Review of "Unholy Alliance: Greece and Milosevic's Serbia" by Takis Michas

This is a remarkable book for several reasons. It describes a truly bizarre political climate in Greece that would be unbelievable, if it were not for the extensive documentation (there are 24 pages of bibliography and notes for 144 pages of text). For me (a person who was born and lived in Greece until 1961) there is the additional evidence of my own personal experience. However the book should be of interest not only for Greeks but also for anyone interested in the Middle East. Michas makes a strong case that the modern Greek political climate is a result of the many centuries that Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire. Since all Middle Eastern Arab states share that heritage, the lessons of the book can be used to understand the political climate in those states as well. A minor weakness of the book is that it assumes that reader knows about the system of Ottoman governance, so I will say a few words about that based, mainly, on Lewis's book "The Middle East" (pp. 321-324).

The citizens of the Ottoman empire were organized in millets, "religio-political communities defined by ... adherence to a religion." Each millet was administered by its own chiefs, who were in turn responsible to the Ottoman sultan. There were four major millets: Muslim, Greek, Armenian, and Jewish. (And several smaller ones, such as the small community of Zoroastrians in Iran.) Besides religion, the members of a millet shared nothing else, neither language nor ethnic origin. According to Lewis the Greek millet (whose head was the Patriarch of Constantinople or Istanbul) included (besides ethnic Greeks)  "the followers of the Orthodox Church of many other origins - Serbs, Bulgars, Romanians, and Albanians in Europe (and) Arabic and Turkish speakers in Asia." Greek or Albanian speaking Moslems were part of the Moslem millet. Lewis points out that neither the Greek nor the Armenian millet included Catholics or Protestants.

With the rise of nationalism in the nineteenth century, the non-Muslim millets transformed themselves into nations. This led to what Michas calls ethnic nationalism as opposed to the civic nationalism of the West. Michas points out that ethnic nationalism does not have much use for individual rights. While millets in some cases split into more than one nation the ties remained close. We can summarize Michas book by saying a lot of modern Balkan politics reflect the millet arrangements. Thus religious minorities in country are granted rights very reluctantly, if at all. They are people from a different millet. On the other hand differences in language do not matter for people who share the same religion. Thus many people from Asia Minor (including the family of my father) who came to Greece in 1922 spoke Turkish and their connection to the ancient Greeks was at best tenuous. But since they were Christian Orthodox, they were Greek. Similar a lot of the population of southern Greece are Orthodox Christian Albanians. (Albanian was the prevailing language in the villages around Athens at least until the 1950s and the names of some of the villages such as Liosia and Spata are those of Albanian clans.) However, their Greek ethnicity was never in doubt. They were part of the Greek millet in the Ottoman Empire and several of the heroes of the Greek revolution of 1821 were from that group. Thus when Greeks today talk derisively about Albanians they mean Muslim Albanians. On the other hand Greek speaking Catholics who may have lived in the country for centuries are not deemed truly Greek. They were not part of the Greek millet

So many of the events of the 1990s can be explained in terms of the millet culture. Of course, Greeks and Serbians are "brothers;" they used to belong in the same millet. Of course, the Greek Orthodox Church can identify with the state and claim that they kept the Greek nation alive during the Ottoman years; the church was the nation in those years. Of course, both Serbians and Greeks can be hostile to the Macedonians; the Christian Slavs of Macedonia and Bulgaria are schismatic. They do not recognize as their head the Patriarch at Istanbul (the head of the Orthodox millet) but the exarchate of Sophia. What may be surprising is history's hold over the culture after well over a century. However Michas makes a very good and well documented case for the role of ethnic nationalism (the outgrowth of the millet) as the cause for the events of the 1990s. 

Once we accept the survival of century old cultural beliefs we may be ready to accept the survival of century old social structures. In Greece as well as other Balkan and Middle Eastern states there is much less mobility than what there is not only in the United States but also in most of Western Europe. For example, in Greek there are two versions for the word "mister": "kyrios," usually accompanied by the family name is for upper class. "kyr," usually accompanied by the first name is for lower class. Social stratification creates tremendous frustrations amongst the people at the bottom layer and they are always ready to erupt. It is in the interest of those in the upper layers to direct such anger away from them. Foreign enemies and ethnic minorities are ideal targets. Michas does not seem to give much weight to this factor and I consider that the main weakness of the book.

When Greeks demonstrated against Clinton, there were particularly anti-American. The associated violence let them vent their frustrations with their lives. This also explains the occasional soccer riots.

While the general factors driving the events in Greece may be identifiable, a lot of the behavior seems bizarre and can be explained only by an extreme national paranoia.

T. P. - September 2002