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Cyprus’ New Washington Man Used to Rub Elbows in Tel Aviv

February 27, 2004
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Euripides Evriviades, Cyprus’ new ambassador to the United States, greets Jewish visitors to his office with a hearty “Shalom!”

Evriviades — nicknamed Ivri by colleagues in Israel — speaks fluent Hebrew, and his office is filled with numerous tchotchkes gathered when he represented his country in Tel Aviv, from a bronze menorah to a ceramic clock with Hebrew letters.

Evriviades, who served in Israel from 1997-2000, has been Nicosia’s man in Washington since December.

Before that, the jovial, wisecracking diplomat served in the Netherlands, where he came after leaving Tel Aviv. He also has served in Libya and speaks Greek, English, Hebrew, French, German and a little Russian.

In a recent interview, Evriviades told JTA that Cyprus for years has played a behind-the-scenes role in Arab-Israeli peace talks. Nicosia maintains strong relations with both sides and is less than an hour’s flight from Tel Aviv, Beirut and Damascus.

“Our vision is to help both parties come back to the ‘road map’ and push the process forward,” he said. “We have good relations with all states in the Middle East.”

With Cyprus poised to join the European Union in just over two months, Evriviades says the divided Mediterranean island is on the verge of resolving its own long-simmering ethnic dispute.

On Feb. 13, after months of delicate negotiations, Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos and Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash accepted a proposal by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to put aside their differences and achieve reunification in time for the island’s May 1 entry into the European Union.

Under Annan’s plan, the two sides will agree by March 22 on reunification language that will be put to simultaneous referenda on April 21 in both the Greek-speaking Republic of Cyprus, which is internationally recognized, and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is recognized only by Turkey.

“Cyprus joining the E.U. has altered the whole matrix on the island itself, and in our immediate and wider region,” Evriviades said. “I am much more optimistic now than I have ever been. It’s a win-win scenario.”

Evriviades, 49, said that during the three years he spent in Tel Aviv, “we were very much involved in second-track diplomacy.”

“We arranged meetings between the Fatah and Likud in Cyprus. Shimon Peres went to Cyprus and from there launched his Young Leaders Network. And during the stalemate at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem” — in May 2002 — “Cyprus agreed to bring 13 Palestinians on Israel’s most-wanted list to Cyprus and then disperse them to various countries. After 38 days, we diffused that crisis on the 11th hour, at the 59th minute.”

Cypriot-Israeli relations hit a low point in 1998, when two alleged Mossad agents were arrested near a military base along Cyprus’ southern coast; they were later charged with spying after police searching their apartment found listening equipment, a laptop computer, two cell phones, five recording devices and eight maps of Cyprus.

The espionage charges eventually were dropped, though many Cypriots remain concerned about Israel’s close military ties with Turkey.

In 1964, the United Nations sent peacekeepers to the island following ethnic clashes between the Greek Cypriots, who are predominantly Christian Orthodox, and Turkish Cypriots, who are predominantly Muslim.

Ten years later, in the wake of a pro-Greek coup seeking to unify Cyprus with Greece, Turkey seized the northern third of the island, proclaiming it the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in 1983.

For years, only U.N. personnel were allowed to cross the heavily armed dividing line, which cuts right through downtown Nicosia. Last year, however, that changed when Denktash lifted restrictions following recommendations from Ankara.

“In a country of less than 1 million people, we have had since last April close to 2 million visits back and forth the dividing line, incident-free,” Evriviades said. “It’s a myth that the moment Greek and Turkish Cypriots see each other they want to kill each other and drink each other’s blood. There are many human stories showing that this is not the case.”

“I’m sure the overwhelming majority of Turkish Cypriots want to enter the E.U., because this is where the future is. If, God forbid, there is no solution by May 1, then Cyprus as a subject of international law will accede to the E.U. and Turkey will be illegally occupying E.U. territory.”

Contrary to what some believe, he said, Cyprus wants to see Turkey admitted as the E.U.’s first predominantly Muslim nation.

“It is in our interests to have a giant like Turkey behave predictably and not be in an identity crisis,” Evriviades said. “Ultimately, I do believe that Cyprus, Israel, Greece and Turkey are in the same strategic boat.”

Evriviades speaks wistfully of the time he spent in Tel Aviv and calls Israel a very good diplomatic training ground.

“I learned how much of a difference it makes when you inject your public persona into the foreign-policy promotion of your country,” said Evriviades, whose embassy does not hire outside lobbyists.

“That makes a heck of a lot of difference, because Israel is a very intense, complex, fascinating country, and everybody is vying for attention. Israel taught me how to do that, which is very useful for what I’m trying to accomplish here in Washington.”

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