Mr. Biden, the Reassure-er-in-Chief, Goes to Romania and Cyprus

  • photo courtesy of Barack Obama https://www.flickr.com/photos/barackobamadotcom/2971948143
    May 16, 2014

    Fifty-two years is a long time to wait to see an American plane carrying a U.S. Vice President land on a tarmac. The last time a sitting U.S. Vice President arrived in Nicosia, the year was 1962 and Lyndon B. Johnson stepped out of the plane. On May 21st, it will be Vice President Biden who will extend his hand to Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades.  But unlike LBJ, Vice President Biden will witness firsthand the impact that 40 years of national division and a catastrophic financial crisis have had on the Republic of Cyprus. Prior to his arrival in Cyprus, the Vice President will also visit Romania.

    Vice President Biden has been a frequent flyer to Europe as of late, flying across the Atlantic on a monthly basis since February. He has become the “Reassure-er-in-Chief,” offering words of consolation and American solidarity for increasingly nervous governments in Central and Southern Europe and the Baltics. These countries fully understand the deleterious effects of Russian aggression and European inaction which is why they actively seek American reassurance. Many of these leaders know Mr. Biden quite well through his former role as the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and his close involvement in the NATO enlargement process, making them feel more at ease with him. The Vice President lands, confers with officials about the crisis in Ukraine, and offers strong public messages of U.S. resolve. Additional U.S. forces and aircraft may arrive shortly after his visit (as was the case following his recent visit to Poland and Lithuania) to demonstrate tangible American support, further calming these important NATO allies. This pattern of reassurance will be amply demonstrated when Vice President Biden visits Romania next week. It is a welcome and necessary display of support.

    But the Vice President’s visit to Cyprus will be completely different from his previous trips to Europe.  There is a glimmer of hope for fruitful negotiations between the Greek Cypriot community and the Turkish Cypriots who live in the internationally unrecognized North. And this is what brings an American Vice President to Cyprus after 52 years: the promise of a diplomatic success–something that has eluded the Obama foreign policy agenda for quite some time.  

    Vice President Biden will meet with President Anastasiades, a courageous leader who has staked his political reputation on reunifying Cyprus.  The February 11 Joint Communique between the leaders of the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities was the most promising sign in nearly a decade that both communities seek a different future. But these promising talks have begun to bog down, increasing their susceptibility to political dissent within each community, as well as external events such as the recent (and poorly timed) decision by the European Court of Human Rights to fine Turkey $124 million to compensate the relatives of over 1,400 individuals who disappeared during the 1974 invasion.

    To help bolster the flagging negotiations, there are indications that Vice President Biden will focus on small, incremental confidence building measures. There are suggestions that the U.S. will help fund a study which would develop a “master plan” for the uninhabited “no man’s land” fenced area known as Varosha near Famagusta. Access to this area has been controlled by Turkish troops since 1974 and although the UN has repeatedly tried to arrange an interim formula that would allow the former Greek Cypriot inhabitants to return, none of those efforts have been successful. While the Greek Cypriots seek the early return of Varosha, possibly under UN control, the Turkish Cypriots insist that the determination of its status be part of the final negotiations. As Vice President Biden once famously uttered about the signing of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act (but leaving the colorful language aside), this visit would be “a big deal” if both sides agree to the albeit modest step of a study of the conditions of Varosha after forty years of neglect.  

    Although energetic U.S. diplomatic support of the peace process has been important, it has not been decisive. Several factors have brought it forward. First, the discovery of offshore energy resources has given needed impetus for both communities to seek ways to share this potential wealth and to avoid scaring investors away with political and legal uncertainty. However, it should be emphasized that real questions about the commercial viability and international market access (beyond Cyprus itself) remain.   This economic motivation has been accelerated by the financial collapse of the Republic of Cyprus in 2013 as well as the growing economic divide between the Greek Cypriots who enjoy the advantages of EU membership and the Turkish Cypriots whose only financial lifeline is Turkey. The third factor is the possible change of attitude in Turkey itself. A combination of domestic and regional turmoil has left Turkey with very few, if any, positive talking points to offer either Europe or the United States. Progress in the Cypriot reunification talks could, however, provide Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan with a welcome opportunity to call Mr. Obama and his European counterparts to give them an update on the status of negotiations. 

    But the most decisive factor of these negotiations may be within the communities themselves.  They are motivated to seek a different future.  Neither the UN, the United States, the British, nor any other external actors have forced the parties to be where they are at this moment in the negotiations or, should they be successful, where the negotiations ultimately need to go if there is going to be a settlement.  

    And this is where one must inject a note of caution about the Vice President’s visit to Nicosia, as well as a future visit by Secretary of State John Kerry which has been openly discussed. Persistent U.S. diplomacy has given these discussions needed momentum, and at times a necessary push.  But when the most senior U.S. government officials insert themselves into fairly tenuous peace negotiations at such an early stage, they risk altering the dynamic to one of outside pressure rather than internal support.  

    Like a moth to the flame, Mr. Biden is flying to Cyprus to nurture a promising negotiating process. Mr. Biden is personally committed to this effort and there is no question that he is making history by visiting Cyprus at this moment. But this is not about the U.S. making history, it is about the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities choosing their own – and hopefully different – future as a bi-communal, bi-zonal federation – lest zealous American diplomacy singe the process.     
    Heather A. Conley is a senior fellow and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
     
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