War in Europe
The Greek minority in Ukraine
Controversial speech of President Zelensky in the Greek Parliament
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has embarked on an intensive international campaign. Interviews, bilateral communication with other leaders, and speeches in parliaments are some of the tools that he is using in order to raise awareness of the latest developments regarding the war and call for support. In this vein, President Zelenskyy addressed a speech in the Greek Parliament.
From the beginning, Greece has sharply condemned Russia’s invasion. Greece has already sent 4 missions of humanitarian aid, and Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias has visited twice the region of Odessa in March and April expressing the support of the Greek population to Ukraine and especially to the Greek minority living there. Interestingly, Greece is one of the few countries that has also dispatched military aid to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia. A decision that raised many disputes also within the country.
In his speech to Parliament, Zelenskyy repeatedly referred to the historical, religious, and cultural connections between the two countries. Zelenskyy also made a historical reference to Filiki Eteria, founded in 1814 at the beginning of the Greek Revolution by Greek freedom fighters in Odessa. He underlined the peaceful coexistence of Ukrainians and Greeks in the cities of Mariupol and Odessa, long-time hometowns of the Greek population of Ukraine.
It is also worth mentioning that Zelensky linked his country’s war with Russia to the Greek Revolution, and in an emotional tone said that the Greek revolutionaries’ famed declaration “Freedom or death” 200 years ago constitutes a strong message for Ukraine today.
Furthermore, the human losses and the humanitarian aspect of the war were vividly underlined by Zelensky. "There is now not a single building that has not been destroyed by Russian troops." He ended his speech by asking for more arms supplies and an embargo on Russian gas supplies to Europe.
While Greek President Sakellaropoulou, who was also present in Parliament together with Prime Minister Mitsotakis, showed her solidarity: “We are all Ukrainians!”, the Greek parliament was not represented by all parties. More precisely, The session was boycotted by the Communist Party and the right-wing populist Elliniki Lysi (“Greek Solution”), but also many members of the Opposition party SYRIZA decided not to participate. Their objections have been also expressed when two Ukrainian fighters with Greek roots gave a speech. It later emerged that at least one of these fighters is a member of the controversial Azov Brigade volunteer militia.
Unfortunately, Zelenksyy's speech has been characterized by this incident and the general message has been overshadowed. If we want to go deeper into the reason for that incident, we need to take into consideration the Greek perception regarding the war. More precisely, in a survey by Euroskopia, the majority of the Greek population (60%) condemns Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but the percentage remains less than the rest European countries. The Greek population remains divided once again. The support to the Ukrainian population is unquestioned but political debates emphasize whether it is suitable to provide military support, with the communist party be absent on every occasion, blaming the West and the NATO for all the latest developments in Ukraine.
Interestingly, over the past weeks, many rallies have been organized either to support Ukraine or to condemn anti-Russian propaganda as they called it. The pro-Russian sentiment and the idea of a common historical and religious past are deeply rooted in a great amount of the Greek population, even though Greek political and social life has a totally different route through the years.
Historical ties and the Greeks of Ukraine
Where does the special relationship between Ukraine and Greece come from? Nevertheless, the Greek Minority of Ukraine that Zelenskyy referred also to in his speech is an unknown topic. The history of the Greeks’ presence in what is now Ukraine and Russia, goes back to the 7th century B.C. In the Classical Greek era, the Ukrainian coast was full of Greek colonies, some of which became wealthy centers of culture and trade. More precisely, an ethnic Greek community began to form in the area during the Byzantine period, this community would later be called the Mariupolitan Greeks.
Over the years, the status of the Greek community in the region changed numerous times. From great privileges that have been given by the Czarina Ekaterini II, to the participation in the Crimean War 1809-1812, the suppression and assimilation policies during the Soviet period to the current conflicts between Russia and Ukraine: In every conflict in the region, the Greek population was in the middle of the conflict.
In accordance with the data of the Greek Foreign Minister and the 2001 Ukrainian Population census, the Ukrainian citizens of Greek descent amount to 91,000 people, although their number is estimated to be much higher by the Federation of Greek communities of Mariupol.
Greek Minority and Russo-Ukrainian conflict
Ever since the Crimean war of 2014 until today’s Russian invasion in Ukraine over the last month, the population of Mariupol and among them the Greeks are suffering from the military operations, killings of civilians, and the permanent feeling of uncertainty and fear.
Today, the losses from the war are numerous, the aggression against civilians is part of daily life, and as the Ukrainian president claims the city has been “burned to ashes”. In accordance with the last data (12.04.2022), almost 20.000 Ukraine refugees have arrived in Greece. The geostrategic importance of the region right now cannot be questioned. Hence, the ongoing battle continues for almost 50 days.