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Greece, officially the Hellenic Republic, is a country in southeastern Europe. Greece was inhabited as early as the Paleolithic period and by 3000 BC had become home, in the Cycladic Islands, to a culture whose art remains among the most evocative in world history. In the second millennium BC, the island of Crete nurtured the maritime empire of the Minoans, whose trade reached from Egypt to Sicily. The Minoans were supplanted by the Mycenaeans of the Greek mainland, who spoke a dialect of ancient Greek. During the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires (1st-19th centuries), Greece's ethnic composition became more diverse. The roots of Greek language and culture date back at least 3,500 years, and modern Greek preserves many elements of its classical predecessor.
Eastern Orthodox Christianity is the dominant religion in Greece and receives state funding. During the centuries of Ottoman domination, the Greek Orthodox Church preserved the Greek language and cultural identity and was an important rallying point in the struggle for independence. There is a centuries-old Muslim religious minority concentrated in Thrace and an estimated 300,000 Muslim immigrants living elsewhere in the country. Smaller religious communities in Greece include Old Calendar Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Mormons.
Greek education is free and compulsory for children between the ages of 6 and 15. Overall responsibility for education rests with the Ministry of National Education and Religious Affairs. Private colleges and universities (mostly foreign) do have campuses in Greece despite the fact that their degrees are not recognized by the Greek state. Entrance to public universities is determined by state-administered exams.
The Greek War of Independence began in 1821 and concluded in 1830 when England, France, and Russia forced the Ottoman Empire to grant Greece its independence under a European monarch, Prince Otto of Bavaria.
At independence, Greece had an area of 47,515 square kilometers (18,346 square mi.), and its northern boundary extended from the Gulf of Volos to the Gulf of Arta. Under the influence of the "Megali Idea," the expansion of the Greek state to include all areas of Greek population, Greece acquired the Ionian islands in 1864; Thessaly and part of Epirus in 1881; Macedonia, Crete, Epirus, and the Aegean islands in 1913; Western Thrace in 1918; and the Dodecanese islands in 1947.
Greece entered World War I in 1917 on the side of the Allies. After the war, Greece took part in the Allied occupation of Turkey, where many Greeks still lived. In 1921, the Greek army marched toward Ankara, but was defeated by Turkish forces led by Ataturk and forced to withdraw. In a forced exchange of populations, more than 1.3 million refugees from Turkey poured into Greece, creating enormous challenges for the Greek economy and society.
Greek politics, particularly between the two world wars, involved a struggle for power between monarchists and republicans. Greece was proclaimed a republic in 1924, but George II returned to the throne in 1935. A plebiscite in 1946 upheld the monarchy, which was finally abolished by referendum on December 8, 1974.
Greece's entry into World War II was precipitated by the Italian invasion on October 28, 1940. Despite Italian superiority in numbers and equipment, determined Greek defenders drove the invaders back into Albania. Hitler was forced to divert German troops to protect his southern flank and overran Greece in 1941. Following a very severe German occupation in which many Greeks died (including over 90% of Greece's Jewish community) German forces withdrew in October 1944, and the government-in-exile returned to Athens.
After the German withdrawal, the principal Greek resistance movement, which was controlled by the communists, refused to disarm. A banned demonstration by resistance forces in Athens in December 1944 ended in battles with Greek Government and British forces. Continuing tensions led to the outbreak of full-fledged civil war in 1946. First the United Kingdom and later the U.S. gave extensive military and economic aid to the Greek Government. In 1947, Secretary of State George C. Marshall implemented the Marshall Plan under President Truman, which focused on the economic recovery and the rebuilding of Europe. The U.S. contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuilding Greece in terms of buildings, agriculture, and industry.
In August 1949, the Greek national army forced the remaining insurgents to surrender or flee to Greece's communist neighbors. The insurgency resulted in 100,000 killed, 700,000 displaced persons inside the country, and catastrophic economic disruption. This civil war left Greek society deeply divided between leftists and rightists.
Greece became a member of NATO in 1952. From 1952 to late 1963, Greece was governed by conservative parties--the Greek Rally of Marshal Alexandros Papagos and its successor, the National Radical Union (ERE) of the late Constantine Karamanlis. In 1963, the Center Union Party of George Papandreou was elected and governed until July 1965. It was followed by a succession of unstable coalition governments.
On April 21, 1967, just before scheduled elections, a group of colonels led by Col. George Papadopoulos seized power in a coup d'etat. The junta suppressed civil liberties, established special military courts, and dissolved political parties. Several thousand political opponents were imprisoned or exiled to remote Greek islands. In November 1973, following an uprising of students at the Athens Polytechnic University, Gen. Dimitrios Ioannides replaced Papadopoulos and tried to continue the dictatorship.
Gen. Ioannides' attempt in July 1974 to overthrow Archbishop Makarios, the President of Cyprus, brought Greece to the brink of war with Turkey, which invaded Cyprus and occupied part of the island. Senior Greek military officers then withdrew their support from the junta, which toppled. Leading citizens persuaded Karamanlis to return from exile in France to establish a government of national unity until elections could be held. Karamanlis' newly organized party, New Democracy (ND), won elections held in November 1974, and he became Prime Minister.
Following the 1974 referendum, the Parliament approved a new constitution and elected Constantine Tsatsos as president of the republic. In the parliamentary elections of 1977, New Democracy again won a majority of seats. In May 1980, the late Prime Minister Karamanlis was elected to succeed Tsatsos as president. George Rallis was then chosen party leader and succeeded Karamanlis as Prime Minister.
On January 1, 1981, Greece became the 10th member of the European Community (now the European Union). In parliamentary elections held on October 18, 1981, Greece elected its first socialist government, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), led by Andreas Papandreou. In 1985, Supreme Court Justice Christos Sartzetakis was elected president by the Greek parliament. PASOK under Papandreou was re-elected in 1985.
Greece had two rounds of parliamentary elections in 1989; both produced weak coalition governments with limited mandates. In the April 1990 election, ND won 150 seats and subsequently gained 2 others. After Prime Minister Mitsotakis fired Foreign Minister Andonis Samaras in 1992, the rift led to the collapse of the ND government and a victory in the September 1993 elections for Andreas Papandreou's PASOK.
On January 17, 1996, following a protracted illness, Prime Minister Papandreou resigned and was replaced by former Minister of Industry Constantine Simitis. In elections held in September 1996, Constantine Simitis was elected Prime Minister. In April 2000, Simitis and PASOK won again, gaining 158 seats to ND's 125. Parliamentary elections were held March 8, 2004, and ND won 165 seats to PASOK's 117; Konstantinos Karamanlis, ND leader and the nephew of the former prime minister, became Prime Minister. Karolos Papoulias was elected President by Parliament in February 2005. Most recently, parliamentary elections were held September 16, 2007. ND won 152 seats to PASOK's 102; Karamanlis was re-elected Prime Minister.
Greece's exemplary success in hosting a safe and secure 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens has enhanced its international prestige. The 2004 Olympics and Paralympics left an impressive and expensive legacy of new roads, spectacular stadiums, and modern public transportation systems, which the PASOK government began in 1997 and the New Democracy government of Karamanlis completed in 2004.
Greece is a parliamentary republic whose constitution was last amended in May 2008. There are three branches of government. The executive includes the president, who is head of state, and the prime minister, who is head of government. There is a 300-seat unicameral "Vouli" (legislature). The judicial branch includes a Supreme Court. Administrative subdivisions include 13 peripheries (regional districts) and 51 nomi (prefectures). Suffrage is universal at 18.
Greece adopted the euro as its new common currency in January 2002. The adoption of the euro provided Greece (formerly a high inflation risk country under the drachma) with access to competitive loan rates and also to low rates of the Eurobond market. This led to a dramatic increase in consumer spending which gave a significant boost to economic growth. This credit also led to a more relaxed fiscal policy starting in 2002, which, combined with expenditures associated with the preparation of the Athens 2004 Olympics, resulted in excessive deficits and debt in 2003 and 2004. The government deficit in 2004 is now estimated by the Greek Government to have reached 6.6% of GDP. As a result of lower post-Olympic spending and tight public spending, the government deficit dropped to 2.7% of GDP in 2007, with a government debt to GDP ratio of 93.4% (this is government debt, and does not include debt of municipalities and public enterprises). The ND administration has pledged to the European Commission to achieve a balanced budget by the year 2010.
The Greek economy grew by 4.0% in 2007 and is expected to grow by 3.6% in 2008. These growth rates resulted in a drop in unemployment (to 8.3% in 2007, down from 10.4% in 2004), although it is still significantly higher among women and people under 27. Unfortunately, foreign direct investment (FDI) inflow has also dropped, and efforts to revive it have been only partially successful. At the same time, Greek investment in Southeast Europe has increased, leading to a net FDI outflow in some years.
Greece recently revised upward its GDP by 9.6%. This revision resulted from the first fundamental revision of economic statistics since 1988.
Services make up the largest and fastest-growing sector of the Greek economy. In 2007, 16.3 million tourists visited Greece, with net revenues of $15.6 billion. Remittances from transport (mainly shipping) are growing, and actually exceeded tourism receipts in the last 3 years, reaching $23.2 billion in 2007. Receipts from tourism and transport have covered a significant portion of Greece's large trade deficit. Industrial activity has shown a mixed performance, with certain sectors such as the food industry and high-tech/telecommunications showing healthy increases, while textiles have declined. Agriculture employs about 12% of the work force and is still characterized by small farms and low capital investment, despite significant support from the EU in structural funds and subsidies. Traditionally a seafaring nation, the Greek-owned merchant fleet totaled 4,173 ships in February 2008, 8.5% of the world merchant fleet and 16.4% of world tonnage.
Greece's foreign policy is aligned with that of its EU partners. Greece gives particular emphasis to its close relations with Cyprus but also has growing political and economic ties with the Balkan countries and the Middle East.
Greece maintains full diplomatic, political, and economic relations with its Southeast European neighbors, except with Macedonia (see below), and regards itself as a leader of the region's Euro-Atlantic integration process. It provides peacekeeping contingents for Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. Greece has good relations with Russia and has embassies in a number of the central Asian republics, which it sees as potentially important trading partners.
Prominent issues in Greek foreign policy include Greek-Turkish differences in the Aegean, Turkish accession to the EU, the name dispute with Macedonia, the reunification of Cyprus, the international community's recognition of Kosovo's independence, and Greek-American relations. For 2005-2006, Greece held a 2-year, rotating seat on the UN Security Council.
- Background Note: Greece United States Department of State
This article contains material from the background notes on the countries of the world pulished by the United States Department of State, which as a U.S. government publication, is in the public domain.