By Jean Christou
US Vice President Joe Biden said on Wednesday it was “long past time” for a Cyprus solution and called on all Cypriots to create a vision for the future of their island.
Biden arrived at Larnaca airport aboard Air Force Two, along with his wife Jill who was presented with a bouquet of flowers by a young girl in Cypriot traditional dress. He is the first US Vice President to visit the island since Lyndon Johnson in 1962.
The Bidens were greeted by Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides and US ambassador to Cyprus John Koenig.
In a brief statement on arrival, Biden said he had been looking forward to the visit a long time.
“I came here at the invitation of your president and the government of the Republic of Cyprus and I wanted to come to primarily underscore the value the United States attaches to our growing cooperation with the Republic of Cyprus. This relationship is now a genuine strategic partnership and it holds even greater promise,” said Biden.
He said he and President Nicos Anastasiades would sit down Thursday to a shared agenda, which would include Cyprus’ growing leadership in the eastern Mediterranean, Cyprus’ support for the mission to eliminate chemical weapons from Syria and help prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, its role in Europe and in the regional energy security and continued cooperation on search and rescue, crisis response and counter-terrorism.
“There’s much to discuss,” said Biden, adding that he and Anastasiades would also discuss the situation in Ukraine. “We have to be resolute and united in the face of Russian intervention,” Biden added.
He said he also knew that the Cypriot people had faced tough economic challenges and made painful sacrifices but he was pleased to see the government make good on the progress of economic reform.
“I believe the economy is beginning to turn the corner and we look forward to working with you to deepen our trade involvement and restore growth and prosperity,” the US Vice President said.
He said the Cyprus settlement process would be “an important focus of our conversations,” and he was looking forward to meeting the leaders of both communities.
“The United States, I want to be clear about this, recognises only one legitimate government of the Republic of Cyprus and my visit and meetings throughout the island will not change that. It is my personal position, it’s the position of the United State of America and it’s the position of the entire world, save one country,” he said, referring to Turkey.
“And it’s long past time… 40 years… that all Cypriots are united in a bicommunal, bizonal federation.”
His anticipated meeting on Thursday with Turkish Cypriot community leader Dervis Eroglu had already sparked fervent protests mainly from opposition parties, that had argued that by meeting with Eroglu in the north, the US official would lend recognition to the break-away state.
Biden said he was encouraged by the steps that had recently been taken, the joint declaration on February 11, the visit of the Greek Cypriot negotiator to Ankara and the Turkish Cypriot negotiator to Athens, support from the international community, and “the seriousness of purpose we’ve seen in this process thus far”.
“After so many rounds of talks and so many years of stalemates, it’s legitimate to ask the question whether this time can be any different?”
Biden said the question reminded him of the words of former colleague George Mitchell, the US envoy for Northern Ireland, whom he quoted as saying: “We had 700 days of failure and one day of success”.
“Peace is always possible,” said Biden. “But it requires engagement, not just from leaders but from citizens. In that respect I’m encouraged to hear about the joint initiatives from Cypriot political and civic and business leaders, historic religious services and dialogue, and the restoration of sacred sites throughout the island.”
“I’ve heard that the local press assumes I’m coming with a plan for peace in my back pocket to solve the Cyprus problem. I’d like to put that rumour to rest. I came here on behalf of the United States to help you get a solution, not to present or impose one.”
The US Vice President said he had been personally following events in Cyprus for more than 40 years, “long enough to know that only Cypriots can decide on a vision for your future and only Cypriots can exercise the courage necessary to make that vision real.”
“Imagine what can happen if you make sure that this time is different, that this time a solution is reached.”
He said it would mean incredibly greater prosperity, greater security and a future of limitless possibilities for a generation free from the strait jacket that decades of division had imposed on the island.
“This island can and should be the bedrock of stability and opportunity for Europe and for the Eastern Mediterranean,” said Biden.
He said the story of the 20th century in Europe was one where barriers fell and peace and prosperity rose up in their place. “That can and should happen on this beautiful island. I travelled to Cyprus today because I believe this time can be different. Whether it will, depends on the people of this island,” he concluded.
Biden thanked President Anastasiades for “his cooperation and for his efforts to build a genuine strategic partnership with the United States, a partnership that holds even greater promise in the future”.
The U.S. Vice President and his wife Jill attended an informal dinner on Wednesday night hosted by President Anastasiades and his wife Andri, at their Limassol home.
The Cyprus News Agency reported that the dinner “was of a social nature without however ruling out the possibility of the two men discussing other issues ahead of their formal meeting” on Thursday.
The dinner lasted about two hours and ended at around 9.30.