HALC heads to Washington to fight for Hellenic issues

By Georgia Logothetis, Managing Director

Photo of a session of HALC’s joint Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill in 2016 (Neo Magazine)

This week, Hellenic American Leadership Council members will be in Washington, DC to advocate on behalf of Hellenic issues. It’s a yearly tradition for our organization, and one that’s critically important to the diaspora.

Grassroots advocacy is about more than petitions and letters to the editors. Those aspects of advocacy are integral to fighting for change, but they are tools in a wider advocacy arsenal. Petitions and letters help to change and drive media narratives — especially fighting back against negative media narratives of Greece or Cyprus. Direct advocacy in the form of meetings with Members of Congress or their staff, however, have a different impact.

To fully appreciate how important these grassroots “lobbying” sessions are, we must begin by acknowledging that for the most part, members of Congress are not fluent in Hellenic issues. They’ll know the top lines, of course, from reading the papers — that the Greek debt crisis is still going on, that negotiations to end the illegal occupation of Cyprus are in a bit of a rut, that Turkey is clamping down on human rights — but generally, that’s the breadth of their knowledge. Unless they sit on a committee that deals with foreign policy or national security and the like, they don’t have occasion to regularly stay up-to-date on Greece, Cyprus and Turkey.

That’s where groups like HALC come in. Throughout the year, our leadership is in constant contact with key individuals on Capitol Hill, updating them and educating them on the latest policy and news developments in the region. Our staff authors policy briefs that help to inform members of Congress and their staff about the effects of those top-line news headlines.

That helps to educate Congress about Hellenic issues. The next step is conveying to them that Hellenic issues matter to their constituents and to American foreign policy. That’s where advocacy conferences like the one taking place this week come in.

HALC, in close partnership with the American Jewish Committee, is kicking off a multi-day advocacy conference today. HALC’s strong working relationship with the AJC over the years has helped to stress the vital importance of the Eastern Mediterranean as a whole and the trilateral relationship between Greece, Cyprus and Israel. It’s why the Congressional Hellenic Israel Alliance (CHIA) caucus was formed in February 2013 by Representatives Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) and Ted Deutch (D-FL) and why it has become one of the most active foreign policy issue caucuses in Congress.

CHIA currently features over 40 bipartisan members, including leading members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Our members will visit congressional offices, update and educate members on Hellenic issues, and call for action. These in-person meetings are incredibly effective. They show members of Congress that their constituents and the Hellenic American diaspora in general cares deeply about these issues and that these issues should matter to anyone who cares regional defense, foreign policy, human rights, and energy issues in the eastern Mediterranean.

So what do we mean when we say “Hellenic issues”? Generally, we mean:

The Greek economic crisis
Greece suffered an unprecedented economic crisis, one that affected its society more than the Great Depression affected the United States. Greece is on its third bailout; however, unemployment is still far too high and the Greek people are still suffering. This is due in large part to the fact that Greece’s creditors and EU leaders focused more on austerity over growth in the bailouts. Most of the initial funds didn’t go to stimulate the Greek economy but went to paying back European banks. The country has undertaken painful reforms, deeply slashing pensions and raising taxes within a very fragile and inefficient political and bureaucratic system. Currently, the International Monetary Fund (IMF)’s position — and the position of most economists — is that Greece needs substantial debt relief to put it on a viable path. In other words, doing the same thing that has been done previously will only prolong the crisis further. European leaders are loathe to provide such debt relief given upcoming elections in Germany and France and the lack of appetite among their respective electorates for such a needed framework.

The Refugee Crisis
In addition to enduring one of the worst economic crises a modern country has seen, Greece has also born the brunt of Europe’s refugee crisis. 
Greece and Italy have been the primary point of entry for refugees fleeing war and famine and economic migrants as well. Currently, there are tens of thousands of refugees stuck in “limbo” in Greece awaiting asylum. Greece does not have the resources or the technical capacity to properly address this humanitarian crisis. Europe has largely left Greece alone in handling this crisis and only relatively recently has it devoted proper funds and attention to the matter. The situation is dire and needs a focused international response.

The Continued Illegal Occupation of Cyprus & the Peace Negotiations
Since Turkey’s illegal invasion of Cyprus in 1974, Turkey has continued its illegal occupation. There are about 40,000 Turkish troops on the island, and Nicosia is the only divided capital in the world. The new peace process was greeted by many with a sense of cautious optimism. However, in the last several weeks, it has become clear that Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot community leadership is not negotiating in good faith. The process has unfortunately stalled recently after it became clear that Turkey is insisting on keeping occupation troops on the island, despite the fact that there is no reason to do so. The Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot populations coexist peacefully and do not need the “protection” of an occupying, third-party force. Moreover, Turkey is insisting on clinging to an antiquated notion of “guarantee” powers which would give it the power to invade again if it unilaterally perceived any threat. Greece and Britain have already said they do not remain guarantors in Cyprus. Turkey remains the holdout. 
Hopefully, the negotiations can get back on track. It is imperative however that the solution be for Cypriots, by Cypriots, not a seriously flawed “solution” aimed at placating Turkey’s President.

Turkey’s authoritarianism 
Turkey’s turn away from the West continues with every news cycle. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues his consolidation of power, with a crucial vote coming up in Turkey that would give him more power to continue Turkey’s slide away from democratic values. Under Erdogan’s leadership, free speech, human rights, and religious freedom are under constant attack. Journalists and political opponents are frequently labeled “terrorists” and “enemies” and are jailed. Even Western journalists aren’t safe: a reporter for The Wall Street Journal was recently detained over a single retweet and The New York Times has resorted to concealing the names of some of its reporters in the country. Turkey is a US ally, but isn’t necessarily acting one. Last year, it hinted at shuttering Incerlik Air Base and in the aftermath of the coup, briefly stopped anti-ISIS missions out of Incerlik.

Turkey is also complicating U.S. strategy in Syria; it is upset that the U.S. is supporting Kurdish fighters there (Turkey has a longstanding internal conflict with its Kurdish population seeking rights & independence, and has labeled one Kurdish group a terrorist organization). The U.S. must balance the Turkish request that Kurds should be excluded from key operations in Syria, while the Kurds argue that Turkey should not play a role in northern Syria and consider Turkish intervention as occupation of Syrian territory. 
In the last year, Turkey has enhanced its relationship with Russia. The two countries signed a big gas pipeline deal, agreed to resume work on a nuclear plant in southern Turkey and pledged to increase bilateral trade by more than fivefold, to $100 billion a year. It was also reported this week that Turkey will be purchasing missiles from Russia.

The Aegean
Turkey’s behavior in the Aegean has taken an extremely aggressive posture. 
Its vessels have shadowed research ships off of Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone. Turkey’s president and other government officials have lamented the results of the Treaty of Lausanne, which set up the boundaries of Greece and Turkey, and claim that certain Greek islands belonged to Turkey and were “negotiated” away. This obviously is not true. Under Erdogan, Turkish fighter jets and military helicopters have dramatically increased their incursions into Greek airspace. While 2012 and 2013 saw an average of about 641 such incursions, there were 2,244 in 2014, and 2015 and 2016 have seen near-daily airspace incursions at a higher pace. Without international condemnation of Turkey’s behavior, its belligerence in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean is only going to get worse.

We will be updating you throughout the week on our advocacy efforts, both on Facebook and on Twitter using the tag #HALCinDC.

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