By Stefan Nicola


Washington, DC, Jun. 13 (UPI) -- The accession of Turkey into the European Union is essential to solve the Cyprus problem, a senior Cypriot diplomat in Washington said Monday.

"We are in favor of Turkey joining the EU," said Euripides Evriviades, ambassador of the Republic of Cyprus, at a luncheon hosted by the Nixon Center, a Washington-based think tank.

"The EU solves problems by embracing them," he said, "it has managed to reunify the French and the Germans, and it will do it for Cyprus...Turkey joining the Union is fundamental for peace and stability and long-term prosperity in the region."

A former British colony, Cyprus has been divided into the Republic of Cyprus -- the Greek Cypriot south -- and a Turkish-occupied north since Turkey invaded the Mediterranean island in 1974. Although only the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus joined the EU on May 1, 2004, every Cypriot carrying a passport has the status of a European citizen. EU laws, however, do not apply to the north, which has so far been recognized by Turkey alone.

Evriviades said he hopes the rejection of the EU constitution in France and the Netherlands does not influence the timetable of the EU-accession talks with Ankara, which are scheduled to start Oct. 3.

EU foreign ministers also approved an agreement on Monday adapting its customs union with Turkey to the 10 new EU member states, including Cyprus, bringing accession talks with Ankara a big step closer. Once Turkey signs the document, it will have met all the conditions to start the talks.

In those talks, Cyprus hopes it will not get overlooked, as the issue is one that EU leaders have repeatedly stated they would like to be solved if Turkey wants to join the Brussels-based club. But the strategic interest of the United States in Turkey, a country that borders Iran and Iraq, might be disadvantageous to such a small country as Cyprus, the ambassador said.

Evriviades criticized U.S.-lawmakers for what he felt would be an unjust foreign policy towards Nicosia: The ambassador said that in a Congress hearing earlier this year, it was said that "one politically risk-free option...for the United States to improve its relations with Turkey, is for the U.S. basically to deliver Cyprus."

"How do you think I feel as a Cypriot," Evriviades asked, "if my own country is being used as an extension and a trump card for somebody else's foreign policy?"

The Cypriot issue, which has seen repeated sparks of violent outbreaks over the last four decades, is also on the to-solve list of the United Nations. A U.N.-endorsed reunification plan facilitated direct talks between the leaders of both parties that culminated in a referendum last April. But while the Turkish north backed the plan, Greek Cypriotes overwhelmingly rejected the proposal.

Evriviades said the plan, which received backing from U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, failed to guarantee self-determination and property rights of individuals dislocated from their homes in the Cypriot north, and lacked a clause that would have explicitly banned Turkish military from the island.

"Cyprus wants to free itself from overlords," Evriviades said. "And this is doable now. It's doable because we're part of the EU."

Turkey has repeatedly stated it needs to keep its troops on the island because of claimed interests of security, Evriviades said.

"How can Cyprus, a country of less than a million people, be a threat to Turkey?" he asked, adding that the Republic of Cyprus is proposing a "total demilitarization for the Republic of Cyprus."

While Cypriot lawmakers believe an EU-entry and Westernization of Turkey would ease the Cyprus issue, Bulent Aliriza, a Turkey expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a centrist Washington-based think tank, said the island shouldn't tie its entire hopes to the European Union.

"It's mid-June and as of now there is no ongoing peace process. I am a bit pessimistic," he said Monday in a telephone interview with United Press International. "The fact is it's going to take 10 to 15 years for Turkey to become an EU member. In the meantime, the Cyprus conflict continues."

And with German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder predicted to lose the upcoming federal elections, chances of EU membership for Turkey will likely lose powerful support, observers say. Angela Merkel, candidate for chancellor for the Christian Democratic Union, the poll-favorites, is an outspoken opponent of full EU-membership for Turkey.

"With all this opposition, what incentives do the Turks have to solve the Cyprus issue?" Aliriza asked.

The incentives tied to a Turkish EU bid are obvious for Cyprus, said John Sitilides, head of the Southeast Europe project at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

"If the EU actually starts accession talks with Turkey, Cyprus can voice potential any upcoming EU summit," Sitilides said Monday in a telephone interview with UPI. But EU membership, although providing an established framework for diplomatic relations, is no guarantee to solve a domestic conflict: In the United Kingdom, Ireland remains divided, he said.

But turning to the EU might not be necessary after all. The Republic of Cyprus has given more than a quarter billion Euros in aid to the financially troubled north, and increased economic relations between both groups might facilitate the long-awaited change, he said.

"As Turkish Cypriots become more integrated in the economy of the south, many of the fears and misconceptions between the two groups could fade," he said. "It doesn't have to be a large, international solution facilitated by the U.N. or the EU. They might be able to strike a deal together."

Given the fragile U.S.-Turkish relations, the U.S.-administration has a significant interest in a democratic and unified Cyprus, Sitilides said. But handing over Cyprus to Turkey on a silver platter would spell disaster. "The United States would face tremendous backlash from the EU," he said.