| Greece was the
place of birth of European civilisation.
The period from 700BC saw the rise of the
great city states of Athens, Sparta
and Corinth, frequently engaged in long struggles for supremacy,
and uniting only when faced with the common threat of invasion
by the Persian Empire.
The summit was reached in the 5th century
BC when Athens became the artistic
and cultural centre of the Mediterranean,
producing glorious works of architecture, sculpture, drama and literature.
Athens lost her empire through a mutually
destructive struggle with her arch opponent Sparta.
The nation was then forced to be united under Alexander the Great.
After defeating the sagging military might of Persia in numerous
major battles, the expansion of the empire spread Greek
influence through the East as far as India and through
Egypt. The empire fragmented after Alexander’s death in 323
BC, and the fall of Greek domination was completed when the country
came under the influence of Rome. Under the Roman
emperor Constantine, the empire acquired a new
capital in Constantinople, and Greece came under the control
of the Eastern Empire when the empire divided. The Byzantines
were, however, unable to effectively defend the whole of their empire
from invaders, and only occasionally did Greece enjoy the security
of effective imperial rule. The main beneficiaries of this were
the Venetians, who augmented their influence in Greece and other
parts of the empire.
Byzantium finally fell to the Turks in 1453,
though the process of conquest was already well underway by the
end of the 14th century. Greece was part of the Ottoman
Empire for the next 350 years. Many attempts were made
to shake off the yoke of the Ottomans, such as the rising of 1770,
which was supported by Catherine the Great. After
War of Independence from 1821, a free state was declared in 1829.
The effective consolidation was a gradual process, the last territory
to be handed back being the Dodecanese Islands in 1945. Until
1967, Greece was a monarchy but the country then suffered the
rule of the Colonels. After their fall in 1974, elections gave
the New Democracy Party (ND) a majority. A subsequent
referendum rejected the idea of a return to monarchical rule.
However, since 1981, with the exception of a single spell from
1990 to 1993 when ND regained power, Greece has been governed
by the centre-left Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK).
From 1981 until his death in 1996, the dominant figure both in
PASOK and in Greek politics was Andreas Papandreou,
a highly effective and charismatic politician who maintained,
for the most part, a firm grip over his party. In his later years,
both he and the party were tainted by continual allegations of
corruption. Nevertheless, since his death, the new PASOK leader,
Costas Simitis, has managed to keep PASOK in
office through two general elections: firstly, soon after Papandreou’s
death and, most recently, by virtue of a wafer-thin majority at
the April 2000 poll. The main intention of the second Simitis
administration was to guide Greece into the euro-zone. This was
done fruitfully but at the cost of domestic unpopularity due to
the necessary economic measures.
The EU has also been at the heart of
Greek foreign policy and though Greece has rarely found
itself at odds with its partners on a number of important issues,
it has derived important dividends from this approach. One of
these has been a slow but stable improvement in relations with
Turkey, which itself aspires to EU membership:
in spite of common membership of NATO, bilateral
relations between Turkey and Greece have historically been among
the worst between any two European countries. The main reasons
are the continuing division of Cyprus (see Cyprus section) and
control of territorial waters in the Aegean Sea. But the accession
of Greek-controlled Cyprus to the EU in 2004 may act as a medium
to a final resolution of that problem: indeed, Greece has now
explicitly backed Turkey’s own EU application.
Greece also keeps a watchful
eye on the Balkan states to its north.
Independence for the Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia
(FYROM) was at first blocked by Greece before a complete
settlement between the two countries was agreed in 1995 (see Macedonia
section). During the conflict in the former Yugoslavia (now Serbia
and Montenegro), Greece was actively involved in finding a peaceful
political settlement though it objected sturdily to the 1999 NATO
intervention in Kosovo against the Serbs. Instability
in Albania is an additional irritant
and Greece has come close to closing its border on several
occasions to prevent mass illegal immigration.
Another constant irritant in relations with the UK and the US
has been the 25-year assassination campaign by the far-left November-17
guerrilla organisation, which targeted prominent Greeks and foreign
nationals. By the end of 2002, cooperation between Greek
and foreign agencies - which had formerly been missing
- finally brought about the demise of November-17. For the Greek
authorities, the elimination of the domestic terrorist threat
was an essential precursor to the success of the 2004