Thinking of Greece, many Americans immediately hearken back to the ancient civilization that gave the world democracy as a form of government and originated many of the philosophical underpinnings of Western thought.
But as a country, it’s only 200 years old, having broken off from the Ottoman Empire after a 10-year struggle starting in 1821.
The country is celebrating the bicentennial of its modern independence this year, at the same time marking the 40th anniversary of its accession to the European community.
Both milestones show the dynamism of Greece — as a country devoted to independence while also remaining dedicated to multilateral cooperation, Greek Consul Theodoros Dimopoulos told Global Atlanta over a recent Consular Conversations luncheon at Miller & Martin PLLC’s Atlanta office.
Even from the beginning, Greece and the U.S. saw their fortunes as intertwined.
“We started the revolution, but an important element of our revolution was the philhellenic movement of the people who loved Greece, and they left their prosperous countries to come to Greece, to fight for Greece and many of them to die for Greece,” Mr. Dimopoulos said.
Some of those were Americans, and the consulate explored their legacy in March during a virtual celebration that leaned on the knowledge of scholars in Georgia with deep, broad knowledge on the country and its history. Not only does Georgia State University house the Center for Hellenic Studies, but Kennesaw State University has made the country its “Year of…” focus, devoting a series of multifaceted lectures and programming to Greece for 2021-22.
Fast forward to the end of the year, and Greece’s vital position in American security affairs was proven again with the updating of their mutual defense cooperation agreement.
As the only NATO and EU member in what it calls the Eastern Mediterranean basin — at the crossroads of spots like the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa, flashpoints for U.S. security interests — Greece saw the signing as recognition of its vital position in safeguarding security and stability in a volatile neighborhood, especially coming after a similar deal with France.
“It is important for us that we managed to — let me put it like this — become an anchor for U.S. interests and stability in the eastern Mediterranean,” Mr. Dimopoulos said, noting that the U.S. has focused heavily on the Asia-South Pacific theater recently.
The multidimensional deal, signed between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs Nikos Dendias, extends a deal first signed in 1990 that allows the United States to train and operate in the country, but adds cultural and climate, trade and regional cooperation components. The U.S. welcomed Greek hardware upgrades like new planes and helicopters as well as Greece’s professed interest in joining the F-35 fighter jet program.
“It shows two things, first of all, that both on an EU or NATO level, we have multiple countries like the U.S. or France, that view the situation as we view it in the Eastern Mediterranean, that we should promote security and stability, and that there is no room for rogue states there,” he said.
While the France deal roiled perennially strained relations with Turkey, Mr. Dimopoulos stressed that the moves were not targeted at any individual country, but instead were focused on knitting together a “network of alliances that can also promote Western interests and security,” of which he said Greece is an anchor.
Greece has also been on the front lines of what Mr. Dimopoulos called a “hybrid threat” — the arrival of seaborne migrants from North Africa and from the Middle East.
The consul, well-versed in security affairs, said Greece had been saddled with threading the needle of defending the integrity of the Schengen area, while also safeguarding the rights of legitimate asylum seekers that are often hard to parse out from economic migrants without documents — or worse.
“On multiple occasions, we had terrorist elements which had been apprehended at the border, either by Interpol warrant or security services, so it is not always as it looks,” he said.
Back in Atlanta, people-to-people ties have seen a boost in recent months, as Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines Inc. renewed nonstop flights to Athens this summer, after Greece in April became the first European country to open to vaccinated American travelers. Asked how the tourism resurgence was going, he had this to say:
“First, I will answer in one word, and then I will elaborate: It worked.”
This summer, Greece doubled arrivals from pandemic-plagued 2020 and nearly recovered to 2019 levels, increasing by 30 percent the average income of the tourists that arrived on its shores — partially thanks to the Aegean and Ionian seas becoming a magnet for “mega yachts.” It’s now the country in Europe with the most recovered airline connections and capacity, he said.
“We managed to convince the markets and the foreign markets that Greece is a safe destination,” he said, partly by instituting a COVID-19 testing system at its airports driven by artificial intelligence.
Mr. Dimopoulos noted that he is also interested in further deepening economic cooperation betwen Greece and the Southeast states under his jurisdiction: Georgia, South Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee, pointing to the local presence of companies like Intralot Group, Intracom Holdings, Thrace Plastics, Mantus Informatics, a software firm, and Terna Energy, a Greek renewables company that moved from San Francisco to Atlanta.
Mr. Dimopoulos arrived in Atlanta in November 2020 from a posting as consul of Greece in Moscow.