Image Description: A picture of the Strasbourg Court
These judgments (referred to in Part I of the post) also make clear that the exceptions in Article 11(2) ECHR are fully capable of catering for the legitimate concerns of states that are home to ‘strategic minorities’, i.e. minorities who may be instrumentalised to advance other countries’ geopolitical interests. These exceptions – allowing for limitations to freedom of association on, inter alia, ‘public order’ grounds – have been found by the ECtHR to be of little relevance in the Home of Macedonian Civilisation and Turkish associations cases. And, in any event, the ‘strategic minorities’ concept may not be the most useful tool for understanding the extra-legal considerations that have dictated the Greek civil courts’ response to the minority associations’ “problem”. The ending, for example, of the dispute between Greece and Northern Macedonia in 2018 has not prevented the courts in question from continuing to outlaw Slavic Macedonian associations. (For example, the CM has been informed that an association of “Serres natives”, separate from the Home of Macedonian Civilisation, was disbanded in 2019 – Serres being a city in Greek Macedonia.)
What the five Article 11 ECHR Strasbourg cases clearly show is that parts of the Greek state apparatus remain obstinately attached to an anachronistically formalistic and ultimately sterile approach to minority issues. The main characteristics of this approach seem to be a phobic reaction to the use of the term Turkish and unabashed inconsistency (denying the presence of any Slavic cultural heritage in Greek Macedonia while promoting the Pomak identity in Greek Thrace). This approach has unfortunately found favour with the Greek civil courts, although – in fairness – the way in which law no. 4491/2017 is drafted may have sent them the wrong message. Its provisions on the reopening of ex parte proceedings for the registration or disbandment of associations place undue emphasis on the restrictions of Article 11(2) ECHR; so, the responsibility for the failure to comply with the three Strasbourg judgments is arguably shared between different branches of government. Be that as it may, few will doubt today that the courts cannot be trusted to make sure that the country honours its ECHR obligations vis-à-vis minority associations.
Greek Parliament, therefore, must intervene again and introduce an administrative procedure (as opposed to the current ex parte judicial one) for the registration of all non-profit making outfits. When this happens, the now definitely disbanded Turkish Union of Thrace should be encouraged to reapply domestically. Strasbourg should, of course, remain extra vigilant all along, keeping the Home of Macedonian Civilisation and Turkish associations cases under close Article 46 scrutiny. At a time when the CoE human-rights system seems to have started attaching renewed emphasis on the proper implementation of ECtHR judgments it would be wrong for the CM to give the impression that it is prepared to create an exceptional regime for states claiming to “host strategic minorities”. CM practice directly affects the application of the ECHR and should allow no room for additional de facto restrictions on minority members’ Article 11 rights.
Most importantly, compliance with the judgments in question will help Greece project a different image internationally, that of a confident, modern, inclusive state. Annoying (to avoid the use of terms such as harassing or oppressing) its citizens is not the most appropriate or intelligent or constructive way in which a state may react to tensions in its relations with its neighbours. On the contrary, Greece has much to gain through positive engagement with the CoE monitoring procedures. Pursuing, genuinely and consistently, a human-rights agenda in Strasbourg, which has currently under review the situation in 47 European countries (and not just 27 as is the case with the EU), may after all be the best way of serving the country’s ‘national interest’.