A COUPLE is riding a yellow sleigh while a purple and magenta horse stands peacefully in a village framed by a purple meadow and a grass-green sky: this is a simplified description of a Slovak-inspired acrylic canvas painted by Nicolaos D Kanellos, the Greek ambassador to Slovakia. Kanellos believes that old-fashioned diplomacy no longer works and that one needs to search for different ways of self-expression and participation in society. The Slovak Spectator spoke to Kanellos about the dangers of shadow economies, reforms in his homeland as well as the challenges of developing tourism.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Slovakia is marking the 1150th anniversary this year of the arrival of Ss Cyril and Methodius to the territory of present-day Slovakia. Does this connection have any significance for Slovakia and Greece today?
Nicolaos D Kanellos (NK): The ruler of Great Moravia, Prince Rastislav, requested Patriarch Photius and Emperor Michael the Third, the then-ruler of the Byzantine Empire, mainly established by Greek intellectuals, to send missionaries to evangelise the Slavs. Yet, there is a small detail that will explain what I consider crucial in this historical act: Rastislav had become a ruler with the support of the Frankish ruler Louis the German, but his target was to achieve total independence from France. The fact that he turned to the Byzantine Empire, asking for missionaries to evangelise Slavs, was part of this plan. This support, however, is something that still links Greece and Slovakia. Perhaps without the extension of the Byzantine influence, the mission of the two Thessaloniki brothers in 863, the Slavic civil code, the translation of the Bible and without the Great-Moravian Academy, founded by Cyril, Slovak culture and education would have hada much harder time achieving what we call today the European level.
TSS: According to an EC report the size of shadow economies in the European Union has grown due to the austerity measures that different countries have adopted. Both Greece and Slovakia have been ranked rather unfavourably in this respect. How in your opinion can countries fight this trend?
NK: The report says that the shadow economy of Greece stands at 22.8 percent and in Slovakia it is at 14.8 percent. I am afraid that shadow economies are part of today’s reality, not only in Europe, but in the whole world. If we look at the report we will see that even Denmark and Luxembourg have their shadow economies. We have a complex framework for financial indicators and often we cannot rely on what is said officially about these shadow economies. This also leads us to the global issue of taxes and the fact that we do need a very fair and just regulation of this system. One of the reasons is perhaps that we do not have booming economies; for example, Greece is in deep recession. In my view, we need to elaborate a radical system that will be shared by all EU countries; a system of adequate levels of income and a respect for the minimum wage. What we really need is fair and honest trans-national cooperation between member states.
We also need public awareness about the nature of financial systems, which unfortunately, does not exist in our countries. There are some businessmen who know where the boat is going but most people do not. My main concern is that people in our two countries are not happy citizens, which for me means that they do not have the feeling that they are influencing developments in their states.
Creating happy citizens, and not only at the financial level, is the utmost duty of modern states and all responsible politicians.
TSS: Could you elaborate in more detail what you mean when you say that people in our countries are not happy citizens?
NK: Perhaps I can say without much exaggeration that they are unhappy in most fields of society, not only in terms of the economy. Let me note that in ancient Greece, the economy had one of the smallest shares of activity in society. Today the economy is becoming a driver of our lives and a lot of people are trying to survive.
TSS: In early January, the BBC reported that ordinary Greeks are now finding ways to fight back against high levels of corruption, with a number of websites now allowing people to report cases of bribery. What prompted this initiative in your opinion?
NK: It is normal that younger people are seeking different ways to fight corruption and there are a variety of ways to fight corruption, including giving the impression that we fight corruption, which might be dangerous. In my understanding, fighting corruption means to achieve a new style of co-existence between the citizens and the state, and achieving this in the whole of Europe. Today there is huge doubt among the young people of what they see happening within the societies, and they respond to this doubt.
TSS: How would you describe the stage of implementation of various reforms that Greece has promised to implement in return for the financial assistance it received from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund?
NK: I would like to stress that Greece, in addition to radical and painful structural changes, had to face unjustified rumours and speculation, including that of plans to withdraw from the eurozone. This speculation formed a substantial part of the crisis. Finally, the rumours turned out to be unjustified. As far as I know, Greece has fulfilled 70 percent of the promises it made to the EU and the IMF. Yet, every change needs to be accompanied by a long-lasting reform and this does not apply only to Greece. The change is not only in numbers; I am very much reserved to believe in the strength of numbers. We should also focus on other issues, like the basic values of European history and civilisation and the humanistic aspect of our society. Too strong of a focus on numbers can lead to people’s despair and humiliation; then pessimism and humiliation can lead to violence.
We are fulfilling all our commitments and we are now entering the last phase of what are radical and painful changes, but on the other hand, we are careful not to drive people into despair. One of the issues that remain to be dealt with is the privatisation of some state property.
We should not use the expression of development in the sense of a carrot kept in front of a horse to make it run; we need to move forward, not dance, and in Europe I am afraid that we are dancing. We also need to work on a union with deep understanding of our different histories so that we do not create clones of citizens that will lead us to similar states.
TSS: Greece suffers from high unemployment rates, and, like Slovakia, which has a 27-percent youth unemployment rate, a large portion of the jobless are young people. What is behind the high unemployment rate of young people in your homeland?
NK: The unemployment is a response to the collapse of our financial system but also the lack of transparency in the way the economy and politics, as well as the financial system, work. Young people do not really know what will happen to them once they graduate; whether they are able to make their living in their homeland or just cross the border and live abroad. Some economies that are working better absorb the best of our brains. But we do face the challenge of creating a system where we can guarantee jobs for graduates even if it requires a new, radical system.
TSS: Tourism contributes around 15 percent to Greece’s GDP. Has the global economic downturn impacted the industry in your homeland? What are the challenges that Greece faces in this area?
NK: When I came to Slovakia in October 2008, I learned that Slovaks had adopted Greece as their favourite tourist destination, which instantly rang a bell that the Greeks should work on better reception of Slovaks, which also means creating packages with affordable prices. I would like to see Greece becoming Slovakia’s number one tourist destination once again.
The challenges that we face include combining our heritage, history and culture with the necessity of respecting the environment, as well as the necessity of living in harmony with nature. Slovak people are serving as a good example of how to live in nature, and in Greece we should find ways to respect much more the gift – the landscapes of our country – given to us by God.
TSS: Do Slovaks and Greeks know enough, mutually, about each other?
NK: I have the feeling that the majority of Slovak people feel solidarity with the Greeks. I also feel that we have many similarities in life and dreams. I do not feel this in many countries, but I feel it here. I think the average Slovak person feels the way the Greeks do. I do not refer here to some isolated cases of statements by politicians, which were far from positive towards Greece, but my general feeling is that Slovaks and Greeks … have a lot in common.
TSS: Greece is certainly on the map of Slovak tourists. However, have Greek tourists discovered Slovakia?
NK: Bratislava is a new attraction for Greek tourists. Of course Slovakia still needs to work on attracting Greek tourists to other places as well. What I really like about Slovakia is what I could call the hidden beauty, or secrets that you can discover: the places that are not generally known but when you go there you experience the Slovak life. Perhaps this is also an aspect that Slovakia should stress in its tourism campaigns. This is the way I feel about Slovakia when I travel to paint or take photos or write.
Art here is a form of refuge for me and even when I am working as a diplomat, I try to express my thoughts and feelings in many different ways because old-fashioned diplomacy, I mean the diplomacy between two idioms and two foreign languages, no longer works. We need to seek ways of participating in the life of societies, and they send a message as a result.
TSS: In what areas of the economy do you see room for cooperation between Greece and Slovakia?
NK: There are two areas we need to focus on: tourism and trade. Many Greeks who love history and are visiting Vienna would come to Bratislava for an afternoon walk. But this city is not only for an afternoon walk, and if they stay longer, they would understand more. Perhaps we both need to be able to show the right things. For example, in Greece everybody goes to see the Acropolis but they often do not see the prison of Socrates, which is only 200 metres away from the Acropolis, and in my opinion is far more exciting as it refers to one of the masterpieces of ancient literature, the Apology of Socrates. Bratislava has a rich surrounding, for example Grinava and all the Danube villages. Recently I went to a small and cheap family restaurant here and it reminded me of the whole value of the life we lived in Greece.
The other aspect is trade. Slovakia’s exports to Greece amount to €300 million, while Greek exports to Slovakia stand at €100 million. Without downplaying the role of big trading partners such as Germany, the weak economic relations between our countries is also a result of not knowing each other. Greece is exporting aluminium to Slovakia, which makes up 30 percent of all imports, and I wonder why we aren’t offering expertise for the construction of water and maritime works, as well as services in tourism and tourism administration, since we have a specific expertise in it: as a small country of 10 million inhabitants, we attract 20 million tourists every year.
We also should very soon establish the Greek-Slovak Chamber of Commerce, which should contribute considerably to developing trade relationships. There are also a lot of Greek students studying in Slovakia, which is a very positive development. Once they travel home they take back their messages about Slovakia.
Greece: General facts
18. Mar 2013 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová