An Interview with Ambassador Andreas Kakouris
By Hugh S. Galford
For Andreas Kakouris, Cyprus’ dynamic and energetic new ambassador to Washington, Cyprus represents “the EU’s lighthouse in the Mediterranean.” The Middle East, he says, is a very important area, and is only a half-hour’s flight time from the EU, given Cyprus’ accession on May 1, 2004. Cyprus, he says, “has value-added status in the region. Look at the situation in Lebanon last year. Cyprus took in 60,000 foreign nationals who needed safe passage, including 15,000 Americans. We were called upon to play an important role, we did, and we would do so again.”
Given its past and its relations with the peoples of the region, Cyprus has on occasions played a supporting role in the international community’s efforts in the Middle East peace process, by engaging in track-two diplomacy. A gateway to three continents, a member of the EU, and a reliable partner in the war on terror, Kakouris noted that “you can only imagine the role a reunited Cyprus could play.”
Ambassador Kakouris’ overarching concern is to find a Cyprus settlement and end the occupation of the northern third of Cyprus by Turkish troops. “The key to the solution of the Cyprus problem is in Ankara,” Kakouris says. The 1974 Turkish invasion and occupation resulted in over 160,000 Greek Cypriots becoming refugees in their own country. The dislocation of the Cypriot people “was the first time that Cypriots were forcibly divided along ethnic lines. If you look at a map of Cyprus, you’ll find there were mixed villages and towns throughout the island. Cyprus has never been a religious issue among the Cypriots. The conflict has never been Muslim Turkish Cypriot vs. Christian Greek Cypriot. On the contrary, Cyprus is a country where the Greek Orthodox and Muslim communities are enshrined in the 1960 Constitution.”
Prior to his arrival in Washington, Kakouris served as Cyprus’ ambassador to Ireland, and was there when, under the Irish EU presidency, his country was admitted to the Union. “It was a poignant moment to see our flag hoisted at the same time as other, larger countries during the EU accession ceremony,” he says. “Despite our small size, the flag-raising ceremony showed that we are all equal.”
The Republic of Cyprus — the whole island — joined the EU, but the acquis communautaire is suspended in the northern occupied part of Cyprus, since the government of the Republic of Cyprus, which is the only recognized government, cannot exercise effective control there, and thus can’t apply the EU’s rules and regulations. The EU recognizes the whole island as the Republic of Cyprus. Had it used Cyprus’ division because of the occupation as a reason to exclude it from accession to the EU, the message would have been that Turkey had the power to block Cyprus’ membership to the EU.
Kakouris says he feels “the EU is the catalyst for change and remains hopeful that the EU can also be a catalyst for a settlement. Cyprus now belongs to a community. It belongs to something larger than itself — a citizen of Cyprus is a citizen of the EU. A citizen of the Republic of Cyprus, whether Greek, Turkish, Armenian or Maronite can, for example, study in Ireland, reside in Sweden, or work in Italy. Consequently, as a result of their Cypriot citizenship, Turkish Cypriots have the same benefits as other EU citizens.”
The ambassador points out that Turkey wants to join the EU, adding that “we have a situation where a country seeking to join the EU is occupying a Member State and does not recognize that Member State.” Despite this, Cyprus, he says, “has extended a hand to Turkey and supports its European orientation, but it is not a blank check. We will support Turkey’s accession course as long as it upholds and adheres to EU rules and regulations. They need to take on board the EU’s rules and values lock, stock and barrel.”
A Europeanized Turkey would be a positive development, Kakouris says: positive for Turkey; positive for Cyprus, as it would have to lead to a Cyprus settlement and the end of the occupation, as well as good neighborly relations; and positive for the EU, “as long as Turkey doesn’t seek to cherry-pick its responsibilities.” Kakouris gives two such examples: Turkey currently refuses to allow Cypriot ships — or even vessels of other countries whose immediate previous port of call was in Cyprus — to dock at Turkish ports, and vetoes Cyprus’ attempts to join various international organizations. Both are in violation of Turkey’s obligations towards the European Union as a whole and run counter to the fact that Turkey must normalize its relations with all EU Member States, including the Republic of Cyprus.
Cyprus’ goal is, simply, the withdrawal of Turkish occupation forces and the reunification of the island as a bi-communal and bi-zonal federation with a single sovereignty, single international personality and single citizenship with respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all Cypriots. A just, viable and functional settlement must be on the basis of UN Security Council Resolutions and the values and principles on which the EU is founded.
“The goal is a settlement for the Cypriots,” Kakouris says, adding that the defeated Annan Plan of 2004, proposed by then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, was “a settlement for others.” He added that the Greek Cypriots did not reject a settlement of the Cyprus problem, but could not agree to a plan that envisages the permanent presence of foreign forces and rights of intervention, where the overwhelming majority of illegal Turkish settlers would have remained on the island and where the rights of Greek Cypriot refugees would not have been protected.
The Ambassador referred to the “cultural destruction” occurring in the occupied area. Historical sites have been illegally excavated and items uncovered and sold abroad. Kakouris cites the desecration of over 500 Greek Orthodox and Maronite churches that have been “turned into anything other than places of worship.” Icons have been stripped from churches and sold illegally abroad. Furthermore, place names in the occupied north have been changed with “the aim of erasing the past.”
Couple this with the fact that today there are nearly 160,000 illegal Turkish settlers — with more still coming — and over 43,000 Turkish troops in the north. The ambassador noted that what is taking place is the erasure of a culture and of the Greek Cypriot presence which is today under 400.
The European Court of Human Rights has also weighed in. Titina Loizidou, a Greek Cypriot refugee with property in the occupied town of Kyrenia, brought a case before the Court, which found in her favor. The Court stated that Turkey, as occupying power, continues to violate her right to enjoy her property and that, legally, the property remained hers. Turkey was made to pay her compensation for her inability to enjoy her property since 1974. The property issue, especially illegal building on expropriated land belonging to Greek Cypriot refugees, makes a Cyprus settlement even more difficult.
Kakouris points out that, as a government, the Republic of Cyprus does all that is possible to improve the economic situation of the Turkish Cypriots. Because of its policies and opportunities offered, in recent years the per capita income of the Turkish Cypriots has nearly tripled. He added that Turkish Cypriots are free to undertake intra-island trade as well as trade with the EU through the legal ports of Larnaka and Limassol. He commented that, regrettably, the Turkish side itself has stifled this possibility by pushing for direct trade, under the guise of ending the so-called “isolation” of the Turkish Cypriots.' Kakouris asks “why are the Turkish Cypriots isolated? They are isolated because of the invasion, the illegal occupation, the declaration of a separate state which was condemned by the United Nations, as well as its total dependence on Turkey. These are the reasons why the Turkish Cypriots are isolated. Turkish Cypriots can benefit from the EU,” Kakouris says. “We draw the line at actions or policies by others that aim to bolster the structures of the occupation regime through what can be described as creeping encroachment, trying to give the impression that the so-called ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ has the trappings of a state.”
“Turkish Cypriots come over to the government-controlled area on a daily basis to work, receiving the same pay, benefits, etc., as Greek Cypriots. There have been over 13 million incident-free crossings since the partial lifting of the restrictions along the ceasefire line in April 2003. This augers well for the future, as it clearly shows that the two communities can live together, and debunks the myth of trouble between the two at first sight.
Kakouris also points out that compared to over 200,000 illegal Turkish settlers and troops, there are just over 90,000 Turkish Cypriots in the northern part of the island, over 35,000 of whom have come to the government-controlled area to apply and receive their Cypriot passport, “in essence their EU passport. The Turkish Cypriot leadership frowns on this and has gone so far as to demand that those passports are returned.”
Where do we go from here? In July 2006, an agreement was brokered by the UN Undersecretary General for Political Affairs, Mr. Ibrahim Gambari, between Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos and Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat. The agreement called for the start of bicommunal discussions on substantive issues of the Cyprus problem and on issues that affect the day-to-day lives of all Cypriots. This process is necessary for the proper preparation of new substantive negotiations aiming at a comprehensive solution. As of this writing, these committees have not yet been established. “The Turkish side is trying to backtrack,” ambassador Kakouris says, adding that “the July 8th agreement is the way forward, and we wish to see the process up and running without any further delay.”
Also, the July 8th agreement foresaw confidence-building measures. The Republic’s dismantling of its fortification along Ledra Street in Nicosia in March 2007 was one solid step. Ledra Street, the ambassador says, “cuts through the heart of Nicosia, the last divided capital in the world.” In late April, the government removed another of its posts at Kato Pyrgos in the northwest of the island, again as a confidence-building measure.
The ambassador expressed the hope that the Turkish side will reciprocate the goodwill gesture taken by the Government at Ledra Street, by taking those actions needed to make it a safe and secure crossing point, and importantly, will show the necessary urgency to move forward on the July 8th agreement.
Ambassador Kakouris’ major task in Washington is “to put out the message that an island in the Mediterranean has been militarily occupied for 33 years, resulting in the expulsion and separation of people.” Further, he is committed to developing and enhancing the long-standing close and friendly relations between his country and people with the United States. Kakouris also wants to undertake cultural diplomacy through exhibits and events highlighting the richness of Cypriot culture.
It is this culture that brings more than 3 million tourists to the government controlled area of Cyprus each year. Most come from the EU, with Britons making up the largest part. Tourists, he says, “have no problems. There is a very high rate of return visitors. That speaks to the quality of the product.” Cyprus has moved from being a summer destination to a 365-day-a-year destination, with daily flights from many European cities. Visitors come for the weather, the sun and sea, and 10,000 years of history which has left an “indelible mark.” The quality of Cyprus’ hotels “is second to none,” and the “welcoming nature of Cypriots” adds to the pleasure. Tourism, and the economy at large, will also get a boost when Cyprus joins the Eurozone, if all goes to plan, on January 1, 2008.
Kakouris clearly wishes that Cyprus’ sunny physical disposition extends to the political well-being of her people. “Cyprus cannot be allowed to become a forgotten tragedy which is consigned to the back-burner of international consciousness. To do so would mean that the rule of law has been replaced by the maxim ‘might is right',' he says.
The ambassador ended by expressing his strong belief that a solution that reunites the island, its people, its social fabric, the economy and institutions can be achieved. This is what the government of the Republic of Cyprus is committed to, and it is an absolute priority and a matter of extreme urgency. Such a solution would be a “win-win” for all, firstly and foremost for the Cypriots themselves.
Hugh S. Galford is a freelance writer living in Washington, DC, with an academic background in Middle Eastern Studies.