In Greece, Russian sympathies are dying despite the war in Ukraine

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When Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis spoke during a parliamentary debate on Ukraine this month, there was no doubt which side his government was taking in the dispute.

“There cannot be equal distances. You are either with peace and international law or against them,” he told lawmakers, after announcing a delivery of medicine and lethal aid to the Ukraine.

“We have always been on the right side of history, and we are doing the same now,” the prime minister said.

But for many Greeks, after centuries of existential, religious and cultural ties with Russia, the choice is not so obvious.

“Greek public opinion has a Russophile dimension, friendly feelings linked to history, a common culture based on orthodoxy and for some, a distrust of the West”, notes Nikos Marantzidis, professor of Balkan studies, Slavs and Orientals at the University of Macedonia.

A post-invasion poll in February showed 20% of Greeks are “closer” to Russia while 45% support Ukraine.

Only 8% said they would boycott Russian products and 2% said they would avoid contact with Russians.

About 75% of respondents condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin’s position, but more than 60% also criticized Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, according to the Kappa Research poll.

Putin “a great leader”

“There is a minority, not insignificant, who continue to view Putin positively,” Marantzidis said.

“No matter what, a hard core (about 10-15% of the electorate) will continue to see him as a great leader,” he told AFP.

The Greeks have fought alongside Russia since the 18th century, with the fellow Orthodox state historically seen as a protector and powerful counterweight to regional rival Turkey.

In 1827, Russia joined Britain and France in the decisive naval battle of Navarino which effectively decided Greece’s independence from the Ottoman Empire.

Marantzidis also notes residual anti-Western sentiments in Greece over a decade of austerity cuts imposed by Germany and other EU states in exchange for debt bailouts.

And memories of the NATO bombing of fellow Orthodox Serbs in 1999 during the Kosovo war are still raw, he adds.

Russians are also a popular demographic for the Greek tourism industry, with hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

Just a year ago, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin was among the guests of honor at the celebrations in Athens of the bicentenary of the Greek Revolution of 1821.

Twelve months later, relations with Moscow are icy and thousands of Greeks have joined anti-war protests alongside Ukrainians living in Greece.

“Threats and insults”

The Russian embassy in Athens expressed concern this week about “threats and insults” towards its nationals in Greece and called on the police to investigate.

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias was among the last foreign ministers to see his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov days before the February 24 invasion.

But the death of nearly a dozen ethnic Greeks in Ukraine, members of a historic community of more than 100,000 people dating back to the 18th century, has dealt a blow to relations.

Athens blamed Russian airstrikes for the killings, but Moscow denied that its forces were responsible and blamed Ukraine.

On February 27, the Russian Embassy in Athens said Greek politicians and media should “come to their senses” and stop repeating “anti-Russian propaganda”.

The Greek Foreign Ministry condemned the language as undiplomatic, and government spokesman Yiannis Economou hit back on Tuesday: “No one can sow dissent among us in any way.”

“Greeks are not historically naive or oblivious to being swayed by outside voices,” Economou said.

On the Russian Embassy’s Facebook page, pro-Russian supporters of Greece and Ukraine exchange insults daily.

Most express shock at the Russian assault and attacks on civilian targets and call for an end to hostilities. More than 7,000 Ukrainian refugees have so far fled to Greece.

“Your people resisted and defeated the Nazis, now you are following in their footsteps,” said user Leila Rosaki.

But many remain staunchly pro-Putin.

“Putin will be remembered and will go down in history as a great and worthy leader,” writes Stelios Markou.

“Bravo, chase them to Germany as before,” applauded Ilias Karavitis.

“Zelenskyy is begging Europe and NATO to get involved, he’s trying to start World War III. Pray he shuts up,” Nelli Ign said.

“May God protect President Putin and all Russians who are fighting for freedom,” said Thiresia Sakel.

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