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Uprooting anti-Semitism in Greece, starting in the classroom

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By Harry van Versendaal

Experts are urging authorities to take active measures to combat anti-Semitism in Greece after a recent study confirmed the high levels of hatred toward Jews in the country – believed to be the highest in Europe.

Αnti-Semitism, which is shown to thrive at both ends of the ideological spectrum, is believed to be particularly strong in Greece as a result of a deep-rooted sense of collective victimhood nurtured by an overly ethnocentric education system.

“Unfortunately, the findings confirm older surveys showing that Greece has rates of anti-Semitism matching those recorded in countries that neighbor Israel rather than ones in the European Union,” Elias Dinas, political scientist at the University of Oxford, told Kathimerini English Edition.

Conducted by a team of researchers based in Greece and the UK, the 50-page report brings together the findings of two opinion polls conducted in 2014 and 2015. It was published earlier this month by the Thessaloniki branch of the Heinrich Boll Foundation, a political think tank affiliated with the German Green Party.

Of the 1,000 Greeks polled, 65 percent said “Jews exploit the Holocaust to receive better treatment at global decision-making centers.” A similar percentage agreed with the statement that “Israel treats Palestinians exactly the same way that the Nazis treated the Jews” – a view seen as relativizing the Holocaust by placing it in the context of other acts of wholesale violence.

Just over 90 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “Jews have a major influence in the business world.” About 21 percent said Jews should be prohibited from buying land.

More than 37 percent said they have zero level of trust in Jews. Overall, those polled said they trust Jews less than they trust the Orthodox Church, homosexuals, migrants or the European Union. Jewish people were said to be more reliable only when compared to the Greek Parliament, Turks and Americans.

The results echo the findings of an infamous 2014 survey by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which indicated that 68 percent of Greeks “harbor anti-Semitic attitudes” – on a par with Saudi Arabia and more so than Iran.

Valid criticism

Experts found anti-Jewish sentiment to be as strong on the far left of the political scale as on the right. But whereas anti-Semitism among the hard-right is mostly associated with denial or minimization of the Holocaust, hostility from the left is less straightforward and often animated by solidarity with the Palestinians.

“It is true that harder facets of anti-Semitism are more evident on the right, but the left is no stranger to conspiracy theory-driven anti-Semitic attitudes,” said Dinas.

Critics, mostly on the left, complain that the term “anti-Semitism” is often misused to stigmatize legitimate criticism of Israeli settlement policies. However, the report suggests that condemnations of Israel often cross the boundary from valid criticism into territory of denigration that can be considered anti-Semitic. Instances of anti-Semitism can include denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination; using symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism (for example claims that the Jews killed Christ or the classic anti-Semitic charge, known as the blood libel, that Jews use Christian blood for religious rituals) to characterize Israel or Israelis; drawing comparisons between contemporary Israeli policy and that of the Nazis; or holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.

“It is sometimes helpful to keep in mind that Israel is the only democracy in the region and even if it’s fair to criticize it over for example its settlements policy, any comparisons to Nazi Germany or other autocratic regimes are clearly misplaced,” Dinas said.

Jewish monuments and graves are frequently desecrated across Greece. In the latest such incident, a memorial commemorating nearly 1,500 Jews from Kavala, northern Greece, who perished in Nazi death camps was vandalized late March. It was the second attack since it was erected last year.

Anti-Semitic comments are frequently aired by the country’s political class. MPs of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn – which is the third political force in Greece despite its leadership being on trial on charges of running a criminal organization – have openly denied the Holocaust, even in Parliament. Jew-bashing is also common in the mainstream. Panos Kammenos, defense minister and head of the junior coalition partner Independent Greeks, has claimed that “Jews don’t pay taxes.” Conservative MPs Adonis Georgiadis and Thanos Plevris – both of whom defected to New Democracy from the ultranationalist LAOS – have in the past made anti-Semitic remarks, even though they have recently tried to distance themselves from their past sins. Anti-Semitic remarks, mostly in connection to Greece’s economic crisis, have also come from figures on the left-wing populist fringe such as Panayiotis Lafazanis and Rachel Makri.

Politicians aside, the Orthodox Church and the media have also played a role in spreading the seeds of hatred toward Jews. Senior clergymen of the Orthodox Church, which has not officially absolved the Jews for the death of Christ, often make anti-Semitic remarks. Newspapers regularly feature anti-Jewish conspiracy theories, as well as cartoons with anti-Semitic themes or caricatures.

Underdog culture

Typically, most of the problems seem to begin in the classroom.

“It is school that hits people in their impressionable years, particularly as the secularization process is gradually eclipsing the role of the Church,” Dinas said.

More than other institutions, experts say, Greek schools foster a feeling of victimhood, and serve for the socialization and reproduction of an underdog culture which is identified as the fundamental source of Greek anti-Semitism.

“There is this shared conviction that Greeks have been treated more unfairly and suffered more pain than any other people,” Dinas said.

“This creates a feeling of inferiority, envy and competition,” he said.

According to the poll, about 70 percent believe that Greek people have suffered a genocide that is worse or similar to that suffered by the Jews.

It is estimated that 6 million Jews died in Nazi death camps in the Second World War. Greece’s Jewish population, which stood at 73,000 before the war, is currently estimated at 5,000.

“As long as Greek society develops a competitive stance to the Jewish experience and seeks the role of the absolute victim of history and of the great powers that be, the harder it will be to deal with the phenomenon of anti-Semitism,” the report said.

Back to school

The Holocaust and human rights education are all but absent from the Greek school curriculum. In self-fulfilling fashion, 34 percent said they do not want the Holocaust to be taught in schools, the survey showed. Experts found a positive correlation between hatred of Jews and education.

“The results show that while general knowledge does not in the least influence anti-Semitic trends, specific [knowledge] about the Jews appears to drastically reduce levels of anti-Semitism,” the report said. Simply put, the more one knows about the subject, the less likely one is to harbor anti-Semitic prejudices.

So while experts propose a number of measures to fight anti-Semitism, including stricter policing of Jewish monuments, a more stringent code of ethics for politicians and the media, and tougher law enforcement, the findings suggest that the safest bet is to kill anti-Semitism at birth: Update textbooks, retrain teachers, organize school trips to former Nazi concentration camps.

“It is important for the government to recognize the existence of the problem and face it head on,” Leon Saltiel, a historian at the University of Macedonia and one of the authors of the report, told the newspaper.

“Measures to promote education, tolerance, respect and mutual understanding are the only way to build the strong foundations of a democratic and prosperous nation,” he said.


The report “Anti-Semitism in Greece Today: Manifestations, Causes and Tackling of the Phenomenon” was written by researchers Giorgos Antoniou, Spyros Kosmidis, Elias Dinas and Leon Saltiel.

Lawsuit over Islam comments tests boundaries between controversial language and free speech

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By Harry van Versendaal

A lawsuit filed against a Greek author and historian under Greece’s anti-racism legislation over claims she defamed Islam and incited violence via a comment in one of her articles is testing the boundaries between free speech and what could be considered offensive language.

Soti Triantafyllou is set to appear in court on July 21 on charges of using racist language in an article that included a quote, which she attributed to 13th-century Venetian traveler Marco Polo, that said, “The militant Muslim is the person who beheads the infidel, while the moderate Muslim holds the feet of the victim.”

The lawsuit, under Law 4285/2014, was brought by veteran human rights activist Panayote Dimitras, who heads the Greek Helsinki Monitor watchdog group and is in charge of the Racist Crimes Watch blog. In his suit, Dimitras claims that Triantafyllou could have confirmed, just by searching on the internet, that the quote is fake and was never uttered by Polo.

In addition to Triantafyllou’s article, Dimitras has allegedly reported more than 150 other texts or actions to the special prosecutor on racist crimes.

In comments made to Kathimerini English Edition, Triantafyllou described the lawsuit as “an indictment for blasphemy.” The plaintiff believes much more is at stake, but he will have a hard case to make.

Bataclan

Legal experts say that the author’s criticism of Islam needs to be read within the broader context of the article that led to her prosecution – and, more generally, her writings on the topic – and to be understood in light of the events that triggered her reaction.

The article, titled “Rock and Roll will Never Die,” was published in the free magazine Athens Voice in November 2015, the day after jihadi gunmen burst into the Bataclan music hall in Paris and killed 90 people during a series of terrorist attacks in the French capital.

In the same year, Triantafyllou published a book that criticized official multiculturalism for failing to successfully integrate Muslim minorities in Europe. In that book, the author attacks overzealous political correctness on the left of the ideological spectrum for smothering the debate on immigration and the threat of Islamic extremism. She has penned similar articles for several publications.

It is also important to note that the law on the basis of which Triantafyllou is being prosecuted establishes several preconditions that need to be met for its application. Specifically, it will have to be proven in court that the author acted with an intention to incite violence, hate or discrimination against Islam. Furthermore, it will have to be established that this was done in a way that endangered public order, or threatened human life and the physical integrity of individuals.

Dimitras, the man behind the lawsuit, feels Triantafyllou certainly crossed that line.

“According to international law, in the implementation of which Greece’s anti-racism law was introduced, she is not expressing an opinion but engaging in aggression threatening public order and committing incitement to hatred, which is also punishable under Greek law,” Dimitras told the newspaper.

“Freedom of expression exercised in an irresponsible manner through the use of racist speech is not protected by international law or by the Greek laws implementing the country’s international commitments,” he said.

Vassilis Tzevelekos, a senior lecturer in law at the University of Liverpool’s School of Law and Social Justice, is not convinced.

“I fail to see how Triantafyllou’s case could ever be seen as meeting these criteria. I honestly do not understand why the public prosecutor felt that she should be prosecuted,” said Tzevelekos, who specializes in international law and human rights protection.

“Hate speech laws are not designed to prosecute that type of speech,” he said.

The argument is that, regardless whether one agrees with the author on not, she targets a religion focusing on its political manifestations in the context of specific events. And these events – namely terrorist attacks carried out by Islamic militants – raise legitimate concerns as to the extent that they have cost human lives while impacting on public order, democracy and the enjoyment of fundamental human rights.

Free speech

Another red flag, critics say, is that the lawsuit curtails free speech. An eventual conviction of the author, the argument goes, would amount to interference with her freedom of speech.

“The court will be expected to strike a balance between the aims pursued by Greece’s hate speech legislation and freedom of expression,” Tzevelekos said.

Critics of the law point out that the abstract wording of the Greek legislation offers no legal certainty, jeopardizes free speech and allows abuses.

“I see the prosecution against Triantafyllou as being abusive, in misalignment with the aims pursued by hate speech legislation and in conflict with her right to freely disseminate her ideas about a major political issue that concerns our democracy,” Tzevelekos said, speaking in reference to free speech and terrorism.

The prolific and outspoken Triantafyllou says that her enemies interpret the law in a way that constrains free speech which merely causes offense.

“I have time and again been disrespectful toward Islam. These days, you are not allowed to criticize Islam,” she said.

In her political writings, Triantafyllou styles herself as a champion of secular Enlightenment values which she sees as being under threat in Europe from intolerant outsiders and the cultural relativism of the multi-culti left. Her enemies denounce her ideas as thinly disguised racism.

“Muslims are presented as a humiliated and hapless minority. White knights who excel in finding victims defend them against so-called ‘racists,’” she said. “They are waging a war against freedom of speech and common sense.”

The Richter case

Triantafyllou is not the first high-profile target of the anti-racism law. Last year, a Greek court acquitted German historian Heinz Richter of charges that his 2013 book recounting the 1941 Battle of Crete denied Nazi war crimes and defamed the Cretan people.

The court ruled that the case not only lacked merit, but also that the article of the law that was cited was unconstitutional. In a rare move, the judge commented on his decision, saying that Article 2 of the anti-racism law was “incompatible with the Constitution and European law, and as such is ineffective and inapplicable.”

If the Greek court fails to protect Triantafyllou’s right to free speech, it looks like she will have a strong case against the Greek state. If she is convicted, Greek legislators and the judiciary interpreting the hate speech legislation could be found internationally liable for breaches of fundamental human rights law.

“The European Court of Human Rights has a rich case file on free speech that does not just cover information or ideas that are regarded as inoffensive, but also those that offend, shock and disturb,” Tzevelekos said.

As the case heads to court, both sides ironically claim to be fighting in defense of human rights.

Dimitras lashes out at his critics – the small but vociferous club of Greece’s liberal thinkers that have rallied in defense of the author – saying that they are simply favoring the free propagation of racist speech.

“It is they and not we who are obscurantists,” he said.

For her part, Triantafyllou responds that, in the name of stopping bigoted speech, her enemies are seeking to stop all constructive criticism.

“Race and religion are rolled into one. Blindness, social hatred, character assassination, abusive litigation culture: That’s what ‘political correctness’ ends up as,” she said. “But the disturbing truths won’t go away if we ignore them, embellish them or rename them using nice harmless euphemisms. They are here to stay until we face them.”

Thessaloniki doc fest pays tribute to iconoclast art critic John Berger

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By Harry van Versendaal

Organizers of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival will pay tribute to English art critic and author John Berger, who died earlier this year.

Berger, whose groundbreaking 1972 BBC television series and book “Ways of Seeing” is credited with transforming the way in which a generation looked at and understood art, is the subject of two documentary films which will be showcased at the annual event taking place in the northern port city from March 3 to 12.

“The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger” is a four-part cinematic portrait crafted over five years by his actress friend Tilda Swinton, together with Colin MacCabe, Christopher Roth and Bartek Dziadosz.

Also screening is Cordelia Dvorak’s “John Berger: The Art of Looking,” an intimate take on the man’s personality and work on the occasion of his 90th birthday.

Now in its 19th year, the festival will screen more than 210 documentaries – both shorts and feature-length works – by directors from all over the world.

Meanwhile, the Contemporary Art Center of Thessaloniki (Warehouse B1, Thessaloniki Port) will host an exhibition of original artwork by Berger. The show, organized by TDF and the Contemporary Art Center of Thessaloniki – State Museum of Contemporary Art, is the first of its kind since Berger’s death. Some 30 drawings and paintings, video footage and copies of his books will go on display.

A round-table discussion on Berger’s legacy will take place at the same venue on March 8, starting at 7.30 p.m. Speakers will include Berger’s editor and biographer Tom Overton, and Antonis Kotidis, professor emeritus at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki’s Art History Department.

A committed Marxist and vehement critic of capitalism, Berger trained as a painter, but soon turned his hand to writing. He worked as an art critic for the New Statesman for 10 years.

Berger’s novel “G” bagged Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize in 1972. Reacting to reports of slave labor that had enriched the sponsor Booker McConnell, Berger famously pledged to donate half his prize money to the Black Panthers, who were, as he put it, “the black movement with the socialist and revolutionary perspective that I find myself most in agreement with in this country.”

“He showed us how to see, not as individuals, but together,” BBC arts editor Will Gompertz said on the news of Berger’s death. “He showed us how to see art not as a relay race of individual geniuses but as a kind of companionship.”

Having lived for many years in a farmhouse in the French Alps near Mont Blanc, Berger died in Paris in early January. He was 90 years old.

Documentary films take center stage in Thessaloniki

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By Harry van Versendaal

As fake news, alt-facts and post-truths infect the world like a disinformation disease, fact-finding films can serve as a welcome antidote.

In its 19th annual iteration, the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF) will host more more than 213 nonfiction films (64 Greek productions) on a wide range of critical subjects including politics, human rights, art and the environment and two brand-new sections on cinema and food. Hosted at the flagship Olympion and Pavlos Zannas cinemas on Aristotelous Square and the red-brick and steel complex on the docks, the 10-day event runs from March 3 to 12.

The full lineup has not yet been made public, but the organizers have already announced a few of the most powerful offerings among the latest in international documentary production.

In “Austerlitz,” acclaimed Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa observes crowds of visitors at the Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentration camps while subtly examining intricate questions such as historical memory, respect, morality and normality.

Directed by Benthe Forrer of the Netherlands, “The Chocolate Case (Tony)” follows the efforts of investigative journalist-turned-activist Teun van de Keuken and his colleagues to explore child slavery in the chocolate industry all the way to their eventful launch of the world’s first “slave-free” chocolate bar.

Another TDF highlight is “Tower,” a groundbreaking reconstruction of the August 1966 sniper attack at the University of Texas at Austin that left 18 people dead. Director Keith Maitland brings together rotoscope animation, archival footage and present-day interviews, lending dramatic immediacy to an account of what is widely considered the first modern mass shooting.

Festival organizers have prepared a tribute to award-winning Russian director Vitaly Mansky. Born in Lviv, Ukraine, in 1963, Mansky has over the years shot in excess of 30 films that have been showcased at more than 400 international film festivals around the globe. He has worked extensively with amateur private footage shot in the years of the former USSR, before returning to his roots to meet his family members in his latest work, “Close Relations.” In between, Mansky crafted several remarkable features, including his 2015 “Under the Sun,” an unforgiving exposure of North Korea’s powerful propaganda apparatus. The film, which follows an 8-year-old girl as she prepares to celebrate the Day of the Shining Star, the birthday of late strongman Kim Jong-il, sparked a diplomatic tiff between Moscow and Pyongyang after its release.

Joining forces with the quinquennial exhibition Documenta (14), organizers have also prepared a tribute to the work of Italian avant-garde filmmaking duo Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi. Since breaking into the film scene in 1986 with “From the Pole to the Equator,” an arty, experimental comment on the dark side of Western civilization, the directors have mostly depended on found archival footage to make films about war, colonialism and exploitation.

WWF Greece slams government for violations of environmental rulebook

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By Harry van Versendaal

An annual report released by the local branch of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) shames Greece for systematic violations of the environmental rulebook, while lamenting the waste of a historic opportunity to make the financial crisis a starting point towards a “truly sustainable economy.”

“We are pretty much in the same mess as last year. Despite some progress in certain areas, the overall picture is quite grim,” WWF Greece chief executive Dimitris Karavelas told a press conference Tuesday at the organization’s headquarters in Athens.

“This is the picture of a country that is paying a hefty price for inaction, a lack of transparency, the ‘tidying up’ of violations and bad legislation,” Karavelas said.

“This is the picture of a country that is killing its own hopes for a truly sustainable economy,” he added.

Among other faults, the annual study, now in its 12th year, criticized the leftist-led government for not doing enough to curb illegal construction, for its plans to build new coal plants and for lax waste management resulting in more European fines.

‘In tatters’

The Environment Ministry is drafting a bill that will make it easier for homeowners to protect illegal buildings from demolition. Under the proposed legislation, the charges for homes at the lower end of the scale in terms of value would be reduced in a bid to encourage owners to come forward and register their property and pay the appropriate penalty.

The draft bill has triggered alarm bells among environmentalists, as it contains provisions widely seen as a precursor to the legalization of illegal residential developments in forests and woodlands.

“Legislation to protect forest areas is in tatters,” said Theodota Nantsou, head of policy for WWF Greece.

The near 150-page report also criticized plans by Public Power Corporation (PPC) to construct two new lignite-powered plants in Ptolemaida and Meliti, in northern Greece.

Greece has signed the 2015 Paris Agreement, a binding global compact to slash greenhouse gases and keep global temperature increases to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius.

Meanwhile, a 2013 study commissioned by WWF questioned the economic viability of the PPC projects.

Filthy habits

The WWF report also lambasted delays and omissions in implementing waste management regulations that have repeatedly triggered warnings and fines from European authorities.

The European Court of Justice earlier this year ruled that Greece has violated key EU laws on hazardous waste management and slapped Greece with heavy financial sanctions: a lump sum of 10 million euros, plus a penalty payment of 30,000 for every day of delay in complying with the decision. This came on the back of a 10-million-euro fine last year for flouting European regulations regarding the management of urban wastewater.

Quoting recent data by the European Commission, WWF said Greece is second among the 28-member EU bloc in the number of open legal cases it faces with regard to infringements of EU environmental rules.

The WWF report acknowledged some positive steps, including an initiative to expand the areas in the EU’s Natura 2000 network (up to 1.93 million hectares of marine areas, among them the Gulf of Corinth, the sea around Crete, the coasts of Paxoi, Pylos and Andros, and the sea between Kavala and Thasos) and the introduction of designated marine wildlife parks.

Strong card

WWF officials dismissed skepticism that the environmental rollback is the unavoidable byproduct of a painful financial crisis that has seen the country’s gross domestic product drop by about 25 percent since 2008.

“Things do not necessarily have to be this way. All this does not derive from some bailout commitment, it is not mandated by the financial crisis. What we see is the outcome of intended policy decisions,” Karavelas said.

“We still believe that Greece should use its strongest card, its natural environment, and that this could contribute to a truly sustainable way out of the crisis,” he said.

Covering the refugee crisis: Rules of engagement

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By Harry van Versendaal

As soaked asylum seekers in the mud-choked tent city at Idomeni marched through the sprawling camp to protest the border shutdown by authorities in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), a rain-drenched Giorgos Moutafis followed them with his camera. Reports the following day said three Afghans were found dead, believed to have drowned when a group of about 20 refugees attempted to cross the Suha Reka river on the other side of the border.

Three days later, sitting inside a cozy and dry theater in the port city of Thessaloniki, about a one-and-a-half hour drive from the makeshift camp, Moutafis discussed the journalistic, moral but also psychological challenges of documenting the ongoing crisis.

“I often take photos and cry at the same time. It is impossible to remain uninvolved emotionally,” he said during a panel discussion on the sidelines of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF), which this year returned with a tribute to migration. Having repeatedly highlighted the subject in previous years, one got the impression that the 2016 TDF was saying, “Told you so.”

As the refugee crisis deepens and the death toll rises, professional reporters often find themselves putting the stringent non-engagement code of principle on the back burner. A photo published by AFP in November showed Moutafis assisting an injured woman lying on the seashore after arriving on Lesvos island.

“You have to tell the story. But you can only go as far as your limits. You have to live with your conscience,” he said.

Since entering the field in 2007, the 38-year-old photographer has covered several conflicts and humanitarian disasters in more than 20 countries for a number of respected international publications including Newsweek, Time, The Guardian and The New Yorker. Recent developments sent him closer to home. He has spent the past year shunting between Idomeni, Lesvos and Kos, the latter two being the eastern Aegean islands on the front line of Europe’s refugee crisis.

Moutafis has taken thousands of photos and shot many hours of video footage which he plans to use for a future documentary project. His pictures include dozens of bodies of drowned people that were found on Greek shores, often by him first. He is not apologetic about these images. Instead, he believes that disturbing shots can have a consciousness-shifting potential, or what is commonly called “shock value.”

“I believe in the power of the image. It’s time to shock people. It could be a way to prompt people into action,” he said, adding that pictures can and should be taken in a way that shows respect for the subject as well as the audience.

Since January 2014, some 1,161 people have died on the Aegean crossing, according to data compiled by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

“We must not allow ourselves to get used to the idea of people dying, we must not allow ourselves to grow immune to this spectacle,” he said.

The debate on the use of graphic images gained fresh intensity last year following the publication of a photograph depicting the tiny body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach, face down in the waves. Most newspapers chose to publish the image, although in some cases pixelated. The impact, at least in the short term, was evident as charities supporting migrants and refugees reported a significant increase in donations in the following days.

The iconic photograph was last month recreated by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who lay face down on a pebbled beach on Lesvos. Several critics found the gesture to be in bad taste. In another controversial stunt staged at Idomeni last week, the famous artist set up a white piano in the middle of a muddy field before inviting an aspiring Syrian pianist to play for the first time in years. A tent filled with an actual refugee family and a small campfire was set up next to the piano. Ai said that the act was more than a performance. It was “life itself” and showed that “art will overcome the war.” The artist held a plastic tarp over the pianist to protect her from the pouring rain as she played a rather basic melody. A small group of refugees watched in wonder. One witness criticized the stunt as “cheap and superficial.”

Although art can serve a very real purpose using its own idiosyncratic vocabulary, it is rarely held accountable for its effectiveness or historical accuracy. The media, on the other hand, have an obligation to stick to a more literal language.

“Pompous as it may sound, this is history in the making. As photographers we have a responsibility toward the historians of the future,” Moutafis said.

Dozens of journalists working for the world’s leading news agencies, including Reuters, The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Al Jazeera, have in recent weeks flocked to the frontier to cover developments with the help of computers, satellite vans and the latest trend in refugee coverage: drones. When not on duty, you will usually find the pack drying their feet and cleaning their equipment at Asimenia’s, a taverna-turned-media-hub – complete with brand-new Wi-Fi and plug extensions – in the nearby village of Plagia.

Back in the camp, refugees dogged by a shortage of food, medicine and drinking water await the outcome of a key European Union summit with Turkey in Brussels on Thursday. This is unlikely to go in their favor, at least in terms of lifting border restrictions for the more than 45,000 people now stranded in Greece.

In a desperate attempt earlier this week, about 2,000 refugees tried to find a way around the border fence in order to cross into FYROM. Up to 80 reporters, aid workers and volunteers were arrested by FYROM police during the attempt.

As he continues to document their fate, Moutafis remains sober about his part in all of this.

“Let’s not overestimate the photographers’ role here,” he said. “We are not doing anything special. The real heroes are the people living in the mud-bogged tents.”

Mitsotakis gives rise to liberal hopes but analysts advise caution

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By Harry van Versendaal

The recent election of Kyriakos Mitsotakis as leader of New Democracy has inspired hope among liberal voters anticipating a paradigm shift in Greek politics. It has also sparked concern among smaller centrist parties which are wary of losing their monopoly over liberal ideas.

None of this is likely to happen, analysts say.

The 47-year-old Mitsotakis, a former administrative reform minister, defeated Evangelos Meimarakis, a party veteran from the populist right faction of ND, in a runoff vote that was open to all party members on January 10. He is the scion of a political dynasty but this has often worked to his disadvantage. A US-educated ex-banker, Mitsotakis is commonly described as a free market reformist and diehard enemy of statism. His political enemies prefer to dub him “neoliberal.”

Pragmatism

Despite these credentials, analysts are skeptical of Mitsotakis’s willingness, let alone his ability, to steer the conservative opposition into a more liberal direction.

One reason is that renewing New Democracy and making it electable are not necessarily compatible tasks. Mitsotakis’s effort to balance between these two strategic objectives, analysts say, will to a large degree determine his party’s nascent identity.

“Although rejuvenating the party in terms of political personnel and policies may allow plenty of room for liberal ideas, bringing it back to power requires unity and compromise,” said Lamprini Rori, a political scientist at Bournemouth University and leading member of Brosta, a progressive political think tank.

Mitsotakis will be expected to cooperate with officials who belong to the party’s conservative faction and who supported him during the campaign – like Adonis Georgiadis, a hardline nationalist who endorsed Mitsotakis after being knocked out in the first round in December. At the same time, many of the MPs who displayed their liberal credentials by, for example, recently voting in favor of the cohabitation pact for same sex couples – former ministers Olga Kefaloyianni, Nikos Dendias, even his sister Dora Bakoyiannis – kept their distance from the new leader during his campaign.

Climbing back to power following two electoral defeats at the hands of SYRIZA (four if you count the European Parliament elections in 2014 and the bailout referendum last year) will also require an overture to voters both to the left and right of New Democracy.

“If ND wants to become a serious contender, it will have to appeal to the center while repatriating voters from Independent Greeks and Golden Dawn,” Rori noted in reference to the ND splinter group founded by Panos Kammenos which is the junior partner in the coalition government, and the neo-fascist party.

“In other words, seeking ideological purity on the basis of a solid liberal credo would be politically damaging for New Democracy,” she said.

Tension between free market ideology and traditional conservatism has always been present inside New Democracy’s political religion since its establishment by the late Constantine Karamanlis in 1974.

“Their coexistence has always been considered a given. One cannot easily show the others the door or leave the party for that reason,” said Iannis Konstantinidis, a political expert at the University of Macedonia and head researcher at the ProRata polling company, suggesting that a ND breakup is not in the cards.

The parliamentary vote on the cohabitation pact exposed the limits of social tolerance inside the conservative party. Only 19 MPs – including Mitsotakis – supported the law, 29 voted against and 27 abstained.

Ideological tension naturally cuts across ND’s grassroots supporters. According to so far unpublished data collected by ProRata ahead of the January 10 ballot, 29 percent of voters described New Democracy as a “liberal party,” while 17 percent said it was a “conservative party.”

“In the eyes of the public, New Democracy is neither a clear-cut liberal nor a clear-cut conservative party,” said Konstantinidis.

“The new leader will as a result find it hard to choose one direction over the other,” he said.

Impact

All that should trigger caution against overestimating the impact of Mitsotakis’s election on the liberal parties of the political center.

Potami – which, despite its underwhelming performance in the September 2015 elections, remains the largest and most successful liberal party in recent Greek history – is on standby.

“New Democracy is weighed down by conservative elements; we will only be able to work with them if [Mitsotakis] does away with them,” Potami leader Stavros Theodorakis said this week.

“We would work with the devil in order to change the country, let alone with anyone who shares reformist ideas. For the time being, we have unanimously decided not to join forces with any of the worn-down parties,” he said.

Potami has planned a national congress in February to decide its next steps. During a radio interview earlier this week, Spyros Lykoudis, a left-wing reformist MP, suggested that the magnitude of Mitsotakis’s impact will depend on whether Potami will choose to identify itself as a centrist liberal party or a left-of-center alternative.

Meanwhile, the leader of the pro-business Drasi party, which joined the Potami ticket in the January polls, sounds keener about the prospect of working with New Democracy.

“We are willing to help build something liberal in this country. The election of Mitsotakis is a catalyst in this direction,” said Theodoros Skylakakis, who has previously collaborated with Bakoyannis.

“Mitsotakis’s social and, to a lesser extent, economic liberalism will surely squeeze centrist parties, including the politically damaged Potami party,” Konstantinidis said.

“However, given that the leader of a typical catch-all party will seek to bring together all the different tendencies within it, policy similarities between Mitsotakis and Potami will decrease,” he said.

Ironically, the ascension of Mitsotakis to the helm of ND appears to pose less of a threat to Potami’s singularity than had he not been elected. A beaten Mitsotakis, perhaps joined by other officials from ND’s liberal faction, would have been more tempted to form a center-right, liberal party.

“Mitsotakis’s victory in the leadership race essentially traps liberalism within the walls of New Democracy and, in such conditions, it may lose its impact as it is unlikely to be more dominant than conservatism,” Konstantinidis said.

Relevance

For their part, the country’s smaller liberal parties will have to decide whether they will go it alone or merge with one of their bigger albeit adulterated relatives. Cooperating with one of the mainstream parties could prove self-destructive in the long term as future voters would be tempted to side with the stronger partner in a coalition.

Before making up their mind, they would be advised to first answer a more existential question: How relevant is a full-fledged liberal party in a political environment dominated by populism and under an electoral law that punishes small parties?

“Sure, there are issues where liberals could gain issue ownership like the separation between Church and state, the scrapping of permanent jobs in the public sector, or the protection of individual rights,” Rori said.

“But we may have to accept that these issues are not salient enough in the mind of the average voter.”


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