As Greece and the United States prepare next year to co-celebrate a milestone bicentennial of an historic event that both countries were inexorably involved in— a new opportunity has also emerged to further deepen the partnership between the two nations.
A dramatic shift in the administration of the Hellenic American Union— an institution that was once central to U.S. public diplomacy in Greece for decades— has brought about a significant turn in the history of the institution.
Founded in 1957 by a group of prominent Athenian citizens, American diplomats and educators who wanted to deepen the relationship between the peoples of the United States and Greece.
For many decades, the Union served as a beacon of American culture, literature, music, art, as well as the teaching of the English language— and a meeting place for Greeks and Americans alike who saw Greece’s role deeply rooted and connected to the United States.
Symbolically located on Massalias Street in the Neapolis neighborhood of central Athens and in a corridor alongside other prominent institutions like the Athens Law School, the French Archaeological School and the French Institute, the Union became a pillar of American cultural diplomacy in Greece and a hub for leading intellectuals and business people alike who attended and participated in lectures, exhibitions, film and music presentations— or just came to the American library to read American books, newspapers and magazines that arrived regularly on the shelves.
In the 1960s the Union became an important epicenter for dialogue about western democracy and institutional democratic reforms and Greece’s role in the West.
The institution’s relationship with the U.S. Embassy came to an abrupt end in the late 1990s when its President, a former Greek American local politician from New Hampshire named Chris Spirou, led a number of initiatives that were perceived to be contrary to American interests and objectives— not only in Greece, but in the broader Balkan region.
Much to the dismay of American diplomats in the 1990s, Spirou worked closely with and openly proclaimed his close friendship with Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic and even traveled to the Dayton Peace conference— as a representative of the Serbian side which NATO and the United States were at war against.
Spirou also alienated leaders of the Greek Orthodox Church in 2010 when he created an organization— without the blessing, involvement, or approval of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople or the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America— to forcibly hold a religious service inside Hagia Sophia.
The rogue move went contrary to any efforts of the established Church leadership— including the Ecumenical Patriarch himself— who serves as the guardian of Orthodox Christianity not only in Turkey, but in all of Eastern Orthodoxy.
Spirou attempted to turn the Union into his personal bully pulpit, not only leading it away from its founding mission, but also alienating it from its longstanding allies and partners, including the Fulbright Foundation, the AHEPA, the Greek Orthodox Church— and of course, the United States Embassy in Athens which effectively cut him off personally, and black-listed the institution from any and all interaction with formal U.S. activities in Greece during the tenure of then U.S. Ambassador to Greece Nicholas Burns.
Spirou hurled insults and lawsuits at Ambassadors, diplomats and anyone that disagreed with his opinions or got in his way or didn’t support his agenda.
During this time the Union– despite its stained reputation because of its President’s actions– continued its programming and developed its English-language training for Greek nationals and hosted hundreds of cultural and educational events— most of this under the direction of its Chief Executive Officer, Mr. Leonidas Koskos, who attempted to maintain its stature as a preeminent cultural institution in Greece.
Koskos, a successful businessman and prominent Athenian who held numerous leadership positions in major multinational companies and organizations— including serving as an Eisenhower Fellow representing Greece in the 1980s— believed fervently in the Union’s founding principles and held family and personal relationships with most of the original founders.
Unlike Spirou, who used the Union to build his personal profile and promote his agenda, Koskos used his stature and success in the business world to draw attention to the work of the Union and bring other successful people and companies in his sphere closer to the Union.
But for more than two decades, the Union stood alone— alienated and isolated, as Chris Spirou’s personal kingdom, which he ran with an iron fist.
An ideological divide developed and festered between Koskos and Spirou which finally came to a head last month.
A recent court decision, initiated by a united front led by Koskos, with all of the Union’s employees, several voting members of the Union and its the board of directors whom Spirou had alienated along the way have finally brought to light numerous abuses and irregularities— operational, financial and otherwise.
This was a milestone moment between Spirou and his longtime adversary.
The Greek courts ordered Spirou’s immediate removal from the Presidency of the Union and an interim, transitional board was put in place to guide the institution back to a sense of normalcy and stability.
The transitional board invited Koskos to plan and implement the restoration of the institution’s founding heritage and to rebuild its traditional alliances.
A thorough investigation in the personal and family finances of Chris Spirou has begun and time— and the investigators— will reveal their results along the way.
I have nothing personal against Mr. Spirou. I hardly knew the man and the few times I did interact with him he was brash and arrogant.
I have, however, read the court documents, reports from chartered accountants and letters from the CFO of the Union who were involved in the matter and have a keen interest as an American citizen with personal, educational, and cultural ties to Greece.
I, like many of my colleagues in the Greek American community who also cut ties with the Hellenic American Union, want to see a restoration of relations not only with the Embassy, but with the Union’s natural allies and partners in Greece, as well as in Greek America.
Since the onset of the court proceedings and the court’s ultimate decision, I’ve spoken numerous times to Mr. Koskos, as well as the court’s designated transitional Chairman, Dr. Leonidas Tzonis.
Koskos’ commitment to the founding fathers of the Union is apparent and obvious as he speaks with passion of the Hellenic American Union’s heritage and his desire to bring back the credibility that it lost during the Spirou years.
Tzonis is closely connected to the Greek Orthodox Church in Greece, at the Patriarchate and in the United States and has strong relations and a willingness to partner with many American community leaders.
In a conversation I had with him immediately after the court decision, he promised me accountability and transparency— and has extended an open invitation to the old— as well as potential new partners of the Union to come together and help rebuild the crumbled pieces left behind by Spirou.
For those of us who have one foot in the United States and the other in Greece— this is a milestone moment.
It’s an opportunity to reclaim an institution that was founded to serve a community of people— and not the ego of a single individual— and to strengthen the cultural and educational bridges across the Atlantic.
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