By Karolina Tagaris
ATHENS (Reuters) – Reviving memories of its battle for independence from Ottoman Turkish rule 200 years ago, Greece is preparing to defy the coronavirus with bicentennial celebrations on Thursday that it hopes will mark a turning point after a very difficult decade.
Greece emerged from the biggest bailout in economic history in 2018 after years of painful austerity that drove it deep into poverty. One in two young Greeks was unemployed and more than half a million people left the country to find work abroad.
No sooner had the economy started to recover, than the coronavirus pandemic hit and Greece slipped back into recession.
However the conservative government, which announced the independence day celebrations as a sign that Greece was back soon after it came to power in 2019, is determined to press ahead, even if events have been scaled back sharply.
“Especially for young people, I believe such symbolic dates can really mark a break from the past,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said this week.
“The challenge immediately after the pandemic is not just to take a few steps of improvement but many brave leaps of progress.”
Although the coronavirus has meant celebrations are smaller and many events moved online, some have been held.
‘FREEDOM OR DEATH!’
In Agia Lavra, one of Greece’s oldest monasteries, actors wearing the kilt-like dress of Greek revolutionaries last week re-enacted the taking of the legendary oath of “Freedom or Death!” – the slogan of revolt against Ottoman rule.
Greece was under Ottoman rule for nearly 400 years since Ottoman Turks invaded what was then Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine empire, in 1453.
Scattered uprisings in 1821 escalated into a full-scale war which – helped by the intervention of Britain, France and Russia – finally resulted in the establishment of an independent kingdom of Greece in 1832.
“The importance of this milestone year, this milestone anniversary, is that we have a message; it speaks about the rebirth of the country,” said Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, a former parliamentarian leading the 2021 organizing committee.
“After 10 years of crisis, Greece is still standing,” she said from the National Mint, which has issued commemorative coins of modern Greece’s first currencies, the Phoenix and the Drachma.
The annual military parade on March 25, Greece’s national day, will be a muted affair, with the country in lockdown.
French President Emmanuel Macron had to pull out of the visit but Britain’s Prince Charles and Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin are expected to attend and French and U.S. fighter jets will take part.
France, which will be represented at the parade by its defence minister, has also donated a magnificent tapestry depicting Renaissance painter Raphael’s “The School of Athens” of ancient Greece’s great thinkers.
“The School of Athens symbolizes all of our commitment to democracy,” French Ambassador Patrick Maisonnave said. “It reminds us of all the Western Republics owe to the Greek Republic.”