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Selling Cyprus

How does an island nation convince a superpower that it matters? With good food, good wine, and the truth.

12:00 AM, Apr 24, 2002 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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IT ALL STARTED with an invitation to a dinner at the home of the Cypriot ambassador. It's not everyday one gets to go to an ambassador's house, so how could I refuse? Of course, I'm not one to pass up on fine dining no matter where or for what reason. In fact, I supped at the Iraqi mission last week. Kidding.

The home of the ambassador to Cyprus is in the upper-crust D.C. neighborhood of Kalorama--a towering brownstone once owned by Frank Sinatra. A sharply dressed woman in her forties with dark olive features graciously welcomed me. She was the ambassador, which, to my embarrassment, I did not know. The invitation said "Ambassador Dr. Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis"--but since Erato, the Greek muse of lyric and poetry, was not the most popular name where I grew up in New Jersey (there were more Ginas), I didn't feel totally at fault.

The spacious interior was a mixture of dark wood and marble, warmly lit by sparkling chandeliers. The furniture was plush, and all around were paintings and sculptures shipped from Cyprus. The pretext for the dinner was to meet George Vassiliou, former president of the republic and now chief negotiator for his country's accession to the European Union. His plan was to meet with as many U.S. officials and journalists as possible, to brief them on Cyprus's EU prospects, and hopefully to garner some international support.

And my pretext was to write about the types of food and drink served at diplomatic residencies. After all, Cypriots have been making wine for centuries, and I was curious about the influence of Greece on its cuisine (it turns out the Cypriots use less oil) and perhaps the influence from the surrounding countries (Turkey to the north, Syria and Lebanon to the east). Cyprus's chances of joining the European Union were only of mild interest to me.

But the more I listened to President Vassiliou, the more I was intrigued not only by Cyprus's yearning to join the EU, but also its long struggle to regain the north. (In 1974, Turkey, after an attempted coup by a military junta against Cypriot president Makarios, invaded the northern half of the island and still occupies roughly 37 percent of it.) He spoke passionately about reunification and talked of how it is only a matter of time before Cyprus enters the EU.

Throughout the dinner (chicken breast stuffed with spinach swirl, sides of fingerling potatoes, and hearty asparagus), we sampled the dry reds and whites of Cyprus, all of which were full-bodied, though Vassiliou admitted "we are still a little behind" in comparison to Greek wines. The dessert wine, however, was a different story. It is called Commandaria and its savory sweetness is reason enough to fly to Cyprus. In fact, legend has it an Ottoman sultan invaded the island just to acquire this fine wine. And the grapes used to make Commandaria were the same grapes brought to Portugal that eventually became famous as the source of port wine. It certainly doesn't hurt to offer such refreshments (along with glazed fruits and walnuts, another Cypriot tradition) while making the case for either unity or membership in the Union. The evening was a pleasure, and if the Cypriots wanted me to be sympathetic to their cause, it was working.

One week later, I was invited to a breakfast with Demetris Christofias, president of the Cyprus House of Representatives. This time it was at the new Ritz-Carlton--the one whose gym Michael Jordan exercises in. Even though the invite said "continental," I held out hope for supple, poached eggs on lightly toasted English muffins, tender smoky lox, and crispy strips of bacon. Things didn't bode well when I got to the hotel--an embassy official asked me if I was going to be serving the breakfast. The actual conference room was striking in its opulence though not ostentatious. The walls were paneled with fine grain wood, and in the center was an extended dining table adorned with a few Cypriot flags. It actually resembled the scene in "Godfather Part 2" when the industrialists met with Batista: "And introducing our friend from Miami, Senor Hyman Roth." (I half-expected someone to pass around a gold telephone.) But this was not the case--and neither was my hope for a full-spread breakfast.

I ended up sitting directly across from Christofias, his eyes gazing directly into mine. Which meant I didn't dwell on the pastries that were passed around. I noticed one with chocolate scribble but ended up selecting an innocuous cheese danish. But upon closer inspection the danish concealed a sliver of peach. Not what I wanted but it was too late. The man from the Washington Times was already rummaging through the basket. However the fresh fruit was sheer delight. Strawberries this time of year are questionable elsewhere, but not at the Ritz-Carlton. This bowl of sliced fruit, including cantaloupe, honeydew, and pineapple, was served smartly chilled. It was a shame this was the whole meal.

But as I say, I wasn't dwelling on the food. Christofias was less optimistic than President Vassiliou. Sure, he thinks Cyprus will be admitted to the European Union in the next couple of years, but the Turkish problem bothers him. Greatly. It was a productive trip for him--he got face time with Denny Hastert, Dick Gephardt, Joe Biden, and even Condoleezza Rice. And I came away with a better sense of the problems and challenges facing Cyprus than I did before. And I was sold on the idea that Turkish occupation must end. The trick is getting international pressure to force them out.

After these meetings, I spoke with a friend at the White House. He asked, "And this matters to the United States because?" And therein lies the problem. Why should we go out of our way for a nation the size of Rhode Island? Cyprus certainly doesn't pose a threat to U.S. interests abroad. There is no nuclear proliferation. It is not a safe haven for al Qaeda. American citizens are not at risk there. So why bother?

It's a difficult obstacle for Miltos Miltiadou, the press counselor at the embassy. "My job is to explain to the United States why Cyprus is important to them, for political reasons, strategic reasons, economic reasons," he says. It's something he's been doing since 1989. It comes in the form of arranging informative dinners, lunch discussions, breakfast briefings, and the like. But doing this every week can be taxing. Miltos, a cherubic and likeable Mediterranean in his forties, is in fact taking a much needed vacation back home after this most recent round of visits. But with all this work accomplished, he is optimistic. "We have a lot of help here, from friends in Congress and in the Greek and Cypriot community. So it is working. We are making everyone aware of what is going on."

And what is going on is quite clear. The two things that Cyprus wants are (1) the Turks to pull out of the north and (2) to join the European Union. Cypriots believe that these goals can actually be achieved conjointly. Cyprus has been independent since 1960. Before that it was a British crown colony. It's been no secret that Turkey had badly wanted to add Cyprus to its holdings since the days of Ottoman rule. In 1974 that opportunity came. When a coup by the military junta against the president was attempted, Turkey sent in a massive force ostensibly to protect the Turkish Cypriot minority from possible attacks. Which never happened. The junta eventually collapsed and President Makarios returned.

But the Turks never left and the island is still occupied. Even the capital of Nicosia is divided--the only world capital of its kind. Worse, 142,000 Greek Cypriots in the north were forcibly expelled. In their place, tens of thousands of immigrants direct from Turkey (mostly from Anatolia) began to inhabit the recently emptied homes--many were extremely impoverished and backward (some didn't even know what to do with refrigerators and put their shoes in them).

In 1983, the "Turkish Republic of Cyprus" was declared. But no one except Turkey recognizes it. On the contrary, U.N. resolutions and condemnations by the European Union have been heaped on Turkey for its refusal to leave. The United States has also expressed the desire to see this occupation come to an end. And Turkish Cypriots themselves have now voiced their unhappiness with the Ankara government and want a return to their original identity. But Turkey has been immovable on this issue. One reason is its value as a NATO member. Turkey borders Iraq to the southeast. Any disruption in U.S.-Turkish relations may have repercussions if we were to try and topple Saddam Hussein. But Turkey is in a bind because it, too, wants to join the European Union.

Cyprus is on track to become a member of the EU by 2003 or 2004. Brussels says it hopes the Turkish situation can be resolved beforehand. But if it isn't, Cyprus will join anyway, waiting for that missing 37 percent to one day be incorporated. The Turks, on the other hand, will not get off that easily: There is no way they can enter the EU while still having a military occupying force on the soil of another member.

In other words, their time is running out. Which is good news for Cypriots. And yes, good news for the United States. To have Cyprus join the EU would be to have lasting stability in a region that has fallen into chaos. The island can serve as a communications center for counter-drug operations (we actually have a DEA agent in Nicosia--was that a secret?). And it could be a strongpoint when it comes to counter-terrorist measures--for both surveillance and reconnaissance. Don't forget, the British still have two key military bases on the island.

All in all, things are looking up for Cyprus. But getting attention and staying in the headlines is what matters most. Which also means nonstop meetings, breakfasts, lunches, and dinners--a PR extravaganza. Their strategy is working not because people like me are easy to persuade using gastronomic tactics, but because the Cypriot story is a simple story of right and wrong with clear, moral choices to be made. It's a story that just needs to be heard.

"I need a favor from you now," said Christofias at the breakfast meeting. "Keep Cyprus alive." And alive and well it is, with supporters from every corner coming to its defense--from the Heritage Foundation warmly receiving President Vassiliou to Christopher Hitchens writing a history of the island and the justice it deserves. Rare to see those two names in the same sentence. Must have been the Commandaria.

Victorino Matus is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.