The Blog

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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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.