ATHENS – From pariah to preferred, Greece is becoming a lure to foreign investors – especially Americans – scared off by a long economic and austerity crisis and political volatility, interest returning even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a feature, The Wall Street journal noted that it’s coming across the board from the United States, especially in the fields of defense and security, energy and development as Greece is moving to sheds it image as unfriendly to business.
The former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA had a hardcore element that didn’t want foreign interests in the country and stymied a number of major developments, including the 8-billion euro ($9.06 billion) abandoned Hellenikon international airport on the capital’s coast.
That has been started by the New Democracy government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis who is seeking more Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) to spur a slow recovery that was further set back by COVID lockdowns.
His government has also tightened ties with the US politically and militarily, with renewal of a defens pact and reaching out to increase an American presence in Greece with more military bases.
That has coincided with the rising and renewed business interest and a number of major firms looking to expand into Greece and take advantage of the country’s noted skilled base of scientists and entrepeneurs.
The newspaper noted that Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) froml the US unloads at giant new storage tanks near Athens an that high-tech American companies such as Microsfot, Tesla and Amazon opened or announced local investments, entering a market long overlooked by corporate America.
While the military ties built, ironically, when the anti-American SYRIZA was in power as then-premier Alexis Tsipras broke a vow to drive out an American military presence, that has accelerated under New Democracy.
Greece has become the Pentagon’s new hub for moving troops through the Balkan and Black Sea regions and Greece is acquiring more US-made miltary equipment including upgrading F-16 fighter jets and buying warships.
In return, Mitsotakis is supporting American positions on Russia, moving Greece away from business ties there, and is being less receptive to investors from China he had been wooing.
Mitsotakis, with degrees from Harvard and Stanford, has also reached out to Israel, Egypt, Lebanon and other Middle Eastern tries and tried to counter Turkish provocations by moving closer to the US.
That has seen the US Congress okay legislation supporting Greece’s military modernization and its security role in the Eastern Mediterranean where Turkey is planning to hunt for energy around Greek islands.
“Greece’s partnership with the United States has never felt stronger, more important or more relevant than it is today,” Mr. Mitsotakis told the newspaper about the efforts.
THE AMERICAN HAND
As Greece is slowly recovering – depending on how the pandemic goes – it has become more attractive to investors, especially profit hunters from the US who see opportunities.
Greece is “certainly a bright spot for U.S.-European relations,” outgoing US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt told the newspaper. “We’ve got an alignment of interests and a government that’s focused on relations with the US,” he said.
That’s not universally supported as resistance remains within the now major opposition SYRIZA which doesn’t like it, especially moving away from Russia which had warmer ties with the far-leftist and Communist-influenced party.
Former foreign minister for SYRIZA George Katrougalos told the newspaper that Mitsotakis had given up Greece’s longstanding policy of balanced relations with Russia to become the “last outpost of the West” in the region.
Soon after Pyatt arrived in July 2016, he visited the northeastern port of Thessaloniki, a city with historic ties to Russia, where local officials and military leaders told him they felt the US had checked out, he told the paper.
Pyatt, who had just served as ambassador to Ukraine and watched Russia annex Crimea, said he returned to Athens determined never again to hear that the US was not a presence in Greece.
That saw the Thessaloniki International Fair of 2018 show off high-tech American companies after it had been used to showcase Chinese companies and a year later the pharmaceutical company Pfizer – now a major manufactuer of COVID vaccines and led by Greek-American Albert Bourla – announced plans for digital labs in Greece’s second-largest city.
In 2020, Microsoft said it would build three new data centers, whih local officials said would be worth more than $100 million.
“We took a bet, but we think it will be a very good bet,” said Theodosis Michalopoulos, Microsoft’s General Manager for Greece, Cyprus and Malta, telling the paper that the government is trying to improve the notoriously slow and inefficient bureaucracy that is slowing the plans.
After that, Cisco, Amazon’s Web Services and other major companies said they would invest in Greece in research, training and data centers that has lifted the county’s image and American interest from others.
“They won’t transform the Greek economy overnight, but it’s laying the foundation,” said Nikolaos Bakatselos, President of the American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce in Athens, who sees big names attracting other large companies.
Energy has become a key catalyst too in the wider region that has seen Greece align itself with Israel and Egypt to fend off Turkish competition in the seas although the US has to balance Greek and Turkish interests.
US-backed projects are helping diversify the European Union’s energy supply away from coal and Russian gas although the administration of President Joe Biden moved away from sanctions for a gas pipline from Russia to the bloc.
“Greece is arguably the single most important partner for the U.S. in Southeast Europe for energy security and diversification,” said Pyatt.
“We have to use all of the U.S. government tool kit,” he said. “You can’t fight something with nothing,” although SYRIZA would disagree.