By Stefanos Evripidou
THOSE WHO rushed to criticise the planned visit of US Vice President Joe Biden to Cyprus may find themselves on the wrong side of history as diplomatic observers argue that the high-level American outing potentially marks a monumental shift in bilateral and regional relations.
The smaller opposition parties were quick to warn Biden that crossing the buffer zone to meet Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu would enhance the standing of the breakaway regime in the north.
There was even talk that the Vice President of the United States, Mr Number Two in the most influential country in the world with the biggest economy and most powerful military, was coming to a pointy island in the eastern Mediterranean to help the ruling party elect a handful of MEPs to the European Parliament. Jean-Claude Juncker will be thrilled.
Election fever aside, even the most partisan observer can see that Biden’s arrival this Wednesday will bring a little more than just American glamour, and security guys with wrap-around shades.
According to one diplomat, Biden’s visit could prove to be a watershed moment in the island’s history… and future.
The last time an American VP, Lyndon Johnson, came to Cyprus was in 1962. Fifty-two years later, Cypriots prepare to welcome Biden, possibly followed by US Secretary of State John Kerry a few months later.
Why the sudden interest?
According to government sources, Biden is coming to Nicosia to speak with President Nicos Anastasiades about the Cyprus problem, energy matters, the Ukraine crisis and bilateral relations, as well as meet with Eroglu, religious leaders and members of civil society.
He may even experience the ebb and flow of bicommunal dinners in the buffer zone, though this has yet to be confirmed.
Despite allowing anticipation to develop in recent weeks that a high-level US visit would coincide with the announcement of significant confidence-building measures (CBMs), the government has since taken a step back from the planned ululations, in an effort to manage expectations.
Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides hinted from Washington- where he was visiting Kerry for the second time in a year- that “small steps” might be announced during Biden’s short stay.
But if there are no ‘big’ CBMs to shout home about, what’s the big deal?
The government source said the main issue on the Biden-Anastasiades agenda is energy. The Americans are very concerned about Russia’s involvement in Ukraine and European dependency on Russian gas. They want to see the diversification of energy supplies and ensure security of supply by encouraging Israel and Cyprus to establish alternative gas routes from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe.
This may well be, but the quantities of proven, attainable gas reserves are not that high at this stage, so again, what’s all the fuss?
Speaking to the Sunday Mail, one diplomat who has been following regional events closely, argued that US interest in Cyprus is genuine and shouldn’t be seen in a cynical light. Biden’s visit is the culmination of a long process of realignment of Cyprus’ relations with the world’s superpower on a whole range of levels.
“The US VP is a big man and he’s coming here with an entire entourage. It’s no small thing. Cyprus has successfully repositioned itself both in terms of foreign policy and hydrocarbons. But it can’t be reduced to one single thing. It’s about Israel, the gas, a Cyprus problem solution, human rights, the region.”
One can trace the beginnings of this realignment back a decade and across two tracks; political and regional.
In 2004, Anastasiades took a different approach to the UN blueprint for a solution. According to one analyst, he showed personal character and commitment. He was willing to buck the trend and invest in the longer future. This impressed the US and Turkey.
Fast forward nine years, Anastasiades is campaigning in the presidential elections on a pro-EU, pro-West, pro-NATO platform.
Compared to his predecessor Demetris Christofias, who would get on a plane to EU capitals and proudly declare “I’m a communist”, Anastasiades’ election provided a breath of fresh air for Western powers.
His foreign minister, Kasoulides wasted no time putting words into action, taking tangible steps to prove that this government’s pro-Europe, pro-West credentials were genuine, despite EU partners sticking the knife in with an unprecedented bail-in before the election victory champagne stains could be washed.
Kasoulides made it clear that Cyprus was humming a different tune in its approach to world affairs; as seen on Syria, and in efforts to tackle asymmetric threats.
The US State Department 2013 Terrorism Country Report on Cyprus was pretty glowing in its appraisal. The report noted that Cyprus’ successful prosecution of a Lebanese Hezbollah operative conducting surveillance activities on Israeli targets in Cyprus “played an instrumental role in EU designation of the military wing Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation”.
And it’s not just the US. Cyprus-UK relations have improved leaps and bounds under Anastasiades, though Britain can’t be overly thrilled with the former colony’s American love affair.
The British bases have always played a key role in transatlantic relations. Now, the attraction goes beyond the bases to a US-friendly Cypriot government.
French Ambassador Jean-Luc Florent was recently quoted saying Nicosia and Paris see eye to eye on most issues at hand. At the UN, there is a “very good relationship on many aspects, we are always on the same line, eg Middle East process, Syria, Ukraine, at least since Anastasiades’ election”, said Florent.
He announced French President Francois Holland would likely visit Cyprus before the end of the year, marking the first visit by a French President to Cyprus.
In parallel with a genuine shift in Cyprus’ foreign policy, and the personal credentials of Anastasiades regarding the Cyprus problem, was the important nexus of hydrocarbons in the region.
A few astute individuals at the foreign ministry have been working meticulously over the years to quietly entrench Cyprus’ sovereign rights over its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) by signing delineation agreements with Egypt, Lebanon and Israel.
And the way Cyprus eventually reaches agreement with its neighbours on joint exploitation of hydrocarbons on the median line, etc, could create a precedent, a model for regional cooperation.
“Energy cooperation is a driving ambition of a number of key powers,” said another diplomat, adding that regional hydrocarbons cooperation could help remove outstanding issues, the way coal and steel did for Europe. And by-the-by, would help counter Russian influence through the creation of alternative gas sources.
Turkey, of course, also has a role to play here, giving a Cyprus problem solution more of a win-win feel.
Turkish PM Tayyip Erdogan knows he’s not the most popular among traditional allies and a serious move on Cyprus, for example, could help win back some of that European and American love he once enjoyed.
America’s active interest and engagement in the peace talks has also changed expectations. Without the energetic involvement of US ambassador John Koenig, it’s doubtful whether flagging negotiations on a joint declaration would have reached their conclusion.
So when Biden comes to Cyprus this week, he’ll look at the peace talks, he’ll look at the gas, and he’ll look at the economy, seeing how the US can help Cyprus get back on its feet.
“Most Americans would struggle finding Cyprus on the map. This is not about American public opinion, it’s about a shift in US policy for a number of reasons,” said the diplomat.
“Cyprus now has a friend. The US is interested in a progressive, stable Cyprus.”
One shouldn’t misinterpret greater US involvement as some kind of carte blanche in the peace process, he warned.
“There will be compromises. It won’t be easy.”
But what this policy realignment personified through Biden’s visit does do is create a new environment which provides the best chance for a compromise deal, he argued.
“You could say that the Cyprus problem just got harder to fail.”
As for what Biden might say? Well, from time to time he likes to quote a passage from his favourite poet, the late Seamus Heaney, an Irishman who reworked Sophocles’ Philoctetes in The Cure at Troy (1991).
“History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.”
One literary mind explained the verse adaptation as portraying “a hopelessly embattled victim as committed to complaining about his wounds as the perpetrators are to the justification of the system that injures him”.
Sounds familiar. The Cyprus problem is not at its final stages yet, but if it gets there, could Biden be that deus ex machina who flies in and resolves a seemingly unsolvable problem?