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Turks of Western Thrace still ‘desperate’ 4 mars 2007

Posted by Acturca in EU / UE, South East Europe / Europe du Sud-Est, Turkey / Turquie.
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Today’s Zaman (Turkey), 26.02.2007

Yonca Poyraz Dogan

‘We are Greek citizens. Why has the foreign affairs minister introduced this plan ? This plan should have been introduced by the prime minister or the minister of the interior. … When people identify themselves as Turks, Greece sees them as if they are enemies of the state,’ says Hülya Emin

Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis on Feb. 5 had a three-day visit to Western Thrace on a rare tour of community villages. The first foreign minister to visit the area since 2001, Bakoyannis has arrived with promises of development to the 150,000-strong minority of Turkish origin, which faces marginalization in Greek society.

The Greek government announced it was scrapping all back taxes the community owed on charitable foundations — worth an estimated €6.5 million ($8.4 million). The government also has plans to create a 0.5 percent quota providing jobs for the Turkish minority in the civil service, and hire 240 imams.

Hülya Emin, the publisher of Turkish language « Gündem » in Western Thrace, has said the Turkish minority has a skeptical approach to the government’s reform announcement because they don’t believe that Athens is sincere. « The Greek plans to hire 240 imams (Muslim clerics) has not prompted much enthusiasm among Turks in Western Thrace because they have many more important issues, like improving the education system. Moreover, those religious leaders will, in any case, be appointed by a committee of five people to be elected by Greece. Even this will be controlled by Greece. »

How and when did you decide to publish Gündem in Western Thrace?

After I returned to Greece, I realized a serious lack of newspapers in Western Thrace, especially in 1996. There was serious need to fill the gap. Because of my educational background and work experience, I thought I could publish a newspaper.

Could you give a picture of Western Thrace for us: its people, geography, language?

Although Western Thrace is close to Turkey, many Turkish people do not know much about it. When we talk about Western Thrace, we need to remember the Lausanne Treaty. Greece wanted the Turkish community to stay in western Thrace in order to protect the Greek Patriarchate and a Greek community around it in Istanbul. Therefore, Turks living in between the rivers of Karasu (Nestos) and Meriç (Evros) in northeastern Greece of Western Thrace remained in that region and were excluded from the population exchanges of the treaty. When you visit Western Thrace, you will be able to see the mixture of Turkish and Greek cultures. There is the call to prayer from one place, and the ringing of the church bells from another. There is no problem in communicating in Turkish. The Turks there are closely tied to their traditions. Aside from the dominant Greek accent, people have not become alienated from their traditions in the least. You can see the traces of a different yet beautiful Ottoman city. We estimate there are 150,000 Turks in Western Thrace.

What is the Greek population there ?

The Turkish minority rate in Rodop, where Gümülcine is the center, 55 percent, and we estimate it to be 40-45 percent in Iskeçe (Xanthi). The rest consists of Greeks and immigrants from other countries.

How long is the commute from Istanbul to Gümülcine and Iskeçe by car ?

From the Anatolian side, I can reach my house in Gümülcine in four or four and a half hours. It takes five hours to Iskeçe.

Do the Turks and Greeks in the region get along ?

This is how I explain the relation between the Greek community and the Turks: They live side by side but separate. In appearance, there is no problem. They may even have friendships. The number of families that have many Greek and Turkish family friends is small. The people are not hostile toward one another but there is no united social life either. People are together while shopping but in more serious relations we can see that political developments have had an affect on people. For example, the tension between Turkey and Greece has reflected on to these relations. I know of Greek neighbors that stopped saying ‘hi’ to us when Turkish-Greek relations were problematic.

Do all the Turks of Western Thrace go to minority schools ?

When I was a student, minority schools were preferred by the Turks of Western Thrace. Especially during my junior high and high school years, the education in these minority schools was poor. By the time I graduated from high school, I decided I would never return to Greece. I did not want my child to experience the same problems. In the minority schools, classes were taught in Turkish and in Greek. We were subject to pressure from the Greek education system, for example, we had to take tests for classes in Greek even though we were taught these classes in Turkish. My school years were wasted. They took away my right to a decent education. I did not properly learn math, physics, chemistry, or other sciences which were taught in Turkish. Now, I am almost 40 years old and I still feel the deprivation of this.

How is the educational system now for the Turkish minority? Has it been improved ?

There is not a significant development really. In Turkish education there has been almost no improvement. In Greek education, there has been more development. In general, the Greek government has not given importance to minority education, parallel to its policies of assimilation, and having minority students in Greek schools not in minority schools. Because of the poor quality of the minority schools, the Turks of Western Thrace started sending their children to the Greek schools more and more over the years.

Did you ever think of attending higher education in Greece ?

It was impossible for me to have higher education in Greece. After the educational process I had been through, it was beyond me to pass the university entrance exams in Greece. That’s why Papandreou (then-PM Andreas Papandreou) instituted a 0.5 percent university quota for the minority in 1997.

Dora Bakoyannis was the first foreign minister to visit the area since 2001. What would you say about her reform package ?

I would like to refer to history first. The Lausanne Treaty is like a constitution for the Turks of Western Thrace because it bestows autonomy in my areas of life. In addition to the rights of a Greek citizen, there are rights given to the Turks of the Western Thrace by the Lausanne Treaty but these were not transferred to everyday life. It was Bakoyannis’s father, then-Prime Minister [1990-93] Constantine Mitsotakis, who started expanding the rights of the Turkish minority in 1991. The new laws Mitsotakis announced on May 14, 1991 in Gümülcine were centered on the politics of equality. The reforms were part of a consensus among all parties. Political parties accepted that they had all made some mistakes. Such political recognitions comforted the minority in Western Thrace. People could buy real estate, receive bank loans and car licenses to make daily life easier for them. These were the rights already given to the Greek citizens including the Turks in Western Thrace who were citizens of Greece. Until 1991, before the reforms, we could not build or buy homes. In addition to the citizenship rights, there is the issue of minority rights, such as education, non-profit organizations, designation of religious leaders. Unfortunately, those have remained as problem areas.

Have they ever been addressed by the Greek government ?

Only between election periods. Western Thrace has a strong electoral potential and political parties have made several promises during election campaigns, but for some reason their promises have never been kept. Minority issues have always encountered some sort of impasse. The current government of Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis had made many promises before it came to power in 2004, but these promises have yet to be fulfilled. Recently, on Jan. 30, the government reached a nice decision regarding Western Thrace. The decision was that back taxes on the goods of private charitable foundations would be removed, and debts would be erased. On Feb. 5, Bakoyannis visited the region. We described this news in Gündem as « opening Pandora’s box. » Another good thing was the creation of a 0.5 percent quota to provide jobs for the Turkish minority in the civil service.

Was there a law prohibiting Turkish minority from civil service ?

In recent years there has been an exam to employ people as government workers, but the educational level of the minority is insufficient to pass the exam.

Again the issue of education…

The unveiling of Greek plans to hire 240 imams, or Muslim clerics, has not prompted much enthusiasm among Turks in Western Thrace because they have many more important issues, like improving the education system. Moreover, those religious leaders will be appointed by a committee of five people who will be elected by Greece. So this is also controlled by Greece. The Turkish minority’s problem with the Greek government is this: Never has the government taken steps to eliminate the existing feeling of insecurity among people. These people have been up against assimilation policies for years. No conclusive steps have been taken to eliminate these problems.

You say there has been no sincere effort to communicate with the minority.

Yes, and I think this unfortunately casts a shadow over Bakoyannis’ reform plan. Because in a speech Bakoyannis delivered after the governmental committee meeting, she said these measures would only be taken after engaging in dialogue with the minority. The interesting part is that we are Greek citizens. Why has a foreign affairs minister introduced the plan? I think this plan should have been introduced by the prime minister or the minister of interior.

Why do you think it happened that way ?

Because the Turkish minority have always been identified as a foreign element. There are bureaus in Western Thrace that were set up by the Greek Foreign Ministry to strictly control minority policies. These bureaus are still active. Unfortunately, there is still this kind of mentality in Greece. When people put forward their Turkish identity or identify themselves as Turks, Greece sees them as if they are enemies of the state. The Turks of Western Thrace do not like to be perceived as enemies of Greece. We are not ones to be involved in foreign affairs. Yes, we are in the region because of a few international treaties, but we are Greek citizens.

So, in general, the Turkish minority have not been satisfied with Bakoyannis’ statements?

I think Bakayonnis’ visit did have some clear-cut negative statements, which showed that minority issues would not be resolved according to the wills of the minority. In addition to the problem areas I already mentioned, there is another about the Greek government’s refusal to return citizenship to some of the Turks of Western Thrace. Under the context of article 19 of the Greek citizenship law, local administrators believe Greek citizens of non-Greek descent will not return home once they leave the country. Under the context of this article, 60,000 Turks from Western Thrace have lost their citizenship between 1955 and 1998. In fact, some Turks lost their citizenship during the process when Greece became a member to the European Union in 1981. So people lost both their Greek and European Union identity. Article 19 was removed in 1998 but the Turks of Western Thrace who lost their citizenship in the past were not given back their Greek citizenship.

Where are these people now ?

Most live in Turkey or Germany. They had their Greek citizenship involuntarily removed from them. They learned that they were no longer Greek citizens at the borders.

Are there channels of dialogue between the Turks of Western Thrace and the Greek administration to resolve issues of concern? Does the Turkish minority have civil organizations to voice their problems?

First, we need to see the whole picture. Most of the Turkish minority make their living from agriculture. About 80 percent engage in farming, especially tobacco. There are some civil organizations, but the party in power does not show interest in dialogue. The educational opportunities for the minority have been limited for so long. It is easy to understand why we lagged behind forming more civil organizations to communicate our issues.

What could have Bakoyannis done to please the Turks of Western Thrace ?

She could have taken concrete steps. I think the most important problems of the Turkish minority are education and economy. If Bakoyannis had an announcement of 240 educators, instead of religious leaders, people would have been ecstatic. Announcing an opening for 240 clergyman only days after visiting the region to make it seem like they are doing something for the Turks is meaningless for the Turks of Western Thrace. This isn’t really what we need.

What do you think will follow?

As a journalist, what I see is that the policies of the Greek administration have damaged the Turkish minority. Despite some of the positive developments, the Greek administration will have to take concrete steps to heal the wounds. The Turks of Western Thrace are waiting. They are waiting, but they aren’t very optimistic that problems will be resolved. In other words, there is hopelessness. To eliminate this hopelessness, steps with good and sincere intentions must be taken by Athens.


Who is Hülya Emin ?

She was born in Gümülcine (Komotini) in Western Thrace, where most of Greece’s Turkish Muslim community lives. She completed her primary and secondary education in one of the minority schools there. After moving to Turkey, she went to Marmara University School of Communication in İstanbul and received her degree in journalism and public relations. She worked for various media organizations in Turkey and Western Thrace. In 1996, she started publishing a weekly tabloid-size Turkish political magazine addressing Turkish minority issues in the region. The newspaper, Gündem, is based in Gümülcine and circulates in Western Thrace.

She is the president of Rodop’s (Rodhopi) Turkish Women’s Culture Association, founded in 2001 but not officially recognized because of the word « Turkish » in its name. Although the association was established following all the rules and regulations, the highest Greek court’s decision was that it could not be registered. The Association applied to the European Court of Human Rights regarding the issue last year.


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