Diplomatic Courier: Ιnterview with Govt Spokesman Mr. Nikos Christodoulides
This past February, Russian armed forces invaded and later annexed the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine. This bold move shocked the world, but in reality this invasion was just a case of history repeating itself. A nearly identical scenario took place in Cyprus 40 years ago, and that event—like the division of Ukraine—has yet to find a resolution.
In July of 1974, Turkey illegally invaded Cyprus—purportedly in defense of the Turkish-Cypriot minority—and took control of more than 30 percent of the island. During the invasion, Turkey forcibly expelled Greek-Cypriots from their homes and segregated Cypriots along ethnic and religious lines. Today, Turkey continues to violate international law in its occupation of the north of Cyprus. But after decades of unsuccessful settlement talks, the Cyprus issue has finally started to gain momentum. Nestled between Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, and Libya, Cyprus occupies a valuable geostrategic position in the Mediterranean. Its location, coupled with the recent discovery of hydrocarbons in Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone, has catapulted the island into the spotlight, giving Cypriot allies such as the United States much to talk about.
The 30th Annual Cyprus and Hellenic Leadership Conference in Washington, DC recently brought together policy makers from Washington and Cyprus to discuss the political developments in the Eastern Mediterranean. Nikos Christodoulides, Spokesman for the Government of the Republic of Cyprus, acted as the keynote speaker. During his stay, Christodoulides met with a number of U.S. officials and with the Diplomatic Courier.
[Diplomatic Courier:] You mentioned in a briefing at the Capitol on July 15th that Turkish settlers currently living in the occupied area of Cyprus could easily be incentivized to return back to the Turkish mainland. What kind of incentives were you speaking of? [Nikos Christodoulides:] I believe that those people can easily go back. They know very well that they don’t belong in Cyprus. I was recently informed that in many cases before they die, settlers say, “in case I die, take me back to Turkey to be buried.” They want to go back to Turkey. It is worth pointing out that according to Turkish Cypriots, they do not have good relations with settlers, and they don’t want them to stay in Cyprus. I believe that the issue of the settlers can be easily solved if incentives are given to them. If, for example, Turkey gives them money, or property in Turkey, it will be easy to return.
[DC:] Turkey is generally unwilling to pay money for the resolution of the Cyprus issue—as evidenced by the refusal to pay a 19 million Euro ($124 million) fine to Cyprus imposed by the European Court of Human Rights. Why do you think Turkey would pay reparations for the settlers to return back to the mainland?
[NC:] Turkey currently has 43,000 soldiers in the occupied areas. It’s Turkey that is providing money to the illegal regime, allowing it to survive for the last 40 years. So in case of a solution, Turkey will no longer need to direct this money to occupied Cyprus and a lot of that money can be used for settlers. [DC:] Are the UN and the EU handling the situation as they should? Is Cyprus being adequately supported?
[NC:] The negotiations are taking place under the auspices of the UN. What we are saying is that Cyprus is a member of the European Union since 2004, and will continue to be a member after the solution. This means that the European Union needs to be part of the negotiation process. Not to replace the UN, but under the UN, to advise in order for the solution to be in line with EU law, the so-called acquis communautaire. As a member state of the European Union we have obligations towards the European Union that will continue to be in place after the solution. We need to be a functional member state, one that can effectively take part in the decision-making process of the European Union. The EU also wants to be present at the negotiating process. They don’t want a solution that might create a problem in the functioning of the EU, like for example in the decision making process. Turkey has so far been against the EU participating in the process in a complementary manner, but we will continue raising this point.
[DC:] Echoing the statements made by Vice President Biden on his visit to Cyprus, Deputy Secretary Ruben mentioned that the United States “is willing to do anything that is constructive and that will help.” Who decides what is constructive? What does a statement like this mean for Cyprus?
[NC:] Turkey is an important ally of the United States. We believe that the United States must impress upon Turkey the need to be actively involved in the negotiation process and should explain to Turkey that it is also in Turkey’s interest to solve the Cyprus problem. Turkey does not recognize Cyprus, so when we need to convey a message to Turkey, we mainly do so through other channels. The United States, amongst others, can help towards this direction. We believe that the United States has an important role to play. When Vice President was in Cyprus, he referred to Cyprus as a strategic partner of the United States, and said to President Anastasiades that the United States, at every opportunity, is conveying the message to Turkey that the Cyprus problem should be a priority, and that they should solve it as soon as possible. Because the developments in the area—and he was talking about energy—cannot wait for Turkey to solve the Cyprus problem. Either Turkey will solve the Cyprus problem now and be part of this energy transformation of the region, or Turkey will stay out and will incur a cost. That was the main message.
[DC:] How does Turkey’s political environment factor into current negotiations and into proceedings in the future? If both sides are able to reach an agreement, Cyprus will still be dealing with the same kind of Turkish political system. How do you think this plays into the issue?
[NC:] This question encapsulates the Cyprus problem. The Greek Cypriots’ concern is not related to Turkish Cypriots—we used to live with Turkish Cypriots and we don’t have a problem with them. Our concern, our problem, relates to Turkey.
In 2004, we had the Annan plan. Seventy six percent of Greek Cypriots voted no. The great majority of those people voted ‘no’ not only because of certain provisions of the plan, but also because they do not trust Turkey. We have learned not to trust Turkey due to Turkey’s actions in Cyprus. That’s why we have proposed a bold package of confidence-building measures, which includes Famagusta. We see this as a test for Turkey to show us that they really mean business. If Turkey responds, it will give a signal that they are committed to a solution. If they are not willing to take even this simple step, how can they be trusted?
An unstable Turkey creates problems in the efforts to find a settlement. That is why we have consistently supported Turkey’s EU bid. Because we cannot change geography. Turkey will always be there, a close neighbor. And we prefer to have a democratic neighbor, a neighbor that we don’t have problems with. It’s like your neighborhood, what would you prefer? To have a neighboring country that is causing problems? Or a country that you get along with? We want Turkey to join the European Union in order to solve the problem you have mentioned before.
[DC:] The discovery of natural gas in Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone has accelerated the process of reunification. The U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy mentioned recently that the oil companies are on a deadline and want to start drilling within the next year. Do you think the new international pressure to find a resolution 40 years later might lead both parties to put together a hurried resolution; a resolution that could hurt Cyprus down the line?
[NC:] We want the solution to the Cyprus problem more than anybody else. It is our country that is under occupation. An approach, according to which we have to solve the Cyprus problem in three months or six months or in some specific period, is doomed to fail. People will feel that the solution is being imposed on them, which will immediately make them suspicious. And if people become suspicious, they will vote against the proposal. Any solution, which shall be the result of the free will of the leaders, will, at the end of the day, be put to a referendum.
I understand what Amos [Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy Diplomacy] said, and we also consider the hydrocarbon’s prospect to be a strong incentive for Turkey to solve the Cyprus problem. It is obvious that if Turkey does not want to stay out of the emerging cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean region, in the field of energy but also in other fields, it must work for a solution. We expect Turkey, after the elections, to get actively involved in the negotiations in order to hopefully have a result.
[DC:] Do you have communication with anyone specific in the Turkish-Cypriot community?
[NC:] I have a lot of contact with ordinary Turkish-Cypriots, and I have a lot of Turkish-Cypriot friends. The problem in Cyprus is not a problem of Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots co-existing. It is a problem between Greek-Cypriots and Turkey. You know, history has unfortunately taught us not to trust Turkey. And we have not received any signals from Turkey that can help build trust. This is 90 percent of the Cyprus problem. Let’s say we find a solution. What Greek Cypriots would be most concerned about is whether Turkey will implement the solution. For example, will Turkey really withdraw its troops? Also, Greek Cypriots don’t want Turkey to continue to have guarantee rights because they say that Turkey might invade again, like it did in 1974. The issue is Turkey, a country with serious democratic deficiencies.
[DC:] When I was in Cyprus, I had the opportunity to speak with a few Cypriot university students. I asked, “Is a solution to the Cyprus issue something that is relevant to you? Is this something that you want?” Their response was a resounding “no.” Is this a contemporary issue? Or is this an issue for those who were there in 1974 to experience the event themselves? What is your perspective of youth involvement in finding a solution?
[NC:] I was born in December 1973. When the invasion happened I was six months old. I don’t have the experience of living with Turkish-Cypriots. My first experience with Turkish Cypriots was in 1993, when I came to the United States to study. It was the first time that I met a Turkish-Cypriot, and over time we became close friends. Between 2002 and 2006, when I served as Consul General of Cyprus at the High Commission in London, I had almost daily contacts with Turkish Cypriots.
The fact that there is very limited contact of the young generation from both communities is a negative incentive to the solution. Until 2003, it was impossible to cross from the occupied areas to the government controlled areas. Since 2003 and the partial lifting of the restriction, we have contacts between Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots. Everybody was expecting that immediately after it was lifted, there would be tension and problems. But not a single incident took place and that is telling. The younger generation does not want to visit the occupied areas mainly because they don’t have something to connect them with the occupied areas. They don’t have Turkish-Cypriot friends, so they don’t care about the Cyprus problem. The other problem is that people in Cyprus in general, and mainly the young people, do not believe it is possible to have a solution. Forty years later we are just discussing, and at the end of the day we do not achieve anything. And this brings me again to the confidence-building measures. It is a test for Turkey to gain the trust of the Greek-Cypriots. If confidence-building measures are implemented, people will believe that something is moving. That there is a possibility for a solution.
[DC:] But you believe in a solution?
[NC:] I really do. Had I not met a Turkish-Cypriot, I probably would not believe in a solution. But young Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots, because of the division, which is the result of the Turkish invasion and occupation, don’t have this opportunity. I think we can reach a solution once Turkey realizes that it stands to benefit from a solution, not because Turkey will think, “Oh, we did something wrong in Cyprus and it’s not right.” We live in an anarchic international system and each country is working to promote its own national interests. There are no friends in the international system; there are only interests. So I think energy is an important parameter that might cause Turkey think it has an interest in solving the Cyprus problem. This is a critical time. The next 1.5-2 years are critical for the Cyprus problem. The United States is very important in this equation because they can make the Turks understand that they have an interest in solving the Cyprus problem. And also, the United States is involved in the Cyprus problem because they also have an interest to do so. Not because they want to make the world a better place. That is a very romantic approach.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's September/October 2014 print edition.