities because as of 29 February the government has barred all media from those sites, ostensibly in response to requests from staff and managers dealing with overcrowded conditions. Less understandable is their reluctance to give access to observers from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. We simply don’t know how well-run these hosting facilities are (conditions in some of the new camps are reported to be very poor, but earlier volunteer visitors to some of the first centres in Athens reported that they were well organised and well provisioned). Migrants often walk out of them to return to Piraeus or Idomeni on foot, blaming their remoteness and lack of facilities, but mainly because they fear missing out on the opportunity to continue their journeys northwards. The result is unbalanced coverage: the unofficial camps where conditions are poor and doomed to worsen are crawling with media and NGO reporters, the official ones might as well not exist. The politics (and particularly the national policies directly relevant to the specific situation at Idomeni) remain hidden, we see only a “humanitarian” crisis for which a distant, faceless “Europe” is to blame.

There is another thing. At this point it does not look likely that the borders will re-open. The fate and well-being of those waiting at Idomeni does not actually depend on the outcome of this EU summit or the ones that will no doubt ensue, as their focus is on the treatment of the migrants that have not yet entered Europe, not the ones that are already in Greece. However, back in September European leaders agreed (reluctantly in some cases) on an internal relocation scheme for 160,000 refugees to be shared between European countries. This scheme is a drop in the bucket compared to the total numbers, but more importantly it has been painfully slow to implement, apparently due to bureaucratic hurdles and local politics (only 569 out of the allocated 66,400 refugees have been relocated from Greece, and only 0.4% of the EU-wide target overall, according to the latest European Commission figures). The relocation scheme could (in theory) provide a safe way out for a significant number of the people stranded in Greece that does not necessitate camping in squalor and risking their lives further, if governments could only be made to honour these existing political commitments. Every time they fail to do so, they chip away at what little trust the migrants have in “official” solutions and push them towards the razor wire and the people traffickers rather than towards a more hygienic stopping place and a safer route. So while it helps in the short term to make donations and send blankets and shoes, it would help more if MPs and local authorities across Europe were held to account by their own constituents (i.e. us) for their inaction.

The art historian John Berger, writing at the peak of the Vietnam war disputed the received wisdom that shocking images spur their viewers to act. In a short essay entitled “Photographs of Agony” he argued that their real effect was to cause a feeling of moral inadequacy and powerlessness. Confronted by a photograph of agony,

“Either he shrugs off this sense of inadequacy as being only too familiar, or else he thinks of performing a kind of penance – of which the purest example would be to make a contribution to OXFAM or UNICEF. In both cases, the issue of the [event] which has caused that moment is effectively depoliticised. The picture becomes evidence of the general human condition. It accuses nobody and everybody.”

It is becoming more and more clear that there is no silver bullet that will “solve” the refugee crisis, and that we will be living with its effects for some time to come (Greek officials are now speaking conservatively of two years but it will probably be much longer). A massive coordinated solution is still required to tackle the problem at source, but the local complexities also need to be appreciated and dealt with to manage what is already happening. The deluge of decontextualised images that pushes us to cry “oh the humanity” and makes us feel impotent before the inhumanity of governments, actually prevents us from “seeing” what is going on, does not encourage nuanced or critical thinking and may be blinding us to actions we can take that lie closer to our reach.

Images: Photo of girl in the rain: Yiannis Behrakis (Reuters); photos of boy on the highway (Eurokinissi); photo of children holding signs (Getty Images).

Since its original publication, this post was improved both factually and substantively by feedback via Twitter from @damomac@fly_dervish and @versendaal, for which I am very grateful.

 

 

This is not a refugee camp

Front Row

image

Four TV presenters, an actress, two recording artists, a male model, a dancer and a lifestyle magazine try to stay afloat by dressing up as refugees. The caption reads: “We are all refugees. Famous Greeks are photographed to remind us that millions of lives on the road need our help. Is it time we did something?”

Regular readers will know that this blog was at the forefront of the humanitarian dress-up trend, so we do not even find the idea original. A sample of the reactions on social media captures the mixture of bemusement and snark which ensued.

For context: DownTown is a lifestyle magazine, relaunched recently after almost three years of enforced hiatus. DownTown, along with sister publication Nitro, was emblematic of Greece’s pre-crisis bubble: airbrushed celebrity photos, and the accompanying lifestyle, big watches, fast cars, bling and nightlife. The lifestyle of πρώτο τραπέζι πίστα (próto trapézi písta) – front row at the bouzoukia – and conspicuous consumption. DownTown’s publishing company went bust; its owner was forced to sell some of his properties including his holiday home on Mykonos to pay the bills; he now fronts a lame weekly Letterman/Kimmel knock-off. The rights to the DownTown title were acquired by its last editor, who has relaunched it with an unrepentant mandate to “do what we’ve always done… the things that really occupy us… showbiz gossip, rumours, whispers, and having a laugh”. In tune with the times, then! It is entirely possible they thought “hotspot” was the latest celebrity hangout. Maybe they are already busy bidding for the rights to the “hot migrants” Instagram account.

More context: A few thousand ordinary people at a non-celebrity, non-sponsored event organised last Sunday in Syntagma square “did something”: without TV cameras present, they collected mountains of essentials and toys, transported, sorted them, and delivered them to the refugee camps.

At least two of the participants in the DownTown cover have since expressed their remorse.

 

 

Front Row

Salade Macédoine

idomeni

Complete the following sentence: “Over 12,000 refugees and migrants, including many families with young children, are camping out in a muddy field in rain and freezing temperatures, with dangerously inadequate hygiene facilities and little hope of continuing their journey northward, on Greece’s border with __________.”

If you answered “Macedonia”, you are in the majority. Today I carried out the following highly unscientific survey: I googled “Idomeni” (the name of the village where the makeshift camp is located) and “refugees”. In the first page of results from English-language sources, 27 out of 30 stories in the international media used the same name for Greece’s norther neighbour. Of the remaining three sources, one was a Greek news site, another an official UN press release, and the third was Chinese. They all referred to the country as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM for short, the naming convention agreed at Greece’s insistence by the United Nations, the European Union and most international institutions.

There was a time not too long ago when these would be fighting words. For some, they still are. No less an international power-broker than European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker tripped over his nomenclature in a press conference and was promptly tweet-corrected by a Greek MEP. A Greek reporter was applauded as a hero by a section of the popular media for correcting a US State Department spokesman to the same effect (the Americans generally regarded as favouring the other side). Meanwhile in Athens, neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party MP Ilias Kasidiaris threw a BBC crew out of his office for using the M-word (or in the words of the official party statement “displaying the anti-Greek sentiment of the BBC propaganda network”) – though he refrained from punching the female reporter, suggesting that the party is investing wisely in anger-management classes. The same sources pilloried the Greek Deputy Foreign Minister for being quoted using the offensive word in an in interview to a Slovakian newspaper. Thankfully the outrage has been largely contained.

The “Macedonia name dispute” is the latest incarnation of a contest over ethnicity, history and territory between Greece and its northern neighbours which dates back to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, flaring up again in the context of the Balkan Wars, WWI and WWII. It took its present turn after the collapse of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, when what had been the Socialist Republic of Macedonia within Yugoslavia gained its independence in 1991.

The “Salade Macédoine” of our title provides an incidental indication of the complexity of the issues involved. A Macédoine is a vegetable or fruit medley, most commonly known in the English-speaking world as a “Russian salad”. The dish is a 19th century invention and its name, describing a mix of distinct and heterogeneous ingredients, was inspired directly by the contemporary ethnographic maps of the Macedonian region with their marbled patchwork of languages, religions and ethnicities. This was before the term “balkanisation” made the broader region a byword for hostile fragmentation.

The more recent incarnation of the dispute revolves not around territory as such, but around the right to use the name and the symbols of a more distant past, the era of the Macedonian kingdom of Philip II and his son Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. The current naming convention was the result an interim accord reached in 1995 under the auspices of the UN, according to which the name “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (abbreviated FYROM) was to be used by international organisations – crucially international organisations which the new country was seeking to join, like the UN, the EU and NATO. In a bilateral context, other countries can use whichever name they choose, as of course can news organisations. Greeks colloquially refer to the country as “Skopje” after the capital city, or the Greek acronym ΠΓΔΜ (pronounced pou-gou-dou-moú for short). In addition, under the terms of the accord, the national flag was changed from the “star of Vergina” (the dynastic symbol of Philip II) to a more modernist design, and the constitution amended to remove clauses which the Greek side considered “irredentist” (i.e. making claims on Greek territory). It is a messy compromise and several fruitless attempts have been made to fully resolve the naming issue since then but it remains in limbo (a blow by blow account can be found here with a bit of caution required on the detail, while a brave soul wrote a more theoretical treatment of the subject, reviewed here).

The name dispute has been costly for both sides. In Greece, it brought down the government back in 1993 when the hardline nationalist faction under Antonis Samaras walked out of the governing Nea Demokratia party and started a political grudge match within the party which still rumbles on today. Political and diplomatic capital was squandered, and much energy was harnessed into organising nationalist rallies and protests, at a time when similar phenomena in the former Yugoslavia were taking a much bloodier turn. Fortunately in this case the worst weapons wielded by the Greek side were an 18-month trade embargo, veto power in international fora, and a lot of turgid rhetoric and pseudo-history on both sides. More recently, Samaras, returned to ND and serving as Prime Minister between 2012-2014, had the opportunity to revive his Macedonian dream by sponsoring a high profile archaeological investigation of the site of Amphipolis which was hoped to yield the tomb of Alexander the Great – an interpretation which continues to be disputed outside the political spotlight. North of the border, Skopje, until recently a showpiece of Cold War era brutalist architecture, blew €560 million of state funds (initial estimate €80 million) on a controversial “neo-classical” makeover including a 22 metre tall statue evoking (but not explicitly named after) Alexander on horseback, and a renaming scheme which saw many landmarks, including the international airport, referencing the ancient kingdom of Macedon.

This remains a very emotive issue, even as business ties between the two countries have strengthened, and Greeks from the border regions have been relocating or commuting across the border to take advantage of cheaper goods and services (including gambling) since the beginning of the financial crisis. Often the sensitivity has comical results; in a recent basketball match between the two national teams, the Greek broadcaster “camouflaged” the on-screen score board with background parquet to hide the national designation “MKD” used by the International Basketball Federation FIBA (one of the few international organisations not to adopt the compromise name) – to much ridicule. Personally I find this new-found ability to laugh at our national sensitivities refreshing.

There is a slightly more serious point though. Even moderate Greeks today will feel a twinge of embarrassment when a foreign leader or reporter defaults to the simple, evocative and familiar name “Macedonia” over the decidedly clunkier middle-earth-kingdom-sounding FYROM. This is not necessarily because we all harbour nationalist delusions of grandeur, but rather because it implies that we have de facto lost the diplomatic branding battle, if not to anti-Greek sentiment then to convenience.

Our neighbours, meanwhile, have more material grievances. President Gjorge Ivanov complains that his country has been forced to do Europe’s “dirty work” without receiving any support, because of the EU’s failure to manage migrant flows. Rather than being invited to sit at the negotiating table over the refugee crisis, “Macedonia” is “part of the menu”, he is quoted as saying in German newspaper Bild“For 25 years we’ve been lied to and manipulated… No one in the EU gets along with the Greeks and we are supposed to solve this conflict on our own with this country… Macedonia had achieved nothing out of the European Union, no EU membership, no Schengen zone and not NATO… Nobody wants us.” Peel away the rhetoric of victimhood (which may sound somewhat familiar) and you will see that they consider themselves the bigger losers.

This is the kind of statement that will no doubt be chewed over in the Greek media, but we must keep things in perspective. When you get to the end of this post, go back and read that first sentence again to remember why.

We have enough on our plate at the moment – we don’t need to add a side order of stodgy retro nationalist salad.

POSTSCRIPT: We spoke too soon. Trust right wing nationalist government coalition partner and Defence Minister Panos Kammenos to order extra helpings, purely for internal consumption. After his cabinet colleague Deputy Immigration Minister Ioannis Mouzalas let slip the M-word in a TV interview, Kammenos is now (15th March) demanding his resignation. Kammenos’s ANEL party controls nine seats in the Greek parliament which are crucial to the coalition government retaining its three-seat majority. He is joined in his call by his old party, Nea Demokratia, now in opposition and failing to live up to their “reformist” promise under Kyriakos Mitsotakis – ironically standing up for the cause which, championed by Samaras, unseated his father Konstantinos Mitsotakis back in 1993.

Image: Aerial view of Idomeni camp before the heavy rains by EPA via bbc.co.uk

 

 

Salade Macédoine