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23 May, 2024
 
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US Ambassador discusses Cyprus and Russian influence in exclusive interview

Insights on Cyprus' role amid Ukraine crisis, efforts to combat illicit activities, and prospects for bilateral relations

Marina Economides

Marina Economides

In an exclusive interview with Kathimerini, the U.S. Ambassador to Cyprus weighs in on whether the island nation's ties to Russian influence are changing. With Russia's actions in Ukraine sparking global concern, there's growing scrutiny on Cyprus. The Ambassador discusses efforts to address concerns about Cyprus being a hub for questionable activities, shedding light on recent developments and what they mean for the island's international reputation.

Q: There has long been a perception that Cyprus is under Russian influence. Have we managed to change this perception after the war in Ukraine, the sanctions, and the actions of the new government?

A: Cyprus has a very important role to play with regard to Russia's war in Ukraine and the transatlantic agreement that stipulates that we stand against Russia and support Ukraine. There is a rumor that there are shell companies in Cyprus that are facilitating those who are assisting the war that the Kremlin is waging, that there is money being moved around in illegal activities, but there are many people now who are trying to change not only the perception of Cyprus but to actually change the role of Cyprus. It was the previous President of the Republic of Cyprus who banned Russian warships from docking in the ports of Cyprus and at the same time worked with us to fight illicit financing and go one step further by lifting the arms embargo that existed in Cyprus. The fact that we see this effort continuing today proves that it’s not simply a question of recent months or just 2023, but that there is a long-term effort. When we announced the sanctions list last April, which included, individuals and companies, it was Nikos Christodoulides and his team who made it clear that they want to fully cooperate with us and with the rest of the Western countries because Cyprus wants to leave behind this bad reputation that has been following it for a long time.

Q: Have we truly put it behind us, or is there still a long way to go?

A: It is a long road for any government and any country. We are dealing with the transition in the banking sector, in the audit services and by extension it is a complex process that does not change overnight anywhere and certainly not in Cyprus. It needs a long-term plan and that is why I am very proud of the partnership that we have and the very good work that is going on between the Ministry of Justice, the legal service, the FBI and the Cypriot police.

Q: Speaking of the FBI, a team came to Cyprus to assist following the Cyprus Confidential revelations. Can we expect new names on the sanctions list?

A: This is something I am often asked about and my answer is always the same. As long as the Kremlin continues the war in Ukraine, then we will continue to go after those who are assisting, who are somehow 'supplying' this war. So if there are companies or individuals in Cyprus who are contributing to Russia's effort to continue this war, then we will go after them and we will do so in cooperation with the Republic of Cyprus. However, because you mentioned this group that came to Cyprus, the intention is a long-term cooperation between the FBI, the Cyprus police, the legal department of the Ministry of Justice, the MOKAS and other agencies. The question is, what more can we do together and that is what we are working on at the moment.

Q: We are on the verge of the appointment of the UN special envoy. Will it be an appointment with a timetable for action?

A: I think it’s important that we wait for the UN Secretary-General to actually make the announcement, that we do not presume what he might say about his envoy who will work on the Cyprus problem. For our part, in the United States, we have called for the resumption of talks, we have called for the appointment of a special envoy, so of course, when the Secretary-General of the United Nations announces the appointment, we will certainly welcome it, as will other members of the Security Council, I expect. The details of the term, the work - we’d like to see this envoy really approach this work with a sustained level of attention, and engagement, to see an envoy get to work as soon as possible, because the Cyprus question is one that has been unresolved for too long. And in the short time that I have been in Cyprus, I have seen that the people of Cyprus truly are counting on progress – Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots both are looking for progress in this respect, and counting on it.

Q: Of course, Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot side, led by Ersin Tatar, make separate sovereignty a precondition for talks. Given these demands, can we hope for common ground leading to a resolution?

A: This is certainly the challenge facing the Special Envoy. That is to find common ground between the two sides and to be able to make progress. I certainly can’t get ahead of an announcement by UN Secretary-General, but for our part, we are waiting and hoping for announcements in the near future. It will be, in a way, a gift for the holidays.

Q: The Republic of Cyprus is often presented as a stabilizing factor in the region. How can US-Cyprus cooperation be expanded and become a guarantee of stability in the region?

A: The partnership that we have has been increasingly strengthened in recent years and in recent months. In times of crisis, but especially after 7 October, we fully understood the importance of this partnership. So there is no doubt that Cyprus plays a role of stability in the region. Countries like the US see Cyprus as an area of security and protection for their citizens and a place where safe evacuation can take place in the event of a crisis. Cyprus has already created a very successful platform of organization and coordination and this is certainly something necessary and very different from simply organizing the evacuation of civilians. In the last few months, dozens of countries have been working with us in the Zenon coordination center to support their citizens. Nikos Christodoulides' initiative to create a sea corridor for humanitarian aid for people in Gaza is because the Christodoulides government has understood that this is a complex problem. In this war between Israel and Hamas, we must first and foremost understand and recognize Israel's right to defend its state and its citizens. There is no doubt about this, but there is also the moral and strategic necessity for Israel to limit civilian casualties and to give aid to civilians who need it. With this in mind, multiple corridors and roads are therefore necessary to receive this aid. We appreciate Nikos Christodoulides' very creative and innovative approach to this issue.

Q: You have been in Cyprus for about a year, a period when relations between the two countries have considerably strengthened. How do you see the US-Cyprus relationship evolving in the near future?

A: I hope this relationship will strengthen over the years. We had a very good partnership in 2023 and it was shortly after my arrival that the Cyprus National Defense Agreement with the New Jersey National Guard was signed. It was actually a year full of opportunities where our ties in the education system were strengthened with the increase of students from Cyprus to the US and vice versa. I am particularly excited about the number of American students studying in Cyprus and certainly, our relations in the economic and trade sector can grow much further.

Q: Can we expect more investments from the US in the coming period?

A: I hope what we will find is that American companies that are already doing business in Cyprus – as they find success, a level of coordination and cooperation with the government – will in fact help attract new investments and new opportunities here in Cyprus. There is a lot of really interesting work happening in the technology sector in Cyprus, that is attracting attention. Of course, what is happening in terms of energy development is very important and sends signals to American investors, and so we keep a close eye on that as well. What is most important is that we have "success stories" as that is what breeds more success, and so we will keep working towards that, together.

Q: Can we expect developments on the visa issue?

A: Over the past year, we have achieved significant progress regarding the visa abolition issue, and we anticipate further advancements in 2024. This is a shared goal between our two governments: to enable Cypriot citizens to travel to the US without the necessity of obtaining a visa. While there is still a considerable distance to cover, given the technical and legal intricacies that require time, we are diligently working on this, in collaboration with Deputy Minister to the President, Irene Piki.

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Cyprus  |  USA  |  diplomacy  |  politics

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