IBNA/Interview: Yiannis Boutaris, Mayor of Thessaloniki

IBNA/Interview: Yiannis Boutaris, Mayor of Thessaloniki


By Spiros Sideris – Thessaloniki

Mayor of Thessaloniki, Mr. Yiannis Boutaris, talks to IBNA about his city, politics and politicians and above all he puts the citizens and local communities above all.

You’ve entered a second term in office as Thessaloniki mayor. You have publicly assessed your first term in office in the run-up to the last local election. What challenges have you set yourself for the new term?

Beyond the obvious and general terms, which must become specific and included into programming and schedules, i.e. a a city sustainable and friendly to the citizens and visitors, a European city, with all that this implies in management of everyday life, the great bet is to tackle unemployment. Unfortunately, the municipalities in Greece do not have the necessary tools, powers and forces necessary – the central government keeps those. However, we believe that a municipality may create the conditions for the development of entrepreneurship and to improve the general climate of economic activity.

This is what we are attempting with the extroversion we introduced and seek, which gives tourism a boost and therefore paves the way for job creation. In the same direction is our effort for a sustainable city through the implementation of measures of sustainable mobility and the promotion of public transport for a city whose traffic is smooth so trade and economic activity is facilitated – beyond the obvious of improving quality of life. A similar policy is that for culture, because we believe that culture is expression and creation but also “capital” as it draws growth in a creative economy. Finally, there is also the social economy; an area we are trying to contribute by supporting civil society and its actions. A strong and vibrant civil society can activate the social economy, provided of course there is the relevant legal and institutional framework in place; we are working towards this end through our interventions in the central administration.

Thessaloniki is – fairly enough – called the “bride of Thermaikos”. Afterall, does it remain a bride or has it become a bickering spinster over the years?

Probably the second. The truth is that in the last 25 years Thessaloniki took a very conservative, introvert and provincial turn. Hence the notions of being a “co-capital” (with Athens) and “capital of the Balkans” and hence the moaning about the state being centrally run from Athens and the general complexes against the capital city. Nevertheless, it remains a “bride” as you put it, in the sense that the city has prospects: the [prospects of being a] port city, a trade and transshipment center, an educational center, a cultural center and a tourist destination.

For all this, however, there are certain conditions. The financial and administrative independence of municipalities that will enable them to play their role properly. The metropolitan city administration. A master plan that will shield the city from the arbitrariness of the various interests and will allow it to set its course. The development of the harbor with the arrival of a strategic investor. Improving the airport which is still reeling. The conclusion of works for the Metro which has flat-lined for years, hurting the city and leaving it without an alternative means of public transport. The promotion of other means of public transportation, including the tram, which is a top priority and Coastal Urban Transit which is underway. The conversion of the TIF area to a metropolitan park together with the transfer of responsibility for the suburban forest Sheikh Sou to surrounding municipalities (instead of the relevant ministry). And these are just some of what should be done in order for Thessaloniki to become what it truly is: a European metropolis.

Thessaloniki has always been a crossing for people and cultures. How could this multicultural identity be further utilized so the city could regain its former glory and become a reference point for the Balkans?

First of all, this element, the city’s rich history, has not be utilized in the least. We “bet” on it to give the city an outward direction. Highlighting the Ottoman and Jewish side of the history of Thessaloniki – in reality we broke a taboo – we managed to attract the interest of Turkish and Jewish visitors, and the city experienced an unprecedented wave of tourist arrivals. In most restaurants and taverns now one can find the menu in Turkish and other languages in addition to the customary English. In 2013 we commemorated the 1150 years from the days of Cyril and Methodius and we restored relations with the Slavic-speaking audience. We applied a “city diplomacy” and created the Durres Park – with which Thessaloniki is twinned – while respectively a Thessaloniki Park was created in Durres. We utilized the network of twinned towns and so, for example, the art collection of the municipal gallery “traveled” to Saint Petersburg, Russia.

I want to say that for Thessaloniki to become a benchmark for the Balkans and its wider neighborhood I would add, specific actions are necessary as opposed to wishful thinking about being the “capital of the Balkans” while in fact backs are turned on the Balkans. The actions we took and the opportunities we acted on are numerous: the European Youth Capital; the WOMEX World Music Fair which we managed to host in 2012; the inclusion -finally – of Thessaloniki finally to the Network of Martyr Cities and the official presence of our city for the first time ever in the course of the living in Krakow. These are only indicative, the list is too long to mention in full.

This concept of heralding the historic and cultural legacy of the city – its multicultural character in effect – is reflected also in the brand name of Thessaloniki which was coined by the Thessaloniki Tourism Organization: “Many Stories, One Heart”. I believe it is exactly this that is the “treasure” that will for the foundation for the future of the city.

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Have you developed relationships with immigrant communities residing in the city? Do they participate in events, interacting culturally with city?

We have made an effort in this direction, but of course it requires more continuous and systematic work. We attempted to put the immigrants of our city at the forefront through European programs that the Council for the Integration of Immigrants (SEM) of the Thessaloniki Municipality promoted in cooperation with municipal media and the Volunteer Radio 100.6 which communities additionally use.

SEM, an institution introduced by the “Kallikratis” scheme for the support of immigrants, is a priority. In addition, we have developed relationships with the Muslims of the city who we try to support in their worshiping needs since there is no mosque, at least for the big feasts of Islam. They too must be open to proposals made to them though. On the other hand we must not forget the city’s Chinese community; we have made a kind of “agreement” for the municipality to redevelop Aisop Street and surrounding roads where most of their clothes shops are situated while they will give the area a particular “color” with several shops that promote their culture and feasts so it could become a real “China town”.

Similarly, we are trying to restore relations with the Roma community in Thessaloniki, through a plan to create a flea market in the west of the city, while supporting various activities and groups of civil society aiming to support the Roma and help them integrate into the social fabric of Thessaloniki.

Of course, there are good relations cultivated with members of foreign trading communities of Thessaloniki, as with ethnic Greeks from Georgia and other former Soviet countries, but also the city’s Albanians. We also support the Senegalese community, serving both religious needs and the needs of their national holidays.

The issue is of course, not to stay focused around parties and festivals, but for the municipality to actually contribute to the integration of these people and support their needs. This is the challenge for us and in this direction we are trying to progress.

The issue of building a mosque in Athens, for the religious needs of the Muslim inhabitants of the capital, had raised many reactions. Are you considering of creating or renovating and reopening a mosque in Thessaloniki, creating a new attraction in terms of tourism too?

It was one of our first thoughts. Our rationale was that a modern European city should be able to serve the religious needs of every citizen and every visitor. It is a question of culture. It is also a matter of our Constitution, of course, which provides for freedom of religion, allow me to remind.

Therefore, we did attempt to explore the creation of a mosque and a cemetery for Muslims. However, as the Municipality of Thessaloniki has no space for such uses, the issue is not in our hands. Nevertheless, as a municipality we are ready to support and assist the creation of a mosque and Muslim cemetery.

At present, however, the City has already granted access to the Yeni Mosque for Muslims, residents and visitors alike, to pray during major festivals of Islam. It is a practice that Turkey follows with the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Orthodox population which I believe contributes to the objectives of the Patriarchate and the country’s foreign policy.

Now, what hotheads say is another story and I’m not even going to bother to comment on.

Can your intention of putting up memory indicators serve as a historical awakening? Is historical memory necessary today?

Obviously it is necessary. It was our belief that Thessaloniki has to regain its lost historical and cultural identity, to be able to proceed to the present and future. And indeed this is what happened, although there is still a long way to go in this initiative.

Memory indicators was another action in the context of creating tourism awareness in the city. On the one hand citizens know or remember the history of their city. And this is extremely important. On the other hand, visitors learn were they are, what important people lived here, what they did and the historical events that shaped the city and its history.

Moreover, the practice of identifying historic sites important for any city or country is widespread worldwide. The choice of the 150 sites for the memory indicators and their historical documentation was done by the Center for History of Thessaloniki in collaboration with the Cultural Foundation of the Union of Journalists of Macedonia-Thrace. It’s a great job, of a particular aesthetic – and if it wasn’t for vandals destroying everything with spray paint, it would be much better.

I must also say the idea of placing signs displaying the Ottoman or Hebrew names of areas or streets is in the same vein. I point out however that these signs won’t replace the ones with the street names but will be put up alongside them. It is an idea we will definitely promote as, again, it has to do with promoting the history of the city which is so important for its residents as well as visitors.

You have been criticized for openings to Turkey, Israel and Slav-speaking countries. Has this opening been effective in practice?

Yes, they call me a Turkophile and so on. I don’t care for this. Firstly because we owe it to the city and its people and secondly because it has had tangible results. Between 2011-13, the number of Israelis that stayed in the city’s hotels jumped 358%, that of Turks rose 265%, Russians 371% and Bulgarians 136%. According to latest data released by the Hoteliers Association of Thessaloniki, between January – June 2014, overnight stays from Turkey were up about 22%, from Albania about 30%, Serbia about 35% from Romania approximately 15%.

As I said earlier, in the restaurants and cafes of the city one can find menus in Hebrew and Turkish and Balkan languages, and the market clearly benefited. The important thing, of course, is to continue the efforts and make sure that these results are not transient.

Are Greeks xenophobes? Why in your opinion has the far – right emerged with such a bang along with racism; something that is reflected in the votes for Golden Dawn in elections?

I think that the financial crisis has revealed a deeper and underlying social crisis. I think this is the reason why Golden Dawn has seen its election results rise. I don’t wish to reflect on “whether or not Greeks are xenophobes”. I believe all people can be xenophobic, depending on conditions. In the particular circumstance, xenophobia, racism and intolerance towards anything that escapes from the “normal” as it is determined from time to time by the majority, are evident unfortunately in Greek society which is inclined – thankfully not its in entirety – to fascism. The issue here is that the country’s political system has not played the best role over the last 30 or so years since regime change. Furthermore, the country does not operate as well-governed state. Therefore, when huge inflows of cash stopped all the insecurity surfaced. It is in our hands to turn it around and create a real society of true solidarity, a state based on the rule of law, from the beginning.

Anti-systemic, unpredictable, bohemian, uncompromising. These are just some of the terms many use to describe you. Ultimately, is Yiannis Boutaris a politician or an active citizen?

I am definitely not a politician. In the sense of a politician by career. I consider myself an active citizen. I was political in the broader sense; through the creation of “Arktouros” or through the union involvement in the wine industry, or for the city matters. It was within civil society that the “Initiative for Thessaloniki” was born. Civil society elected us to office in 2010 and 2014 because citizens tired of party politics and brinkmanship. Now, whether I am “uncompromising, anti-systemic, unpredictable and bohemian,” as you say, these aren’t my words. Personally, I simply follow common sense.

You originate from the real economy and politics was not your profession. What do you put the failure of the political system down to? Is it the fault of professional politicians or because of a lack of relation to the real every-day problems? Who makes the appropriate politician in your eyes?

First of all, power is damaging and corruptive. Then, clientelism existed and still exists along with [the notion of] “political cost”, cronies, and kickbacks under the table. All this resulted in the mess we are now: a bloated and inefficient public sector; an economy standing on glass legs; waste and squandering of resources; and ultimately unemployment, the non-existence of the private sector & entrepreneurship; a dissolved education system; the shifting of responsibility and the absence of initiative, etc.

What could be the answer to all this? Young, uncorrupted people have ideas, skills and an appetite. They can reverse all the wrongs and introduce new habits and practices. And I think this is possible.

What does the movement of the non-aligned “white” mayors stand for and what do you expect from the upcoming elections for the collective bodies of local government?

In a way “white” mayors follow the “Five Mayors Initiative” which we established during the previous term with the mayor of Athens, Giorgos Kaminis, the mayor of Patras, Yiannis Dimaras, the mayor of Ioannina, Filippos Filios and the mayor of Volos, Panos Skotiniotis; in turn this was based on the Network of Independent Municipal Movements we established in 2006.

It is an attempt to move local administration from the party embrace that is suffocating it. The “white” ballots that aren’t tied to parties will run for a strong presence in the ΠΕΔ and KEDE and identify with the effort to enhance the strength and dignity of government. The ballots are supported by mayors with different ideologies, but with a common goal of overthrowing the sick perception of party bargaining and interests always prevailing over the interests of local communities. We are convinced that the time has finally arrived for local government to serve the real local needs and not be subservient to the central state. This is the aim of our new initiative for radical change in the KEDE correlations and I hope that with everyones help we will succeed in the upcoming local government elections.