By Endy D. Zemenides
On Tuesday, against the backdrop of renewed hope in the reunification negotiations in Cyprus, John Koenig – the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Cyprus – delivered an address entitled Cyprus at a Crossroads: A Diplomat Reflects on Three Decades of Engagement with the Eastern Mediterranean. It was an interesting reflection on his personal (his in-laws were originally Greeks from Asia Minor) and professional (he previously served in Cyprus and Greece from 1994-2000) ties to the region.
Ambassador Koenig, who has previously gotten himself into trouble in Cyprus via Twitter, then found a way during Questions and Answer to make his previous controversy seem minor. In a response to a question focusing on Turkey’s 40,000 occupation troops, Koenig came up with this:
I personally do not regard the Cyprus issue as essentially a problem of invasion and occupation. If you don`t like it, I can`t help it. I do not regard that as the core of the Cyprus problem.
I wonder how many people on the Embassy’s staff thought “Oh s**t” when the Ambassador uttered this. If Koenig’s point was to emphasize how multi-layered and nuanced the Cyprus problem is, there were ways to do it. Instead, he (in keeping with decades of State Department practice) dismissed the 800 pound gorilla in the room: Turkey’s 41 year occupation. That he emphasized his point with “If you don’t like it, I can’t help it” made his remark as offensive as the flag the occupation authorities light up every night to taunt Greek Cypriots.
Everyone intimately involved in the Cyprus issue is justified to be outraged over the Ambassador’s comments; they are disingenuous. Given his three decades of “engagement” in the region, he knows full well that neither the Republic of Cyprus nor Greek-Cypriots around the world have minimized the complexity of reunifying Cyprus. Yet his blithe discounting of how big a factor that Turkey’s continued occupation of the northern 37% of Cyprus is evidence of the greatest obstacle to American engagement/diplomacy in Cyprus: the lack of willingness to truly pressure Turkey on Cyprus. There are obviously complicated bi-communal aspects of reunifying Cyprus, and the Ambassador cannot point to Greek Cypriots involved in the reunification process — since 1974 — who have pretended otherwise.
There is something that Ambassador Koenig and his colleagues need to come to terms with, and if they don’t like it, I can’t help it: Turkey’s continued occupation of Cyprus and its attitude towards Cyprus (including Turkish Cypriots) has been and will continue to be the main obstacle in reunifying Cyprus. Frankly, the U.S. has done NOTHING to change this dynamic. The work being done between Greek and Turkish Cypriots has done much to change the dynamic, as has the discovery of natural gas, EU membership and changes in the Turkish/Turkish-Cypriot relationship. Koenig is right that is should be up to Cypriots to reclaim the Cypriot dream, but I would like to know how he or the various Administrations he has served have advanced that ideal. Turkey has gotten an absolute pass. Compare what has happened in the other peace process in the Eastern Mediterranean. The U.S. pressured Israel to freeze settlements. Any such open demand on Turkey to do the same in occupied Cyprus? Nope. Even in the case of Famagusta — where Turkey would only have to return a ghost town (which it had always kept so as a bargaining chip in negotiations) in exchange for tangible returns for both Turkey and Turkish-Cypriots, both the National Security Council and the State Department have opined that this is “a bridge too far” for Turkey.
What I would like to see the Ambassador — or the State Department, or the National Security Council — opine on is the following: (1) If the bi-communal provisions of the Cyprus negotiations are settled, how will you react to Turkey’s insistence to maintain guarantor status (which will kill the deal)? (2) How will one of the fatal flaws of the last plan, which did not guarantee the immediate withdrawal of Turkish occupation troops, be fixed? (3) Would the U.S. feel comfortable if Turkey had — as it did under the Annan Plan — the right to intervene in Cyprus’ politics, steer Cyprus’ foreign policy, or halt the progress in economic and security cooperation between Cyprus, Egypt and Israel?
The U.S. might want to unload Cyprus from the agenda, but the Ambassador’s comments indicate that there is a unwillingness to directly deal with the issue that literally keeps Cyprus divided: Turkey’s occupation. Ambassador Koenig refers to President Obama’s book Audacity of Hope a few times, and he needs to take a hint from the title that what is truly audacious is for the U.S. to hope that the obstacles to peace in Cyprus that Turkey throws up will work themselves out once Greek and Turkish Cypriots come to some agreement. On Cyprus, hope is not a strategy, and if the U.S. wants to help Cypriots reclaim the Cypriot dream it needs to make Turkey take ownership of its contribution to the problem.
*** Executive Director of the Hellenic American Leadership Congress