When nation-states fail, moderate voices are silenced

The attack on Thessaloniki’s mayor by angry youth is symptomatic of nation-state decay afflicting Greece and the region.

Greece mayor attack EPA
Mayor of Thessaloniki, Yiannis Boutaris is aided after being attacked by a group of nationalists during a Sunday commemoration of what is known as the genocide of the Pontians, on 19 May 2018 [EPA]

The image of the angry man holding a little girl in one arm while violently abusing Yiannis Boutaris, the 75-year-old mayor of Thessaloniki with the other, shocked Greeks.

Boutaris was attacked by a crowd at a Sunday commemoration of what is known as the genocide of the Pontians, a Christian ethnic group from the highlands of the southern Black Sea speaking a dialect of Greek, who escaped Ottoman Turkish persecution and emigrated to the newly-formed Greek nation-state.

It is the latest in a series of violent attacks on Greek politicians by a public expressing outrage and impotence at collapsing living standards.

But Boutaris, the tattooed septuagenarian ecologist and scion of a Vlach winemaking family, is not a typical representative of the establishment politicians Greeks blame for imposing increasing levels of austerity on a fractured society. The twice-elected mayor of Thessaloniki is a resolute cosmopolitan who worked to collapse the walls between Greece and Turkey, free his city from the segregating Greek creation myth, and make its troubled past more inclusive of former resident minorities, including Jews and Turks.

Boutaris initiated tourist links with Turks eager to visit the birthplace of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, has supported excavations of Ottoman layers of the city, and has planned to open a museum of Islamic Art. These moves were made in the spirit of openness, inclusivity and historical honesty, and were predictably unpopular with those wedded to a one-dimensional understanding of the past.

In the aftermath of the lynching attempt, many Greeks argued that this was yet another “extremist” act organised by supporters of the far-right Golden Dawn party. But little evidence has emerged so far in the police investigation of formal links to the group.

More worryingly yet, the two detained suspects belong to the socially wider ethno-nationalist space currently fizzing with vitality due to renewed Greek-Turkish tensions over the exploitation of hydrocarbons in the East Mediterranean, the push to settle the dispute over the naming of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) and a decade of Greek economic austerity.

Members of this group, which elevates Christian Orthodoxy, the nation-state and Greekness above all else, despise Boutaris for his public support for Turkish tourism to Thessaloniki, the city’s Jewish community and the institution of gay marriage, alongside his feud with the Greek Orthodox Church. It isn’t by chance that those who attack Boutaris are in many ways his polar opposites: monolingual monoculturals ill-suited for survival in the automated, multiracial and fragmented global economywe are now exposed to.

‘Macedonia is Greece’: A look back at the decades-old row

Those who attacked Boutaris are the indignant inheritors of a nationalist social contract that hasn’t worked for a while; the once-upon-a-time beneficiaries of the welfare umbrella provided by the nation-state who now engage in gig-economy labour instead of lifetime jobs alongside reduced pensions and precariousness.

They are not just found in Greece but across the Balkans, North Africa and the Levant, anywhere where “the short tight skin of the nation was stretched over the gigantic body of the [Ottoman] empire,” to quote Benedict Anderson, the author of Imagined Communities, a seminal book about how nation-states harnessed origin myths to facilitate their own emergence.

Nor is it down to chance that the citizens of the ethnic-based states that sprung out of the carcass of the Ottoman Empire are so immune to adapting to any but the lowest rungs of the constantly-shifting globalised economy. Burdened by an education that emphasised rote-learning and submitting to hierarchies over-analytical, critical thinking, they were raised in a manner that facilitated memorising preposterous narratives over adapting to change.

This wasn’t a problem as long as things hummed along and the obedient citizens of states deferentially integrated into the Western economic architecture enjoyed privileges like lifetime civil service positions funded by government borrowing. But for a while now, conventional nation-states in the east and central Mediterranean have been splintering under the transnational forces formed by alliances of convenience between capital and state actors.

A global economy dominated by logistical distribution networks shifting products between continents and the economies of scale enabled by the internet are sending massive profits to the few at the expense of sliding living standards for the many.

As financial power migrates from the level of states to transnational dynamics, the social contract is falling apart. Formerly docile populations turn towards ever-more radical leaders offering comforting visions of salvation wrapped in familiar, reassuring ethno-religious narratives.


Greece’s Golden Dawn speaks of reviving Greek glory through ousting job-pinching migrants; Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi pledged to construct a new capital city for a post-revolutionary country mired in demographic and economic problems; and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan focuses on 2023, which he tells his followers is the date when the revived Turkish state will be one of the world’s top ten economies.

These are seductive narratives for a class of nouveaux-pauvres who are often formerly apolitical conformists suddenly radicalised by falling living standards into adopting extreme, naive and conspiratorial world views.

Their frustration is nurtured into anger and turned against the proponents of forward-looking and inclusive political visions that don’t include the old way of doing things. Boutaris is one such actor; other recent victims were the assassinated Kosovo politician Oliver Ivanovic in Mitrovica and Turkish journalist Can Dundar who escaped death in a 2016 attack in Istanbul.

So as we stand on the brink of the Third Industrial Revolution where, for the first time, greater productivity will not depend on human labour, but the burden will be shouldered by Artificial Intelligence and robots, it is about time to pay attention to such incidents.

This is not in order to condemn them but to ask ourselves and our elected officials what is to happen, during the great transition we are undergoing, to those who are too old to adapt yet too young to be discarded.

Unless we push for the creation of a fair welfare systems and the equitable distribution of the new economy’s profits, the little girl being held by the man screaming at Boutaris in Thessaloniki on Sunday may end a grown-up harbouring even more misplaced resentments.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.