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May 2008

Aris Anagnos: A Champion for Democracy and Human Rights

By Ken Kassakhian

Aris Anagnos is one of the co-founders of the American Hellenic Council of California, a non-partisan grassroots organization dedicated to educating and informing the American public and elected officials on Hellenic issues. Long a prominent real estate developer on the west coast, he came to America with just $200 in his pocket and got a business degree from UCLA, where a professor told him to change his name, Aristides Anagnostopoulos, to Andy Anderson, and Anagnos compromised on Aris Anagnos: “I had to cut it at least in half to function,” he laughs. He also started investing for clients, “and real estate, of course, was a very fine investment. So I became licensed and put clients into good real estate investments. I’m proud to say my clients never lost any money.”

His life-long commitment to democracy and human rights intensified in 1974, after the brutal Turkish invasion in Cyprus. Educating American politicians and the American public as well, became a parallel full time job for him, with no “retirement” plans in view. PSEKA, the leading Cypriot organization in the US seeking a just solution in Cyprus, honored Aris Anagnos two years ago during its annual convention in Washington DC, recognizing his service and leadership for a cause that “concerns all Americans, Greek and non-Greek.”

When and where were you born and what has inspired your lifelong devotion to raising political consciousness?

I was born in Athens in 1923, but as a young man I witnessed the abuse of power by the Metaxas dictatorship and this is what steered me really to a life long struggle against the abuse of power. I stayed through the German occupation until December of 1941 and witnessed more the abuse of power, and the tremendous crimes committed by the Nazis, and the starvation of the population.

What are the roots of the American Hellenic Council and its involvement in advocating for Hellenic issues?

The Greek community mobilized after the invasion of Cyprus and in our community here there was a large committee that was formed called the Save Cyprus Council. This was in the summer of 1974 when the Turks had invaded Cyprus. The Greek community mobilized all over the country and, as we remember, we were influential enough to force the Congress to impose an arms embargo on Turkey. Unfortunately, President Carter fell for the Turkish propaganda alleging ‘we can't back down and withdraw our troops from Cyprus under duress. So first you have to lift the embargo.’ So Carter used all his influence on the Congress to have the embargo lifted.

The Save Cyprus Council has continued its efforts for over thirty years now. Then to show that, in addition to the threats against Cyprus, we were concerned about the other threats against Hellenism, we changed our name to the Hellenic American Council, because obviously the Turks coveted and still do half the Aegean, looking for ways to gain control over uninhabited islands. Even the incident at Imia was an attempt to control Greek territory.

How do you go about educating U.S. elected officials about these various threats?

Our efforts have evolved since 1974 and we have improved our techniques. We early realized that while an administration controls the foreign policy, Congress has a lot to do. While it was difficult for us to influence the administration, we could make contact with Members of Congress and present the issues to them with concerned constituents from the representative’s district. Today we present the case that the U.S. national interest is best served by a free democratic Greece and Cyprus and is best served by not encouraging the expansionism of Turkey. Turkey has expansionist views not only against Greek territory but against Armenia, Syria, Iraq, the Kurdistan portion of Iraq and so these issues are relevant today. If Turkey’s expansionism goes unbridled, it could be a major potential problem for the U.S. – a potential war in the Eastern Mediterranean.

What role can Congressional resolutions play in influencing policy?

Congressional resolutions are important because they represent a view of the Congress and it is up to the leadership of the Congress to try to force the administration in a certain direction. We all know the administration controls foreign policy but Congress controls the purse strings and therefore Congress has a very important and influential role and Turkey is very cognizant of that and has lavished on many members of Congress great deals of support through the small Turkish communities but also from some businesses controlled by Turkish interests. In fact, some of the aid to Turkey has come back through these companies and found its way into Turkish lobbying efforts. The Greek government has not expended any major amounts on lobbying. So, we as Greek Americans have to really intensify our efforts. It would be a very successful accomplishment if we could have congressional district committees in the majority of congressional districts and we can do this because there are Greek Americans in practically every congressional district. We have limited our efforts to California but we would hope that similar efforts will be organized and expanded in other states.

But Turkey spends a lot of money on lobbying Washington. What can we do to neutralize the millions spent in DC by the Turkish lobby?

Politicians ultimately have to be reelected. Showing our strength in votes is sometimes more effective than throwing money at politicians because they ultimately use the money to buy television ads and send out literature in order to acquire votes. If we show we can produce the votes, we can offset the influence of money.

What can Greek American communities do to get organized at the grassroots? What does it take? Where does it begin?

It really takes a little leadership. It takes one person to contact a few friends or neighbors in the district and say let's form a congressional liaison committee. And with some preparation as to what issues to present and how best to present them, they can then contact the Congressional office and make a visit. Our Council is always available to assist no matter where other committees are. Even if they are out of state, we are wiling to offer materials, our aid, and our experience.

What changes do you hope to see in a new U.S. administration’s orientation to these issues over the next few years?

The most important would be the removal of the Turkish troops from Cyprus, because that would eliminate that particular sore point and dangerous point. It would also reestablish the rule of law that a stronger country cannot invade a smaller neighboring country and get away with it simply because they persisted over the years. Ultimately justice and international law have to prevail. The next, of course, is the importance of saving the Ecumenical Patriarchate. We all know that the hundreds of thousands who lived in Constantinople (Istanbul) have been reduced to a couple of thousand aging people and that the Greek community may disappear. This ethnic cleansing has been practiced by Turkey for years without any major objection from the international community and, just like the Armenian Genocide, the Genocide of the Greeks of Asia minor is something that we need to bring to the attention of the international community. We have no hostility against Turkey but we don't want them to be a constant threat in the Eastern Mediterranean - not only to Greece but to practically all its neighbors. This is for the benefit of the Turkish people who need peace and stability themselves and not military misadventures. We are also concerned about the repression of the Greek community in Southern Albania (Northern Epirus) and hope FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) cooperates in agreeing to a suitable name.

How do you coordinate with other organizations advocating for Hellenic issues?

It is important to support efforts at the national level like the annual PSEKA/CEH conference which brings together Greek Americans from all over the country and is well attended by our elected officials. We also support the efforts of AHI and all organizations working to advance our common issues.

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