By Stelios Orphanides
In the politically incorrect Greek culture, often xenophobic, tribalistic and sexist jokes are very popular.
A certain category of these jokes is about the Pontians, i.e. the Black Sea Greeks, or the descendants of those who were lucky to escape the 1915 massacre of Christians by the Ottomans in Asia Minor and what followed during and after the Great War.
The reason for the rest of the Greeks trying to unjustifiably present Pontians as less intelligent and ridiculous is definitely related to ignorance, but a combination of other factors cannot be ruled out. After all, those Pontian Greeks who managed to make it to Greece in the chaotic years before and after the end of that global conflict were successful not only in starting their lives all over again, they also preserved their identity and elements of their culture in their new homeland.
One of these jokes is in the form of a question and answer. It asks how the last Pontian prostitute died. The answer is that she committed suicide when she found out that her colleagues were getting paid for their work. Such jokes became fashionable in Cyprus sometime in the early 80s and even before, many years before the island had the privilege of hosting a sizable community of Pontian Greeks.
Decades later, at a time when several countries are probing Russia’s meddling in their democratic procedures – the US, France, the UK and Germany to name a few – in Cyprus’ current presidential elections, there are nine candidates who have debated, quarrelled and accused each other of everything and anything. And yet, not one of them has actually said anything about many of the real issues that urgently need to be discussed, including the future of the country.
Nobody has talked about actual alternatives to the sale of passports to mainly Russian investors to keep its economy afloat. Nor the unhealthy focus on construction to fuel economic growth. Nor how to contain the encroachment of illicit capital. Nobody is talking about the lack of institutions necessary to contain Vladimir Putin’s influence over the country. Not even the mere fact that Cyprus is constantly mentioned in investigations abroad over Moscow’s interference in other countries’ elections has ever been debated on the island.
Apparently, the Cypriot political and social microcosm’s perception of itself and the outer world is inversely proportional to their respective size. Otherwise, at least a part of the public debate would have been devoted to the country’s reputation. And let us not forget, reputation is important when you ask for favours.
Let’s go back to what the island experienced in 2013. While memories of that disaster are still fresh – hence some candidates’ willingness to capitalise on the anger of those who lost money with promises – everyone has appeared to forget the actual reason behind the decision why the other euro area members would not bail out Cypriot banks five years ago. It was the reluctance to go after illicit funds laundered on the island by Slobodan Milosevich and Russian oligarchs. And that was the reputation that Cyprus gained.
Indeed, Cyprus did agree to do more to clamp down on money laundering as part of its bailout agreement. And it has done. But still, reports about companies shifting funds through Cypriot banks, assisted by powerful local law firms continue to appear in the international press. There have also been reports about former KGB officers engaging in dodgy business, including the financing of Le Pen’s far-right Front National in France with “loans”.
While some of these companies, banks and law firms are meanwhile part of the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential elections, Cypriots collectively pretend that it is none of their business. But it is. And silence about these matters will only continue to embarrass not only the island but also its presidential candidates.
But there is for all that an explanation. It is very likely that as a result of the authoritarian Russian ruler’s influence, he has already established himself in the consciousness of Cypriot politicians as the actual ruler of Cyprus. It is therefore not surprising that all the candidates happen to be pro-Russian.
And just like the case of the last Pontian prostitute, some of them do it free of charge. But others profit from this. In other words, the joke is on us, not the Pontians.