When Emmanouil (Manolis) Androulakis found out he was headed to Atlanta, he set off on a feverish research binge.
A portrait of the city slowly came into view: Atlanta was the home of Coca-Cola, CNN, the world’s busiest airport and many top corporations, Greece’s new consul quickly found out.
But it held another distinction: “Oh, Atlanta — yes of course!” Mr. Androulakis joked in a recent interview. “It’s the city that stole from us the Olympic Games.”
Greece, the cradle of the Olympics, was bested by Atlanta for the centennial games in 1996. The sporting event, ironically, was the catalyst for the type of global engagement that Mr. Androulakis and his consular colleagues now embody. (After the games were completed, Atlanta even signed a sister-city arrangement with Ancient Olympia, Greece — a nod to their shared Olympic heritage. Athens eventually won the right to host the games in 2004.)
Global Atlanta caught up with Mr. Androulakis for a Consular Conversation sponsored by Miller & Martin PLLC in mid-November, just weeks after the diplomat arrived in town.
Funny enough, it wasn’t the first time he’d been in the Georgia capital.
“I’m 36. I was in Atlanta 36 years ago,” he said during the interview to chuckles from a crowd of businesspeople, educators, attorneys and other diplomats gathered in Midtown.
The consul’s father was one of few English speakers in the Greek army at the time and was selected for a training program in Alabama. The family passed through Atlanta for courses here as well, leading to a series of events that has come full circle with his arrival.
“I don’t know how this happened, but I’m an honorary citizen of Georgia, and I was made one at that time,” he said, noting that he has the papers to prove the family received the designation when he was 6 months old. “I will keep it for the rest of my life.”
Mr. Androulakis had hoped to offer thanks in person to the late David Poythress, then-secretary of state for Georgia and later a labor commissioner and Democratic gubernatorial candidate, for welcoming his father with the recognition. The consul was disappointed to learn of Mr. Poythress’ death in January 2017.
Relating to Russia
Despite the historical connection, Atlanta wasn’t on Mr. Androulakis’ shortlist. He was seeking places closer to home, perhaps with easy connections back to Athens after five years being posted in the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan.
In fact, coming to Atlanta from Astana, the Kazakh capital, is quite the departure for a diplomat with expertise in Russian literature, whose first position in the foreign ministry focused on Greece’s relationship with former Soviet states in Central Asia.
Mr. Androulakis credits his father with inspiring his diplomatic career. He remembers distinctly following him around the Greek embassy in Belgrade, Serbia, learning how the machine functioned. It was a tough time with a war on in Kosovo.
“That was the turning point,” Mr. Androulakis said, recounting a conversation in which his father said that studying hard was the key to achieving this new dream.
But studying is one thing; knowing how to zag when others zig is another. When Mr. Androulakis went to the University of Macedonia in his hometown of Thessaloniki, he majored in Slavic, Balkan and Oriental Studies. After brief military service, he went on to do post-graduate studies in Moscow on Russian literature. It was no cakewalk, especially learning a new language.
“From the classroom to everyday life in Russia, it’s completely different,” he said. But the shared Eastern Orthodox religious heritage and many business and trade links gave him plenty of cultural anchors, and his eastern orientation set him apart among diplomatic colleagues who often looked westward.
Greece’s New Story?
At the time, however, Greece’s diplomacy seemed consumed with more immediate and local matters. The housing crash in the U.S. pushed Europe into recession; Greece in 2010 faced the prospect of no longer being able to pay its bills.
For more than five years, Greece’s fate was tied to that of the euro zone. To stay in, the country would require extensive fiscal support; to depart would likely doom its economy and cast doubt on the entire European project.
“Greek bailouts” became a recurring theme, and disbursements from the International Monetary Fund were followed by strict cuts to public expenditures and deep changes to fiscal governance.
“Greece was in the spotlight for the completely wrong reasons,” Mr. Androulakis said.
But despite the bumpy road, the country now seems on the cusp of a modest recovery as it seeks to sew up an international review of the controversial labor and fiscal reforms undertaken to complete its €86 billion third bailout program this summer — this one financed by eurozone countries.
Greece closed 2017 posting 2 percent growth, with a similar rate projected for this year. The tourism sector marked record arrivals, including more than 1 million from the United States. Exports were up and consumer confidence is on the rise, Mr. Androulakis said. Ratings agencies are also taking notice.
Greece, however, isn’t completely out of the woods. While it successfully tapped bond markets last summer for the first time since 2014, further capital could be needed before the bailout is fully in the rearview mirror. Greece’s debt-to-GDP ratio still surpasses that of every developed country except Japan. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras could face tough elections in 2019, according to news reports, leading some analysts to wary of uncertainty in Greece’s future despite progress so far.
For his part, the consul believes Mr. Tsipras’ visit to Washington last fall went a long way toward cementing hope in the country’s path forward. During the visit, President Donald Trump praised Greece’s progress and hinted at some new U.S. energy and defense investments in the longtime NATO ally.
“The main goal for the trip was to convey the message that our country is coming back, coming out of the woods, and to get the support from the American president was very, very important for us,” Mr. Androulakis said, adding that investment opportunities abound in sectors like energy and technology.
He believes prevailing in this financial struggle is just the latest instance of resiliency from a country that has arisen from many struggles faced during 200 years of modern statehood. After wars and adversity, Greece has always bounced back, he said.
“I personally believe that is the beginning of something great.”
Of course, while the spotlight has mainly been trained on Greece’s financial woes, behind-the-scenes diplomatic work hasn’t stopped.
And the world has steadily been changing. Russia, Mr. Androulakis’s focus area, is now playing a heightened role in global affairs, especially given allegations that the country has actively interfered with elections around the world, including in the 2016 presidential contest in the United States.
While he didn’t comment on Russia’s intent or whether it carried out any actions, Mr. Androulakis reflected on the magnitude of even making such an assertion.
“If there is an ability to do this, we are living in a completely different world,” he said, later adding: “This is politics with other means, and we have to change the game.”
While posted in Kazakhstan, Mr. Androulakis got a glimpse of the history of Greek-Russian ties when researching the history of displaced Greeks who ended up in the Central Asian nation. Three major events forced their migration: The collapse of the Ottoman Empire, then the Moscow trials of the mid-1930s, which resulted in tens of thousands being killed or sent to work camps. The latest wave was exiled from the Caucasus during World War II.
The Kazakh government allowed the Greek embassy to review all its archival documents from these periods, an effort that led to intense scholarly exchange over the time Mr. Androulakis was there.
“This is a history not known, even in Greece, and we have the obligation to let our people know about the past and why they went there,” he said he told Greek scholars.
In Atlanta, he hopes to have a similar rapport with university leaders. While small by population, Greece’s ancient political system and thought have had a far-reaching impact on the world. Many schools offer study-abroad programs or even cross-disciplinary institutes like Georgia State University’s Center for Hellenic Studies.
“I would like just to begin a dialogue with them to see what we can do together,” he said, alluding to the many Greek professors who have made impacts here in Georgia.
“This is the beauty of the United States: You can be something, but you can also be an American.”