Identity Geopolitics: Nation, Faith and the Roma of Western Thrace

A marginalised Muslim Roma border community is courted by Greece and Turkey, seeking to advance their strategic interests.

The rain had stopped and the sky had begun to clear. One of the women mopped the patio while the others smoked and wondered about the coronavirus, if it really was as bad as people were saying. Our host was running late. A lockdown had just been announced and he was completing some last-minute errands in town. His mother and her relatives kept us company while we waited.

The house was in a sprawl of cinder-block shanties on the eastern edge of the town. Two Greek flags hung near the approach. Beyond them lay the Muslim cemetery. The women served coffee, accompanied by the usual jokes about whether to call it Greek or Turkish. The correct term, of course, depended on where you happened to be.

We were in the north-eastern tip of Greece, in the settlement of Alan Koyu in Western Thrace. The only region of Greece that shares a land border with Turkey, Western Thrace is also home to the country’s only officially recognised minority.

The name by which this minority is known varies, like the coffee, according to where one happens to be. In Ankara, it is known as the “Turkish minority” of Greece, emphasising ties of language and ethnicity that date back to the Ottoman era. Athens rejects that term, saying that it implies a Turkish claim to the region. The Greek state refers instead to the “Muslim minority” of Western Thrace, adhering to the language of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne that completed the dissolution of the Ottoman empire.

As we waited in Alan Koyu, the talk turned from the pandemic to other ways of dying. The women said they had just lost one of their own, to cancer. He was 35 years old. When his aunt heard the news, her blood pressure shot up. They took her to a local hospital but the staff there ignored them. “And then they say we shout too much,” our host’s mother said.

Situated on the outskirts of Komotini, the regional capital of Western Thrace, Alan Koyu is a Roma settlement. Its 2,000-odd residents live in conditions typical of many Roma settlements all over Greece: in poverty, on the squalid periphery of an urban centre, with limited access to basic services such as healthcare, sanitation and education.

Most of the Roma of Western Thrace are Muslims. Regarded by Athens as part of the region’s Muslim minority, they are in fact in a minority within minorities. Their religious identity sets them apart from other Roma in Greece, most of whom are not Muslim. Meanwhile, their ethnic identity sets them apart from the Muslim minority of Western Thrace, most of whom are not Roma.

While poverty and prejudice have blighted the lives of the Roma across Greece and the wider Balkans, the fortunes of the Muslim Roma of Western Thrace are shaped by an additional factor – the geopolitical contest between Greece and Turkey.

Both sides have courted the Roma in order to advance their own interests – Ankara intermittently, Athens concertedly. Yet these overtures have delivered little in the way of lasting benefits for the Roma, whose material conditions still bear the hallmarks of official neglect. Instead, Greece and Turkey have pursued a narrow objective – of moulding Roma identity into an instrument of state policy.

As a result, experts say, the Muslim Roma of Western Thrace are frequently pressured to identify themselves as “Greek” or “Turkish”, at the expense of other markers of identity. In the words of Sevasti Trubeta, a deputy professor of Diversity Studies at Magdeburg-Stendal University and the author of a book about the Roma of Western Thrace, they have been “backed into a corner”.

“There are many ways in which a person may define themselves,” Trubeta told the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN. “They may describe themselves as a woman, a child, a mother, a carpenter, a scientist.” For the region’s Roma however, “everything has to turn around identities constructed by national centres. It has to be one or the other: Are you Greek or are you Turkish?”

We travelled to Western Thrace to see how a tug-of-war between two powerful nations had defined a truly marginalised community, a minority within a minority. But as we would discover, it was impossible to examine Roma identity without having our own identity – as non-Roma Greek journalists from Athens – reflected back upon us. There are of course many ways of responding to questions about how we view ourselves. The answers we provide depend, among other things, on how we view the audience.

As Giorgos Mavrommatis, an associate professor of Minority and Transcultural Education at Democritus University in Thrace, told us: “Identity always gets formed in context… If someone asks who is a Roma here, we will ask who wants to know this, and what for.”

Back in Alan Koyu, we were eventually joined on the patio by our host, local councillor Yannis Dimopoulos. He confirmed that most of the Roma residents of the settlement were Muslims – but he indicated that they had adopted a relatively relaxed approach to Islam. “They believe more in Christ and the Virgin,” he said. His family members, he added, had been baptised and also considered themselves to be Christians.

Dimopoulos said he believed that those Roma from Western Thrace who flaunted their Islamic faith tended to do so with Turkish support. The community in Alan Koyu was different, however. “We say we are Greek Roma citizens. It doesn’t matter if one is called Hasan or another is called Ayse,” he said, listing two popular Turkish names. The names had been passed down from generation to generation, he added, typically bestowed out of respect for great-grandparents. “They are not Turkish speakers or anything,” he said, referring to the settlement’s residents. “Just their names are Muslim.”

According to Dimopoulos, Alan Koyu was also once known by another name: Teneke Mahala. The original name meant “tin neighbourhood” in Turkish, he said, offering a potted history of a settlement that had always been a poor cousin to the nearby town.

“Now, some youngsters have built a few houses with bricks and roof tiles – but 95 per cent is still a shantytown.” As for Alan Koyu, “it means a field and a deep well,” he said. “Pretty appropriate, don’t you think?”

‘Model of co-existence’
Over centuries of Ottoman rule across the Balkans, Christian and Muslim communities from a variety of ethnic, linguistic and sectarian backgrounds ended up living alongside each other. Greece’s Muslim minority, like the dwindling Orthodox Christian minority in Turkey, is a relic of this period, an uneasy vestige of the age of empires.

The Muslims of Western Thrace, numbering some 100,000 people, make up roughly 1% of the total population of Greece. While the minority is further divided into ethnic and linguistic groups including the Roma, its precise composition is disputed. Official Greek figures indicate roughly 15% of the minority are Roma, while 35% are Pomaks, or Muslims who speak a dialect similar to Bulgarian. The remainder of the minority – roughly 50% – are said by Greece to be of “Turkish descent”.

The minority is made up of the few communities that were exempted from the compulsory population exchange conducted under the Treaty of Lausanne, following the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-22. The exchange was planned along religious lines, sweeping over ethnic and linguistic differences. It made official the expulsion of some 1.2 million Orthodox Christians from the territory of modern-day Turkey, as well as the expulsion of some 400,000 Muslims from Greece.

In the decades to come, both the Muslims that were permitted to remain in Greece and the few Orthodox Christians that were permitted to remain in Turkey would become pawns in a contest between the two fiercely nationalistic neighbours.

The Orthodox Christian minority faced severe persecution in Turkey, and many ended up fleeing or being deported to Greece. Athens retaliated with what has been termed a policy of “administrative harassment” targeting the Muslims of Western Thrace. Tactics included arbitrary surveillance and arrest, as well as preventing members of the minority from buying or selling property, acquiring citizenship or driving a vehicle.

Throughout this period, Ankara exercised its influence in Western Thrace through a long-established consulate in Komotini, offering grants and scholarships for members of the minority to study in Turkey. Greek academics have argued that the consulate also operated a vast network of paid sympathisers, tasked with promoting Ankara’s interests in Western Thrace. In an emailed response to BIRN, the consulate said it did not comment on such claims.

Meanwhile, Athens administered the region through the Office of Political Affairs, headquartered in the town of Xanthi, 40 km east of Komotini. As implied by its nickname, the “Greek consulate”, the Office was something of an anomaly: it was overseen by the Greek foreign ministry, yet operated on Greek soil and concerned itself with Greek citizens.

The combination of repression by Athens and assistance from Ankara would strengthen the bond that many members of the minority felt towards the “mother country”, Turkey. When civil unrest erupted in the region in the early 1990s, it highlighted the deep hostility and frustration with which the minority had come to view the Greek state.

Alarmed, Greece began to rethink its policy towards the minority. A fresh government in Athens, headed by the conservative New Democracy party, ended “administrative harassment” and promised the minority “equality before the law and the state”. The Greek state also began courting the region’s Roma by funding cultural associations and programmes that promised better access to education and employment opportunities.

Experts interviewed by BIRN said Greek policy towards the Roma had a simple underlying goal: weakening Turkey’s influence over the Muslim minority. In other words, by highlighting the Muslim Roma as an identity in its own right, Athens sought to demonstrate that a sizeable portion of the minority was not ethnically Turkish.

“The authorities discovered that there was someone who could help highlight the heterogeneity of the minority,” said Dimitris Christopoulos, a professor at the Department of Political Science and History at Panteion University in Athens. “They were the ones that everyone called the Gypsies, the lowest of the low, the most excluded, the minority within the minority.”

Western Thrace today is calmer than it was in the 1990s. In an e-mailed statement to BIRN, the Greek foreign ministry described the region as “a model of coexistence for Greek citizens of different religions”.

However, in its periodic spats with Greece, Turkey insists that its ethnic kin across the border are facing persecution, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently demanding that Greece “end practices that amount to state terrorism against our brothers in Western Thrace”.

‘You have to be in the game to know’
For the minority members of “Turkish descent”, the easing of repression since the 1990s has paved the way for greater participation in Greek politics. For Athens meanwhile, the new policy in Western Thrace has helped maintain a tentative peace.

However, it is hard to establish how Greek support for the Roma of Western Thrace has served its interests in the geopolitical tussle. It is also hard to determine exactly how that support has benefitted the region’s Roma, most of whom still live in inhumane conditions.

Education is frequently hailed as the Roma’s ticket out of poverty. Yet despite decades of investment by the state and by the EU, the proportion of Roma children leaving school with qualifications remains stubbornly low in Western Thrace, as elsewhere in Greece.

Gungor Alioglu is an exception. The first man from the Roma settlement of Drosero to have attended university, he now works as a pre-school teacher in the neighbouring town of Xanthi. His own schooling was far from easy. His mother did not speak Greek, only Romani and Turkish, and he remained at school at the insistence of his parents. “Every year, I had fewer and fewer classmates from Drosero,” Alioglu recalls. For the last three years, he was the only one from his settlement still studying at the school.

Even now, only a fraction of the Roma children from Drosero complete school. Alioglu estimated that out of the settlement’s 7,000 residents, some 10 boys were studying technical subjects in high school and three girls were close to graduating. He proudly describes his daughter, Vijdan, as a trailblazer: the first woman from Drosero to enter university.

Drosero is in better shape than Alan Koyu. Though the settlement has a handful of shacks, most of the houses are sturdy and the roads are in good condition. Nonetheless, the railway tracks that separate Drosero from Xanthi act as an informal border between the Roma and the rest of the population. The few Roma seen in the historic centre of Xanthi tend to be market traders or queueing for public services. Others beg with their children or hawk balloons in the main square.

Alioglu believes that the members of his community who have missed out on a formal education are also less likely to be comfortable with their Roma identity. Instead, he argued, they are more likely to identify with the dominant identity – which, for the Muslim Roma, has traditionally been “Turkish”.

The Roma have also received direct incentives to accentuate aspects of their identity that are associated with Turkey. Alioglu described how he had been approached by “a religious man”, pledging financial assistance, when his daughter entered university. There was only one condition: she must start wearing the Islamic headscarf. “I told him we don’t wear headscarves in my family and he should keep his help,” Alioglu said. He had no idea about the source of the support – “you have to be in the game to know,” he told BIRN.

Asked how he defined his community, Alioglu was emphatic: “We are all Roma Muslim Greek citizens. I tell everyone that if they ask who you are, you will answer: I am a Greek citizen, my consciousness is national.”

‘A win for the national strategy’
Progammes to support the Roma of Western Thrace have been funded not just by the Greek government, but also by the EU and a variety of NGOs. Experts say the schemes have delivered modest improvements.

Dimitris Christopoulos, the professor at Panteion University, acknowledged that the Greek government’s efforts had helped the Roma – but he criticised the underlying motives. “Some good work was done within this process, there were some integration and education efforts,” he told BIRN.

“And naturally, if a child gets the chance to go to school, then by all means it should go to school. But the point is that in Western Thrace, these things do not happen because children should go to school. They happen because there is a ‘national’ policy of breaking up the minority.”

A former president of the International Federation of Human Rights, a Paris-based international NGO, Christopoulos has written extensively on minority rights and citizenship in Europe. He said the historic discrimination endured by the Roma at the hands of the Turkish minority had made them “easy targets” for Greek overtures.

However, as Greece’s new policy towards the Roma became apparent, Turkish interest in the community seems to have been rekindled. According to Giorgos Mavrommatis, the associate professor at Democritus University in Thrace, this led to “a kind of ping-pong, sometimes verging on the ridiculous.”

He described how a cultural association, backed by the Greek government, had organised a coach excursion from Drosero to the island of Tinos. The settlement’s residents were invited to pay their respects at the island’s famous icon of the Virgin Mary, widely revered by the Roma across Greece, regardless of faith. The following week in Drosero, Mavrommatis said, “people from the Turkish consulate turn up and organise a big Islamic feast… offering free circumcisions for all the young boys, who of course have Muslim names but not the slightest relation to Islam.”

Mavrommatis summarised Greek policy towards the region’s Roma as a form of “low level clientilism, which then feeds into a wider nationalist narrative”. He said representatives of the Greek state operated a quid pro quo with influential members of the Roma community.

They might for instance waive a fine, or offer funding for a Roma association or festival, or facilitate a license to trade in the market. Through these favours, Mavrommatis said, the state secured the support of Roma “deeper and lower down the hierarchy” – effectively creating a network of loyalists. “What the politician gets in return are votes,” he told BIRN. “Then whatever is gained ‘for the Greek side’ is counted as a win for the national strategy.”

The Greek government, led once again by New Democracy, rejects the view that the state has supported the Roma in order to divide the Muslim minority. In a statement to BIRN, the foreign ministry said the minority had always been comprised of three elements, one of which was the Roma.

The heterogeneity of the minority was “native and inherent to it”, the ministry said, adding that the Greek state was obliged to “respect and support” these differences as fundamental human rights. “It is precisely this threefold character of the Muslim minority which bothers the Turkish side, as it does not serve its aim of presenting the minority as supposedly Turkish,” the statement said.

The ministry said the state’s efforts to tackle discrimination against the minority – including implementing quotas for admission to higher education and for recruitment in the public sector – were “worthy of praise rather than criticism”.

‘Waiting a hundred years to leave’
Back in Athens, we began to question how our own identity had influenced our discussions with the Roma. We had no reason to doubt what we had heard in Western Thrace. But if identity was indeed always determined by context, the responses we received might have carried a different emphasis if we had been Roma ourselves, or if we had not been Greek.

These questions – to which there were no obvious answers – highlighted an overlooked aspect of our story. While Athens and Ankara had sought to influence Roma identity, they were not the only forces at work. It was above all the Roma themselves who actively chose how to define themselves, according to varying contexts. Alioglu’s daughter, Vidjan, seemed to allude to this when she joked about trying to convince incredulous friends at university that she was a Roma. “But look,” she recalled telling them, “I have really long hair! And I can dance!”

Christos Iliadis, a post-doctoral researcher at Panteion University in Athens and a co-ordinator for Justrom, a programme that seeks to improve Roma women’s access to justice, said this use of identity was in no way unique to the Roma.

“Doesn’t everyone do that?” he asked. “If you had been member of a particular political party, or if you studied in a certain university, wouldn’t you use that as an identifying attribute to get ahead? Don’t people everywhere try to cash in on what they are, if they have the opportunity?”

If the Roma of Western Thrace are exceptional, Iliadis said, it is only because of the context in which their identity has been forged: the extraordinary combination of poverty, prejudice and geopolitical rivalry. “It is not a question of whether you are using your identity, because everyone does that,” Iliadis said. “The question is whether someone is paying for your identity to be used in a certain way, to get you into the programme, so to speak.”

The price for the Roma, in any case, seems to be rather low. In Alan Koyu, Yannis Dimopoulos had told us that his community was still waiting to hear from the municipality of Komotini about plans to relocate it to a site with better amenities. “We don’t even have sewage here,” he said. “I am 48 years old and I remember my grandfather telling me we would be relocated. We’ve been waiting for a hundred years to leave.”

It was only when we returned to Athens that we realised we had missed our chance to ask why he had placed two Greek flags on the approach to his house. It seemed, in retrospect, not so much a marker of identity as a forlorn call for help.

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