For Greece and the world, it will definitely be hard to forget the year 2020. When Time magazine branded 2020 as “The Worst Year Ever” on its December 14 cover, most people around the globe agreed. With about 1.8 million deaths due to Covid-19 worldwide, 2020 has been a year that the whole world wants to forget.
Greece was no exception to the plight of the pandemic. Yet, unlike most of the rest of the world, in 2020 the country had to face two additional threats, both coming from the East: Turkey’s aggressively expansive behavior in the Aegean, and the migrant influx, also coming from its eastern neighbor country.
The year started with great optimism for the Greek government. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis left for the United States on January 5 in order to tighten the ties of friendship between the two countries. The purpose of the visit was twofold: attract investors, as Greece was entering the path of growth, and drum up US support against Turkey’s erratic behavior in the Eastern Mediterranean region.
The Prime Minister returned to Greece satisfied after the meetings with President Donald Trump, Department of State Secretary Mike Pompeo and prominent representatives of the Greek-American community.
On January 22, the Greek Parliament elected the only candidate Aikaterini Sakellaropoulou President of the Hellenic Republic with 261 votes. She is the first woman ever who became president in the country.
Pandemic casts shadow over the country
In February, the coronavirus scare arrived in Greece as neighboring Italy started counting its victims. The pandemic and its disastrous repercussions in the economy and subsequent psychological problems caused in Greece as the result of recession and the two lockdowns dominated media headlines until the end of the year.
The first Covid-19 case in Greece was confirmed on February 26. It was a 38-year-old woman from Thessaloniki who had recently visited Milan, Italy for a fashion exhibition. The Greek government became alarmed and took action immediately. All Carnival events were cancelled on February 27 in order to avoid crowding and further spread of the virus, which had already infected thousands in Italy.
By March 10, health authorities had detected a total of 89 Covid-19 cases in Greece, and on March 12 a 66-year-old man was the first casualty of the pandemic. The government decided on the immediate closing down of all schools and higher education institutions until further notice.
On March 16, all retail shops were also closed and all religious services were suspended. On the 23rd, a total lockdown was imposed and all non-essential movement throughout the country was banned. Greeks had to send a text message to the authorities for the essential reason they were out of the house, and carry an ID with them. Other than work, which also required an official document from the workplace, Greek citizens could only go to the supermarket and other food stores, visit a doctor, a relative in need (documented), go to the bank, exercise or walk a pet.
That first lockdown lasted 42 days. Restrictions started to be lifted gradually on May 4, with businesses and schools opening. Life in Greece started to return to normal, even though the usual waves of tourists arriving in the country in May in previous years were not to be seen until July, and those in much lesser numbers. This was unfortunately the case despite the fact that Greece was one of the three safest countries to travel to during the pandemic.
On July 1st, Greece opened its borders to visitors from certain countries. On July 15, more countries were added. The ban continued for countries which had reported large numbers of infections and deaths, such as the United States, Brazil and Russia.
The swift measures taken in March helped contain the number of infections and deaths at remarkably low levels, although experts later said that at that time there was simply very little of the contagion in the country to be spread around — unlike later in the year. Greece was lauded internationally for its response to the pandemic and the government praised the Greek people for adhering to the safety measures.
However, the response was not as quick when the second wave of the pandemic arrived at the country’s gates. By late October, the number of new infections and deaths started to rise exponentially. Greece went to a new lockdown on November 7. Still, two weeks after the new restrictions the daily death count averaged close to 100, the new infections reached 2,500-3,000 daily and the number of intubated patients remained steady at a little over 600 each day through early December.
The blow the Greek economy received was tremendous. In early December, the Finance Ministry estimated the contraction of the economy to be 10.5 percent for 2020 due to the pandemic. Yet, given the fact that nightclubs, restaurants, bars, and cafes will remain closed through January 7, 2021, the final recession figures will definitely be higher.
Turkish aggression ramps up
And unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic was not the only threat Greece had to face in 2020. The year was marked with the escalation of Turkey’s aggression against Greece. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and top Turkish officials and military chiefs openly challenged Greece’s sovereignty over some Aegean Sea islands and Greek airspace. They also challenged the century-old, internationally-accepted Treaty of Lausanne.
Throughout the year, the violation of Greek airspace by Turkish fighter jets was almost a daily routine. From January through October 2020, the number of overflights of Turkish war planes over Greek islands reached a phenomenal 401, almost tenfold more than the number of such flights in the previous 11 years. Characteristically, from 2009 to 2019, a total of 450 Turkish plane overflights were recorded.
At sea, Turkish provocations in the Aegean culminated with research vessel Oruc Reis accompanied by five warships going in and out of Greece’s continental shelf from July through November, searching for natural gas. Greek Navy ships were close by monitoring the activities, while trying to avoid falling into a trap by responding to the Turkish provocations.
It was also the year that Erdogan openly declared his expansionist aims by flexing Turkey’s military muscle, not only in the Eastern Mediterranean but also in Syria, Libya and most recently in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, siding with the Muslim Azeris.
In Cyprus, Turkey threw the United Nations decision to keep Varosha clear of Turkish power in the trash and opened the seaside town for tourism. That was after Turkish research ships had repeatedly violated Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone, searching for natural gas and oil. Finally, by helping Erdogan’s friend to come to power in the occupied part of Cyprus, Turkey continued to push for the partition of the island.
Throughout the Turkish illegal activities Greece’s friends and partners in the EU and NATO failed to act as such. NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg openly sided with Turkey first by claiming that disputes between NATO members should be resolved between them, then by using incredible excuses to justify Ankara’s acts.
The European Union has also been absent as a partner to Greece and Cyprus. Germany, EU’s strongest state, has massive business interests in Turkey and three million voters of Turkish descent, so it turns a blind eye to Erdogan’s expansionism. So do Italy and Spain. Other member states do not care to get involved by taking sides, while only France, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, Denmark, Ireland and Slovenia have sided with Greece. In the December Summit, the EU recognized the illegal activities of Turkey and sent another verbal warning to Turkey but rejected sanctions for now, which means that Erdogan will continue to act as the Eastern Mediterranean bully.
Migrant problems continued to plague society
The migrant issue was also in the headlines in 2020. Even though the number of migrants landing on the Greek islands close to Turkish shores was much smaller than in previous years, two major events marred 2020.
First, it was a concerted effort of about 12,000 migrants — aided by Turkish police — to enter Greece by force through the Evros border in the first days of March. With Turkish police throwing smoke bombs across the fence, thousands of migrants tried to violate the fence and cross over into Greece.
Border guards aided by police forces arriving from parts of Greece and along with Evros locals fought for days trying to push back the invaders, until they finally succeeded. Turkey accused Greece of “violence against refugees”, but videos of the events clearly show the illegal activities of the Turkish police.
The second major event regarding the migrant issue was the burning down of the Moria refugee and migrant camp on Lesvos island, Greece’s oldest and largest migrant hotspot since the beginning of the influx in 2015. On September 9, disgruntled migrants set fire to the overcrowded camp after demanding to be taken to the mainland. The camp was completely destroyed, with Greek authorities setting up a makeshift camp on another location on the island.
Victory for democracy against Golden Dawn
On October 7, Greece’s democracy won a great battle. It was the day that a Greek court unanimously decided that Golden Dawn is a criminal organization disguised as a political party. Thousands of people outside the court cheered when the verdict was declared, sentencing the leaders of the Neo-Nazi party and several other members to several years in prison.
It was a trial that had lasted years, after the party leaders who were in Parliament at the time were arrested for the first time in October 2013 as abettors in the murder of rapper Pavlos Fyssas, committed by a party member. The Greek people had condemned them more than a year earlier by voting them out of Parliament in the 2019 election.
Year ends with an optimistic note
On December 27, Greek Premier Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Speaker of the House Constantinos Tasoulas, General Chief of Staff Constantinos Floros, the leader of MERA-25 Party Yanis Varoufakis, and other top officials were vaccinated, sending the message to the Greek people that the Covid-19 vaccine is safe,