Interview with Ambassador Pavlos Anastasiades
By Alan Dessoff
Celebrating 50 years of independence, and with an archaeological history that dates back 9,000 years, the Republic of Cyprus is looking to its future with one overriding political objective: Reunification of the Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots who share the island nation that is about half the land size of the state of Connecticut.
Ending Turkey’s occupation, since 1974, of 37 percent of the island’s territory is “the most important issue for us. It is of burning concern. It defines the essence of our policy and national priorities,” states Ambassador Pavlos Anastasiades, who arrived in Washington and presented his credentials to President Barack Obama in September 2010.
While he is hopeful that the objective will be achieved, several rounds of talks between the island’s two main Cypriot communities have failed so far to lead to any positive development. Anastasiades maintains that is due to the Turkish side’s intransigence and continuing effort to partition the island by means of maintaining an occupation army of 40,000 soldiers and by colonization of the occupied part of Cyprus with more than 80,000 settlers from Anatolia.
“It is something we can not allow to continue forever. The people of Cyprus want to end it. They have been suffering violations of their human rights for so many years,” says Anastasiades. He points out that nearly 200,000 Greek Cypriots — 40 percent of the total Greek population — were forced to leave their homes in the occupied area and have become “refugees in their own country.”
The Ambassador cites his hometown, Famagusta. “I was born there, grew up there, went to school there,” he says, but “I have not been back.” A large part of it has been fenced off and other parts have been colonized, he says. “It is a tragic situation. You have a city rotting there. It is a ghost town now. Its inhabitants are not allowed to return.”
To address both the situation in Famagusta and the overall occupation, Cypriot President Demetris Christofias has proposed that the walled area of Famagusta be placed under United Nations administration for reconstruction and restoration. Within the walls is the old medieval city of Famagusta, where Shakespeare’s “Othello” was set. “The old medieval Famagusta is part of the common heritage of Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Putting it under the UN for reconstruction would make it politically more acceptable,” Anastasiades says, adding that the Cyprus government would fund the reconstruction with support from international sources “that would wish to help.” He notes that the U.S. Congress, in the 1980s, authorized a “substantial amount for reconstruction whenever we have a solution.”
The proposal for Famagusta includes opening its port and placing it under the auspices of the European Union, which would enable Turkish Cypriots to “trade legally with the world,” Anastasiades continues. That can not happen now, he explains, because its location, in the occupied area of Cyprus, means it is not under control of the country’s legal government.
Placing the port under EU auspices would provide an added benefit for the Turkish Cypriot community, Anastasiades says. “To reconstruct Famagusta would require billions of dollars of material that would be expected to come through the port, so it would provide a huge economic infusion” for the Turkish Cypriots, he says.
“The proposal would be beneficial for everyone concerned. It is a win-win situation,” he declares. Even though the Turkish Cypriot leadership has not accepted it, “it is still on the table. It is a significant confidence-building measure that would show that we can work together. It would change the whole political climate.”
While its major political problem remains unresolved, Anastasiades points out that Cyprus’s economy has remained “very robust,” even in the face of “a severe global economic and financial crisis.” It has impacted Cyprus in a “secondary way,” the Ambassador says, acknowledging that “we suffer the effects of the downturn in major markets,” especially in western and northern Europe.
He cites Great Britain as an example. Cyprus has close trade and tourist relations with the United Kingdom and much of its real estate market is influenced by what happens there, he explains. The downturn in the UK’s economy has caused a drop in the number of tourists coming to Cyprus, where tourism provides the most national income. Similarly, Cyprus’s real estate market has been impacted because of reduced interest by British and other northern European buyers in coming to Cyprus and investing in its real estate.
Still, “our financial situation is healthy and robust. We don’t have the problems others have had,” Anastasiades says, although “we have experienced the after-effects” of the economic problems in other countries. It has been reflected in Cyprus in a drop in the rate of growth and increases in the country’s budget deficit and unemployment.”
The budget deficit has “created difficulties for a certain strata of the population” but Cyprus has taken measures to combat it. “It is important that we return to a budget deficit that is within the limit of what the Eurozone demands. We estimate that within two or three years, we will be within three percent of that. Being a member of the Eurozone is an important safeguard for Cyprus. We have not faced the uncertainties that other small states perhaps have face,” Anastasiades maintains.
While financial services and its maritime industry — Cyprus is among the world’s top 10 shipping countries — are the mainstays of its economy, Anastasiades says the Cyprus economy is fundamentally service-oriented, with a professional workforce including accountants and lawyers. Its location and its network of relations and agreements with many countries in the Middle East and Europe make Cyprus “a robust and important international business center,” Anastasiades says. “And people speak English,” he adds.
Although it has become more service-oriented, Cyprus essentially has been an agricultural-based economy, and maintains significant agricultural activity for its “social significance; we want to maintain incentives for some of the population to stay in the countryside,” Anastasiades says.
He cites the country’s “niche” products, notably Halloumi cheese and Cypriot wines. New archaeological evidence reveals that winemaking on the island dates back some 5,500 years. “Cyprus: Culinary Crossroads of the Mediterranean” was the subject of a December lecture at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, in collaboration with the Smithsonian Associates, as an extended celebration of the country’s anniversary of its 50 years of independence. The Smithsonian exhibition, “Cyprus: Crossroads of Civilization,” which opened last September and will be on view in the Museum of Natural History through May 1, features the largest collection of Cypriot antiquities, coins and other artifacts that the country ever put together and sent abroad, to date it has drawn more than one million visitors, Anastasiades reports.
While Cyprus prides itself on its rich historical and cultural heritage and its modern economic and financial strengths, its unresolved political problem with Turkey underscores its concerns. Anastasiades has met in Washington with Turkish Ambassador Namik Tan. “We had a very civil meeting. There was no problem in establishing a relationship with him,” Anastasiades says.
Similarly, Cyprus’s relations with the United States “are good, on a very high level. One country may be large and the other small, but we have been valued partners,” he says. Although there is no special U.S. envoy in Cyprus now, “the U.S. maintains interest in Cyprus. It supports reunification, supports ongoing negotiations, wants very much to see a resolution of the problem,” Reunification of Cyprus and safeguarding the country as an independent state, free from foreign domination, are “very consistent with the values of the U.S. and also with U.S. strategic interests,” he declares.
He says he will seek to “deepen and widen” the relationship between the countries, particularly on security, economic and energy issues, and “hopefully get a Visa waiver.” Also, “we want to become more well-known in the U.S.”
He underscores that his principal mission in Washington is to “do what I can” with the Administration, Congress, the media and “the wider community of the America people” to assist in the overall effort to end the occupation and to reunify Cyprus. “It is a terrible injustice that has been going on for 37 years,” Anastasiades says. During that time, he points out, “so many other seemingly intractable problems, like the Berlin Wall and Ireland, have been resolved.”
The blame for the continuing division in Cyprus rests with Turkish leaders in Ankara, he asserts, “because they are the dominant power, economically and politically, in the occupation of Cyprus. They have more than 40,000 heavily armed troops there. They really call the shots. Unfortunately, Turkey does not recognize Cyprus and chooses not to have direct communication with us,” he says.
“If Turkey took the position to engage constructively in moving negotiations forward, it would be of great benefit. There are constructive ways of meeting the fundamental concerns of basic human rights without undermining the basic common objective — a bi-zonal, bi-communal declaration with political equality; with a single, international personality, a single sovereignty, a single citizenship. Within that framework, we can find solutions to meet the concerns of both sides.'
“Cyprus is a small island, too small to be divided, but it is large enough to accommodate all its people. There are more things that unite Cypriots than divide them,” Anastasiades exclaims.
“This is our top priority. Nothing else matters as much to us. We remain at the negotiating table and hope the Turkish Cypriot side and Ankara will respond positively. If I see that question resolved satisfactorily during my term of duty here, I will be ecstatic,” Ambassador Anastasiades concludes.