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Our View: Biden’s visit is a giant leap forward for Cyprus

US Vice President Joe Biden

IT WAS NO surprise that the announcement of the visit of US Vice President Joe Biden sparked a considerable amount of negative comment. This was in keeping with the anti-US sentiment that has been cultivated by Cyprus’ politicians and media since the presidency of Archbishop Makarios, who misguidedly pursued close relations with the Soviet Union and countries of the so-called Non Aligned Movement while demonising the West.

Very little has changed since then, despite the end of the Cold War. The Soviet Union may have collapsed, but the country’s opinion-formers now market Russia as Cyprus’ international protector and most reliable ally. While the economy depends on Russian business, on the diplomatic front, Moscow’s support had been greatly exaggerated as it has never gone beyond the offering of help with UN Security Council resolutions of no real consequence, and the sale of military equipment.

Compare this with how the US has helped Cyprus. The US stopped Turkey from invading Cyprus two times (1964 and 1967), was behind two settlement plans (1964 and 1978) that Greek Cypriots rejected and only stopped trying to help the two sides reach an agreement after the 2004 referendum. Even more importantly, the US was the main provider of aid after the invasion. From 1974 to 1981 it gave a total of €131 million in aid, making Cyprus the biggest ever, per head recipient of US humanitarian aid. However, this was never acknowledged by Greek Cypriots (the amounts of US aid received was never officially announced) who also ignored the fact that Soviet aid during this period was next to nothing.

Everyone in Cyprus was too busy blaming the Turkish invasion on the US, embracing Soviet-controlled AKEL’s propaganda that the invasion was a NATO-US conspiracy, a claim repeated in the ‘Cyprus file’- despite the lack of real evidence – prepared by the House of Representatives last year. The US could have done more diplomatically to try to stop the invasion, but to claim that it had orchestrated the whole thing is not supported by the facts. Interestingly, the Soviet Union did nothing to dissuade Turkey from invading, but nobody in Cyprus ever questioned its acquiescence.

Since the rejection of the Annan plan in 2004 the US gave up on the Cyprus problem – it did not help that we had two presidents in this period who were stridently anti-American – satisfied that the status quo ensured stability. But this changed with the discovery of hydrocarbons in the eastern Mediterranean, rekindling Washington’s interest in a settlement that would allow the exploitation of this valuable energy resource in conditions of stability. This would serve the interests of all countries in the region and especially of its two closest allies, Turkey and Israel, which have been gradually mending their relations.

Greek Cypriot politicians have questioned America’s new-found interest in a settlement, accusing Washington of pursuing its strategic interests in the region. But what is wrong with that? Cyprus should be exploiting the fact that a settlement of the Cyprus problem would serve the regional, strategic interests of the US. In fact, the Anastasiades government has recognised that this is a big opportunity and seems to be making all the right moves. But even before the show of American interest it made its pro-Western, pro-NATO outlook very clear and has moved to strengthen relations with Israel.

The government is already reaping the benefits of this radical change of foreign policy. It was thanks to the US that the joint declaration, which looked like a lost cause, was finalised last February, while Biden is expected to announce a plan for the development of Famagusta, including the fenced area, during his visit. The conducting of a study about the opening of the fenced area may be a small step but it goes some way towards satisfying President Anastasiades’ long-standing demand. It is a slice of very good fortune that a settlement would serve the immediate strategic interests of the world’s most powerful country, a big opportunity that should be seized.

It is not often that a Secretary of State refers to Cyprus as a strategic partner of the US in the eastern Mediterranean, as John Kerry, who will also be visiting the island, had recently done. In this context, Biden’s visit this week, the first by a US Vice President since Lyndon B. Johnson’s visit in 1962, is a symbolic confirmation that Cyprus has been welcomed to the West. After 54 years of independence and misguided anti-US policies Cyprus has finally made the big leap and joined the grouping of nations to which it always belonged politically and culturally.

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