The Washington Diplomat / March 2004
By Larry Luxner
Euripides Evriviades, the new Cypriot ambassador to the United States, says he's an optimist by nature. But for most of the past 40 years, a solution to the intractable "Cyprus problem" seemed hopeless — until now.
On Feb. 13, after months of delicate negotiations, Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos and Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash accepted a proposal by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to end their bitter dispute and achieve reunification in time for the island's May 1 entry into the European Union.
Under Annan's plan, the two sides will agree by Mar. 22 on reunification language that will be put to simultaneous referenda to take place Apr. 21 in both the Greek-speaking Republic of Cyprus, which is internationally recognized, and in the self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), which is recognized only by Turkey.
"Cyprus joining the EU has altered the whole matrix on the island itself, and in our immediate and wider region," said Evriviades. "I am much more optimistic now than I have ever been. It's a win-win scenario."
Evriviades has been Nicosia's man in Washington for only three months. Before that, the jovial, wisecracking diplomat served in the Netherlands, and before that, he spent three years in Tel Aviv as ambassador to Israel. He's also served in Libya, and speaks Greek, English, Hebrew, French, German and a little Russian.
In a recent interview with The Washington Diplomat, Evriviades said there's no question that his country's pending membership in the European Union has everything to do with a sudden desire by both sides to resolve the long-simmering issue.
"I'm sure the overwhelming majority of Turkish Cypriots want to enter the EU, because this is where the future is. If, God forbid, there is no solution by May 1, then Cyprus as a subject of international law will accede to the EU and Turkey will be illegally occupying EU territory."
Despite its relative prosperity, Cyprus has a recent history of bitterness and tension.
In 1964, the UN sent peacekeepers to the island following ethnic flareups between the Greek Cypriots, who are predominantly Christian Orthodox, and Turkish Cypriots, who are predominantly Muslim
Ten years later, in the wake of a pro-Greek coup seeking to unify Cyprus with Greece, Turkey seized the northern 37% of the island, proclaiming it the TRNC in 1983.
For years, only UN personnel were allowed to cross the heavily armed dividing line, which cuts right through downtown Nicosia. Last year, however, that changed when Denktash "very reluctantly lifted restrictions on movement, following persuasive recommendations from Ankara," said Evriviades.
"It was right after a meeting at The Hague, and of course it was clear to all that Turkey bore most of the blame for the collapse of those talks," he said, noting that Denktash, 78, had refused to allow his people to vote on Annan's earlier plan for a single state with Greek and Turkish Cypriot federated regions.
Yet Evriviades countered the notion that the two groups will never get along with each other.
"In a country of less than one million people, we have had since last April close to 2 million visits back and forth the dividing line, incident-free. It's a myth that the moment Greek and Turkish Cypriots see each other, they want to kill each other and drink each other's blood. There are many human stories showing that this is not the case."
While the free movement of people is certainly a good thing, said Evriviades, the Cypriot government does not encourage its citizens to visit what it calls occupied territory.
"We do not like people going across the dividing line and using hotels and other establishments that once belonged to Greek Cypriot refugees," said. "At the same time, people do want to visit their ancestral homes."
For years, there was little progress on Cyprus. But then, in August 1999, a massive earthquake measuring 7.4 on the Richter scale struck Turkey, killing 13,000 and injuring 26,000. The Greek government rushed aid to its longtime enemy, and that's when Greek-Turkish relations began to thaw.
"It's a little macabre to talk about earthquake diplomacy, but that certainly brought Turkey and Greece closer together," said the ambassador. "In the case of Cyprus, this friendship will be cemented even more if there's a solution on Cyprus based on the rule of law."
Evriviades, 49, was born in Larnaca in 1954, when Cyprus was still a British colony (it achieved independence in 1960). He earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of New Hampshire in 1976. He also holds a master's degree in public administration from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, which he attended as a Fulbright scholar.
Besides his academic and diplomatic pursuits, Evriviades has an avid interests in the arts, especially music, as well as antiquities and cartography. The ambassador is particularly proud of his collection of antique maps of Cyprus, some of which are displayed in his embassy office on R Street.
The diplomat's dream is that one day soon, the map of Cyprus will no longer have an ugly line running across its length, signifying the demarcation line between what he calls "free Cyprus" and "occupied Cyprus." At present, that line runs right through downtown Nicosia, the world's last divided city.
"The signals are very mixed. We keep hearing about Turkey's desire to move forward, but at the same time, the proof is in the pudding," he said. "We're very optimistic because Cyprus wants to join the EU, so does Turkey, and Greece is already there. All of share the same vision."
Contrary to what some people believe, Cyprus wants to see Turkey admitted as the EU's first predominantly Muslim nation.
"It is in our interests to have a giant like Turkey behave predictably, and not be in an identity crisis," said Evriviades, adding that "ultimately, I do believe that Cyprus, Israel, Greece and Turkey are in the same strategic boat."
It should surprise no one that Cyprus doesn't have diplomatic relations with Turkey, though he says "I did go to Istanbul recently as a member of a Cypriot delegation to attend an international conference. I would very much like to establish warm relations with my Turkish counterpart in Washington."
Osman Ertug, who represents the Turkish Cypriot entity in Washington, sees things differently.
Writing on the TRNC's official website, he says the fact that the international community in general, and the EU in particular, grant diplomatic recognition to the Greek Cypriot administration "is a political act that has nothing to do with the legitimacy of the case or the rule of law."
"Such legitimacy, in order to exist, has to have the Turkish Cypriots on board," according to Ertu. "The EU, by processing the unilateral application of the Greek Cypriot administration for membership, has in fact flouted the rule of law on Cyprus. If I were in the shoes of the Greek Cypriot officials who boast of having the international community and the EU on their side, I would instead concentrate on winning the hearts and minds of the Turkish Cypriots by recognizing their equal rights and status in a new partnership. This is the way to reconciliation in Cyprus."
Nevertheless, the TRNC lobbying office on K Street carries little weight at the White House or in Congress, where Evriviades says he formed excellent relations with both Democrats and Republicans.
"This is a bipartisan issue, and we want it to stay that way," said Evriviades, emphasizing that at at the moment, relations with the United States are "perfect."
At the moment, the Cypriot Embassy doesn't have lobbyists on its payroll, though in the past, Piper Rudnick has done some public-relations work for the island.
"The best lobbyist for any country is the ambassador," says Evriviades. "Once you have a good infrastructure and true believers in the cause, they are the best lobbyists."
Aside from its internal divisions, Cyprus is a relatively prosperous country, with a thriving maritime and offshore banking sector, and healthy exports of olives, wines and the island's famous haloumi cheese. The country's annual per-capita income of $15,000 is the second-highest (after Slovenia) of the 10 nations slated to join the EU on May 1.
As such, Cyprus will be a net contributor rather than a financial burden on the EU. It will not adopt the euro as its official currency until 2006 or 2007, though Cyprus should start seeing the benefits of EU membership almost immediately.
"I think the major hallmark of the EU, psychologically, is the security that comes from joining," said Evriviades. "It has been a very successful experiment in Europe, despite the shortcomings, and it can also be for the people of Cyprus as a whole. Even though the EU is not NATO, it does provide security, and security nowadays is not simply defined in terms of defense."
He added: "Cyprus becoming a member of the EU also ushers in new vistas of cooperation on the bilateral front as well. Cyprus will be part of the transatlantic relationship, though it's logical that with so many things on the international agenda, Cyprus doesn't get the attention it deserves."
One area where Cyprus has gotten attention is the unusual role it often plays as a go-between between Israel and the Arab world; Nicosia maintains strong relations with both sides and is less than one hour's flight from either Tel Aviv, Beirut or Damascus.
"Our vision is to help both parties come back to the road map and push the process forward. We have good relations with all states in the Middle East. Cyprus was the only country that has had an Israeli Embassy since 1960, and we also believe the Palestinians should have a state of their own."
Evriviades said that during the three years he spent as Nicosia's ambassador in Israel, "we were very much involved in second-track diplomacy. We arranged meetings between the Fatah and Likud in Cyprus. Shimon Peres went to Cyprus and from there launched his Young Leaders Network. And during the [May 2002] stalemate at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Cyprus agreed to bring 13 Palestinians on Israel's most-wanted list to Cyprus and then disperse them to various countries. After 38 days, we diffused that crisis on the 11th hour, at the 59th minute."
The ambassador, who seems to miss the time he spent in Tel Aviv, calls Israel a very good training ground.
"In some ways, life here in Washington is not as intense as in Israel, but for a Cypriot ambassador, you feel like Alice in Wonderland, where you cannot run fast enough even to stay in the same place," he said.
"I learned how much of a difference it makes when you inject your public persona into the foreign-policy promotion of your country. That makes a heck of a lot of difference, becuase Israel is a very intense, complex, fascinating country, and everybody is vying for attention. Israel taught me how to do that, which is very useful for what I'm trying to accomplish here in Washington."
Evriviades doesn't know how long his government will keep him here, but he says his professional ambition is to be the Cypriot ambassador to Ankara — one day very soon.
"I would love Cyprus to become like anywhere else," he said. "I have no problem with that, and I'm looking forward to that day."