November 7, 2012

Athens Mayor Visits Ithaca in U.S.

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Giorgos Kaminis, the mayor of Athens, Greece, faces a city struggling to recover from an economic mess that left unemployment at about 25 percent and at more than 50 percent for young people — but he took the time Tuesday to drop in at Cornell and discuss the state of his city today, a decision that was both questioned and appreciated by members of the Greek-American community on campus.

At the A.D. White House, Kaminis delivered a lecture titled “Re-Launching Athens in a Time of Crisis: Urban Development, Decentralization and Democracy in the European Union Context.” While the talk underscored the difficulties of rebuilding the metropolis as rioting and socio-economic issues threaten to break apart the fabric of Athenian society, Kaminis also remained optimistic that policy changes can improve the city.

Citing an over-centralized Greek government as a key factor in his city’s economic troubles, Kaminis suggested making government more approachable. He called for a restructuring of the Greek political system to increase local political responsibility and decrease the role of the federal government in day-to-day life.

Kaminis also said an absence of tangible policy changes is a source of tension in Athens. He said he understands the frustration on the streets and sees more direct policy-making as central to quelling riots in the city.

“Inability for national politicians to deliver [translates] into public frustration and disillusion [with] politics,” Kaminis said. “Democracy is a fragile thing: It demands respect for the [electorate] and their concerns. If they are treated with disdain, if they feel their rights have been hijacked — in this case, by national institutions — if they feel austerity is not shared equally, we should not be surprised if their allegiances break down and they try something else, something that promises them a greater say.”

Economic development was also a central topic in Kaminis’ speech, as he mentioned the creation of a new stadium for the Panathinaikos Soccer Club and the construction of new roads as keys to urban growth in Greece.

Kaminis said his country also faces the challenge of incorporating an increasing population of undocumented immigrants into the social fabric of the nation. He said he has met with mayors across Europe to tackle racism.

“The problems we are trying to confront right now — racism, xenophobia — are more or less European problems. We can propose to do something; everyone together,” Kaminis said.

Members of the Greek-American community on campus who attended the speech responded positively to what they said was Kaminis’ honesty about the issues facing Greece.

Alex Orfanos ’13, president of the Hellenic Student Association, praised what he called Kaminis’ transparency and unique perspective. The HSA co-sponsored the event with the Cornell Institute for European Studies’ Mediterranean Initiative, the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies and the Department of Government.

“Among anyone I’ve heard speak in the past, he was the most frank, the most clear and straightforward in terms of just explaining the situation now and how he got there,” Orfanos said. “He is someone who has really had experience in dealing with this; he really lives this day to day.”

Zander Abranowicz ’14 echoed Orfanos’ praise but questioned the timing of Kaminis’ visit — since Athens is currently dealing with a new wave of riots and strikes.

“I think at first when I heard he was coming, I was wondering why he was going to be in Ithaca and not Athens, where there have been strikes,” Abranowicz said. “But I guess I was curious to hear from a mayor of a city that is facing problems [on] so many different levels.”

For Katerina Athanasiou ’13, vice president of the HSA and a senior editor at The Sun, Kaminis’ visit held personal significance.

“I know that my family and other families are really feeling the brunt of what is happening in Greece. Having him come during a time of such crisis was interesting because on the one hand, I wondered what he was doing leaving Athens in a time of such dire need … on the other hand, I appreciate that he came so that he could share with us what is happening,” Athanasiou said. “It is a really scary time for Greece and you can see it in the unemployment, so it was really interesting to have the insider perspective.”

Orfanos also touched on the significance of the event for the Greek community on campus in terms of understanding the experiences faced by families back home.

“We feel very removed from what is going on, but we do have this sense that there are so many problems and there is not much we can do from where we are. Students are very interested in knowing what’s going on,” Orfanos said. “For many Greek-Americans, it was a rare opportunity to get this kind of exposure … as an organization I would say this is a premier event for us for the year.”

Original Author: Dan Temel