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In addition to his heavy schedule of meetings and events in Athens and travels all over Greece, U.S. Ambassador George J. Tsunis has visited his beloved village of Platanos seven times so far during his tenure. (Photo Courtesy of the U.S. Embassy in Greece)
ATHENS – U.S. Ambassador George J. Tsunis recently gave an in-depth interview to The National Herald in Athens. Relaxed and cheerful, with a smile on his face, which he said “has not left my face since the day I came to Greece” last May, Tsunis welcomed us at the Embassy residence in Athens and spoke about, among other things, his impressions of Greece through the eyes of a U.S. official, about Greek-Turkish relations, about Russia’s influence in Greece and, of course, about his beloved Platanos.
The National Herald: You have been the U.S. Ambassador to Greece for more than eight months. What are your impressions so far?
Ambassador George J. Tsunis: The smile has not left my face since the day I came to Greece. The Greeks show me their love and hospitality and there is not a single person here in Greece who has said a bad word to me. I remember Greece years back and compare it to now. The country has changed so much. I see a lot of activity in the shops – none of them are empty. I see activity in the construction sector and I see American companies coming to Greece. I see hotels being built everywhere and I see a lot of activity in tourism.
TNH: To what do you attribute this, this positive climate, and how do your account for the investments of American companies in Greece?
GT: I’m going to talk to you about business because I come from that field. Businesses go where they are wanted and stay where they are appreciated. And Greece has that one ingredient that is necessary for a country to attract investment: a highly educated workforce. Simply put, Greeks are smart and educated and want to work. Those American companies that come here and spend billions of dollars need that ready-made highly educated workforce. Greece in general has done a very good job of creating a proper investment and economic ecosystem. The numbers prove this: record foreign direct investment and the unemployment rate is falling all the time. And it is not my job to dictate to anyone – and certainly not to the government – what to do. The Greeks know very well what to do for their country and their state… In the last three years, Greece has been the fastest growing economy in Europe. This is no accident.
TNH: How is your cooperation so far with Greek officials and the press?
GT: On my way to Syros on the ferry I met by chance the deputy health minister, Mina Gaga. We talked for an hour about the Greek health system. Last weekend, I was with the South Aegean Regional Governor George Hadjimarkos. Wherever I go, I will meet with the regional governor, the mayor, the Metropolitan [bishop] and the local MPs. I talk with the government, with whom I am working very well, and who I want to note are extremely competent, but also with SYRIZA, because you have to listen to all views. You have to be careful as the U.S. ambassador. For many years ambassadors thought their role was to dictate to the Greeks what to do, but that is not the role of the American ambassador. We are dealing here with a cooperative relationship that must be based on respect. We are working together to resolve common issues in the region; we should not be telling each other what to do.
TNH: How difficult is it to balance being Greek by birth and at the same time a U.S. official in Greece?
GT: What I’ve heard is “Tsunis is half Greek and half tough American ambassador.” The Greeks are mature. They invented democracy, they invented government, they invented politics, they invented theater. They know very well what my role is: I am here to advocate and work for American interests and values. And I have to tell you that in the eight-and-a-half months that I’ve been in Greece, I have not found a single situation in which American and Greek interests and values are not aligned. Greece is a democracy, it has freedoms, and is based on values. It is reliable, it is stable, it does not threaten anybody, it seeks peace and cooperation, and it understands very well that the future goes through the West, the United States, the European Union, and NATO. So where can the U.S. disagree with Greece? The level of cooperation between the two countries is the best it has ever been and I will work to make it better.
TNH: So you attach great importance to cooperation with Greece.
GT: Of course. It is clear that the United States cannot solve problems alone. And the issues are many. There’s the issue of Ukraine lately. There is a shift [of attention] to Asia. It’s important for the United States to work with reliable allies – that’s why we’re investing heavily in the infrastructure of the Greek military – we’re investing in its capacity to support the United States’ [efforts] to solve regional problems so that there’s stability. That’s why I often say the United States needs Greece more than Greece needs the United States.
TNH: Does Ankara’s rhetoric worry you – one NATO member country threatening another?
GT: I think it’s time for restraint, not provocative rhetoric. After the war in Ukraine, the last thing we want is tension within NATO. And after all, that is what Russia wants. And I dare say that the Greeks and Turks are smart enough to not be manipulated by Russia, whose priority is to have tensions in NATO and the West. The issues that exist between Greece and Turkey are resolvable, but they require respect and dialogue on the basis of international law. Greece and Turkey have co-existed for many years, they are neighbors and will continue to co-exist peacefully despite the problems.
TNH: Is Russia’s influence in Greece a concern for you?
GT: Yes, very much. Russia has done nothing to help Greece for decades. After World War II the Greek people were starving to death and the United States sent millions of tons of food – my parents told me that [is when] they saw large chunks of cheese for the first time. America had sent Europe $13.4 billion to rebuild, more than $200 billion in today’s money. Of that, Greece got $2.2 billion. It was three times the GDP of Greece at the time. When Greece was destroyed by World War II, the Russians [sent] guns to take over the first democracy on Earth and make it another East Germany. At the same time, America came with money to rebuild it. And I’ll tell you something else. The Russians have destroyed 200 Orthodox churches in Ukraine. Is that a Christian value? Bombing children’s hospitals is not Christian. I grew up in the church. This has nothing to do with the teachings of Christ.
TNH: When your term of office ends, how do you want to be remembered in Greece?
GT: First of all, I want the people I am with at the Embassy to say that the Ambassador cared about the staff and respected them and that he showed them that not only with his words but with his actions. I also want the Greek people to say that the Ambassador managed to bring Greece and the United States closer together and that he did it by showing respect to Greece. And in the end, I want everyone to say that he was a good man who worked for his top priorities: regional prosperity and peace, close cooperation between Greece and the United States in key areas (defense, education, health, energy, investment), and concern for all people.
TNH: Do you think the fact that you are Greek-American helps to limit anti-Americanism in Greece?
GT: I hope so. I hope so. The United States made mistakes in Greece. President Clinton apologized for them. But today we have a different relationship compared to the past. We should focus on today instead of going back 50 years. Those were different times with different protagonists. It would be more productive to focus on the breadth and depth of our relationship today. The U.S. President today knows Greece, the U.S. Ambassador understands the language, the culture, and the people and approaches this relationship with great respect. At the same time, the current Prime Minister of Greece has been in the Oval Office, he has spoken to a Joint Session of Congress, which is very rare. Greece is on the F-16 program – the level of cooperation between the two countries is at a level that is unprecedented.
TNH: What does the village of Platanos mean to George Tsunis?
GT: In the eight-and-a-half months I have been in Greece I have been to Platanos seven times. The best summers of my life have been spent in Platanos. Since 1975, when I first went there, when I was seven years old, until today I have made friends with whom I hang out. I vividly remember the early years when my grandfather, grandmother, uncle, and aunt were alive. I still go today because I don’t want to forget my roots, as my mother told me. And I want my children to know where we came from and learn about the poverty we had. My mother told me “we had no money, we were poor, but we were rich in love.” After all, that’s what life is, your family, your friends, your place.
TNH: Do your children speak Greek?
GT: The children first learned Greek and then they learned English. They are doing Greek in school and I think they will speak better than me.
TNH: In your free time, what do you do?
GT: I like to walk. Wherever I go, I enjoy taking walks. For example, recently I was in Rhodes – on Saturday and Sunday. On Saturday night, I walked around the old town for an hour-and-a-half. Sunday, I got up early in the morning and walked around the center for two hours. The next day, Monday, which was a holiday, we walked around Athens for four hours and stopped at Omonia for rice pudding.
TNH: What kind of Greek music do you listen to?
GT: I like Hatzigiannis, Remos, Anna Vissi, and Konstantinos Argyros.
TORONTO – The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Canada, on behalf of the Greek-Canadian Heritage Museum Planning Committee, is requesting historical photos from the Greek and Cypriot Diaspora across Canada for possible inclusion in the Museum.
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