Once again, Greece is teetering on the brink, threatening to topple over and take some European banks, and possibly some other European countries, with it. The fear of this contagion has brought Greece’s problems to worldwide attention but the country’s fiscal problems are nothing new. While many countries experienced soaring debt after the financial crisis, Greece was already in a mess well before 2007. According to the IMF, the country’s pre-crisis debt was already 105% of GDP. Endemic tax evasion and a state which continued to spend as if it was collecting all the tax it was owed meant that the country racked up ever-increasing levels of debt.
Why has Greece been in such a mess for so long? Dimitris Georgakopoulos from Greece’s finance ministry has a simple explanation. It’s all the Ottomans’ fault. Corruption and cheating became a way of life under the 400 year rule of the Muslim conquerors.
An eccentric view? Perhaps, but he’s not alone in blaming the Ottomans for Greece’s problems. This piece from Nikos Retsos pulls no punches:
Most Greeks don’t know how this happened. And most Greeks feel content to blame their fellow citizens, but not themselves! They still have not understood that their backwardness was the result of the occupation of Greece by the Ottoman Empire for 368 years. And during those years, the Greeks were infected with the Turkish bazaar ethic of life, in which making as much money as possible from naive and good natured customers, and bragging about their ability to fool them afterward at the coffee shop, became the typical way of life for tradesmen and business people. Many Greeks are not ashamed to argue that the way to success is: “Grab to eat, and steal to possess!” Those attitudes of nowadays do not originate in Ancient Greece; the Ottoman Turks dumped them in Greece, and the Greeks adopted them!
Pauline Hager’s 2010 novel “Giorgi’s Greek Tragedy” made a similar claim. The publisher’s note made it clear where the blame for Greece’s poverty and corruption lies:
Today, Greek families pay over 1,500 euros per year in bribes. A surgeon in a state hospital expects additional euros from a family to perform surgery, in addition to what the state pays him. Tax collectors are notorious for collecting additional euros from citizens to assure them their taxes are properly recorded, and so it goes in all aspects of daily living. The bribery rampant in modern Greece is a carry-over from Ottoman rule.
Could there be anything in this? Surely the woes of a modern state can’t be blamed on a conquest 400 years ago. Isn’t this just a form of buck-passing?
Then I remembered a conversation I had with some Bulgarian academics and journalists, over several beers, on a warm evening in Plovidiv’s old square. These were people of a broadly liberal persuasion; cosmopolitan, well-travelled and cautiously pro-EU. Yet they, too, felt that the Ottoman occupation had damaged their country. As one of them explained to me:
You have to remember that we had no Renaissance and no Enlightenment. The flowering of thought and ideas and the innovation that went with it were closed to us. We did not have our Renaissance until the nineteenth century.
In his view, by closing Bulgaria off from European ideas and social movements, the Ottoman occupation was at least partially to blame for the country’s proverty.
This prompted me to do some digging. Are the former Ottoman provinces worse off than other European countries?
It’s a crude measure, perhaps, but look at the per capita GDP of the EU countries that were outside the communist bloc. Taking the IMF figures from just before the financial crisis, the former Ottoman provinces of Cyprus and Greece have the third and fourth lowest per capita GDP.
||Per Capita GDP 2007 (USD)
Among the former communist countries, the difference is even more pronounced. You can almost trace the boundary of the Ottoman Empire in about 1700 by those above and below the five-figure per capita GDP line. Even in former Yugoslavia, the old Austrian provinces (Croatia and Slovenia) are markedly richer than the former Ottoman ones.
||Per Capita GDP 2007 (USD)
|Bosnia and Herzegovina
Like Greece, the other former Ottoman provinces have tax evasion problems too. Romania and Bulgaria are rated as the the worst in the EU and Serbia’s illegal economy is estimated at round 40% of GDP.
Now of course this could all be coincidence. I’ve been around long enough not to infer cause and effect from a few simple statistics. It could be that these figures just reflect Europe’s North-South split as well as its East-West one and that the Balkan countries happen to be on the wrong side of both.
My knowledge of Balkan history is fairly rudimentary. I can tell you who conquered whom and roughly when, but the finer details of how the Ottomans ran their empire is beyond me. I’d be fascinated to hear from someone who actually knows about this stuff, to tell me whether this is a complete red herring or whether there is, as many seem to believe, some truth in the claim that the poverty and corruption of the Balkans is a legacy of Ottoman rule.
After all, we take it as read that 50 years of communist rule set back development in Eastern Europe. Could it be true that 300 years of Ottoman rule was just as damaging for the Balkans and Greece?