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The war puts an end to 240-year history of Azov Greeks in Novorossia

On Aug 24, 2015, the Greek foreign minister said in Brussels that his country was going to give shelter to Greeks living in the frontline districts of Donetsk region. He specified that almost 30,000 Greeks lived in Mariupol and nearby areas. Greece is ready to grant them a special status of repatriates. This program will be similar to the one carried out by Greece after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when repatriates enjoyed a simplified naturalization procedure as well as professional and social preferences. Now too, the Greek authorities promise social privileges to their compatriots from Ukraine.

Last Monday, the first 191 Mariupol Greeks arrived from Kiev to Rhodes. They are going to stay on Rhodes till Sept 12, 2015, so as to get the status of wartime refugee. This will be the first group of Ukrainian Greeks that will get permanent residency in Greece.

The attitude of the crisis-stricken Greece towards Greeks living in another crisis-stricken country is worthy of note. This summer Greece was no longer able to pay its debts. As a result, the leftist government of Aleksis Tsipras resigned. One more serious problem in Greece is illegal immigration. Today, that country has much more illegal immigrants than it can afford to shelter. And despite all these problems, the Greek authorities have decided to support their compatriots in Ukraine. They are ready to receive 90,000 Greeks from Ukraine. Does this mean that the war in Donbass has put an end to the 240-year history of Azov Greeks in Novorossia?

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The last census in Ukraine registered 91,500 Greeks, of whom 77,000 lived in Donetsk region. Only 6.4% of them said that their native tongue was Greek, the rest speak only Russian. According to different estimates, there can be as many as 200,000 Greeks in Ukraine, with over half of them living in Mariupol and nearby.

Greeks are the third biggest ethnic group in Donetsk region. Since the late 18th century, they have lived in Mariupol, a city founded by Greek immigrants in 1778. Unlike Greeks living in Odessa, who were generally craftsmen, fishers or merchants, Azov Greeks were mostly farmers. 

In order to attract Greeks to Novorossia, Catherine the Great decreed in 1775 to give them a 30-year tax holiday. Since then, the Greek communities of Mariupol enjoyed annual support from the Russian authorities. In 1807 the Russian Tsar decreed to form a Mariupol Greek District. In fact, it was autonomy. In the 1990s the Greek communities of Ukraine established a federation comprising over 100 organizations. And this very federation that is now negotiating repatriation issues with the Greek authorities.

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