Page last updated at 07:00 GMT, Saturday, 27 September 2008 08:00 UK

Pressure for Corfu autonomy grows

By Malcolm Brabant
BBC News, Corfu

Sweating in the late afternoon heat, Corfu rebel Harry Tsoukalas pushed his way through brambles consuming the graffiti-covered, roofless church on the Mon Repos Estate, where the Duke of Edinburgh was born.

Harry Tsoukalas
Harry Tsoukalas says Corfu does not get a fair deal

Mr Tsoukalas, whose surname translates as potter, pointed in disgust at the 17th Century frescoes exposed to the elements and disintegrating in the dilapidated chapel.

"This is a disgrace," he says.

"The central government doesn't care about our heritage. We have so much history on this island and Athens simply doesn't care. These frescoes are a national treasure."

The estate's Buckingham Palace connection makes it a magnet for British tourists but Mr Tsoukalas, a Greek-Australian property developer, regards the church as a prime example of Athenian neglect.

'Golden goose'

It is one of the reasons why he has started a movement to give Corfu autonomy from Athens.

Frescoes in Corfu
Some of Corfu's frescoes are falling into disrepair

But there are other serious issues that have engendered widespread dissatisfaction.

Residents are demanding a by-pass around Corfu's Venetian old town, a Unesco World Heritage site that they say is damaged by vibrations from traffic congestion.

Other common complaints are the lack of a modern hospital and a recycling plant.

"We don't want independence," Mr Tsoukalas says.

"We still want to be part of Greece. But what we want is control over our finances, so that the money we raise on the island stays on the island."

Lush, rugged vistas, exquisite beaches, a glorious climate and Venetian architecture have helped Corfu become Greece's premier tourist destination.

Mr Tsoukalas estimates that, at one time, Corfu was generating as much as 25% percent of the income flowing into Greece's national treasury - although his aides believe the figure has dropped to around 10%

"The Athenian government has been taking a lot from Corfu," Mr Tsoukalas says.

"It is just like the golden goose. They've been taking the golden eggs but they are forgetting to feed the goose. Now they are just about to kill the goose as well."

Timely initiative

The autonomy movement claims that most of the taxes raised in Corfu are spent on the mainland and are not reinvested in the island.

Corfu old town
The Old Town is a Unesco Heritage Site

A lack of finance is making it hard for the Corfiot tourist industry to upgrade to compete against rivals like Turkey and Croatia.

In the early part of this year, tourist revenues were down by 40% on last year.

Record shop owner Daniel Synadinos supports the autonomy movement and will vote for them when they field candidates in the next local elections.

"Tourism isn't going well," Mr Synadinos says.

"There has to be a change in policy for the Greek islands. There has to be a new way of apportioning Corfu's taxes."

Harry Tsoukalas's initiative is extremely timely.

Polls suggest Greeks are losing patience with the ruling conservatives and that neither they nor the socialists would be able to muster enough votes to form the next government.

"The idea of autonomy is ridiculous," says Angela Gerekou, a former film star, Corfu MP and tourism spokeswoman for the socialists.

"Certain people believe in autonomy but they are out of touch with the majority."

But Hilary Paipeite, the editor of the monthly English-language Corfiot magazine believes that conventional politicians like Ms Gerekou have misjudged the mood and that the autonomy movement is gaining traction.

"What I have been picking up recently is a growing tide of anger directed against the central government," Ms Paipeite says.

"People here think they are getting a very raw deal."

Treaty of London

Corfu has a long tradition of independence. The islanders managed to resist an invasion by Turkey's Ottoman Empire in the 18th Century.

And when the Ottomans retreated from Greece during the mid-19th Century, the independence of Corfu and neighbouring Paxos were guaranteed by the Treaty of London and the great powers of Britain, Russia, France, Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The treaty also stipulated that Corfu should only pay a nominal annual stipend to Athens.

According to lawyers consulted by Mr Tsoukalas, the agreement has not been superseded by another treaty and is therefore still valid.

Mr Tsoukalas is appealing to the British government and other signatories to the treaty to honour their obligations and to pressurise Athens to permit autonomy.

He is also hoping to arrange a referendum on the island to determine whether he is supported by the majority of Corfiots.

Greece has a highly centralised form of government and influence is handed down to the provinces through the tentacles of the two main parties.

Both the conservatives and socialists are likely to try to crush Mr Tsoukalas's home rule initiative because - if he succeeds - other dissatisfied provincial politicians in places such as Crete and Thrace in north-eastern Greece, which has a significant Muslim minority, may decide to follow suit.

So, perhaps the best Mr Tsoukalas can hope for in the long term is to rattle central government and extract more finance for Corfu.

Country profile: Greece
08 Jul 08 |  Country profiles

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