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Cyprus seeks greater role in Middle East diplomacy
JTA / February 20, 2004

By Larry Luxner

WASHINGTON Euripides Evriviades, the new Cypriot ambassador to the United States, greets Jewish visitors to his office with a hearty "Shalom!"

Evriviades, nicknamed Ivri by colleagues in Israel, speaks fluent Hebrew, and his office is filled with numerous tchochkes gathered during the three years he represented his country in Tel Aviv, from a bronze menorah to a Jerusalem ceramic clock with Hebrew letters.

With Cyprus poised to join the European Union in just over two months, Evriviades says the divided Mediterranean island which for years has played a behind-the-scenes role in Arab-Israeli peace talks is on the verge of resolving its own long-simmering ethnic dispute.

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 put aside their differences and achieve reunification in time for the island's May 1 entry into the EU.

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 since December. Before that, the jovial, wisecracking diplomat served in the Netherlands, and before that, he was assigned to Tel Aviv. He's also served in Libya, and speaks Greek, English, Hebrew, French, German and a little Russian.

In a recent interview, Evriviades said that for many years, Cyprus has acted as a go-between among its Arab and Israeli friends. To this day, Nicosia maintains strong relations with both sides and is less than one hour's flight from Tel Aviv, Beirut and Damascus.

"Our vision is to help both parties come back to the road map and push the process forward," he told JTA. "We have good relations with all states in the Middle East. Cyprus was the only country that has had an Israeli Embassy since 1960, though we also believe the Palestinians should have a state of their own."

Evriviades, 49, said that during the three years he spent in Tel Aviv, "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."

Cypriot-Israeli relations hit a low point in 1998, when two alleged Mossad agents were arrested near a military base along the southern coast; they were later charged with spying after police discovered listening equipment, a laptop computer, two cellphones, five recording devices and eight maps of Cyprus in their apartment.

The espionage charges were eventually dropped, though many Cypriots remain concerned about Israel's close military ties with Turkey.

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.

"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."

The ambassador added: "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."

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."

Evriviades, who seems to miss the time he spent in Tel Aviv, calls Israel a very good training ground.

"I learned how much of a difference it makes when you inject your public persona into the foreign-policy promotion of your country," said Evriviades, whose embassy does not hire outside lobbyists. "That makes a heck of a lot of difference, because 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."

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