U.S. Ambassador Pyatt sat down for an on-camera interview with VICE Greece a few hours after finishing the 41st “tour of sacrifice” race starting from Patras and ending in Kalavryta, and discussed many issues ranging from bilateral and Greek-Turkish relations, his relationship with the government and the oposition, oligarchs, cannabis legalization, Giannis Antentokoumpo and so much more!
Ambassador Geoffrey R. Pyatt
March 27, 2018
VICE: Again, thanks for giving us the time to talk a little bit.
Ambassador Pyatt: Thanks for coming along.
VICE: I was checking my Twitter feed while you were racing, et cetera, and yours is a very active one that often goes viral. Usually not very, it often goes viral. Not to draw any parallels at all, but another politician comes to mind that tweets a lot. You know, your President, the American President. Do you feel like the social media and politics have, you know, can you do politics on social media?
Ambassador Pyatt: It’s actually a real challenge for politicians now. I mean the whole controversy with Facebook and the scraping of Facebook data, how politicians use those tools is really slipping defined and then how our democracy reconciles the empowering part of all this new media, it gives, it lets other voices get through. But you’ve also got to deal with the negativity, and the tendency sometimes to demonize people or treat your opposition like they’re less human beings, and I think that’s something, again, this is the new world for everybody.
VICE: You were appointed to Greece with the previous administration. Lots of things have changed since then. Has this affected your service at all?
Ambassador Pyatt: so I’m a career Ambassador, which means I serve the administration of the day. I’m very proud of how we’ve managed to maintain momentum. The fact that you had this extremely successful visit by President Obama in November of 2016; and then 11 months later, in October, you had Alexis Tsipras in the Rose Garden at the White House. It says something very positive about our relationship, that we can go through a huge political transition. One of the biggest political changes we’ve had in the United States in many years. But the U.S.-Greece stuff hasn’t changed that much. There are some obviously big changes in style.
VICE: So in your previous service in Ukraine, you were very vigilant about corruption. Right now you’re in Greece, you’ve lived here for two years. And do you feel that there’s corruption in this country?
Ambassador Pyatt: Not even close to the same scale. I mean all you have to do, read the, read the Transparency International rankings and all that. Ukraine really was a special case because it had this terrible legacy of the Soviet Union. And I didn’t really understand this until I was there and dealing with Ukrainians, but people explained it to me. They would say Ambassador, you have to understand that the Soviets, we had to lie to stay alive. That’s how we fed our families. And that mentality is still being rooted out from the society. Greece is in a different situation. It’s part of the European Union. It has all of the benefits of rule of law, of European standards of transparency.
VICE: If you don’t mind me saying, we do have a fair share of oligarchs. Old and new as it turns out lately.
Ambassador Pyatt: I’ve noticed.
VICE: Have you?
Ambassador Pyatt: I have.
VICE: Is there a specific case that comes to mind?
Ambassador Pyatt: No. I always try to avoid personalities. I try to stick to principles. But I think the difference is your oligarchs have the accountability provided by a strong independent media, by the courts, by elections. And I think one of the things that’s really impressive, at a moment when democratic processes in parts of Europe have come under stress, the fact that Greece has gone through an eight-year economic crisis with all of the social dislocation that that has brought. And I always say to Americans, my mother, she still talks about growing up in our Great Depression, and she still, she won’t throw away a cup of rice. Our Great Depression was one year, and then recovery began. Greece has had exactly the same level of economic disruption. Our Great Depression, 25 percent unemployment, loss of 25 percent of gross domestic product. So almost exactly the same statistics as Greece. But you’ve had it for eight years. So there’s huge consequences of that. But through it all, Greece is still a democracy. There’s zero doubt of that. And you don’t have to look very far at all to see some of your neighbors that have real trouble with freedom of press, or the independence of the courts, or the accountability of elected leaders.
VICE: I have to tell you, Erdogan scares me. And the possibility of any sort of escalation as many analysts, maybe the more scare-mongering ones are mentioning are scary. Do you feel that this could happen, like an escalation?
Ambassador Pyatt: So, half my job is listening, and I have a lot of people who have expressed to me this anxiety of some kind of an incident. And there’s been some crazy stuff in the press, stuff Parapolitika was running about Imia two, and Americans are planning on — that’s completely manufactured. It’s not true. We have a high degree of confidence in the Greek leaders who have been working on these issues. I think we both, Greece and the United States, are going to have to get through some turbulence over the next couple of months as President Erdogan gets himself reelected. And I think that’s where it’s so important to have confidence in the U.S. – Greece
VICE: So the election bravado, you mean?
Ambassador Pyatt: A lot of I think is politics, but I don’t want to dismiss it.
VICE: The train is leaving and you get to see that, right?
Can we hope we’ll get our two Army men back any time soon?
Ambassador Pyatt: I learned in this business a long time ago not to make predictions.
What I can tell you is the United States is going to remain engaged, and we believe that these two soldiers need to come back to their families. And we also believe that it’s in Turkey’s interest as it is in Greece’s interest to see a stable, cooperative, normal relationship between the two countries. The other point I make all the time, is, I’ve traveled a lot over the past year and a half. You know, when I’ve been in Rhodos,
when I’ve been in Khios and Lesbos, restaurants all have menus in Turkish. The marinas are all full of Turkish yachts. There’s a lot of soft power that Greece enjoys because there are a lot of Turkish people who, you know, want to, they want a European lifestyle, which also includes freedom of speech and tolerance and inclusion and all of that. And then a very big implication of Turkish investment which you see, I mean you see it a lot in Thessaloniki, of course, but you’re seeing it around Athens, too.
VICE: You mentioned Thessaloniki. I know you’ve brought this up in the past about how you felt the sale of the port was a vague deal, and how it’s concluded. Do you feel it’s less vague now?
Ambassador Pyatt: We’ll see. Everybody in Greece is going to see. Are the investment obligations fulfilled? How is the port managed? I certainly hope so, because for the United States what we want to see is a strong, healthy Greece moving forward. I know, when I’m up in Thessaloniki talking to the business community, the Port is a hugely important asset. The economic health of that whole city hinges on how the port is managed.
So we hope for the best at this point.
VICE: So no reservations about the people involved?
Ambassador Pyatt: Our positions about the transparency of that transaction haven’t change. But now it’s a fait accompli. You can’t turn back time. We’re going to see how it gets managed.
VICE: Because we had this incident with the gun-toting Mr. Savvidis the other day. Do you watch football? I know you call it soccer.
Ambassador Pyatt: I have stayed away from that issue. I don’t want to change that now. I’ve also learned, just like you can’t choose between Panathinaikos and Olympiakos, the PAOK piece is one that makes this very complicated. So I think I’m going to leave that one off to the side.
VICE: I respect that.
The other big issue, now that you’ve mentioned our neighbors, is the FYROM/Greece issue, the name issue. Do you think this is going to be concluded fairly soon?
Ambassador Pyatt: I hope so. I think we’ve had some senior U.S. visitors who have been here recently. They’ve heard a very clear message from the government in terms of how the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister Kotzias and his team are working on this. Ultimately any durable solution is the one that’s going to be agreed between the two Prime Ministers. There’s not a lot of external influence that’s going to change that one way or another.
What’s very clear to me is that if you can get this breakthrough, and it would be a real breakthrough, it would be very good for Greece. Just as it would be very good for Skopje.
So we’re going to continue to be friends of the process. We’re supporting Matt Nimetz who’s the UN negotiator for all of this, and I think we’re going to continue to follow it very closely, but not as mediators, but as supporters of progress. We have a real sense that the two sides have come farther over the past few months than they’ve ever come before.
VICE: You mentioned the Prime Minister quite a few times. It sounds like your cooperation is close on many issues. What do you think of him?
Ambassador Pyatt: Alexis Tsipras is, what’s interesting to me, watching his interaction with two American Presidents now, and I think he made the point that he was the first Greek Prime Minister in decades to have actually dealt with two different American Presidents.
You know, this is somebody who is very young. He’s 43 years old. So this is a guy who’s going to be planning to be part of the political system for a long time. And then Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Also young.
So I find as an observer, and my job is to be an observer. It’s fascinating to watch these two very capable politicians working the chess board against each other, because both of them, I’m confident, are not just thinking about what happens in 2019, but what happens in 2029 or 2039.
VICE: You think they will be still like good, proper, maybe?
Ambassador Pyatt: That goes to my rule about making predictions. Sometimes if you do that you’re wrong.
Again, Prime Minister Tsipras did very well when he was in Washington in October. He made a strong, positive impression not just on the President, but on some key Democratic leaders, on the think tank community, and I think it was an important visit in that it helped to educate Washington in the big institutional sense. Not just the government, but the Congress and the think tanks and all of that, and media, that the Greece story is not just refugees and financial crisis. That there is a thriving entrepreneurial sector that economic recovery has started, and that there are real opportunities here.
I think whether it’s this Prime Minister or a future one, capturing that generation is hugely important. But it goes to this point that I keep making all the time, that Greece has the potential to be a very successful, globally connected economy, and that it’s not just about Mykonos and Santorini and souvlaki.
VICE: You mentioned also Mr. Mitsotakis. If you’d like very quickly to clear the air on this misrepresentation I’ve seen from the media of your quote, about the Novartis case. Do you feel it was a misunderstanding?
Ambassador Pyatt: Let me say, Novartis is another one where I’ve tried to be very careful about my public remarks.
First, the FBI has been clear that they investigate violations of U.S. law. Beyond that, because our justice system is so strongly independent, I don’t even know when my legal attaché, when the FBI office in the embassy is talking to the Ministry of Justice, if they have information about a specific case that’s going back and forth. Our system is very, very protective of that process. Which is good. It’s one of the things that gives Americans confidence in our courts, that when a judge makes a ruling it’s not about politics. It’s about upholding the law.
So that part of that principle is what has led me not to comment publicly on things like this case.
Here is the home of the Archbishop who last week in court said ‘if the law allowed me I would kill two gay people.’ That’s — how do you feel about that?
Ambassador Pyatt: For the United States, these LGBT issues are just a basic question of human rights. I lived in Ukraine which is a much more conservative society than Greece, with, again, a powerful Orthodox church and all of the traditions. I think a lot of the stuff is taught. Nobody is born being intolerant. It’s taught. So I’m very proud. One of the huge social transformations in the United States is how attitudes — and again my parents, they’re older, very conservative. But people, whether it’s gay marriage, the attitude towards intolerance, the intolerance for —
Ambassador Pyatt: Intolerance. I think that’s something I’m very proud of. But then when I look at my kids, it’s like a whole new world. They just don’t care. Love’s love. And I think Greece is somewhere in between. It’s an EU/European state. It has European laws. There’s going to be a Pride parade in July, in June. But you’ve obviously got these other voices. But for the United States, it’s a really simple issue.
VICE: We have this big conversation about legalizing cannabis, and the U.S. has shown the way.
Ambassador Pyatt: Yeah, I’m from California.
VICE: Of course. So are we moving in the right direction here in Greece?
Ambassador Pyatt: I don’t know. On that one, I’ll leave that to the people of Greece. What I’ll say in the United States, and again, I’m from California. January 1st we legalized recreational marijuana. I think there’s been a huge evolution in nationwide attitudes in the United States about the medical use of marijuana, but it’s still against the law. In terms of federal law. I think the Jury’s out. And we’re going to have, what the sort of social implications of that are? The taxes. In California, I mean everybody’s focused on how do you bring this industry, and it is an industry, under the tax umbrella? You have people saying I want to do the equivalent, in America of course California has a huge wine industry and people do wine tourism. You go to Napa Valley and you taste the chardonnay and the merlot and all that. And there are people saying I want to do the same thing for pot. You would like to go to one region and you would taste this, taste that. But it’s an industry that is still illegal under federal law.
So for instance, these companies can’t operate in the federally regulated banking system.
In my case, I have a security clearance, which means that I agree to mandatory drug testing. So I could show up tomorrow, they’d say it’s drug test time. It’s never happened to me, but it could. But marijuana would be a red flag there.
So we’re in this weird ‘it is but isn’t. And I’ll leave Greek law on this to the Greeks.
VICE: So every year still on the 17th of November on the anniversary of the uprising of Polytechnic, young people still march and rally in front of the U.S. Embassy. Do you feel like there’s still a part of the Greek-U.S. history that’s, you know, still muddied a little bit? Has it normalized? Or we still have a long way to go?
Ambassador Pyatt: You know, Greek democracy is alive and well, people have the right to march in front of the American embassy if they want to. Part of my job is to address the people who are out there because the United States has done something wrong, or because they believe there are tunnels underneath Syntagma Square that we use to influence the government and I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to do that is transparency. I think we’re making progress, in part because of what Greek people see of the work the United States has done. Things like 3President Obama’s speech. Things like the respect with which Prime Minister Tsipras was welcomed at the White House.
VICE: Who was part of the rallies when he was younger.
Ambassador Pyatt: People learn. I’m glad I’m not in a position where I’m held accountable for everything that I did when I was in college. Let’s just leave it at that.
I think we’re in a very positive moment in terms of the relationship. I would argue Greece has no stronger friend than the United States of America, and I think we’ve proven that repeatedly over decades and decades. Going back to the 1940s when I think the U.S. played an indispensable role in helping places like Kalavryta grow out of the incredible suffering that Greece had experienced during the 2nd World War
VICE: — But it is the 40’s and the 60’s that people are still skeptical about, but —
Ambassador Pyatt: No, no, no. That’s normal. That’s totally normal. I think what we can focus on right now is where we’re going in the future.
VICE: I’ve read that you felt very strongly about an issue that’s been also debated heavily in Greece about the permit for Koufodinas to leave. And you know, it’s going to happen again,
Ambassador Pyatt: We are very respectful of Greek judicial independence for the reasons I talked about earlier. We recognize that the courts have to make their own judgments. But we hope that as the courts and judicial authorities make those judgments about Mr. Koufodinas, they will bear in mind that the Americans who he killed, who he has been found guilty of murdering by a Greek court, that they have family members. They have children and wives who wake up every single day and know that their loved ones are never, ever going to come back. So the idea that Mr. Koufodinas gets to have a vacation from jail doesn’t translate well.
Again, this is not going to be under any circumstances the end of our relationship. But it’s something that Americans and the U.S. government feel strongly about.
VICE: We take a lot of pride in what the NBA has called the Greek freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo. It’s an amazing story. We’re very proud of him.
Ambassador Pyatt: He’s a spectacular ball player. I watched him a little bit. I haven’t met him. My wish list, one thing I want to do before I leave Greece is just meet Giannis. And I have to say, one of the things that I really respect, this is somebody who’s very proud of his family roots in Athens.
When you’re a big NBA star it’s pretty easy to get a very big head. And it’s impressive to me as a human being that he’s been so down to earth. As down to earth as you can be when you’re that much of a big man in basketball.
VICE: Thanks for spending so much time with us.
Ambassador Pyatt: It’s a real pleasure. Thanks for coming along today. I’m glad we were able to talk, you saw me down in Patra, now up here, so it’s a nice way to start the day and to end it.
Good to see you.
VICE: I hope you carb up and you’re as good as new tomorrow.
Ambassador Pyatt: I said to Mike that I’ll send a text in the morning if I need a wheelchair to get me out of my bedroom. [Laughter].
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