The Washington Diplomat / March 2000
By Larry Luxner
For a Puerto Rico-sized island in the eastern Mediterranean with only 780,000 people, Cyprus sure makes a lot of noise. That's because it's been at the focal point of a bitter rivalry between two powerful NATO allies -- Greece and Turkey -- ever since the island's forcible division over 25 years ago.
Yet things are changing.
Cypriot Ambassador Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis says that in the wake of devastating earthquakes in both countries last year, the Greeks and Turks are finally warming up to each other. That development, along with the European Union's decision to consider Turkey for eventual EU membership -- a path Cyprus itself has already taken -- could lead to a real solution to the perennial "Cyprus problem" sooner rather than later.
"As we have already moved into the 21st century and the new millennium," said the ambassador, "we see the wonderful prospects of an enlarged EU encompassing an inclusive Europe of north and south, east and west, without the artificial divisions of the past, to which Cyprus will form an integral part, contributing its share to the rich mosaic of cultural diversity as well as to the stablity and prosperity of Europe."
Hopeful words for a diplomat whose country has been divided for half her life.
Kozakou-Marcoullis, 51, assumed her current duties in Washington in September 1998, taking over the post from predecessor Andros A. Nicolaides. Before that, she was ambassador to Sweden, with simultaneous accreditation to Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and the three Baltic states.
"This is a very different post from the previous ones I've had," says Kozakou-Marcoullis, one of only eight female ambassadors in Washington. "The United States is the most important country in the world for Cyprus, considering the fact that we count a lot on the U.S. to find a solution to the Cyprus problem."
Kozakou-Marcoullis speaks Greek, English, French and Finnish -- not to mention a smattering of Turkish and Russian -- and enjoys painting and writing poetry.
Despite her rather long hyphenated last name, the ambassador says she's proud of her husband, George Marcoullis -- a doctor at New York Medical College -- whom she met when both were 16 years old and married in 1970. The couple has one 22-year-old son, Panos, a student of political science and chemistry at the University of Michigan.
The embassy she heads is quite small, as befits a rather small country. Only three diplomats inhabit the four-story building on R Street, though a fourth is coming in March.
Being a woman in a male-dominated field isn't easy, says Kozakou-Marcoullis, but she adds that "I think we're making a difference. The environment here in the United States is very positive as far as equality of the sexes is concerned. The fact that Mrs. Albright heads the State Department is very significant."
At the moment, she says her most difficult challenge is "the political problem of the forcible division" of her country, a situation that has its roots in Turkey's Ottoman Empire, which conquered Cyprus in 1571 and ruled it for over three centuries.
In 1878, as the empire began crumbling, the Congress of Berlin placed the island under British administration. Just as the First World War erupted in 1914, Cyprus was annexed outright by Great Britain. Eleven years later, the island became a British crown colony -- a status that remained until 1960, when the Republic of Cyprus achieved full independence under an agreement that included guarantees of the rights of both Greek and Turkish Cypriots.
The accord also prohibited either political union with Greece (an option backed by Greek Cypriots but strongly opposed by the Turks), or partition of Cyprus into two separate republics.
Yet following independence, the Greek Cypriot majority curtailed the rights of the country's Turkish citizens, launching what the Turks say was a violent campaign to force Turkish inhabitants into fleeing. In 1964, UN peacekeeping forces had to be sent in to quell the worsening communal violence. The situation finally exploded on Jul. 15, 1974, when a military coup by officers favoring union with Greece deposed the Makarios government. Five days later, Turkey invaded Cyprus and occupied the northern two-fifths of the island. The following year, the Turkish government announced a de facto partition of Cyprus.
In 1983, the Turkish sector proclaimed its independence as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus -- though not one country in the world outside of Turkey has officially recognized the TRNC.
Of the island's 780,000 inhabitants, between 85,000 to 90,000 live in the Turkish-occupied zone. Following the 1974 invasion, an estimated 170,000 Greek Cypriots were forcibly expelled, and thousands of Turks from Anatolia were brought in to populate the area. Today, the island's ethnic breakdown is 84.7% Greek, 12.3% Turkish and 3% foreigners. At least 60,000 Cypriots are living in the United States, most of them Greek Cypriots in the New York metropolitan area.
On May 23, Greek and Turkish negotiators will meet in New York for a third round of so-called "proximity talks" aimed at reunification of the island. The second round ended in Geneva on Feb. 8 with some progress being made, though a direct meeting between Cypriot President Glafcos Clerides and TRNC leader Rauf Denktash still remains unlikely.
Kozakou-Marcoullis says this Turkish intransigence will not only hurt Cyprus but also Turkey's own application for membership in the EU.
"Turkey continues to maintain a very hard line as far as Cyprus is concerned, by insisting on a solution that is outside the framework of the UN, seeking recognition of this illegal entity, and trying to change the basis of the solution from a bizonal, bicomunal federation to a confederation of two separate states," she said.
"We regret the fact that, despite the emergence of this new climate, the Turkish side has maintained its negative attitude on Cyprus, which is at odds with the international consensus regarding a solution," she continued. "Its unacceptable demands for recognition of a separate 'state' in the occupied area and its insistence on a confederation solution -- which aims at the destruction of Cyprus as a single sovereign and independent state -- are not conducive to moving the peace process forward."
She adds: "I strongly believe that the solution to the Cyprus problem would benefit the United States and its friends in the region, like Israel. Why? Because Israel would prefer to live in a more stable environment. Any crisis in Cyprus would spread and have repercussions throughout the whole area."
Meanwhile, Kozakou-Marcoullis is focusing her efforts on winning Cypriot membership in the EU, a goal that seems far more achievable in the immediate future.
"Since 1972, Cyprus has had an association agreement with the EU, and a protocol was signed in 1987 for a customs union. In 1980, we applied for membership in the EU, and accession negotiations began in 1988, along with five other candidates: Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia and Estonia. Turkey remains only a candidate."
Kozakou-Marcoullis -- who predicts full-fledged EU membership for her country by 2003 at the latest -- told The Washington Diplomat that Cyprus "is ahead of all the other candidate countries," boasting inflation and unemployment rates of under 3% and a growth rate exceeding 5% a year. In fact, Cyprus's 1999 GDP of just over $11 billion translates into a per-capita income of around $14,000 (compared to under $4,000 in the Turkish-occupied area).
According to The Economist magazine, Cyprus ranks 15th worldwide in terms of per-capita income level in purchasing power parities -- above even such countries as the United Kingdom, Italy, Australia and Israel.
Last year, U.S. exports to Cyprus came to $165 million, while Cypriot exports to the United States totaled $30 million -- including portland cement, clothing, footwear and halloumi cheese. Major U.S. firms using Cyprus as a base of operations include Raychem, Coca-Cola, NCR and the Associated Press. The ambassador's office is trying to boost those ranks, and on Feb. 29 held a seminar in Boston aimed at getting U.S. multinationals and venture capitalists to bring high-technology industries to Cyprus.
On another front, Kozakou-Marcoullis is very much involved in the arts, and on Apr. 3 will officially open the new Cypriot Galleries at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. The permanent exhibit will comprise some 600 of the finest sculpture, bronze and terracotta works from the museum's Cesnola collection, dating from 2500 B.C. to 300 A.D.
Asked what she'll do when her four-year term is up in 2002, Kozakou-Marcoullis says she isn't sure -- but insists that for now, she has no higher political aspirations.
"I have always enjoyed what I'm doing," says the diplomat. "For me, it's not a profession. It's a mission that I fully enjoy."