European Affairs

A Beacon of Competence and Hope in Northern Greece     Print Email

bill marmon april 2013An unconventional 74 year-old, who sports a gold earring and large lizard tattoo on his right wrist, Thessaloniki’s dynamic mayor, Yiannis Boutaris, sat down with European Affairs this week to speak about his philosophy of government and hopes for a renaissance in Greece’s second largest city.

Mayor Boutaris was in the United States to receive the Damaskinos Award in New York for promoting tolerance and for his project to build a Holocaust Memorial and education center in Thessaloniki. In Washington D.C, he addressed the American Jewish Committee (AJC), and received a standing ovation from 2,000, as he represented the 190 European Mayors who have signed the AJC sponsored “Mayors against Antisemitism” campaign.

Mayor Boutaris of Thessaloniki

Boutaris is politically independent--a member of no party. “Political parties don’t know how to collect garbage or organize traffic,” he says. “I am not interested in national politics.”

Boutaris, who owns a successful winery, was first elected in 2010 in the middle of Greece’s financial crisis. He had never held elective office and inherited a municipal mess with a bloated staff and 90 million euro debt. His predecessor has been indicted for corruption. By the end of his first term, staff had been reduced from 5,000 to 3,500 and the city boasted a surplus of 20 million euros. Boutaris was reelected in 2014 for a term that runs to 2019.

The Mayor has boosted tourism (2.2 million tourists last year) and brought savvy young assistant mayors into city government who busily promote the “OK Thess” program of innovation and cultural revival. He has a strategic plan that stretches out to 2030. In promoting tourism, he says, “The first thing we have to say is ‘we are not an island’.”

Boutaris got involved in city government at the urging of his wife. “She thought I needed something new after the kids grew up,” he says. He still manages part of the family winery and proudly talks about being a recovered alcoholic since 1971. “I still have to taste the wines,” he says, “but I spit it out after I check the taste.”

Thessaloniki, located in northern Greece, beautifully sited on the Aegean Sea, is an ancient city, founded in 364 BC and named after Alexander the Great’s half- sister. Saint Paul visited 50 years after Christ and wrote two New Testament letters there.

Thessaloniki has been a key link between the Ottoman Empire and Europe, with storied Roman, Byzantine and Jewish history. Thousands of Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain arrived in 1492, and the city had a vibrant Jewish community, known as The Jerusalem of the Balkans, until 1943 when under Nazi occupation some 50,000 Jews were rounded up and deported mainly to Auschwitz.

“You cannot manage the future unless you know the past,” says Boutaris, who has actively revived Thessaloniki’s Paleochristian and Byzantine monuments, one of Greece’s 17 World Heritage sites. Boutaris, a Greek Orthodox, has paid special attention to the city’s Jewish heritage and shocked some by wearing a Yellow Star of David during his re-election ceremony, in protest of the election of two far right Golden Dawn Party representatives to the city council.

Boutaris has also actively promoted the Turkish heritage of the city. Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Turkish Republic, was born in Thessaloniki, and with encouragement from Boutaris, Turkish residents now number 100,000 out of 1.2 million population of metropolitan Thessaloniki, up from 10,000 in 2010.

While Boutaris eschews political involvement beyond the city limits he recognizes that Greece needs societal change. “Greece is the last Soviet style country in Europe,” he says with characteristic pungency. “The government presses everywhere. If you ask the state to do everything, it will wind up doing nothing,” he says. Boutaris has been an advocate for privatization including the privatization of the large Thessaloniki port. He has been encouraged, he says, by privatization projects of the national government

Thessaloniki has not escaped Greece’s high unemployment rate or the Middle East refugees, some of whom are massed in camps near Thessaloniki. But Mayor Boutaris’ competence and progressiveness have earned him repeated accolades for transforming his city into an “island of hope” and a “model for all of Greece”.

Bill Marmon is Managing Editor of European Affairs, and lived for a year in Thessaloniki in the 1960’s as a teacher at an international school.

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