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‘Trust is the key to a Cyprus solution’

Outgoing American Ambassador John Koenig

By Angelos Anastasiou

OUTGOING US ambassador John Koenig does not see the Cyprus problem as one of invasion and occupation, he said last night while being quizzed during an open discussion at the University of Cyprus.

When one UCy student brought up the issue of Turkish troops and settlers in Cyprus, Koenig said the US certainly did not support the occupation of another country, nor did it condone the practice of settling.

“The Cyprus conflict of course began 51 years ago and in that context of course it took a huge and tragic turn in 1974 and I am not in any way justifying what happened then, but it cannot be reduced to a problem of invasion and occupation. That is in fact to ignore your own history. But I do not regard the Cyprus problem as a problem of invasion and occupation. If you don’t like it, I can’t help it. I do not regard that as the core of the Cyprus problem”.

He then pointed out that the Greek Cypriot view was not necessarily shared by Turkish Cypriots, and urged for an honest inward glance at why that might be.

“I don’t think I have met a Turkish Cypriot – maybe there are a few out there – who actually believes that the Cyprus problem is a problem of invasion and occupation and these are the people you need to make peace with. So you better pay attention to how they see the Cyprus problem as well”.

Speaking at the open discussion – in what was described as “his last public event”, as his stint as ambassador to Cyprus ends this summer – Koenig highlighted the lessons he learned over three decades of service as a diplomat in the Eastern Mediterranean.

He laid out three basic pillars relevant to Cyprus – dealing with bitterness, unleashing the power of citizens, and completing European integration – arguing that these could help Cypriots reunite their country.

“Dare to imagine a reunited Cyprus,” he urged, and referred to Barack Obama’s book ‘The Audacity of Hope’.

According to Koenig, the island has always been a crossroads, and “hopefully the Cypriots can appreciate and preserve its diversity”.

Following his speech, the floor was handed to the audience for questions, which the outgoing diplomat answered with unusual candour, amidst light-hearted comments on the government’s row with parliament over shop working hours and the Seattle Seahawks’ shot at the Superbowl this year.

“Leadership can make a huge difference,” he said in response to what might be different in the ongoing effort to solve the Cyprus problem, relative to the 2004 Annan plan referendum.

“Many things have changed during the last eleven years – not least of which, the fact that the division is now more deeply-rooted. There was also in 2004 an exaggerated expectation that EU membership would somehow drive the process forward, which hopefully has also changed.”

Asked whether he has seen any change in Turkey’s stance towards Cyprus that could support his optimism, Koenig offered a blunt “yes”.

Pressed to elaborate, he referred to a remark from last week by Turkey’s EU minister Volkan Bozkir on the late Rauf Denktash.

“You wouldn’t have heard that 10 or 15 years ago – that Rauf Denktash was responsible for perpetuating the Cyprus problem for decades,” he argued.

“Sure, you knew they were trying to outmanoeuvre him, you could see it, but stating it publicly – and then defending it – is another matter.”

Discussion then turned to a phrase Koenig had used in his speech, claiming that some Cypriots tend to try to defend a false national narrative by adopting a “competitive”, or confrontational, stance.

“For instance, take the acquis communautaire,” he said.

“Some Cypriots try to cite it competitively, trying to box the other side in. But I’m American enough to point out that [the acquis] is not a comprehensive list of human rights.”

Naming a single facet of the Cyprus problem as the key to a solution, Koenig chose trust.

“With Nicos Anastasiades and Mustafa Akinci, you can finally touch on the question of ‘why do you mistrust each other?” he said.

“There is far less reason to distrust each other than you see.”

“You have many things to deal with apart from Turkey`s presence on this island, the presence of Turkish troops which we do not support or accept, the presence of settlers which we do not condone. These all are issues that however need to be addressed in the context of settlement negotiations and we have to take into consideration the views of the Turkish Cypriot community as well,” he added.

“This is what Cyprus solution is all about. This is also what reconciliation is about. Please don`t miss this chance to bring the communities of this island back together and realise your aspirations for a better future. Every Cypriot has a role to play in this effort. As the American Ambassador, I can assure you the United States will do all we can to support the settlement process.”

Posted to Cyprus in 2012, Koenig has been an avid user of social media, routinely using his official Twitter account for informal chats with locals.

It was one such attempt at conversation that landed him in hot water last March, when he asked for his Twitter followers’ opinion on Anastasiades’ highly publicised official visit to Russia, which coincided with the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

“What do people in #Cyprus think about the week in Russia as seen from here? Anastasiades visit and statements, #Nemtsov assassination?” Koenig tweeted.

This sparked public outcry as it was seen as an attempt to link the visit with the murder, and Koenig was forced to issue a statement clarifying this was never his intent.

Additional tweets on the subject seemed to get Koenig in yet more trouble, and a visibly annoyed Anastasiades later told a TV news anchor that Koenig’s behavior was “highly undiplomatic” and “unhelpful”.

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