Posts Tagged 'Russia'

No one-size-fits-all policy for the crisis

By Harry van Versendaal

When Latvia was hit by a financial crisis in 2008, the government had few qualms about embracing cost-cutting measures and structural reforms, while keeping its national currency pegged to the euro.

Now in the waiting room for eurozone membership, due in January 2014, this Baltic nation’s decision makers appear undeterred by a rather skeptical public and the woes dogging other eurozone countries, most prominently Greece.

In an interview with Kathimerini English Edition during his visit to Athens this week, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said he sees his country’s euro entry as a further step into the West by the former Soviet republic after it joined the European Union in 2004.

Notwithstanding Latvia’s portrayal by several Western policymakers as a poster child for austerity that could serve as a roadmap for other troubled economies, Rinkevics is reluctant to draw parallels with Greece, stressing instead the economic and cultural particularities of each country.

The eurozone is in crisis but Latvia still plans to join in January 2014. Haven’t you been deterred by the difficulties faced by countries using the single currency?

I really do not believe that the problems are caused by the single currency. We have seen – and also our own experience between 2008 and 2011 has shown – that the currency has had no direct effect on the crisis. It’s about the economic and financial policies of the country in question. Keeping this in mind, we see eurozone membership as an opportunity to boost trade relations with other countries in the euro area. Membership however is also a geopolitical choice. By signing the accession treaties here in Greece 10 years ago, we joined a political and economic union. But we still have to integrate more in terms of the financial system, transportation and energy. In a way, it completes the move away from the former Soviet Union to a more European union.

Is the close presence of Russia also a geopolitical incentive?

It’s more about the economic and financial security of the country. It’s more about deeper integration in the EU. Given that, I would not say that joining the eurozone is specifically against somebody. It’s about boosting our own standing when it comes to politics and the economy.

Polls show that only one in three Latvians wants to join the euro. Why is the figure so low and is this enough support to give the government’s decision legitimacy?

First, our public reads what is happening in the eurozone. Two or three years ago, newspapers, Internet media, TV and radio were full of doomsday scenarios that the euro is going to crash and that the eurozone is finishing, which is not what we see now. We actually see that the eurozone is well and alive. Secondly, it’s also an emotional issue. Our currency, the lat, was reintroduced after Latvia gained independence back in 1993, and for 20 years the currency has been very stable. We had a very strong monetary policy by the Bank of Latvia; we did not devalue even when probably it could have been a possible course of action back in 2008 and 2009. So there is a very strong emotional attachment to the currency and even if people understand that there can be gains, they still find it hard to say good bye.

How to tackle this [public skepticism]? I think the only way is for the people to see that nothing bad happens. Money is money, what you call it does not really say much. It is going to take about six months to a year for people to see the effects and to understand that actually nothing bad happens.

How will the Latvian people react if the country has to contribute to eurozone crisis funding after it joins?

That’s something that certainly people really don’t want to do. But this is about solidarity and we also remind ourselves that it was the IMF and the EU that actually saved our country back in 2009 by providing loans. Solidarity works both ways.

Are you worried about growing Euroskepticism in Europe?

Yes, although as far as Latvia is concerned, the recent Eurobarometer poll showed an interesting picture. Ten years after joining the EU, 57 percent of the general population believe that membership has benefited more than caused problems, against an average EU rate of 54 percent.

Decision making

Within a European Union where the power to make decisions appears to be increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small group of member states, what role is there for smaller countries like Greece and Latvia to play?

I think that with things being delegated to Brussels – particularly economic and financial issues such as banking union and more regulation of financial institutions – we still have an opportunity to use instruments like the Council, where we can work with like-minded countries to change or influence decisions that are not really in our interest. We had a very good experience when discussing the so-called Friends of Cohesion group, where Athens and Riga worked together to make sure that countries that receive European funds – including Greece and Latvia – prevent drastic cuts to the European budget.

There are some areas, like EU foreign policy, where I would like to see a more unified approach. We have a lot of success stories, like the EU standing on Syria, the EU standing on Iran. But then you have the Middle East peace process, where you have three different groups. Similarly, the EU policy on Russia has not always been unified.

Do you see any areas where it would be possible for Greece and Latvia to help each other?

Certainly. As we join the eurozone we are interested in working more closely with Greece on reform and development of eurozone policies, banking and financial regulations. Secondly, I think we have common interests and will work together because our presidency is in the first half of 2015, and then there is the Eastern Partnership initiative. I also expect that your presidency is going to address EU institutional issues – there can be a discussion about some changes in the institutional framework and this is something that small countries are particularly sensitive about.

As far as NATO is concerned, we are both members of this alliance and we have already worked quite closely also on issues that are related to, for instance, Article 5 operations and exercises [Article 5 requires NATO member states to come to the aid of any member state that comes under armed attack]. Greece is currently participating in a NATO exercise in the Baltic area. Also, we understand your concerns about immigration policy, so there are plenty of issues of common interest. And, of course, economic cooperation, which is probably not reaching the highest level and there is room to expand, and tourism.

Crisis response

What would you say were the main reasons for Latvia overcoming its crisis? What kind of austerity measures were involved?

It seems to me that each country has to tackle the crisis in its own way, taking into account its own history, traditions, structure of society, economy and so on. But we basically did three things. One was to introduce very severe cuts to public spending. These had been implemented by the end of 2008, and by the end of the crisis we had cut our public sector on average by 25-30 percent. All ministries suffered very severe cuts, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs lost about 30 percent of its employees. The remaining staff had their salaries slashed by about an average 30 percent. Operational budgets were also cut. Second, we did our best to keep programs that were co-financed by the EU. That was almost the only stimulus package for our economic growth. And third, while we were cutting our public expenditure, some taxes were raised, such as personal income tax and VAT.

Now, in the third year of economic growth, we are actually going back to reducing some taxes. People need to feel the crisis is over. Yes, on a macroeconomic level everyone considers we are out of the woods, but on a personal level, it is only now that people are probably starting to feel a modest increase in their salaries.

You say every country has to deal with the crisis in its own way. Does Latvia then not vindicate the tough approach taken in bailing out countries like Greece and Portugal?

Latvia, as well as Estonia and Lithuania are sometimes mentioned as good examples of how you do things. At the same time, we live in the north and that makes a difference. The root causes of our economic and financial crisis were different from those here in the south. We had an enormous real estate problem. After joining the EU, salaries skyrocketed in many areas. And, of course, they then went down like a stone. Public perception of what happened and who was responsible was also different. The new government that came in in 2009 was able to convince people that things had gone wrong because of bad polices introduced by a couple of governments before, and people actually acknowledged this. Our prime minister is in his fifth year in power, which is kind of a record for our country, where we tend to change governments and prime ministers quite often – even in good times. There was a general understanding among the public regarding the austerity policy. It was bad, but it was the right thing to do.

Did the Protestant culture in your country play a part in helping your country adjust? Did the fact that your country had been occupied for so many years also have an impact on how people accepted the measures?

It certainly worked, I think you are right. It was part of the solution. But, let’s face it, another part – which is now also an issue in Greece as far as I know – was that a lot of people left for jobs and opportunities in the UK, Ireland and other countries.

Government critics have said that high emigration was used to mask Latvia’s unemployment problem.

It helped mitigate the social effects. However, if you look at figures from the good years following EU accession in 2004, emigration was already in full swing as people were now free to move abroad for studies or work. Interestingly, we are starting to see that some of these people are starting to return as they are being offered competitive jobs [in Latvia].

What are the other major problems caused by the cuts you pursued?

Certainly one issue is the quality of public services after a lot of people left the government. Some cuts have been too severe and we need to rebalance. Another is how to get our demographic problems solved as birthrates dropped during the crisis years, in fact, for the second time – the first was in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed and we had to change our whole economic and social system. Demography is a problem for most EU countries and is closely connected to the issue of social security reform. We had to raise the retirement age from 62 to 65 and to severely cut social security programs including unemployment benefits.

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From a kiss to disillusion

By Harry van Versendaal

“We won in an open and honest battle,” a teary-eyed Vladimir Putin told a crowd of Muscovites in front of the Kremlin after garnering 64 percent of the vote in Russia’s presidential election on March 5. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of members of the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi were bused into the capital from around the country to attend the victory rally.

But not Masha Drokova.

The reasons are explained in “Putin’s Kiss,” a gripping documentary by Danish director Lise Birk Pedersen screened at this year’s documentary festival in Thessaloniki (TDF) which is hosting a tribute to filmmakers from the Nordic nation.

Born in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall crumbled into souvenirs, Masha was catapulted to national fame after planting a kiss on Putin’s cheek during a televised publicity stunt. The photo-op propelled this pretty and articulate teenager to the top echelons of Putin’s Nashi youth brigade, which was formed in 2005 following pro-democracy revolutions in neighboring Ukraine and Georgia to take on enemies of Putinism.

Pedersen’s 84-minute feature charts Masha’s precipitous rise inside the Nashi structure — complete with an apartment, a brand-new car, a place at a respected Moscow university and a TV talk show — and eventual disenchantment with the movement.

Interestingly, this is not what the Danish director had originally set out to do. Pedersen’s intention, rather, was to deliver a modern take on contemporary Russia by looking at the first generation to come of age following the collapse of the USSR. While shooting in the former communist country, she ran into Masha, a 18-year-old girl who loved Putin and everything about his “new Russia” image of stability and prosperity. She was already a Nashi member.

“When I encountered Masha and Nashi I was very intrigued by both: Masha [intrigued me] as an almost iconic picture of the youth, a generation that wants to move ahead and make success for itself as well as the country. And Nashi by being on the one hand modern, in the way it reaches out to the new generation, and at the same time reminiscent of Soviet times with its close ties to the ruling power,” Pedersen told Kathimerini English Edition in an interview.

Gaining access to the organization proved a rather easy task. As Nashi spokesperson, Masha did not hesitate to invite Pedersen to the group’s meetings, summer camps and protest rallies. “My approach to Nashi was not critical, but I was interested in finding out what Nashi was all about,” Pedersen said.

“I think this opened some doors to a certain extent. But I was never allowed to get into the inner circle, where the real decisions were made,” she said.

Some of these “decisions” concerned alleged attacks on members of the opposition.

When Oleg Kashin, an independent journalist whom Masha befriends despite their ideological differences, is brutally attacked in a politically motivated beating, she becomes disillusioned with the movement.

Despite the group’s dubious record, Pedersen says she never felt threatened. “I didn’t feel I was in any danger and I know that Masha didn’t feel that she was in danger either. But of course I often thought about this issue while making the film — particularly after what happened to Oleg,” she said.

Private e-mails allegedly hacked by a group calling itself the Russian arm of Anonymous recently showed Nashi running a network of online trolls and bloggers paid to praise the Putin system and slander opposition activists and media.

Thousands of Nashi activists were reportedly bused into Moscow from the provinces to take on opposition protesters — mostly from Russia’s wealthier, more vocal middle class — who took to the streets en masse after widespread allegations of fraud during parliamentary elections in December.

As far as she knows, Pedersen says, Masha did not take part in any of the opposition demos, which she reckons are a symptom of Putin overstretching his power. “When he went out and said, ‘Now the comedy is over, I will come back again,’ I think that the young generation felt that he was making a fool out of them. The young generation have been raised in freedom and they want more. When Putin announced his return, the young generation saw it as a step backwards for them and for Russia.”

Analysts have said that having won a comfortable election victory, Putin will now be tempted to strengthen his hand against the opposition. Demonstrators have vowed to keep going despite Putin’s victory, but Pedersen has mixed feelings about the prospects of the movement.

“I think if we don’t see any democratic reforms in Russian society, the protests will continue,” she said. “But on the other hand, the protesters will probably also find it hard to keep with the large turnouts after the elections.”

Gas deposits fuel old and new rivalries

By Harry van Versendaal

Things have never been too tranquil in this corner of the Mediterranean, and the recent discovery of large deposits of gas beneath the waters off Israel and Cyprus hasn’t made things any easier.

You can almost hear the tectonic plates of regional politics shifting — and Nicosia’s recent decision to drill for hydrocarbons off the divided island’s southern coast has only accelerated the process.

Ankara’s once-hyped “zero-problems” policy with its neighbors these days sounds more like a bad joke as Turkey’s warnings for retaliation against Cyprus and Greece keep coming thick and fast. The dispute has meanwhile deepened Turkey’s rift with Israel, once a close economic and military partner.

Turkey, which does not recognize the Republic of Cyprus in the island’s south, opposes any drilling, insisting the profits from any discoveries must be distributed between the two communities on the island. But Ankara — which alone recognizes the breakaway state established in the north following the Turkish invasion of 1974 in response a Greek-backed military coup — will hardly find any support for its argument away from home.

“If we are talking from a strictly UN legal point of view, the arguments of an occupying country should not count much,” Burak Bekdil, a columnist for the Hurriyet Daily News, told Kathimerini English Edition.

Cyprus has signed an agreement with Egypt and Israel to delineate exclusive economic zones so that the neighboring states can exploit any hydrocarbon deposits within their boundaries. Block 12, the area said to contain the reserves, lies within Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone.

“Even according to Turkey’s logic, there is absolutely no legal basis [for opposing the drilling],” political analyst Stavros Lygeros said.

Noble Energy, a Texas-based company, launched the drilling work this week. Turkey responded with a warning that unless Cyprus halted the project, it would send warships to protect its claims to undersea resources in the area. This was the latest in a series of rough-edged statements that have gone as far as to suggest that Turkey will resort to military action to defend its cause.

Most analysts have downplayed the Turkish warnings as formulaic chest-thumping designed to scare off potential foreign investors (in a not-so-well-disguised attempt at blackmail, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday threatened to blacklist any international oil and gas firms that chose to work on the new Cypriot project) and prop up its image as top dog in the region.

“Turkey will try more to maintain an assertive posture for domestic consumption rather than really try to block the drilling. Physically, harassment may be possible, but intervention with the aim of prevention is not,” Bekdil said.

“I would rather expect a lot of retaliatory moves from Ankara which, in a way, would be a sign of its inability to block the Cypriot drilling,” he added.

After signing a continental shelf pact with the breakaway state so as to conduct drills of its own earlier this week, Turkey on Thursday announced that Piri Reis, a research ship, would leave for gas exploration off Cyprus on Friday. But a senior US official who wished to remain anonymous told Kathimerini that Erdogan assured US President Barack Obama that Ankara has no intention of escalating the situation further.

Hugh Pope, an Istanbul-based expert with the International Crisis Group think tank, also doubts that the tiff will escalate into an actual clash.

“You will observe that Turkey is making its point with military support for its activities in what are effectively Turkish-Cypriot waters — that is, a place where the Turkish armed forces have worked unimpeded for 37 years,” he said.

Turkey is pretty much on its own as the EU (keen to minimize dependence on Russian gas), the US and Russia have all given Nicosia the go-ahead with the drilling. But it may still take action to defend its status as nascent hegemon in the Muslim world — especially since Israel, its newfound antagonist, is part of the equation.

Israel’s relations with Turkey — once its sixth-largest trading partner — have soured as Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted administration has opted to sacrifice the longstanding alliance with the Jewish state for the sake of brandishing Turkey’s image as the primus inter pares in the Arab world. (Much to Washington’s dismay, the Arab Spring seems to have taken a toll on another strategic partnership — that between Israel and Egypt.)

Earlier this month, Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador after Tel Aviv refused to apologize for last year’s Gaza flotilla incident that resulted in the death of nine Turkish citizens. Ankara said it would send naval vessels to escort any future aid envoy.

“The ‘zero-problems’ policy has officially collapsed after tension with Syria, Iran, Iraqi Kurdistan, Greece, Cyprus and Israel. Now the Egypt link will flourish for some time, like the Syrian link did once, and it too will collapse,” Bekdil said.

“This volatile region has not spent the last two millennia waiting for [Ahmet] Davutoglu to bring peace. He is a dreamer,” Bekdil said of Turkey’s ambitious foreign minister who likes to see Turkey as the natural heir to the Ottoman Empire that once united the Arab world.

Bekdil nevertheless thinks Ankara will maintain its assertive stance for two reasons: “There is Turkish and Arab demand for that; and Erdogan and Davutoglu see Turkey in a self-aggrandizing mirror,” he said.

Tel Aviv turnabout

Athens has sought to capitalize on the Turkish turnabout and, in a sign of shifting loyalties — and in stark contrast to the late Andreas Papandreou’s pro-Arab legacy — it prevented a fresh group of Gaza activists from sailing from the Greek coast earlier this year.

Greece, says Lygeros, is naturally adapting to geopolitical developments — and to Cyprus’s interests — meaning that support for Palestine is now on the back burner. “After all, no matter how hard it tries, Greece could never be a match for Turkey in the Arab world,” Lygeros said.

Israel has its own reasons to go Greek. From a geopolitical perspective, the Athens-Nicosia route is now the only politically safe and culturally friendly passage to the West. Greece and Cyprus are secular democracies and members of the European Union at a time when reluctance among Europeans to take Turkey on board is soaring.

A closer relationship with the Jewish state comes with an economic reward. For natural gas to be shipped to the West in a cost-effective manner, it has to be condensed to a liquid. Cyprus seems a safe alternative to the Israeli coast, which lies within range of Hamas rockets. An Israeli energy company has reportedly offered Nicosia a deal to build a facility on the island for processing and exporting natural gas.

Greek Cypriots, who recently saw an explosion knock out the island’s main power station, are naturally tempted by the idea of becoming a regional hub for exporting natural gas.

“At the same time, a closer alliance with Israel will allow Cyprus to avoid some of Turkey’s bullying,” Lygeros said.

‘Nail in the coffin’

Recent developments will unavoidably impact on peace negotiations on the island which the UN would — rather optimistically — like to wrap up by mid-2012, when Cyprus takes the helm of the EU’s rotating presidency.

“It is a near nail in the coffin for reunification talks,” Bekdli said of the energy-related squabble, although he admits realpolitik may dictate new parameters next year.

Turning the argument on its head, Pope says the drilling episodes show how the gradual seizing up of the talks is leading to deeper tendencies of divergence between the two communities.

“If the two sides do not choose to work for reunification, the alternative will be a slide towards partition, and while both sides can live with this trend, the long-term costs could be greater than any riches from the seabed,” Pope said.

A fuming Erdogan on Wednesday slammed the drilling as a “sabotage” of the negotiating process.

Bekdil choses to remain cynical. “I never believed Erdogan et al genuinely wanted reunification. They faked, knowing they could deceive a willing chorus of Greeks and EU optimists,” he said.

Pandora in Kosovo

Photo by Matt Lutton

By Harry van Versendaal

A ruling by the United Nation’s highest court last week on Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008 prompted frustration in Belgrade and triumphalism in Pristina but legal experts remain uncertain about the exact meaning and the implications of the decision for the divided region and beyond.

The much-anticipated decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague, which was passed in a 10-to-4 vote by the judges, had a Delphic quality: While saying that the declaration of independence was not in violation of international law, it stopped short of stating that Kosovo is a legal state.

“The ruling in fact has very little real meaning. In fact, we are not clearer on whether Kosovo’s secession is legal than we were before. The court simply said that the declaration of independence as a statement did not infringe any international laws. Anyone can declare independence, in other words. What matters is the act of recognition – an issue that the court steered well away from,” James Ker-Lindsay, a Balkan expert at the London School of Economics (LSE), told Athens Plus.

Lack of clarity did not stop Pristina from hailing the decision, which is non-binding, as a victory. Serbs, their fortune and confidence tarnished by a series of lost wars in the 1990s, reacted angrily at the prospect of giving up this chunk of land traditionally seen as the nation’s historic heartland. Lawmakers this week passed a resolution that their country will never recognize Kosovo as an independent state, while the government launched a diplomatic marathon to halt further recognitions by foreign states. Kosovo, which has been under UN administration since a NATO air raid in 1999 ended a Serb crackdown on independence-seeking ethnic Albanians, has so far been recognized by 69 states, including the US and most EU governments – but not Greece. It has a population of 2 million, 90 percent of whom are ethnic Albanians.

Pandora’s box

Analysts had warned that a pro-independence ruling would have a Pandora’s box effect, emboldening separatist movements in areas such as Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Somaliland and northern Cyprus. In a nod to such concerns, shared by states like China, Russia, Spain, Romania, Cyprus and Greece, the court deftly fought shy of a political decision.

“The ruling has very little effect on separatist movements – and that is where the judges have been particularly shrewd. Again, anyone can declare independence. It is whether it is recognized that matters,” Ker-Lindsay said.

For Stefan Wolff, professor of international security at the University of Birmingham, the ICJ did not rule on whether the declaration of independence had any legal implications, which is essentially what other secessionist movements would need to make Kosovo’s case a precedent. But legal technicalities, he warns, will not be enough to stop the trend. “There is little doubt in my mind that secessionists elsewhere will interpret the court opinion in their favor,” Wolff said.

Might is right

Does Cyprus have reasons to worry? Ker-Lindsay says that the ICJ ruling will have no immediate effect on Cyprus, as the unilateral declaration of independence by the Turkish Cypriots was in fact explicitly declared to be illegal by the UN Security Council. “Had it happened today, we could be dealing with a very different situation. But it didn’t and we aren’t,” he said.

Despite successive UN resolutions, Turkish troops continue to occupy the northern third of the island since 1974. During a visit to Nicosia last week, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle was at pains to reassure Cyprus.

“This was very specific expertise, it has nothing to do with any other cases in the world… It’s a unique decision, in a unique situation with a unique historical background,” he said.

LSE historian Svetozar Rajak is more skeptical, suggesting that a lot depends on your friends. “As the case of Kosovo has shown, if there is enough backing from the international community, any situation, in existence today or in the future, including Cyprus, may end up before the ICJ,” he said.

What next for Serbia?

Analysts agree that instead of wasting time and energy on what seems to be a lost cause, Belgrade should engage in practical cooperation that will allow it to one day join the EU.

But a pragmatic shift won’t come naturally. Reacting to the ruling of the ICJ earlier this week, Belgrade said that it will not change its policy of treating Kosovo as its territory, while it vowed to continue its fight to reopen status negotiations at the UN’s General Assembly.

Fortunately, this time war is not in the cards. Rebuffing nationalist calls for a military response, Serb President Boris Tadic this week said Belgrade will seek a compromise. “We are in a very difficult situation… but we won’t beat the war drums,” he said. “We cannot protect our interests in Kosovo without integration into the European Union and good relations with the United States, Russia and China.”

That does not mean that Belgrade will not be tempted to block Kosovo’s membership of regional organizations and even block the free movement of people and goods. But it’s hard to see how it will stick with a policy that undermines its EU hopes for too long.

“Given the catastrophic economic situation Serbia is in and obvious inability of the government in Belgrade to offer solutions, it may be tempted to accept any and every carrot from the EU, in exchange for the recognition of Kosovo independence,” Rajak said, adding that there seems to be little effective opposition from the existing political factors at home.

Some observers, including Rajak, are rather concerned about Pristina’s unilateral action in northern Kosovo. “I am afraid that the ICJ decision may encourage some in Pristina to contemplate forceful reintegration of the territories north of the Ibar River,” he said of the ethnic-Serb-dominated region that has effectively been under Belgrade’s control.

A considerable number of Serbs live on territory controlled by Pristina, in the south, in enclaves like Strpce near the border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Gracanica, a suburb of Pristina. Analysts agree that the court ruling has not reduced the need to discuss the future of these populations — it’s just that the rules of the game have changed. “After the ICJ opinion, Serbia is no longer in a position to dictate terms and should approach Kosovo as an equal partner,” Marko Prelec, an expert of the International Crisis Group, told Athens Plus.

It may sound unbearably cliche when it comes to the Balkans but experts urge both sides to set their differences aside and look ahead.

“In the end, both Serbia and Kosovo want to join the EU and neither can really have an interest in mutual hostility,” Wolff said. “It is important that leaders on both sides calm down now, make a realistic assessment of the situation and figure out a way forward.”

Back to the roots

By Harry van Versendaal

It’s hard to decide what to make of Pavlos Kozalidis. If nothing else, this 49-year-old photographer is a curious man who lives to click.

Born in Piraeus before moving to Canada, Kozalidis grew up listening to the nostalgic stories of his aunt, an ethnic Greek from Ordu, a town in the conflict-prone Black Sea region, who was forced to migrate first to America and then, having been displaced from Ordu for a second time, to Greece.

When he first laid hands on an SLR camera in the late 1980s, Kozalidis started to travel. Initially he wandered in India and Central Asia, but curiosity about his origins prompted him to trace the roots of his family. Between 1995 and 2003 he traveled from Turkey and Georgia to Russia and Ukraine at least once a year. He did so with scarce resources, mostly riding on dilapidated buses and staying at cheap hotels – a habit that only added to the experience. “It’s better to have a small seat next to a big window than a comfortable seat beside a tiny window,” Kozalidis says in what seems to translate as a life-rule.

Somewhere along the way his work won support from the Benaki Museum in Athens, which in 2008 for the first time made public a small part of the growing material. “Searching for a Lost Homeland,” some 60 black-and-white photos taken during his Black Sea journeys, is currently being showcased at the Photography Museum of Thessaloniki through April 18.

Kozalidis is not a technical photographer and does not pretend otherwise. “I make a lot of mistakes,” he tells Athens Plus in an interview at the attractive brick and steel warehouse building that houses the museum.

But Kozalidis’s candid admission is hard to believe as you stare at this arresting piece of work documenting the lives and customs of the Pontian Greeks who stayed behind.

Not bad for someone who used to steal magazine pictures from his local dentist office.

Keeping needs simple

Do you have a regular job?

No, no. I have my own means, not a lot, but I still have the capability after so many years to do 16 hours third class on a third class bus on a third class road. I don’t need a lot of money. I spend more money every day on film than my hotel room. And I try to stretch whatever I have. I would gladly spend anything I have to buy film or a ticket to travel by road or by plane.

Do you teach?

No, I am not a teacher. I can’t teach people. You can teach somebody the tricks of photography. It’s kind of like juggling. You can learn to be a good juggler, but if there is no heart in what you’re looking at then… it’s like a cold coke on a sunny day. After a while you start feeling thirsty again.

I think everybody wants to see something true, even when you go to see all that art kind of photography; sometimes I must admit I get a little bit jealous of the attention it gets because it’s new. My work is passé, my photographs are kind of “classic.”

Why did you hold on to this material for so long? Why didn’t you publish anything for 20 years?

To publish something you need time. And that time takes you away from the clicking, the development. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and I still do. I’m so bad that I used to cut up my negatives and then try to pick out something I wanted. I didn’t go to photography school. It’s sort of something that I picked up and in a way saved myself from myself. There’s two ways, you know, up and down.

I can now carry 36 kilos of film and 10 kilos of camera equipment, plus another 20 kilos in my bag. All the rest,  looking at it, I can do later.

Are you not afraid that it may no longer be relevant?

It’s just a journey. A lot of people are on a journey and they don’t leave anything. At least mine, even if it’s not relevant, is still something. The rest is ego. You want to be like “forever,” your work to be “forever.”

I am not finished with these places; China, Asia, Africa, South America, I am not finished. I’ll never finish. I just did 10,000 kilometers on a third class bus on a road in Africa; the entire trip took four-and-a-half months. And now I am leaving in ten days. I can do it now. But at some point I won’t be able to. That’s why I didn’t show it. Not because I didn’t want to. I mean I want people to see it. It’s wonderful when you come up to me and saw “wow.” It’s nice because it’s really extra. It’s like having a girlfriend and you take her out and everybody goes “wow she’s really beautiful.” It’s really nice because for a long time you thought only you saw her as beautiful. Everything has it’s time. It’s like flowers, they don’t all bloom at the same time. But the thing is… I’ve made mistakes and I continue to make mistakes and I say a lot of romantic cuckoo things. But I am irrelevant, I don’t make these things. I just see some things because they are good photographs. I don’t think I am particularly talented photographically. I just have an ability to get close to people.

Can you tell us about your Black Sea journey? Why did you go there?

It had to do with my aunt and her stories because she was born there. And in the exodus some went to New York, some went to Russia, some went to Japan. It was a big family. She kept telling me there was a house there which still stands now and I just went back. And I would go by road from Athens, I would get on a bus, a Georgian bus, and I would do the whole journey through Istanbul, 3 days, 4 days if it didn’t break down. And then I would meet people and they would speak my grandmother’s language. And that was really cool. And it was like you made friends after 4 days because you wake up and you have breakfast, chicken, sausages, bread, Russian cigarettes, and vodka, vodka, vodka.

Camera is my journal basically. It is my life, but it is also the life of the other people that I see. That’s what I am basically doing. Journaling others but using my own means.

Did you expect to find something specific?

It didn’t start out that way. There was no focal point. At some point you collect and collect and collect and after 5 years of doing it you start seeing things happening. I photograph everything basically. I go somewhere and I photograph everything. I don’t go there with an idea. Sometimes I envy people who do that and they come up with wonderful work, but very few. I just observe. I just look and anything that makes visual sense I go to it. But it has to have spirit, it has to be not happy but dignified.

The subconscious playing with the image

Do you ever stage your photographs or are they spontaneous?

That’s a hard question because it’s full of lies and truths in the sense that any photographer will say “ah everybody stages.” Look at W. Eugene Smith’s photo essay “Spanish village,” it’s basically all staged. But it’s the end result that counts. As for myself… if there were things in the photograph that were still, that weren’t moving, and I put a human being there, a child basically, would I do it? Yes. But in the end it’s how I feel about what I have to show when I am at the table by myself and picking them out, what truths I want to say.

But you do seem to want a human element in your pictures.

This has to be. I read somewhere that every time you look at a photograph, subconsciously you look for a human figure. It’s kind of cool – you just don’t know you’re doing it. I basically have to act when I photograph, because I don’t want them to be looking at me. If there is a scene, I pretend that I am waiting, you know looking at my watch, while also waiting for them to calm down, so that I can enter their space. I try to go close. I don’t know if it is “to tell the truth” and all that stuff. I don’t know what that means. I just go because it’s interesting. I am there. I go to get something to eat and something beautiful appears in front of me. And I photograph, then I move on. And no eye contact.

In the Black Sea project I was cheating simply because I was a Pontian Greek, I was from these people. I understood some of their dialect which helped. I was Orthodox. I was Greece to them. I was Greece coming to see them because they couldn’t go to Greece for one reason or another, which was great because I was the pasha of the village. I was like the Martian everybody comes and pokes at, to see if he knows any tricks. But there was the other side too; all their complaints and all their problems, no doctors, no medicine, no school for their kids. And I did not go there to change the situation, but I lived with them. I ate a lot of water potatoes in those years. It was right after Russia had collapse. There were buildings that had just stopped in time, farming equipment that stood in the middle of the field. German too, no Mickey Mouse Chinese stuff. German, beautiful machinery, stopped. People just left. You would go to a village and you would see a generation of children and then old people. Because the parents had left for Russia, Kazakhstan, Greece.

Without wanting to superimpose any meaning on your work, some of your photos seem to be conveying values, like dignity. People are poor and hungry but they look dignified.

You can show even misery and ugliness in humane ways. There is a photograph of this couch and water that was seeping from the roof and it was kind of beautiful because of the textures and you could see it was a dump and this poor person had to sit on that seat. I don’t need to go down that path. I would rather show a cold child warming its hands. You can see it’s poor but then you can see another photograph of the table with the food, so you know they do have food. It’s where you point your camera.

Black-and-white versus color

Do you take only black and white photographs?

I have a small body of work that is starting up to be color. I started out with color. I grew up in the States and Canada looking at Life magazine and National Geographic. I used to steal a lot from dentist places, I used to have a collection of stolen dentist office National Geographic and Life magazine photos…

Black and white suits me; let’s say you can lie better. With color you know it’s color. Black and white fits me better like a coat. I don’t know digital. I don’t even know technical photography. To go digital would be a quantum leap. I don’t even know mathematics and times tables and you tell me to do equations. I would be lost. And I like the roll of film. I like coming home after being on the street for 8 hours and dropping the film, cleaning and looking at it and thinking… and I would never be ready to see it right away. I can’t deal with this right-away. I need to collect over years. And when you take it out of the water and you have the light and you look through and you kind of relive everything, it’s a whole process, it’s everything.


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