Biden’s visit to Cyprus could mark a new era

Biden’s visit to Cyprus could mark a new era

If there is no last-minute change, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is set to pay one of the most significant visits to Cyprus in recent history. He will become the highest ranking American official to visit the divided island since 1962, boosting hopes for a breakthrough in ongoing reunification talks between Turkish and Greek Cypriots.

Biden is expected to meet both President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot President Derviş Eroğlu under equal protocol rules, as Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has said. But Greek Cypriots are openly pressing Washington not to give a picture that could place the Turkish Cypriot leader in an equal position with Anastasiades.

In any case, a visit to Cyprus by the number 2 of the American administration is a clear reflection of growing U.S. engagement in the Cyprus issue. Growing U.S. interest in ongoing Cypriot talks was first realized with the visit to the island of Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, in early February. For many, Nuland’s meetings with both sides provided an agreement on the framework document, a blueprint seen as the road map of reunification talks.

Again in early February, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that Washington was working on Cyprus “quietly,” while Nuland was underlining the strong support of President Barack Obama and of the American people for the reunification talks.

Nuland’s visit to Cyprus was followed by Turkish Cypriot Foreign Minister Nami Özdil’s week-long trip to the U.S., during which he held a number of meetings with State Department officials, members of Congress, and officials from the White House’s National Security Council. Özdil received a high-level reception in Washington and also found the chance to give interviews to the U.S. media and deliver speeches at a number of important think-tanks.

In the meantime, U.S. Ambassador to Nicosia John Koenig is quite frequently delivering the message that a peace deal between Turkish and Greek Cypriots could ease the supply of newly-found offshore gas to Europe by allowing it to pass through Turkey. In interviews with media organizations from both sides, the American ambassador is trying to depict two pictures for the two communities: An optimistic one in the event of a solution and a pessimistic one in the event of the continuation of the status-quo.

In an interview with The Associated Press in March, Koenig said: “A Cyprus solution would bring a great boost to this economy … We know that without a Cyprus solution, otherwise interesting ideas for moving natural gas to Europe through Turkey or to the Turkish market would be at least much more difficult, perhaps impossible.” He repeated this view a few days ago, in an interview with the Greek media just before Biden’s visit.

It’s most probable that Biden’s visit to Cyprus will be followed by a visit from Secretary of State John Kerry, who vowed to come to the island within weeks. In a meeting with Greek Cypriot Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides last week in Washington, Kerry said: “It’s my hope to be in Nicosia and perhaps in Athens at some time in the next few weeks, if not months. We’ve been talking about a visit for some time. We want to try to be helpful in this process. There are exciting things happening, and we respect and appreciate Cyprus’ efforts to work on a number of different fronts.”

Kerry’s statement that Washington wants to be helpful in this process is a clear sign that it will play an important role for a possible reconciliation between the two parties. In a situation where Turkey does not trust the European Union very much as an honest broker, Washington could fill the vacuum if it prefers to remain neutral.

Both Biden and Kerry should focus on the Cyprus issue from a holistic point of view, instead of dealing with specific issues, such as the return of Varosha, as suggested by the Greek Cypriots. If Washington has a role and sufficient weight on both sides, it should use it for the accomplishment of talks in a reasonable timeframe, in order to bring about an acceptable agreement for both sides.