US Vice President Biden makes historic Cyprus visit

Photo: US Vice President Biden makes historic Cyprus visit / Turkey

In a historic move US Vice President Joe Biden is traveling to Cyprus to meet with Greek Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC) President Derviş Eroğlu, making Biden the most senior US official to visit the island since then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson's visit in 1962, Today's Zaman reported.

According to diplomatic sources Biden will meet with Eroğlu in his presidential office on Thursday. This meeting in the KKTC will also mark a historic first, as the KKTC is not officially recognized by the US. According to the Greek Cypriot press, Biden's planned meeting with Eroğlu has caused concerns on the Greek Cypriot side as the meeting could be interpreted as US recognition of the KKTC.

Cyprus is divided into a Turkish north and an internationally recognized Greek south. The KKTC is recognized only by Turkey, which does not recognize the Greek Cypriot administration. The leaders of Turkish and Greek Cyprus met in Nicosia in Feb. 11, following intense diplomatic efforts by the US and Turkey.

Biden is not expected to push for a solution in Cyprus or to press the two sides for a settlement during his visit. But he is expected to announce US financing for the reconstruction of Varosha (Maraş), an abandoned city that has been fenced off since the Turkish military intervention on the island in 1974. According to a source who wished to remain anonymous, the US will initially contribute $1 million to establish a delegation to work on a "feasibility survey" for Varosha.

"A US vice president's visit after 52 years is a positive move. We hope that it will add momentum to the Cyprus negotiations," KKTC President Erdoğlu's special advisor and spokesperson Osman Ertuğ told Today's Zaman. He also said that Biden's visit had attracted international attention to the island and made it more visible as well as showing the US's interest in a comprehensive solution in Cyprus.

On the Varosha issue, Ertuğ said they cannot afford to waste time on it, as it might take five years to reach a solution there. He recalled that the Turkish Cypriots would like a solution before the end of this year.

"Varosha can only be part of a comprehensive solution," Ertuğ added.

The US administration is pushing for progress in Varosha as part of confidence-building measures between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots.

Biden will be leaving the island on Friday morning.

According to the Cyprus Mail, a senior White House official said, in a conference call from Washington, "The Vice President intends to see Mr. Eroğlu and to discuss with him how we can all work together, the Turkish Cypriot community, the Greek Cypriot community and the international community that supports them, to work towards a settlement."

In addition to meeting with Greek Cypriot leader Anastasiades and KKTC President Eroğlu, Biden will meet with members of civil society groups, politicians, businesspeople and religious leaders.

"The Vice President sees the cooperation and dialogue by religious leaders as a positive example of the kind of trust, reconciliation and respect that can be built across divides," said the senior White House official.

According to diplomatic sources, Biden will also talk about the possibility of stronger sanctions against Russia over Ukraine.

"He will want to be able to consult on what costs will be able to be imposed if Russia continues to take steps to destabilize the situation in Ukraine. Obviously, we are aware of and understanding of the exposure of Cyprus to Russian economic activity and Russian economic pressure, but we believe that a sanctions regime can continue to be enforced and frankly bolstered if it comes to that on Russia, without imposing unnecessary costs on Cyprus," the White House official said, according to Cyprus Mail.

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay said on Wednesday that Biden's visit to Cyprus is very positive, adding that Turkey has always played a constructive role in the Cyprus issue. Stressing that the negotiations in Cyprus are becoming productive, Atalay said any positive contribution from the US administration and the European Union will be appreciated by Turkey. He said the Turkish government will follow Biden's arrival in Cyprus and meeting with KKTC President Eroğlu closely.

Atalay added that Turkey is "hopeful" about the negotiation process.

"The Vice President will emphasize the United States' strong support for a comprehensive settlement to reunify the island as a bizonal, bicommunal federation with political equality. The Vice President will urge all parties on the island to intensify their work on behalf of peace and security in the region, and stress the important role that all citizens can play in promoting mutual understanding between the two communities," the White House press office said in a statement issued on Tuesday.

According to various sources, the US administration believes that Cyprus can play a key role in achieving regional peace and security in the eastern Mediterranean.

Natural gas off the shore of Cyprus is another factor that pushed Biden to visit the island, sources said. The eastern Mediterranean has risen to importance due to the natural gas reserves explored by Israel and Greek Cyprus, and it is believed that the region holds reserves sufficient to supply Europe's energy needs for decades and thus break Russia's monopoly on the energy sector. According to energy experts, a settlement in Cyprus will turn the eastern Mediterranean into a new and reliable source of energy for international markets.

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