Greek Myth? Report of Island's Secessionist Desires Sparks Angry Denials

A report in an Italian newspaper on Monday that a small Aegean island is contemplating leaving Greece triggered a flurry of media coverage this week. But Greek officials have angrily responded that it is nothing more than a dangerous myth.

Reports of how an Aegean island wants to leave Greece have sparked angry denials. Zoom
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Reports of how an Aegean island wants to leave Greece have sparked angry denials.

A full century after the North Aegean island of Icaria gained independence by expelling its Turkish rulers, residents are reportedly now threatening to leave Greece. Many of the 9,000 residents of this roughly 250-square-kilometer (100-square-mile) island allegedly feel ignored by politicians in Athens, who have been busy trying to put out the raging fires of the country's debt crisis.

The story originally appeared Monday on the website of the Italian newspaper Libero. The paper quoted unnamed residents as saying: "The government has forgotten about us for years. If one doesn't decide now to give us a hospital and new streets, we could decide to break away from Athens."

Icaria won its independence on July 17, 1912 after expelling its Ottoman rulers during the Italo-Turkish War. Five months later, it became part of Greece by signing an agreement that joined it to the mainland for 100 years.

"Remaining independent would be tough," the Italian paper quotes residents attending celebrations marking 100 years of independence from Turkey as saying. "But perhaps we could ask to be annexed by another state -- certainly not Turkey, but preferably Austria."

A Curious Idea

Given Icaria's history, the idea of joining Austria isn't as far-fetched as it might seem on first blush. Even though the island lies just 60 kilometers (37 miles) off the Turkish coast, centuries of Ottoman Empire rule -- and enmities stretching all the way back to antiquity -- soured the island's residents on its neighbor.

Theoretically, were residents to approve such a decision, Austria would have to agree to the plan and amend its constitution to include a 10th state, Franz Leidenmühler, an expert on international law at the University of Linz, told the Austrian daily Heute. Leidenmühler said that these kinds of "peaceful takeovers" aren't all that problematic. But, he added, Austria would also have to take on the island's portion of total Greek debt, which he estimated to be €250 million ($306 million).

According to an online poll conducted by the Austrian news website GMW Österreich, at least some Austrians don't seem all that opposed to the idea. Of course, the results aren't scientific, but, when asked whether Austria should embrace the island, 84 percent of 3,026 voters (as of 4 p.m. CET) chose the answer "Yes, why not? Then we can finally lie on the sea" over the answer "I think that's a completely crazy idea."

Associated with Myths

Still, it's also possible that the island's supposed threat to abandon Greece is another instance of mixing facts and myths.

Though there is some debate about where the island got its name, it is easily associated with the ancient Greek myth of Icarus. Daedalus, the boy's father and a master craftsman, made wings with which they could escape Crete. While flying, though, Icarus ignored his father's warnings about flying too close to the sun. His wax-and-feather wings melted, and he fell into the see and drowned.

In its supposed effort to escape from Greece, the island might be following in the footsteps of its possible namesake. But it also might be that the idea -- and the original story itself from the Italian newspaper, which triggered a flurry of media coverage -- can't bear the heat of scrutiny.

In an angrily worded press release issued on Tuesday, the Greek Embassy in Vienna responded to the allegations. In bold letters, the release states: "Icaria is an inseparable part of Greek territory, and there is no expiring agreement between the Greek government and the island." It goes on to say that the Treaty of Lausanne from 1923 "confirms that the islands of the East Aegean, including Icaria, belong to Greece," presumably implying that the treaty supplanted any previous ones, such as that signed by Icaria and Greece in November 1912.

The release also took direct aim at details reported in Libero and echoed by other media sources. Returning to bold print, it concludes: "Neither the mayor of Icaria nor any spokesperson of the mayor was quoted in the Italian newspaper." Instead, it notes, the paper merely relied on the "personal views" of some island residents.

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