Sevin Elekdag and Metodija Koloski: The US can help end extremism in Greece

In recent months, Greece’s economic woes have continued their downward spiral, coupled with an alarming rise in violence and political extremism, and the rhetoric has now spread into Greek diaspora communities in the United States. The movement is being led by the ultra-nationalistic, neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, which has emerged from the shadows of Greek society to win 18 seats in Parliament, and which has reportedly opened satellite offices, in our own backyard, in New York City. The rise of intolerance threatens Greece’s many marginalized communities, and demands the world heed the ghastly lessons of the last century, when fascism in Europe gained broad appeal during times of economic peril.

In July, Human Rights Watch released a report titled “Hate on the Streets: Xenophobic Violence in Greece.”  The 99-page report accused Greek authorities of "failing to tackle a rising wave of xenophobic violence that has left migrants afraid to walk the streets." Reports of corruption and close ties to the Golden Dawn leadership in the Greek police force have incited fear among people of non-Greek ethnicity.

The worsening economic crisis in Greece has provided a fertile breeding ground for groups like Golden Dawn, whose leaders deny the Holocaust and whose members have been implicated in violence and hate crimes against immigrants, political opponents and native citizens of non-Greek origin.  However, the country’s current fiscal crisis is only part of the story. 

Golden Dawn’s swift ascension into mainstream Greek politics is facilitated by Greece’s historical inability to confront intolerance and xenophobia.  Indeed, the recent high-profile assaults on migrant workers only build on many decades of religious and cultural repression against the native Macedonians, Turks, Albanians, Vlachs, Roma, and others, who are prevented from freely practicing their religion or preserving their heritage. 

This leads to a toxic confluence of serious economic hardship combined with deeply ingrained intolerance in Greek society.

In the past few years, the United Nations, the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), as well as several reputable international human rights bodies, have repeatedly called on the Greek government to safeguard basic rights and fundamental freedoms. However, despite this international pressure, Greece continues to outlaw the use of the appellations “Turkish” or “Macedonian” in any official capacity. Just this year, in March, the Supreme Court of Greece denied the Xanthi Turkish Union the right to use the word “Turkish” in its name, despite a unanimous ruling by the ECHR that this violated the right of freedom of assembly and association. Groups of non-Greek ethnicity are forced to hide or disavow their own identity and culture. Meanwhile, religious groups, such as the Macedonian Orthodox Church, fare no better. 

Greece has been an EU member state since 1981, and is now vying for an open seat on the UN Human Rights Council. Its ongoing denial of basic human rights render the application unacceptable on many levels.

The United States and the European Union must step in and prevent Greece from attaining positions of international human rights leadership until such time that it protects the rights of its own marginalized communities and actively combats discrimination based on race, religion and ethnicity.  

Doing so would demonstrate to the world that the lessons of the last century have not been forgotten.  

Sevin Elekdag is a research fellow at the Turkish Coalition of America, a nonprofit organization that seeks to strengthen U.S.-Turkey relations and educate the general public about Turkey and Turkish Americans.

Metodija A. Koloski is the president of the United Macedonian Diaspora (UMD), a leading international non-governmental organization addressing the interests and needs of Macedonian people and communities throughout the world.