Washington, DC.- By Apostolos Zoupaniotis
New US Ambassador designate to Cyprus John Koenig said that if confirmed by the Senate, his top priority will be to support efforts to reunite Cyprus into a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation.
Speaking on Wednesday before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Koenig noted that “the longstanding division must come to an end through a just and lasting settlement”.
“The United States stands only to gain from a reunited Cyprus that is peaceful, prosperous, and fully benefits from EU membership,” he said.
Koenig went on by saying that since 2008, the leaders of the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities have made important progress in the Cypriot-led negotiations under the auspices of the UN Good Offices Mission and coordinated by Special Advisor Alexander Downer.
He added that much more must be done to end the de facto division of the island and, while saying that this is a Cypriot-led process, he noted that the US will remain actively engaged.
“The status quo is unacceptable,” the new Ambassador said and noted that it threatens effective NATO-EU cooperation and affects regional stability, while it also remains an obstacle to Turkey’s EU accession process, supported by the US.
On bilateral relations, Koenig noted the increased investment by US companies in Cyprus, especially in the energy sector.
He also referred to the cooperation of the two sides to safeguard Cypriot cultural heritage, prevent pillaging, and stop the illegal trafficking and sale of antiquities.
Moreover, he said that Cyprus has been a generous host for an increasing number of US navy ship visits, which has driven growing cooperation in anti-terrorism and port security.
Koenig, while noting that the Republic of Cyprus is facing a number of challenges, referred to the rotating presidency of the EU, the European financial crisis, and the management of the newly discovered natural gas resources.
Although Cyprus has the third smallest economy in the EU, its financial sector is heavily exposed to Greek debt, he said and noted that, if confirmed, he will work closely with the Government of Cyprus to explore ways the United States can assist Cyprus as it seeks to meet these challenges.
Speaking further on energy issues, the Ambassador said that the US Administration recognizes the Republic of Cyprus’ right to develop its Exclusive Economic Zone.
“We believe that its oil and gas resources, like all of its resources, should be equitably shared between both communities in the context of an overall settlement,” he said.
He added that the discovery of natural gas underscores the urgent need for a settlement, but it need not hinder the talks.
During his address speech, Koenig said that he will be accredited to one government, that of the Republic of Cyprus, but added that he looked forward to engaging the Turkish Cypriot community.
“We need to maintain a constructive relationship with the Turkish Cypriot
Community,” the Ambassador said and added that we must continue to work with them to help prepare for reunification.
Presiding Chairwoman Senator Jeanne Shaheen said Cyprus was a vital ally and asked Koenig if the US administration is sending similar messages to the Turkish government, with the ones the members of the Senate have highlighted in a letter to President Obama concerning Turkey’s threats against Cyprus’ EEZ activity.
The Ambassador responded positively, by saying that this is happening in all levels.
Responding to a series of questions by Senator Robert Menendez, Koenig referred to the unwillingness of the Turkish Cypriot side to continue the inter-communal dialogue and said he saw no obstacle in restarting the talks immediately.
He added that the US does not endorse any arbitrary timetables in the talks, while he said he would seek to get more information on the issue of Anatolian settlers, in order to form an independent opinion.
Koenig finally said he would seek to meet with the leadership of the Cypriot community in the US.
Q & A WITH SENATORS SHAHEEN & MENENDEZ
SEN. SHAHEEN: Thank you.
Mr. Koenig, in your testimony you mentioned the new natural gas finds off the coast of Cyprus, and as I understand it the president of Cyprus has committed to sharing this resource with all Cypriots, including the Turkish Cypriot community.
And as you point out, this is another critical reason for the Greek and Turkish communities on Cyprus to come together to find a just resolution to the divisions in Cyprus. And unfortunately, Turkey has called on the major international oil and gas companies to withdraw their bids to seek a license for development of those gas deposits in Cyprus, saying it will not allow exploration to go ahead and threatening to ban those companies from Turkish energy projects.
Can you tell us whether you agree that the discovery of natural gas within Cypriot waters could, with some leadership, help to bring a resolution to the division in Cyprus, and can you put the Turkish response in context for us? Are you concerned that Turkey’s response will contribute to a further deterioration of relations between Turkey and Cyprus? And finally, how can the U.S. and our EU counterparts work to help as this situation unfolds?
MR. KOENIG: Thank you, Madame Chair. This is indeed a very important discovery and a very important new factor in the region, the presence of these resources in the offshore area in the eastern Mediterranean.
We believe that the existence of this new resource, these new riches in that region, should spur the parties to think of new ways of cooperation, and we very much appreciate President Christofias’s statements that he is interested in sharing this resource with all the people of Cyprus, with both communities. We see that as important to realizing the context of an overall settlement of the Cyprus issue.
With regard to our position on the EEZ and Cyprus’ right to exploit resources in the EEZ, we’ve been very clear, and I think that has helped a great deal in responding to the actions of others, including Turkey. Cyprus is exploiting these resources in a manner that is cooperative with Israeli. We recognize Cyprus’ rights to delimit the EEZ and to enter into such bilateral arrangements.
So the clarity that we have expressed on this, I think, has been unmistakable. We are very pleased to see that American companies, or the administration is very pleased to see that American companies are engaged in the exploration and development of these resources and other energy opportunities in Cyprus.
I believe the administration is committed to supporting these companies in their work, as we do with other companies interested in such situations, and if confirmed I will certainly support those efforts very energetically.
SEN. SHAHEEN: Also, can you elaborate a little more on Turkey’s reaction and what additional response might be needed, either to reassure the companies who would like to bid on these projects or Cyprus, that we’re serious about engaging on this issue and helping to make sure that the development can occur in the waters around Cyprus?
MR. KOENIG: Yes, Madame Chairman. The U.S. has engaged with — well, first let me say that the U.S. does not believe that any country in the region or any party involved in the situation on Cyprus should do anything to heighten tensions or to create new problems. The situation on Cyprus is already difficult enough. So we have been engaging with Turkey and with others on this very consistently and hope that our message is understood.
SEN. SHAHEEN: Thank you.
SEN. MENENDEZ: Mr. Koenig, I’m very interested in Cyprus. I have spent a good part of my time both on the House International Relations Committee and on this committee on this issue. Thirty-eight years of occupation and invasion is beyond the mind-set of anyone to believe that we would still be in this set of circumstances today.
And so this assignment, in my mind, is incredibly important to the national interests of the United States. Cyprus has been a good ally of the United States in critical times when we have needed them, including having refuge for our citizens at different times.
And so I want to get a sense from you, I listened to your responses earlier. Let me go through a series of questions. Number one, I assume that you believe that the solution to the Cyprus issue must be based on a Cypriot-run, Cypriot-determined basis and that our goal as with the Cypriots is to have a single sovereignty with an international personality; a single citizenship with independence and territorial integrity, safeguarded and comprising all of those elements that are relevant in security council resolutions.
Is that the view that you take with you to Cyprus if you are confirmed?
MR. KOENIG: Yes, sir, that is. These are the principles behind the bi-zonal, bi-communal federation as well.
SEN. MENENDEZ: Now, what do you view the two new conditions for talks laid out by Turkish Cypriot leader Eroglu two weeks ago that talks can only resume if there’s an introduction of deadline for negotiations in the lifting of embargoes placed on Turkish Cyprus.
MR. KOENIG: Sir, we don’t see any reason why talks can’t resume immediately. We don’t want to set artificial deadlines or anything like that. We think it’s important that the parties work toward a solution as soon as possible, but that there’s no need to impose artificial deadlines on these talks.
And these other issues regarding Turkish Cypriot contacts with the outside world, these are subjects that can also be discussed in the framework of these discussions that we would like to see resumed as soon as they can.
SEN. MENENDEZ: So I look at that view and then I look at the continuing colonization, I’ll call it, of northern Cyprus, and I’m sure that you’re aware that in 1974 the demographic composition of Cyprus was estimated to be about 506,000 Greek Cypriot, about 118,000 Turkish Cypriots.
Today, the demographic composition of the Republic of Cyprus is estimated to be 672,000 Greek Cypriots, 89,000 Turkish Cypriots, and 2(00,000) to 500,000 Turkish citizens transferred by Turkey to live permanently in Cyprus.
Do you feel that Turkey’s efforts to colonize the north constitutes a violation of article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states, quote, “The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its civilian population into the territory it occupies.”
MR. KOENIG: This is clearly a very, very important issue, sir, and it’s one of the tragic consequences of the division of the island the events of 1974 which all of us lament so greatly.
The administration sees the best way to resolve this issue as to actually achieve a settlement based on a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation, which would deal with the question of who really belongs on the island of Cyprus, who has an entitlement to citizenship, who —
SEN. MENENDEZ: (Inaudible) — tens of thousands of people who were never there, who have no history with the island of Cyprus, and I send them from Anatoly and elsewhere and there’s no family background, no roots, no hereditary background here, and all we have is an enormous transfer of people, how do we expect there ever to be a solution?
It seems to me that part of what we should be saying is that there should be a ceasing of the colonization of northern Cyprus, because if not, at the rate that we are going, it will almost make it impossible for us to work with the real Cypriot, in my mind, Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots, who I think if we left to their own devices, we’d have a solution here.
But if you’re going to get hundreds of thousands of people transferred, and at the rate we’re going that’s where we’re headed, then how do we achieve our goals here?
MR. KOENIG: Sir, I recognize that this is a very sensitive issue, a very big challenge. I would be very interested in knowing more about your views. If confirmed, I’d like to get out to the island and maybe we could discuss this further, and we could look at ways that we can be —
SEN. MENENDEZ: Well, let me, if I may, with the chair’s indulgence, let me ask you, are you aware that the Turkish leadership in the north has rejected the Council of Europe’s request to conduct an island-wide census to accurately determine the current demographic composition of the island’s population?
MR. KOENIG: Yes, I am aware of that.
SEN. MENENDEZ: So you’re aware that they have rejected that. Now, I can only assume that one would reject a census because the very essence of my question is the concern that is being driven here. Are you aware of recent press reports in the news which have thousands of remaining Turkish Cypriots demonstrating against Turkey, some of them actually carrying banners that I read, says, “Ankara, get your hands off of our shores.”
Are you aware of those press reports?
MR. KOENIG: Yes, sir, I’m aware of those press reports.
SEN. MENENDEZ: In addition to, you said earlier that you will only be credentialed to one country, and that is the Republic of Cyprus, the only one that is internationally recognized and the only one that we recognize as the United States, you did say that it’s important to have meetings with the Turkish community in the north.
Will you focus those meetings also with Turkish Cypriot groups?
MR. KOENIG: Yes, of course, sir. All of our efforts, all of these contacts are focused on our effort to support, on the administration’s effort to support reconciliation and reunification of the island.
SEN. MENENDEZ: Finally, if I may, Madame Chair, I am concerned that for some time you’re going to be the ambassador, there’s going to be a host of people who are there. I hope that when you become the ambassador you will come to your own independent conclusions.
In my many visits I have often found that there is somewhat of a historical bias here in which there is an inbred view versus looking at the view from where we are today, all of the pertinent factors considered.
So I hope when you become the ambassador, presuming that you get confirmed, that you will commit to the committee to go there with an independent view. Of course, you’ll have a staff to talk to, but I want to hear from you that you are going to approach these many issues that we have in Cyprus with a fresh, independent view, and while you may listen to the views of existing staff at the embassy you’re going to come to your own independent judgment as what is the set of circumstances that bedevils us after 38 years.
Is that something that we can get you to commit to the committee?
MR. KOENIG: Yes, Senator, of course. I will go there with an open mind and I will do my best to reach sound judgments based on everything that I learn there, and I also look forward to staying in touch with you and others on the committee to help me understand the Cyprus —