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Interviews with politicians and state representatives are not easy. And this is because there is often no flexibility for more idealistic approaches. You are obliged to speak rationally, only about the current political situation and its consequences, since no one is inclined to deviate from protocol, which forces them to limit themselves, in the main, to the indefinite multiplicity of the world and its problems, rather than to sit and analyze the joys and sorrows of their personal lives.
The first female Ambassador of Greece to the United States Alexandra Papadopoulou is an exception, not because she does not follow the rules, but because the love and immeasurable respect she has for the Greek-American community and its contributions especially heightens her awareness, so that she understands that these people would like to know something more about how a Greek diplomat – and indeed the first woman in this position – faces the challenges as the Greek Ambassador in Washington, DC, and how she reached this point in her career.
With knowledge and experience of 40 years in the Diplomatic Corps, one cannot decipher its ‘secret codes’. Her speech is measured, her space has limits, and her composed and practical thinking swiftly builds solid foundations to support the arguments and address the counterarguments.
Her knowledge and experiences, both from her personal life and from her diplomatic career, taught her that happiness and unhappiness do not reign monarchically, that the spirit of the times is always temporary, and those who regulate them must rely on the ‘give and take’ dialectic, as the only necessary solution for a clearer and fairer perspective.
A strong, cool woman, with a robust maternal feeling, not only for her only son, but for all of Greece and Greeks everywhere, devoted to the government and the Prime Minister she serves, proud of her Greek identity, Ambassador Papadopoulou today honors The National Herald and its readers, emphasizing that “I am not something extraordinary. I am a high-ranking official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose job it is to promote her country.”
The National Herald: Madam Ambassador, shall we start with a little flashback to your childhood? Ambassador Alexandra Papadopoulou: I was born in Athens. My family comes from Messinia, specifically my father from the villages of Pylos and my mother from Filiatra. I have always had very close ties with Messinia, which I still maintain. My grandfather’s house is there, where I go all the time. I have relatives there and I consider myself a Messinian. I have lived all over Greece, because my father was an officer and he got transfers and, of course, we followed. In a Greece that was completely different from today, with different conditions, in all the cities that my father served, I had a great time during my school years. But I remember Komotini very fondly. We lived there when I was in the eighth and ninth grades. It hadn’t yet grown as much as it has today. The University didn’t even exist, but adolescence is a difficult period in our lives, which is forever etched in our hearts. I remember my teachers at the Girls’ school, who were very young, newly-appointed, and eager to pass on their knowledge to us, the many friends I made at school! When we left Komotini for Athens, I spent 2-3 months adjusting.
TNH: Did you like or dislike the fact that you kept changing places of residence?
AP: I had a great time everywhere we went, even though I grumbled at the time because every couple of years my life changed. When I grew up, I realized that this was a valuable experience. First of all, because I got to know all of Greece at a time when it was very difficult to get to know it, but also because moving around helped me learn to adapt easily to situations, to love new things, to be open to new experiences, to new friends, in different schools, new habits…
Now in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, having to travel and change countries, see other cultures, other peoples, other habits, I now realize how valuable an experience my father’s transfers were.
TNH: Did you follow the diplomatic career in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by choice or by chance?
AP: I would say both. At one point, I liked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but I didn’t have a clear picture of my path. It’s just that things come to life in strange ways, and the intelligence of a person is to be able to distinguish what suits them and what does not suit them.
At the time when I was growing up and with the circumstances of my family, I had to be a good student, because my father, – and I always remember this – told me and my brother, to study, to be independent, and to be able to support ourselves and our family, without distinction whether you are a boy or a girl. For a middle-class family in the 60s and 70s, with my father an officer and my mother not working outside the home, the way to do this was to go to school, then to the University, and to be good at our work. And to answer your question, more specifically, when I was studying in the United States, where at the time I thought I would live permanently, life brought me this way and I returned to Athens due to a serious health problem my mother was going through. Then I decided to take the Foreign Ministry exam and follow this career.
TNH: You seem to be one of those people who chose the life they wanted to live.
AP: There is only one life. There isn’t a second one. Everyone must live it in the way that he considers best for himself. Of course, our opinions change in the course of our lives. When I was 20 years old I wanted to go around the world with a backpack on my shoulder and be in a different country each time. When I came to the United States, I took the bus wherever the road would take me, to see other cities. I must have walked thousands of kilometers to see everything in New York. Right now, I don’t have the same curiosity to see the world. My greatest need is to go home to Greece, to see my cousins, to see my friends, rather than to go see a country I have never seen before.
TNH: What role has the factor of luck played in your life?
AP: I have had many opportunities in my life and good luck. But like all people, I have my share of sadness. I lost my husband to a heart attack when I was 39 years old and I was left alone with a 7-year-old child. Huge shock. I lost my 65-year-old mother, after she suffered for many years from major health problems. I had no choice – either I would become a corpse through worry, dragging myself through life next to my next, or I would hide it all deep inside me, to raise a balanced child. All people, including the most favored in life and the most fortunate share equally in loss and death. Nevertheless, yes, I would say that I am a lucky person.
TNH: Your career is illustrious. After all you have been through, is it the love for your work that drives you to succeed?
AP: All professions have positive and negative aspects. For me, this profession really fulfills me. I’m doing a job that I really loved and that I still really love and I am doing ultimately what I wanted to do with my life. I am grateful to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Greece, which gave me incredible opportunities to do many things and have great experiences. It allowed me to raise my child decently and live a life of incredible memories.
TNH: I would now like to raise the issue of the Turks. They threaten us that they will “come at night” – and we propose dialogue. Do you think we can have a conversation with someone who threatens our national sovereignty?
AP: First of all, they have not violated our national sovereignty so far with actions, they only threaten us with words. I don’t think Greece wants to get into a confrontation of threats. We must be serious states. We are not two elementary school kids fighting in the school yard. What Turkey is doing, fanaticizing its people against us, is unthinkable. They don’t understand that they can’t move, neither they nor we. We have to live together. Any differences that may exist between neighboring countries are not solved by threats or bullying. You solve them through discussion. As the Greek government has repeatedly stated, we have one difference, the difference of defining the boundaries of the maritime zones. Let’s discuss it. Can’t we talk about it? Let us then go to the International Court of Justice. This is what serious states do. If the threats come true, then we will have the corresponding reaction, as the Prime Minister himself stated from the floor of the 77th UN General Assembly.
TNH: In the context of the success of Prime Minister Mitsotakis’ visit to Washington, your name is heard everywhere. They consider you a very important person, who has the ability to negotiate with daunting think tanks and ‘key’ people in Congress and the White House.
AP: Success belongs to the Prime Minister, and no one else. The ambassador’s role is to promote his country and that’s what I did and still do. The Prime Minister is highly respected and highly recognized in the United States. His presence in Congress was amazing. As we all understand, an invitation alone is not enough. You have to have a presence worthy of the rare moment, to put all of Greece on the podium, to elevate and highlight it. And this is what the Greek Prime Minister did, according to general opinion, and he achieved even more. I must also say that the Greek-American community has helped us every step of the way, so much so that I cannot describe it in words. I have been in Washington for two-and-a-half years and there has not been a Greek-American organization, community, or individual that I have asked for help for Greece that has not done more than they could. They really have a huge desire to help on Greek issues, and each from their own perspective and in their own field, they do everything possible. You know, Greece now has a much greater standing in the United States, and one of the reasons is precisely because of the Greek-American community and the great reputation that Greek-Americans have. Wherever you go, any American you meet will tell you that “I know such and such a Greek-American” and there is always a positive assessment of their character. I have never heard a negative opinion about Greek-Americans here.
TNH: We are witnessing an unprecedented realignment of power in world history. Governments are shaken, some fall and others are contested. To what do you attribute this epidemic of global destabilization?
AP: It is not the first time in history that great changes are happening. Nothing is eternal and nothing remains unchanged. We are currently living in a transitional historical period, where many things are being discussed and many others are in the process of being reconsidered. It is another historical phenomenon. Since the Second World War, until today, it is the longest period of peace we have experienced. This does not mean that we had to end up with a war in Ukraine, but it happened and we are all trying to contain the situation. Of course, nobody can accept in this day and age that borders are changed by invasions, occupations, and fake referendums. Humanity has progressed. We cannot go back to those dark aspects of history where the strongest would take a gun and kill and conquer.
Societies change. This cannot be avoided, but all problems can be managed in peaceful ways, with global cooperation rather than by using brute force, as if we were in the Middle Ages. The pandemic, the technological progress, climate change, refugees, all these are issues that the global community must discuss and find solutions together because they concern us all and concern our common future.
TNH: The problem with Greek education and our language in the Greek-American community is well known. What is your position on the preservation of our Greek identity?
AP: Children must have contact with the Greek language, as it has been expressed over the centuries. They should approach the language through song, poetry… our culture in general, as a game that is related to their cultural identity. The Greek-American is proud of his cultural identity. How can he have a cultural identity without basic knowledge of the Greek language? You won’t make the child read Aristotle in the original, but he should at least know that he will be in contact with an extremely rich and vibrant language (i.e. 80% of medical terms come from it). It is a mistake to treat the Greek language as a utilitarian instrument, i.e. asking what is its use. We must approach it as a cultural instrument. Because our language is [the soul of] Western Civilization and within its logic is contained not only your own identity, but also your American identity and your Greek cultural tradition. I will tell you from my personal experience how much vindication I felt when my son once went with the Peace Corps to Moldova, which has a huge Greek cultural tradition, and after a few days he posted the following on Facebook: “Thanks mom for forcing me to learn Greek.” He understood the power of our culture through our Greek language.
TNH: “As for me”… how would you complete the sentence?
AP: As for me… I don’t feel like I’m doing anything so important that people should know about my life. I want to give most interviews about my country, about the issues that concern Greece, about Greece’s aspirations. For me, what can I tell you? I said it all. Today, I am an ambassador, tomorrow another colleague will come to take my place and the day after tomorrow I will be in Filiatra looking at my house. This is my job. I am a high-ranking official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose job it is to promote her country.
Alexandra Papadopoulou was born in Athens, on April 10, 1957. She began her studies at the Law School of Athens, continued at the Department of Political Sciences of the University of Athens, and left for the United States with a Fulbright Scholarship for postgraduate studies in International Relations/ International Law at the University of Pennsylvania.
February 2020 – Ambassador of Greece to the USA
July 2019- January 2020 Head of the Diplomatic Office of the Prime Minister
September 2016- July 2019 Head of the EU Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX)
December 2015- August 2016 Ambassador of Greece to Uruguay and Paraguay
September 2014- October 2015 Permanent Representative of Greece to the EU
January 2013- September 2014 Ministry of Foreign Affairs/General Director of European Affairs/Responsible for the Greek Presidency of the EU in 2014.
2007-2012 Head of the Greek Liaison Office in Skopje
2002-2007 Deputy Permanent Representative of Greece to the United Nations. (2005-6: Greece’s term in the Security Council)
2006 Promotion to the rank of Ambassador
2001-2002 Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Director/Directorate of Balkan Affairs
2000 Head of Greek Liaison Office, Pristina, Kosovo
1999-2000 Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Directorate of International Organizations/Head of United Nations Department
1994-1999 Consulate General of Greece in Toronto, Canada, Consul/Consul General
1997 Promotion to Embassy Counselor A’
1995 Promotion to Embassy Counselor B’
1991-1994 Embassy of Greece in Amman, Jordan, Deputy Head of Authority
1991 Promotion to Embassy Secretary A’
1987-1991 Consul of Greece in N. Orleans, Louisiana USA
1987 Promotion to Embassy Secretary II
1982-1987 Ministry of Foreign Affairs North America Division (USA/Canada), Member of the Negotiating Team for the American bases in Greece.
1984 Promotion to Embassy Secretary III
1981-1982 Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Diplomatic Academy
1981 Introduction to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Embassy Attache.
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