One of my favorite comedies of the 1990’s was Groundhog Day, the movie where Bill Murray plays a weatherman who becomes trapped in a time loop and keeps waking up on Groundhog Day.
Over my decades covering US policy with regards to Greece and Cyprus, I many times felt that I was Bill Murray and I was living through Groundhog Day. In 2014, when Vice President Biden visited Cyprus and then took a leading role on US relations with Greece, I thought things may be changing. President Obama went to Greece, Prime Minister Tsipras had an official White House visit and then Prime Minister Mitsotakis had an official White House visit. Ambassador Pyatt became a big cheerleader of US-Greece relations. Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell talked about a new Eastern Mediterranean strategy with Greece and Cyprus playing central roles. Senators Menendez and Rubio, Representatives Bilirakis, Deutch and Cicilline introduced the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act and managed to pass it into law. At the beginning of 2020, I thought maybe we were finally seeing a new day.
I should have known better. This week I remembered Bill Murray’s movie again, especially the scene where he says “Once again, the eyes of the nation have turned here to this… tiny village in western Pennsylvania. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. There is no way this winter is ever going to end.”
When I listened to the Atlantic Council’s Richard Morningstar speak during a session on the Eastern Mediterranean and then read the State Department’s statement regarding Turkey’s threats to drill near its fake maritime border with Libya, all I could hear was Bill Murray’s “blah, blah, blah, blah.”
Today, I interpret the actions of the State Department – along with some of its allies like Atlantic Council or Amanda Sloat at Brookings – as a return to the days when they were willing to pressure Greece and Cyprus just to make Turkey happy. This became clear to me when former Ambassador Morningstar said on Tuesday: “Turkey is there [in the Eastern Mediterranean]. And it seems to be that every effort that the US and the EU, working with its partners in the region, have to work towards some type of reconciliation. I had always hoped, looking at it from an energy standpoint, that there could be some agreement between Cyprus and the northern sector with respect to how to share the energy benefits. Whether that comes first or an overall agreement comes first, we’ll see.”
This statement was outrageous on many levels, and fortunately Cypriot Energy Minister Lakotryppis declared that “all of these arguments that all of these trilaterals or all of these multilateral formations are going against Turkey [are] absolutely rubbish.” But other than making Ankara feel that someone was lobbying for them, I could not understand what the purpose of Morningstar’s intervention. Does he not know the facts that Minister Lakotryppis detailed about Turkey being invited by the Republic of Cyprus to delineate exclusive economic zones? Did he not know that the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum countries left open the possibility of Turkey being part of their group if Ankara behaves? Did he miss Prime Minister Mitsotakis’ remarks that there are “win-win” scenarios when it comes to Turkey but they will not be discussed under “blackmail” by Erdogan?
Since the Atlantic Council has consistently done programs with Turkish officials during the COVID crisis, I looked for some proof that Morningstar suggested to Turkey that it should behave and join the multi-country collaboration in the Eastern Mediterranean. I could not find any. Maybe it is the “quiet” or “private pressure” like the kind the Department of Sate always uses on Ankara.
His most suspicious suggestion was that the Republic of Cyprus should make some compromise on energy even without a solution. Who told him to test that idea, Turkey or the State Department? Based on what I know, could be either one!
Early in his remarks Morningstar praised the EastMed Act. What he said thereafter about Turkey and then Cyprus made it clear he has not read the Act nor is aware of the intent of its authors.
Private pressure on Turkey, weak criticism of Turkey’s actions as “provocative and unhelpful” without indicating consequence, using Greek and Cypriot organizations (like the AmChams this week) to serve as friendly audiences that will not react strongly to the “blah, blah, blah” of people like Morningstar make me feel that when it comes to the US approach on Greco-Turkish relations, we might have Groundhog Day in June.
*** Apostolos Zoupaniotis is Publisher/Editor of the “Greek News”