- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 8, 2014


The U.S. erred in backing a U.N. plan for unifying Cyprus as a federation of two states instead of allowing the Turkish and Greek camps to work out an agreement on their own, the Greek Cypriot negotiator told The Washington Times.

“Everybody recognizes now that it was a mistake,” Greek Cypriot negotiator Andreas Mavroyiannis told editors and reporters at The Times in an exclusive interview.

The U.S. role now is “positive,” and it has acted “more as honest brokers and as friends of the process,” he said.

In a wide-ranging interview last week, Mr. Mavroyiannis discussed ongoing unification negotiations between the island nation’s Turkish-dominated north and Greek-run south, and the impact of the discovery of oil and natural gas reserves off the southern coast on the process as well as on relationships among regional neighbors.

Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot teams have been meeting regularly since unification talks restarted in February after a long stalemate.

Mr. Mavroyiannis described the series of meetings as a “screening process” that has “identified a lot of divergences” between the two sides.

“I want to caution against being overoptimistic, not because we are not determined, but we have not seen any concrete results yet,” he said. “We are still stuck in the beginning of the process.”

But the negotiator promoted the current process over the U.N. scheme — called the Annan Plan, after former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan — that the George W. Bush administration backed. Turkish Cypriots hailed it, but Greek Cypriots rejected it in a 2004 referendum.

Mr. Mavroyiannis said the talks have yet to produce tangible results and that both sides will have to work hard to seize a “window of opportunity.”

The two sides have agreed to establish a bizonal, bicommunal, nonaligned federation. They first will need to resolve issues such as property claims, territorial adjustments and security guarantees, as well as the issue of Turkish settlers who were encouraged by Turkish Cypriot authorities to settle in the northern part of the island.

These core differences can be resolved in a “matter of months,” Ozdil Nami, foreign minister of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, told The Times in March.

Mr. Mavroyiannis downplayed such optimism.

“It is too early to predict how long it will take,” he said. “At the same time, we all understand that there is a window of opportunity which will not last forever.”

Cyprus was divided into an internationally recognized Greek-speaking south and a Turkish-speaking north in 1974, when Turkey invaded following a coup by supporters of a union with Greece.

The scars from the split run deep.

Mr. Mavroyiannis was 18 when Turkish troops invaded Cyprus. His family was forced to relocate after their home in Nicosia was damaged by Turkish rockets; he joined the fight against the Turks.

Forty years later, former foes are sitting across the table from each other determined to unite their tiny island.

“It is our country,” Mr. Mavroyiannis said when asked what he considers as an incentive for unification.

Mr. Mavroyiannis met with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns while in Washington last week as part of periodic consultations the Obama administration has with both sides.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Monday reaffirmed the administration’s support for the Cypriot-led process and urged both sides to “make real and substantial progress toward reunifying the island as a bi-zonal/bi-communal federation.”

Ms. Psaki said both sides have shown the flexibility necessary to move the negotiations forward and that they must “seize a timely opportunity to make real and substantial progress.”

A previous round of negotiations to unite Cyprus stalled in mid-2012. That year, Cyprus‘ economy suffered because of its exposure to Greece’s recession-hit economy, and was forced to take an almost $14 billion international bailout to rescue its banking system.

In recent years, vast reserves of natural gas have been discovered in the eastern Mediterranean, especially in the area around Cyprus, Egypt, Israel and Lebanon.

Mr. Mavroyiannis said the gas discovery, mostly off the island’s southern coast, could serve as a catalyst for the reunification effort.

But the energy find also has sparked tensions. Turkish Cypriot officials complain that Greek Cypriots are violating a pledge to share natural resources and are undermining unification efforts by cutting deals with foreign companies for oil and gas exploration. The U.S. firm Noble Energy, for example, is involved in offshore drilling south of the island.

Greek Cypriot officials say their actions are in accordance with the letter and spirit of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Mr. Mavroyiannis ruled out discussing energy exploration with the Turkish Cypriot side at this point in the negotiations.

U.S. interest in the process is driven by the hope that the gas discoveries open “avenues of cooperation” and “restore at least a working relationship between Israel and Turkey,” Mr. Mavroyiannis said.

Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot officials agree that the energy reserves could forge a bond between Turkey and Israel — two U.S. allies in the region that have been at odds. This bond could be created with the construction of a gas pipeline that connects the eastern Mediterranean to Western Europe via Turkey.

Meanwhile, Cyprus‘ relationship with Russia, cemented by economic interests, has become strained since Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine last month.

Russia is “not very happy” about Cyprus‘ policy alignment with the European Union, Mr. Mavroyiannis said.

“In the current juncture, we diverge a lot. Because we have our own problems, we need to stand very strong when it comes to questions of respect of international law,” he said.

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