Department of Politics and Governance/School of Law
University of Nicosia
BIDEN AND CYPRUS: ON CYPRIOT PERCEPTIONS AND US INTENTIONS
This article aims to discuss relations between the United States and Cyprus, with special focus on the historic visit of Vice President Joe Biden in 2014 and the prospects regarding his upcoming presidency. His stance during his visit in 2014, despite Greek Cypriot reservations and negative perceptions on US intentions, manifested a new approach vis-à-vis Cyprus. What about his intentions now, as the new President? Which factors will define US policy on Cyprus after January 2021?
Vice President Biden and Cyprus: negative perceptions and noble intentions
In the first half of 2014, there were efforts to revitalize the talks for the solution of the Cyprus problem amidst Turkish maritime violations in the Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). A joint declaration between the leaders of the two communities, President Nicos Anastasiades and Mr. Derviş Eroğlu, marked the beginning of a new round of negotiations. It was a time of transformation in US foreign policy. President Barack Obama was committed to end costly military adventures in the Middle East and take a “no boots on the ground” approach in the region. At the same time, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (then Prime Minister) had clearly showcased his domestic and international ambitions: to dominate as the new strongman of Turkey, and to promote a new foreign policy agenda that would reverse Ankara’s Cold War and early post-Cold War pro-Western and NATO-centric orientation. In this context, US Vice President Joe Biden decided to pay a historic visit in Cyprus in May, the first of a sitting US Vice President since 1962.
While the government of the Republic of Cyprus perceived the US involvement as a positive development and carried out intensive diplomatic activity to prepare for the Vice President’s visit, the opposition was rather suspicious. The main concerns focused, among other issues, on the Mr. Biden’s planned meeting with Mr. Eroglu in the occupied North, which could reinforce the efforts made by the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (“TRNC”) for international recognition. However, this concern did not come true. At first, during his visit in Cyprus Mr. Biden would repeatedly clarify that there was no “TRNC” recognition issue. Furthermore, the US Vice President’s schedule while in Cyprus was designed to ensure that facilitating the “TRNC’s” recognition aspirations was not among his objectives. For example, the Vice President avoided entering Mr. Eroğlu’s “presidential” residence from the main entrance; he didn’t stop on the doorstep to shake hands and take a photo with the Turkish Cypriot leader; he even failed to remove his sunglasses while entering the building, side-by-side with Mr. Eroğlu.
In May 2014, Mr. Biden proved that his intentions vis-à-vis Cyprus were noble. Apart from the way that he dealt with the issues above, as well as the fact that he called Cyprus a “strategic partner of the United States”, his overall stance called for a revision of Greek Cypriot perceptions on US policy on Cyprus. After all, it was the Vice President himself that made these statements during an official visit to Cyprus, by itself a rare occasion. We should not forget that until a few years earlier, US officials would treat of Cyprus in a fundamentally different way: for example, in 2004 then US Secretary of State Collin Powel would provocatively defy the political hierarchy of the Republic of Cyprus and make a phone call to the President of the House of Representatives, late Mr. Demetris Christofias, in order to ask him to support “yes” vote to Annan plan. A few years later, in 2009, during his official visit in Cyprus, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Mr. Matthew Bryza, when asked by journalists whether Washington was willing to press Turkey for a solution to the Cyprus problem, he unequivocally stated that no such pressure would be exercised and, contrary, he praised Turkey for its constructive stance in relation with the negotiations.
President Biden and Cyprus: positive perceptions, but what about intentions?
In November 2020, when these lines are written, Cyprus and the United States enjoy an unprecedented momentum in their bilateral relations. This momentum was made possible mainly due to policies implemented during President Trump’s tenure: the partial reversal of the embargo of US arms sales to Cyprus, the active support of Israel-Cyprus-Greece trilateral partnership, and Nicosia’s cooperation with the US financial crime prevention network, known as FinCEN, on tackling money laundering related with Russian interests are only some examples. At the same time, the bipartisan initiative that brought about the East. Med. Act, a law that aims, among other things, to recalibrate Cyprus’ role in US Eastern Mediterranean policy, shows that developments in US-Cypriot relations have a depth that exceeds individual beliefs and views. At the same time though, President Trump’s personal relations with his Turkish counterpart have been viewed by Cypriots as an obstacle in fully capitalizing on this honeymoon’s potential. Cyprus hopes that President Biden will continue from where he stopped in 2014 and actively support Nicosia at a very difficult conjuncture marked by Turkey’s efforts to turn the Cypriot EEZ to a Turkish lake and its determination to promote the “TRNC’s” international recognition.
However, we should always bear in mind the complexity of international politics and that we should take on multiple levels of analysis when examining such issues. President Biden might be a better interlocutor that President Trump (who definitely lacked his successor’s deep knowledge of Cyprus-related issues). However, he will also have to restore NATO’s credibility, which was put to the test during Trump’s tenure. To do so, he will have to deal with a recalcitrant Turkey and make sure that Ankara will realign with NATO. Furthermore, he will have to decide on Trump’s legacy vis-à-vis Iran, Israel and the Arab world: will he revert to an effort to re-engage with Iran on its nuclear ambitions, or continue Mr. Trump’s containment? Will he retain strong relations with Israel, or will we see an Obama-style approach? Will he keep up with strengthening Saudi Arabia and UAEs relations with Israel, thus forming a new anti-Iranian balance of power in the region, or will he lash out on Riad over human rights?
Being a small state, Cyprus’ ability to influence great powers and achieve favorable policy outcomes is not self-reliant. It is dependent on regional developments and, particularly, a favorable regional balance of power. In the last ten years Nicosia found its way through the consensus that has been formed with Greece, Israel and Egypt, as well as with other friends in the broader region like Saudi Arabia. Therefore, its foreign policy orientation is defined by this consensus, whereby US approach on Cyprus has been revised in a favorable way. It remains to be seen whether this legacy is resilient or not. In any case though, despite polarization in US domestic politics, new administrations usually take moderate steps on bilateral relations and prefer smooth to radical changes. There is no strong evidence suggesting that President Biden will be an exception to this rule.
 On Vice President Biden’s visit to Cyprus see M. Kontos, “Foreign Interventions and Greek Cypriot Perceptions,” in J. Warner, D. Lovell and M. Kontos, Contemporary Social and Political Aspects of the Cyprus Problem (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016), 36-56, 49-52.