Skip to content

Greece: Between its Glorious Past and the Challenge from Ankara


Esta entrada también está disponible en: Español

[Leer en español]

With 132,000 km² (or 75% of Uruguay’s surface) and 11 million inhabitants, Greece is strategically located between Europe and Asia. It has land borders with Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Turkey. To the east is the Aegean Sea, to the west the Ionian Sea and to the south the Mediterranean Sea. These three seas bathe 14,000 km of coastline. Greece is made up of seven archipelagos with 1,400 islands, only 300 of which are inhabited. Its relief is mountainous, the highest peak being Mount Olympus, 3,000 meters above sea level, and it’s the “abode of the gods”, according to mythology.

A history of light and shadow

In antiquity, Greece was central to Western civilization. Modern democracies owe their sustenance to Greek ideas of government by the people, trial by jury and equality before the law. The Greeks were pioneers in many fields of systematic thought such as geometry, history, philosophy and physics. They delved into literary styles such as tragedy and comedy. In their quest for order and proportion, they created an ideal of beauty that powerfully influenced art.

Greek culture has evolved over thousands of years, beginning with Mycenaean Greece and moving notably to Classical Greece, through the influence of the Roman Empire and its continuation, Byzantium. Other cultures and nations, such as the Latin and Frankish states, the Ottomans, Venice, Genoa and the British Empire also marked their influence on modern Greek culture. The kingdom of Macedonia succeeded in unifying the Greek world in the “Hellenic League” under Philip II, leader of the first unified Greek state in history. His brilliant son, Alexander the Great, consolidated the leadership over the Greek city-states and in 334 BC invaded Persia with all the combined forces. The empire created by Alexander extended from Macedonia to Pakistan in the east and Egypt in the south. His untimely death in 323 BC led to the collapse of the Empire, which split into several kingdoms. Although political unity ceased, the dominance of Hellenistic civilization and the Greek language was maintained for centuries.

In 27 B.C. the emperor Augustus made Greece into the province of Achaia. Despite their military might, the Romans admired Greek culture, hence the phrase of Horace: “Greece conquered, conquered the Barbarian”. After the division of the Roman Empire, Greece became part of the Byzantine Empire, which lasted until 1453. Its capital was located in Constantinople and the predominant religion was Orthodox Christianity.

By the end of the 15th century, most of Greece and the Aegean islands were under Ottoman control, while Cyprus and Crete remained under Venetian rule and were not part of the Ottoman Empire until 1571 and 1670, respectively. Although the population was not forced to convert to Islam, Christians suffered discrimination.

"*" indicates required fields

Will you be voting in the upcoming midterm election?*
This poll gives you free access to our premium politics newsletter. Unsubscribe at any time.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

After the end of World War I and with the division of the Ottoman territory, Greece and Turkey carried out a huge population exchange: Greeks from Turkish territory migrated to Greece and vice versa. In 1936, Ioanis Metaxas staged a coup d’état and established a dictatorship. Despite this political reality, Greece maintained good relations with the United Kingdom and stayed away from the Rome-Berlin axis. In October 1940 Greece repulsed Mussolini’s attack, but soon after the country fell to the Germans. Although the Nazi occupation faced stubborn resistance, some 100,000 civilians were killed and most Greek Jews were deported and murdered in extermination camps. In 1967 there was a coup d’état carried out by a group of colonels. In 1974, as Turkey invaded Cyprus, the dictatorship collapsed.

Current challenges

With the military regime overthrown, a democratic constitution was adopted. Andreas Papandreou founded the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) in response to the conservative New Democracy (ND) party. From then until 2015 both parties alternated in power. The 2019 elections gave an absolute majority to ND with 158 deputies in 300.

Greece is currently a democratic state, with a high human development index. A member of the European Union and NATO, the challenge to its progress comes from Ankara, where dictator Erdogan has ambitions for Greek islands and waters.

Athens highlights two situations of particular importance: Turkey’s claims to “Greek sovereignty in the Aegean Sea” and the satellite state of the Turkish Republic of Cyprus on that island. Turkish gas exploration missions in Greek waters during 2020 have led Ankara and Athens into a diplomatic crisis similar to the one experienced in 1996, when war almost broke out.

Recent contacts are part of a new diplomatic offensive by the erratic Recep Erdogan to ease his strained relations with Europe, which decided to sanction Ankara.

Although Athens spoke of “optimism and hope” and Ankara of “positive atmosphere”, no real progress is expected in the dialogue. Greece wants to define the control of its islands in the Aegean Sea, while Turkey seeks to redefine exclusive economic zones and airspace. Athens closed these days the purchase of 18 French fighter planes, to adjust its defense against the aggressiveness of Ankara, which ignores its maritime border.

After centuries of colonialism and wars, the Old Continent cannot bear any more conflicts. Sometimes some of its analysts speak of the “European model” of coexistence and respect, with a tone of superiority that forgets that nobody like Europe colonized, enslaved and murdered hundreds of millions of people in its history. The Greek hope, which wants to avoid a direct clash, is that the Turkish economic problems, aggravated by the coronavirus and the attempt not to provoke the new Biden Administration, will force the “sultan” to abandon his delusions.

Eduardo Zalovich