In the past two months, we have witnessed unprecedented engagement on the Cyprus issue by the Obama Administration, namely, Vice President Joe Biden. I have never seen anything like it in my 27 years of advocating for Cyprus with the American Hellenic Institute. The vice president’s visit to Cyprus was historic. It was the first time in 52 years a sitting vice president visited there. He also hosted two off-the-record meetings at the White House with leaders of the Greek American community. One was a pre-trip briefing and the second a post-trip debriefing. I had the privilege to attend them.
Folks who follow the Cyprus issue know Biden is no stranger to Cyprus. He is probably the most well-educated and well-versed public official on the nuances of the Cyprus issue. For this result, credit must be given to the Greek American community’s grassroots. For example, it was the then American Hellenic Institute Public Affairs Chairman Dr. Dean C. Lomis, along with members of AHI-Delaware back in 1974, who met with Biden to educate him about the conflict and who have been keeping him informed ever since.
Without Biden’s strong support through the many years as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee (along with Senator Paul Sarbanes) who knows where this issue would be today. Furthermore, we certainly would not have been as successful in having Congress impose an arms embargo on Turkey immediately following Turkey’s invasion were it not for his assistance at the time.
This year, Cyprus received high-level visits from U.S. Department of State Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland in February; and just two weeks ago, on the heels of the vice president’s visit, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Amanda Sloat and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO Policy James Townsend.
What does all this mean?
The only plausible explanation is that Cyprus now has the potential to be a major energy supplier for Europe and beyond. This is a game changer. However, as long as the Cyprus issue remains unresolved, it will compromise how this energy will be fully developed, and more importantly, how it will be exported. Biden underscored this point when he spoke at the 2014 Clergy Laity Congress in Philadelphia. He said: “The exciting discoveries of natural gas and oil offshore in Cyprus and Israel, as well as potential discoveries in Greece and Lebanon, have an opportunity to position the region as a global energy hub, and we have no bones about it from the very beginning. And under international law, Cyprus owns access to these valuable fields within the region.”
But exporting it out of the region is important. The United States and others would prefer that it be piped through Turkey. This will never happen because it would have to go through Cyprus’s Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) and without a settlement, it’s a non-starter. Therefore, energy has been the number one catalyst for increased U.S. engagement, making Cyprus a strategic partner of the U.S.
In Philadelphia, Biden added: “…Cyprus…has become a genuine, strategic partner. That’s what’s basically changed; it’s become a genuinely strategic partner of the USA.” There are other areas that are also defined as strategic, and Biden continued, “On the issue of counter-terrorism, Cyprus is an essential link to our war on terrorism. Essential Partner! That is no hyperbole; that is absolutely true. Counter-terrorism is an area of strategic partnership, and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, including the removal of serious chemical weapons and the prevention of re-acquiring the nuclear weapons, little Cyprus has taken on an outsized role in our pure national interest in our strategic relationship. But it’s not just a strategic partnership; it’s a growing strategic partnership.”
For the United States to benefit fully from this strategic relationship Cyprus needs to be free and united. A settlement must be reached that is just and viable, incorporating the norms of democratic principles. The United States can go a long way to make it happen. The vice president has started.
In Cyprus, he stated: “The matter of the fact is that the Government of Turkey, in my view, is coming to understand, not for any noble reasons, but for practical reasons, that the status quo on the island does not benefit them economically, militarily and politically. And there is significant potential benefit for Turkey in a bizonal, bicommunal federation.”
Biden’s remarks at the Clergy-Laity Congress demonstrated his further, active engagement on the issues. There, he stated he raised the issues in conversations with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan. There, he also stated publically that Turkish troops should be removed from Cyprus. “I opened up and made clear the U.S. position that although it was a Cypriot negotiation, there was and is and can only be one government, one Cypriot, Greek Cypriot government, on the island, with no Turkish troops on the island,” he said.
As extremely important as these comments are, it would be helpful to see additional signs that the vice president’s statements are the administration’s policy. Signs Turkey will cease its intransigence on these issues and play a constructive role would also be welcomed. Turkey has not shown it’s willingness to do this. In the past, Turkey has manipulated the negotiations through the Turkish Cypriot leader. Turkey’s interests on Cyprus are not the same of the people of Cyprus. Unfortunately, not much progress has been made as evidenced by the lack of movement on confidence-building measures. This is reality. Biden and the State Department would be wise to understand it. While it’s extremely important for negotiations to proceed, they cannot succeed if the Turkish Cypriots will continue to take their instructions from Ankara and the political will is absent.
Therefore, the United States government must continue to put open pressure on Turkey. As a community, we must do our part to remind policymakers of Vice President’s Biden’s encouraging remarks. Because as historic and important as the recent flurry of comments and visits have been, we need to be vigilant and adopt President Reagan’s slogan, “Trust, but verify!”
Nick Larigakis is president of the American Hellenic Institute, a non-profit Greek American think tank and public policy center that works to strengthen relations between the United States and Greece and Cyprus, and within the Greek American community.