* Nothing new on Famagusta CBM *
President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu have agreed to speed up the negotiation process to find a solution to the Cyprus issue, US Vice President Jo Biden said, concluding a two-day visit on Thursday night that raised as much hope as disappointment.
The two leaders have agreed to meet at least twice per month with their next meeting scheduled for June 2, Biden said after hosting a three-hour-long dinner within the United Nations-patrolled neutral zone, also attended by UN Special Representative in Cyprus Lisa Buttenheim.
The US vice president sent a message that if the two sides were to agree on a confidence building measure involving the fenced-off city of Famagusta in exchange for opening up the Turkish-controlled port, the US would “stand ready to assist on the implementation”.
From the onset of his arrival on Wednesday evening, Biden had said that he did not carry a solution proposal in his back pocket, but urged community leaders to work together and move forward as Cyprus growingly finds itself playing a key role in the eastern Mediterranean.
However, despite a muted mention of the return of the ghost town of Famagusta, which many had hoped would be a “game changer” in the recently resumed talks, the fact that the second-in-command of the world’s biggest power was here, in itself is regarded as an undisputed upgrade of Cyprus in Washington’s eyes.
In all his speeches, Biden highlighted the importance of newly discovered energy resources in Cyprus and Israeli waters and called on countries in the region to cooperate, a hint that alternatives be found to western Europe’s dependence on Russian gas supplies via Ukraine.
Houston-based Noble Energy was the first to discover satisfactory reserves of natural gas in Block 12 of the Cyprus Exclusive Economic Zone, adjacent to Israeli waters. But the amount in itself is not sufficient enough to operate a land-based LNG plant to be used for exports, leading partners to consider alternative plans, such as pipelines or floating LNG facilities.
Flanked by the two leaders, the two negotiators and Buttenheim, Biden said “the fact that we break bread tonight in the heart of a beautiful ancient city, but also in a buffer zone that separates one Cypriot community from another, reminds us that things were not always as they are now”, adding that “they do not have to remain as they are, now that a better path is open”.
Biden continued to say that the two leaders also agreed “to intensify work on preparing meaningful confidence building measures as envisioned in the joint declaration” agreed on February 11. He pledged that the US “will engage with all stakeholders to explore mutually beneficial initiatives to reinforce settlement negotiations”.
After the leaders, the negotiators and Buttenheim left, Biden proceeded to make some additional remarks.
IMPRESSED BY CORDIALITY
“I have been engaged in negotiations around the world in many difficult conflicts but I must tell you I have been too impressed by the cordiality and the ease with which both leaders speak to one another and negotiate with one another”, he said.
He continued to point out that “tonight I heard both leaders confirm a common objective; the reunification of Cyprus as a bizonal, bicommunal federation”.
He said that he heard “common ground in certain aspects of these negotiations” but also “differences”, pointing out that “I do not believe that they are irreconcilable differences”.
News reports suggested that a stumbling block during discussions with Biden was Turkey’s claims to revenues from the prospective gasfields, prior to any solution. This is considered a “red line” issue by the Cyprus government that does not want to commit future revenues.
On the contrary, Nicosia has reiterated that revenues ought to be shared equally by all communities in Cyprus, only after a solution. In other words, a carrot-and-stick approach to encourage Turkish Cypriot in the talks, as opposed to bl;indly giving up all resources to Ankara, commentators have said.
People have asked me what is in this for the United States, Biden said, replying that “President Obama and I believe that Cyprus is a key partner in a challenging region and we know it can be even a stronger partner if the next generation of Cypriots can grow up without the burden of conflict”.
He said that “Cyprus can be a growing force for peace, prosperity and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean and that would benefit the world. That would benefit us all,” he added.
Over the past decade, the US has expressed its appreciation to the previous and present administrations for their assistance in providing humanitarian support during the evacuation of US citizens from conflicts in the area, but also for the logistical support to the removal of chemical weapons from Syria.
However, the US also wants Cyprus to join in imposing stricter sanctions on Russia because of Moscow’s support of the groups in Crimea and eastern Ukraine seeking to break away from Kiev.
Dr Aristos Aristotelous, an expert on defence issues and director of the Cyprus Centre for Strategic Studies, said that nothing substantially new came out of the Biden visit that would suggest a new strategic relation between the two countries.
“This is not even the first time that US-Cyprus relations have been considered as ‘strategic’. Since early 2000, the Cypriot diplomacy has considered Cyprus as a ‘distant strategic partner to the US’ and that it continues to be so today.
“The Americans have often emphasised that ‘the key position in this relationship is the united effort to combat the threats against world security’ and that Cyprus ‘is a key partner in essential matters such as security and anti-terror,’ and that ‘by joining the EU, it has also joined the transatlantic partnership’.”
Aristotelous said that a 2002 cabinet decision, that has been kept secret from the United Nations and from the Cyprus parliament, allows US military personnel to enter the Cyprus Republic with or without uniform and that all US armed forces equipment are exempt from landing, overflight and port rights and charges, which, to date, has been exercised 850 times.
He added that the strategic cooperation already existed when Cyprus assisted with the evacuation of American citizens from Lebanon in 2006, and more recently with the dismantling of chemical weapons in Syria, as well as the Nicosia government’s alignment with the US, via the EU, on measures against Iran’s nuclear programme.
“What is new,” Aristotelous said, “was that Cyprus openly identified itself with Washington against Russia over Ukraine by imposing sanctions on Moscow, turning foreign policy priorities in favour of the US. This probably risks Cyprus becoming less persuasive – as right as it may be – when explaining to Moscow that because of the EU it has no other choice.”
NO TO REJOICE
Meanwhile, former University of Cyprus Rector and European Parliament candidate Stavros Zenios had a more positive take on the Biden visit, saying the US Vice President’s comments went beyond the obvious.
“Following his ‘we and the rest of the world recognise the Republic of Cyprus’ comment and adding ‘except one other’ meaning that Turkey is on a lonely path, the next moment he put to practice his own words by rebuffing a hand-shake with the Turkish Cypriot leader – the US vice president only shakes hands for the sake of photographers with other heads of state.”
“As the principle of international justice, energy security in Europe and the interests of American business and the government converge on our country, this is not the time to rejoice. We owe it to ourselves to be ready for historical compromises of reconciliation with the Turkish Cypriot community as we raise our efforts to let Turkey allow the people of Cyprus determine their own fate.
“A united Europe is offering us the tools and the US appears willing and interests are leaning towards our side. A historical conjuncture of interest and justice is being created to solve our national problem in a functional and fair way,” Zenios added.
“We should be the ones to extend a hand to the Turkish Cypriot leader. So that he would stop being an occupying leader and becomes a leader of a community whose welfare involves all Cypriots. This is the message from Joe Biden’s historical visit to our island.”
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