I’m very proud to be ICWA’s inaugural Stavros Niarchos Foundation fellow. The foundation is committed to spreading Hellenism and building a better Greece. Throughout my fellowship, I’ve seen its philanthropy at work in programs like New Agriculture for a New Generation, which taught mastic farmers on the island of Chios best practices for propagating their trees, and the bold Health Initiative delivering PET-CT scanners to hospitals in the cities of Alexandroupoli and Heraklion. I hope the foundation’s support of ICWA’s mission to advance American understanding of international cultures and affairs will develop into an ongoing collaboration.
I’ve lived in Greece for eight years now, mostly in Athens, the country’s decision-making center. During two-and-a-half years as the speechwriter at US Embassy Athens, I learned that the most important geopolitical developments were happening not in the capital but on Greece’s periphery. ICWA enabled me to spend two years writing about three of these consequential border regions: the region of Evros in northeastern Greece, the northeastern Aegean island of Chios and the island of Crete.
I’m going to focus here on Evros and its capital, the port city of Alexandroupoli, because it’s a region that demonstrates Greece’s growing leadership in a number of important regional and transatlantic issues, from defense and energy security to migration and border control.
Located in the extreme northeast corner of mainland Greece, bordered by Turkey and Bulgaria, Evros is an agrarian region, the least economically developed of my three bases. Its forests and wetlands are landscapes of stunning natural beauty, and when I arrived in October 2021, the flat Thracian plain was covered in white tufts of cotton ready to harvest. The region of Thrace is also home to Greece’s Muslim minority, and driving through the mountains, you’ll find small villages with minarets that peacefully coexist with the Christian community.
During the Cold War, Evros was seen as a place of exile, a sort of buffer zone, abandoned and neglected at the foot of the Iron Curtain. Government leaders routinely threatened to send underperforming civil servants to Evros, and most men equate it with their year of compulsory military service. It’s a place many Athenians would rather not be assigned.
But for me, spending 10 months in Alexandroupoli presented a unique opportunity to experience one of the last untouched parts of Greece, a culturally diverse region in a strategic geographic location few Greeks and even fewer Americans know well.
Early in my fellowship, I spent several days inside the security perimeter at the port of Alexandroupoli’s cargo terminal while the 228-meter-long cargo ship ARC Independence unloaded over 700 vehicles and helicopters, the largest transfer of US military equipment through the port at that time. I spoke with local stevedores who lashed vehicles to the ship’s floor with chains, US soldiers beginning their rotation in Greece and local business owners hoping to profit from the growing US presence in their sleepy seaside town.
Most of my contacts welcomed the American presence, a shift from the anti-Americanism of previous decades as Greece anchors itself more firmly in the West. Today, previously neglected Evros has taken on the characteristics of a boom town, with new food vendors near the port catering to American tastes.
A marketing and communications consultant at the Evros Chamber of Commerce told me the US presence elevated local businesses’ morale during the “cloudy” pandemic period and was important in helping the city shed its Balkan mindset and become more international and extroverted.
Konstantinos Chatzimichail, CEO of the Alexandroupoli Port Authority, exemplified the friendly, accessible tone of the city’s business class. He emphasized that the city’s fate is tied to its Aegean Sea port, which offers direct road and rail links to Eastern Europe and the Black Sea. That’s why the city thrived as a vibrant trade and administrative center in the early 20th century, and it’s why the US military began investing in the port in 2019: as a faster, cheaper and more reliable alternative to transport through the Bosporus strait in Istanbul.
Several months later, when Russia invaded Ukraine and Turkey closed the Bosporus to military vessels, Alexandroupoli became a key staging point for the transportation of NATO military equipment to reinforce its eastern flank. In the spring and summer of 2022, US carriers moved tanks and armor to Poland by rail and convoys to Romania. US and NATO military equipment bound for Ukraine has also been shipped through Alexandroupoli. In May, Greece secured 24 million euros in European Union funding to upgrade the port. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the asset was too important to privatize.
The port is just one example of how Greece’s strategic geographic position and the maturity of long-term investments have benefited the transatlantic alliance as the ongoing war in Ukraine shifts the West’s geopolitical focus back to southeastern Europe.
In concert with strategic investments in defense and transportation infrastructure, Greek energy projects are helping Europe and the Balkans rapidly reduce their dependence on Russian gas. When Russia cut off gas supplies to Bulgaria in April 2022, Greece stepped up to help its neighbor meet 90 percent of its gas needs with liquified natural gas, or LNG, delivered through its Revithoussa terminal.
The Natural Gas Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria or ICGB also came online in October 2022, connecting the two countries’ national gas networks and serving approximately 1 billion cubic meters of Azerbaijani gas to Bulgaria—a third of its current need.
I visited the ICGB construction site in Haskovo, Bulgaria, to see cranes lay the final lengths of the 182-kilometer pipeline. According to journalist John Psaropoulos, the pipeline gains strategic significance in conjunction with a second LNG terminal in Alexandroupoli scheduled to begin commercial operation in early 2024. It could soon become the means for supplanting Russian gas throughout the Balkans with LNG from the United States, Qatar and Egypt, bolstering Greece’s ambition to become southeastern Europe’s entry point for natural gas.
Evros’s position at the Greek-Turkish land border also makes it a flashpoint for tensions between the two countries. For decades, the NATO allies have argued over maritime and airspace boundaries, hydrocarbon exploration rights and Turkey’s occupation of northern Cyprus.
The residents of Evros take seriously their role as akrítes, “frontier dwellers and guardians of the border.” Often used by officials who visit the region, the word encapsulates their anxiety, defiance and pride over being on Greece’s front line.
Páter Ioakim, the village priest of Dadia, described religion’s role in demarcating identity at the border. “We are the beginning of Greece,” he told me. “It’s important we ring the church bell because it can be heard across the border. Just as I wake up and hear the call to prayer from the other side, Muslim religious leaders can hear my bell.”
In February 2020, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan directed thousands of Afghan, Iranian, Iraqi, Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Syrian asylum seekers to the Evros land border in an attempt to pressure the European Union. Although caught off guard, local police and army forces managed to hold the border for several days until reinforcements arrived.
It was a community effort. Village women delivered vanfuls of homemade pies to the front. Farmers and fishermen patrolled the Evros River to prevent migrants from crossing. Athanasios “Sakis” Kamilaris, a big man in a camo windbreaker who has been navigating the Evros Delta since he was 11 years old, said he answered the police request not out of heroism but duty: “We’re not heroes,” he told me. “We were guarding our homeland, guarding our homes because that’s what we were taught: country, religion, family.”
While visiting Evros the following month, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen highlighted the importance of Greece’s borders as the external borders of Europe and thanked Greece for serving as Europe’s “shield.”
Following the so-called “Evros war,” Greece’s migration policy was subsumed under the banner of border security, and its borders were increasingly surveilled and militarized. While living in Evros, I visited a new, 12-kilometer galvanized steel fence Greece constructed along the border and learned about the arsenal of high-tech equipment like heat-seeking cameras, sound cannons and armored vehicles that police use to deter crossings.
Evros, which until the late 19th century was part of the wider historical region of Thrace, has experienced large migration flows before. Like Chios and Crete, the region bears scars from the 1922 Asia Minor Catastrophe, the Greek defeat by the Turks in Anatolia that resulted in the destruction of the cosmopolitan city of Smyrna and the displacement of 1.3 million Orthodox Christians and 400,000 Muslims. One hundred years later, the catastrophe still looms large in Greeks’ collective conscious, connected with the reason Turkey is seen as wanting to do Greeks harm.
Ankara’s attempt to storm the Evros border has hardened local attitudes toward migrants. Many locals who identify as Asia Minor refugees view asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa as “illegal immigrants” or even as Turkish agents in contrast to “real refugees” like the 100,000 Ukrainians fleeing war whom Greece has so far hosted. “Migrants have crossed the border for years now, and we’ve stopped to help them,” said Eleni Baharidou, a descendant of refugees in Nea Vyssa. “But that doesn’t mean we can accept them and host them here forever.”
The government’s current policy of deterring migrants comes at the expense of solidarity and human rights. A particularly troubling development since the Evros border crisis is the rise of pushbacks, the illegal apprehension, detention and expulsion of migrants from Greek territory without granting them access to asylum procedures. This systematic state policy has been well-documented by journalists and human rights groups. I experienced it firsthand in Thrace when I was pulled over at gunpoint by a plainclothes officer in an unmarked gray van.
Akis Maragkozakis, a social worker whose grandparents came to Alexandroupoli as refugees in 1922, criticized the government’s approach: “Of course if a person comes to Greece and you push him back, you’ve reduced flows by not allowing him to come in,” he said. “But it’s not that he no longer needs asylum. The need still exists, but you’ve violated his right to come and ask for protection.”
Anti-migrant sentiment spiked again this summer, when Europe’s largest recorded wildfire ravaged Evros for over two weeks, burning more than 93,000 hectares and forcing the evacuation of villages and Alexandroupoli’s main hospital. Prime Minister Mitsotakis and other politicians blamed migrants for starting the fires, while local vigilantes detained Syrians and Pakistanis and called for pogroms. Of the fires’ 20 victims, at least 18 were migrants who crossed into Greece from Turkey and attempted to evade police in the forest.
Pushbacks and violence against asylum seekers have been reported across Europe’s external borders, in Poland, Italy, Spain, Croatia and Romania. As climate change and conflict displace more and more people, Greece and Europe as a whole must strike a better balance between humanitarian and security concerns. As Stefanos Levidis, a researcher who investigates human rights violations in Evros, told me, “I think we have a duty to make sure people are treated humanely at our borders because the borders are a mirror for the society they enclose.”
So, as I hope I’ve conveyed, what’s happening in Evros in terms of defense, energy, migration and border security has far-reaching consequences for both Europe and the transatlantic alliance. By taking advantage of its crucial position in the evolving energy and security landscape, Evros has an opportunity to regain its historical role as Europe’s gateway to the East.
Angela Giannakidou, the revered president of the Ethnological Museum of Thrace, whom I nicknamed the grandmother of Evros, told me that the border is the soul of Thrace. “Borders are important,” she said. “The border with another, which separates but at the same time invites you to cross it. The border creates identity. If you don’t know the other, you can’t know yourself.” Giannakidou is optimistic that international interest in Alexandroupoli will help bring this overlooked corner of Greece back into the spotlight.
As she told me with a twinkle in her eye, “This is the time for Thrace.”
Thank you, Greg, for your steady guidance and sharp editorial eye throughout the fellowship. I also want to thank the Institute of Current World Affairs and the Board of Trustees for believing in me and granting me this life-changing opportunity to delve deeper into a country I’ve come to call a second home.
Top photo: Ethnological Museum of Thrace president Angela Giannakidou visits the village of Sofiko in northern Evros