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Why some Greek residents are reluctant to condemn Russia

April 26, 2022

The Greek government condemns Vladimir Putin's attack on Ukraine — but the Greek people are divided where Moscow is concerned. Leftists revel in Soviet nostalgia, while conservatives embrace the shared Orthodox faith.

Vladimir Putin  outdoors, surrounded by a group of men, some of them monks
Vladimir Putin visited a monastic community in Greece in 2016Image: AFP/Getty Images

Maria still can't believe Russia's President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine. The 29-year-old Muscovite, who wishes to stay anonymous, has been living in the northern Greek metropolis of Thessaloniki for three years. The law student is married to a Greek and officially registered in Greece, just like about 15,000 other Russians.

Ties between the two predominantly Christian Orthodox countries are traditionally close. Maria learned Greek at university in Russia, even if she did not have concrete plans to move to Greece at the time. She is not particularly religious, but as an Orthodox Christian she feels less foreign in Greece than in other parts of Europe. "Religion connects us, also on a cultural level," Maria told DW. "I've traveled a lot, so I know that you have to adapt if you want to live abroad. But here I hardly had to change anything."

Orthodox church building, white with red trim, in Thessaloniki
For many Greeks, the Orthodox faith is a link with MoscowImage: Florian Schmitz/DW

Since the war in Ukraine began on February 24, 2022, the economic situation in Russia has worsened, Maria says. "In Moscow, stores are closing," she says, adding there is, among other products, a shortage of medicine in the capital. That is a situation the rest of the country is used to, she says. "Maybe people elsewhere in Russia are even pleased to see the supply situation is becoming problematic in the big cities, too." Many of her relatives and friends have already left the country, her father traveled across the Finnish border, her mother via Belarus to Lithuania.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis shakes ands with Vladimir Putin
Kyriakos Mitsotakis met Vladimir Putin in 2016 but has condemned the Ukraine warImage: picture-alliance/Russian Look

Maria does not doubt that when it comes to maintaining power, Putin knows no bounds. That is another reason why her home country no longer holds any promise for her. The propaganda-driven media and the increasingly harsh state measures against dissidents have shattered whatever hopes for a change for the better she may have had, she says. She cannot understand why many people in Greece find it difficult to condemn Moscow for the war against Ukraine. "The other day, a Greek said that everything is good in Russia. I contradicted him and explained how the situation really is. But he didn't believe me."

Russia, a traditional Greek ally

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis adheres to the EU's course of supporting Kyiv in the fight against Moscow. Greece has already supplied weapons to Ukraine. But recent opinion polls show that more than one out of two Greeks do not support the government's policies. While refugees from Ukraine are welcomed with open arms in Greece, many Greeks reject the EU measures against Russia. According to one survey, more than 60%t are decidedly opposed to arms shipments — they see culpability for the war in both Moscow and Kyiv.

In Germany, Russian monks help Ukrainians

One of the reasons for the ambivalent attitude is that Greek conservatives traditionally see Russia as an ally. In 2019, five years after the annexation of Crimea, Mitsotakis, who was opposition leader at the time, traveled to Moscow. Underlining a "relationship of trust" between his Nea Demokratia party and Putin's United Russia party, he promised Russia would always find Greece to be a "trustworthy dialogue partner."

Significance of a shared faith

Many Greeks' sympathize with Russia first and foremost because of their shared Orthodox faith, says Athanasios Grammenos. "The Russians for centuries presented themselves as the protectors of Orthodox Christians during the Ottoman Empire."

 Athanasios Grammenos
There's a myth of the great savior in the east, says Athanasios Grammenos Image: Privat

Moscow never actively helped, but the myth of the great savior in the east is strongly anchored in Greek culture, the political scientist at the University of Thessaloniki told DW. Many people with right-wing convictions, also members of the conservative party, still believe that for some magical reason the Russians are going to take Istanbul, formerly the Orthodox stronghold of Constantinople, liberate it and give it to Greece, fulfilling the dream of a new Byzantine Empire, he says.

The political scientist argues that Russia is trying to gain influence through the Orthodox faith in other Balkan countries, too, particularly in North Macedonia and Serbia, where people are divided concerning the European Union. That's where Russia is using "the old strategy of the Orthodox Commonwealth."

That hasn't been as easy in Greece, Grammenos notes. The Greek Orthodox Church recognized the autocephalous church of Ukraine in 2019, clearly acting against the wishes of Russian Orthodox Church leaders. "In Greece, church is a reflection of society," he says, adding some priests are into strange conspiracy theories, which "has an impact on many believers."

Waning trust in Russia

Stavros Tzimas knows where his fellow countrymen's sympathies lie. In Greece, the journalist is considered an expert on the Balkans, Russia and the Orthodox Church. When it comes to Moscow, the Greek left still flirts with Soviet nostalgia, as do the conservatives with the Orthodox faith, he says. Such romantic notions, however, only partly explain why the Greek population is so reluctant to condemn Moscow's war in Ukraine, if they do at all.

Stavros Tzimas
Greeks fear the repercussions of measures against Russia, says Stavros TzimasImage: Florian Schmitz/DW

Many Greeks seem to fear that supporting sanctions against Russia could hurt Greece, Tzimas told DW. Prices for certain products including electricity and gas have risen sharply in Greece, too, he says, adding that people far measures against Moscow will have an impact on their economic situation.

Greece's political ties with Russia have long been on a downward slide. Political disagreements — including on the 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and the 2018 Prespa Agreement settling a long-standing dispute with northern Macedonia over the name of the country — played a decisive role, he says. In the case of the accord, he says, diplomatic relations saw a downturn when Athens expelled Russian embassy officials who had tried to lobby against the agreement.

This article has been translated from German.

Portrait of a man with brown hair and a beard
Florian Schmitz Reporter with a focus on Greece