- The Washington Times - Monday, February 20, 2006

The United States is preparing to begin direct trade with northern Cyprus for the first time since it was occupied by Turkey three decades ago, including steps opposed as “creeping recognition” by the Greek-Cypriot government in Nicosia.

The American government and U.S. companies already are working with the Turkish Cypriots to bring the sanitary working conditions and the business practices of potential exporters up to world standards, U.S. officials said.

“We are laying the foundation,” said one State Department official, who explained that the United States sees easing the isolation of northern Cyprus as the best way to reunify the island.

“We provide direct aid to facilitate direct trade. Economic disparity is pretty big between the north and the south right now. To unify, you need to mitigate those disparities.”

Like all U.S. officials interviewed for this article, he spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Northern Cyprus has been virtually isolated since Turkish troops occupied the territory in 1974, one week after a Greek-backed coup in Nicosia. Turkey still provides an economic lifeline to the north and is the only country to recognize the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) government.

The Greek-Cypriot government agrees that economic, business and social ties with the Turkish Cypriots should be encouraged, but opposes direct contact with the political leaders of the north at a time when the United States, Britain and other European countries are seeking to end that isolation.

Washington and London have called for permitting direct trade to pass through northern Cypriot ports, while Nicosia wants the goods to be taken by truck to southern ports controlled by the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus government.

Opening ports in the north would be de facto recognition of a Turkish-Cypriot state, said Euripides Evriviades, the Cypriot ambassador in Washington.

Meetings with Turkish-Cypriot political leaders pose the same problem, he said, referring to British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw’s insistence last month on meeting with Turkish-Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat at his office.

Mr. Evriviades said such contact “downgrades the legitimacy of our government and upgrades the legitimacy of the TRNC.”

But U.S. officials sided with Mr. Straw, rejecting the notion that a visit with Mr. Talat or dealing with his government means legitimizing the breakaway republic. A U.S. official who plans to visit northern Cyprus this year said he, too, would meet Turkish-Cypriot officials.

“We do not — and his administration will not — recognize the so-called TRNC,” a State Department official said. “We don’t want two separate states. We want a unified island. Nothing we do should be seen as creeping recognition.”

He said the Turkish Cypriots “made serious concessions in the Annan plan” to reunify the island in a 2004 referendum and “need some sort of a reward or a sign that what they did was good to shore up their political positions.”

The Greek Cypriots rejected the plan, sponsored by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, days before joining the European Union, angering both the United States and Europe. The entire geographic space of Cyprus is now part of the European Union, but the union treaty is suspended in the north.

Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos and Mr. Annan are scheduled to meet in Paris on Feb. 28 to resume negotiations on reunification.

Turkey, which began talks to join the European Union in the fall, has an obligation to open its ports to Greek-Cypriot ships and aircraft. On Friday, Cyprus threatened to veto Ankara’s membership if it fails to meet the EU requirement.

Mr. Evriviades said the United States “has been looking at Cyprus through the prism of its strategic relations with Turkey — a pivotal secular Muslim country.”

He described the United States, Britain and Turkey as “three overlords” who are squeezing the Greek Cypriots.

“It’s almost neocolonialism,” the ambassador said. “With those overlords, we don’t stand a chance.”

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