Biden in Cyprus to push reunification, Russia sanctions
US Vice President Joe Biden was in Cyprus Thursday to encourage its leaders to intensify efforts to end the island's 40-year division and back threatened sanctions against Russia despite close ties.
Biden aimed to consolidate a sharp improvement in relations since the island’s conservative President Nicos Anastasiades took office last year pledging to forge a “strategic partnership” after decades of Greek Cypriot distrust of Washington.
For security reasons, the US vice president spent the night in the island’s second city Limassol after flying in on Wednesday evening.
But the streets of the capital Nicosia were already decked out in US flags ahead of his lunchtime meeting with Anastasiades at the presidential palace.
In the afternoon, Biden was to cross the UN-patrolled buffer zone that divides the island and its capital for talks in north Nicosia with Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu.
The breakaway state that Eroglu leads is recognised only by Turkey, whose troops occupied the island’s northern third in 1974, and Biden moved swiftly on his arrival to reassure Greek Cypriots that the meeting signalled no change in US policy.
Washington recognises only “one legitimate government” in Cyprus, that led by Anastasiades, he said.
“My visit and meetings throughout the island will not change that.”
Biden said he wanted to lend his support to the reunification which the rival Cypriot leaders relaunched in February but said the details of a settlement were for them to work out.
He said it was “long past time… that all Cypriots are reunited in a bizonal, bicommunal federation,” but added he had not come “to present or impose one.”
The international community has welcomed the new peace initiative, with greater input from Washington seen as enabling a breakthrough after two years of stalemate.
There has been no high-level US involvement in efforts to end the island’s division since Greek Cypriots rejected a UN reunification plan in a 2004 referendum.
– ‘Ghost town’ –
Anastasiades has been pushing for major concessions by both sides to build confidence before any new referendum on a comprehensive settlement.
In particular, he has been calling for the return of ghost town of Varosha — once the island’s premier tourist resort but emptied of its inhabitants and closed off by the Turkish army for the past 40 years.
The beachfront hotels famed once for hosting Hollywood stars including Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton have been crumbling for decades and Greek Cypriot media said the admission of international surveyors to prepare a master plan for their revival was high on the agenda.
But Eroglu and his supporters in Ankara have said repeatedly that the town can only be returned to its original Greek Cypriot inhabitants as part of a comprehensive settlement.
Biden, who flew in from Romania where he called for tough sanctions against Moscow if it interferes with a presidential election in Ukraine on Sunday, was also expected to press Anastasiades not to allow the island’s economic ties to get in the way of a united EU response.
“We have to be resolute and united in the face of Russian intervention,” he said.
The issue of harsher EU sanctions against Moscow is highly sensitive in Nicosia, where Russian investors have deposits worth billions of euros (dollars) in Cypriot banks.
Cyprus has underline that further sanctions could seriously damage its economy, already badly hit by the eurozone debt crisis, which forced Anastasiades to secure an international bailout in March 2013 that has led to a sharp recession.
Cyprus has forged close relations with Moscow for decades amid Greek Cypriot suspicion of Washington for its alleged collusion in the Turkish invasion which divided the island in 1974.
Exploiting untapped offshore gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean could be another talking point in Biden’s meetings as the Ukraine crisis highlights Europe’s dependence on Russian energy reserves.
Large reserves have been found off Cyprus and nearby Israel but their viable exploitation for export to Europe is seriously impeded by the island’s division and Ankara’s refusal to recognise the government led by Anastasiades.