US vice-president Joe Biden pushes energy cooperation in visit to Cyprus
May 21, 2014
US vice-president Joe Biden arrived in Cyprus on Wednesday, the most senior US official to visit in more than 50 years, as the quest to find alternative energy routes into Europe focused international attention on the continent's only divided country.
With the discovery of vast reserves of oil and natural gas deposits in the eastern Mediterranean, the visit highlights the growing importance Washington has given to the region following the crisis in the Ukraine. If unlocked, the hydrocarbons have the potential to substantially reduce Europe's reliance on Russia for energy supplies.
"I wanted to come to primarily underscore the value the United States attaches to our growing cooperation with the republic of Cyprus," Biden said in an address moments after touching down. "This relationship is now a genuine strategic partnership which holds great promise."
For the Obama administration, now scrambling for a foreign policy success, the three-day stop over also offers the opportunity to help reunify Cyprus, after 40 years of division the western world's longest-running diplomatic dispute. The vice president said "an important focus of conversations" would be the settlement process.
"It is the most visible sign yet of a new and renewed American commitment to finding a speedy solution to the Cyprus problem," said Hubert Faustmann, associate professor of history and political science at the University of Nicosia.
"Ukraine has added new urgency to the resolution of the Cyprus problem to allow the export of eastern Mediterranean oil and gas via Turkey into Europe."
Such efforts have become easier since the relaunch of reconciliation talks. After a near two-year hiatus, negotiations aimed at reuniting the island's estranged Greek and Turkish communities were restarted in February in the wake of concerted pressure from the US.
The search for a settlement followed a discernible shift in relations with Washington under Cyprus' pro-western president, Nicos Anastasiades, after years of the island being governed by the Moscow-trained communist Demetris Christofias.
But the discovery of hydrocarbons – first in the waters off Israel and more recently in Cyprus' exclusive economic zone – have also injected new vigour into the process.
The reserves could position Cyprus "as an energy and economy leader" in the region, according to Obama administration officials who have signaled that a solution is pressing if US oil companies are to make the huge investment that will accompany exploration.
Anastasiades has said his government wants to build an onshore terminal for the liquefaction of gas so that Cyprus can "realise the significant potential of becoming the eastern Mediterranean's energy hub." Once built, the terminal would ship supplies from nearby countries including Israel, Egypt and Lebanon.
"The energy issue adds an extra imperative for a solution," said Dr James Ker-Lindsay specialist on Cyprus at the London School of Economics. "The US and the EU would like to see less reliance on Russia for energy and the discovery [of the deposits] opens up new opportunities," he told the Guardian. "Cyprus is a key piece in the puzzle as both as a source of energy and an alternative transit route."
Biden, who will hold talks with Anastasiades and Dervis Eroglu, the leader of the breakaway Turkish-controlled northern republic of Cyprus, is expected to also discuss security issues. Turkey currently has around 35,000 troops stationed in the north which it seized after invading the island following an attempt to unite it with Greece in the summer of 1974.
"There are two big issues, security and property, that still very much divide us," Andreas Mavrogiannis, the Greek Cypriots' lead negotiator said in a recent interview in Nicosia. "But we are also getting clear signals that Turkey wants to become a regional economic power and the question of hydrocarbons plays into that."
Analysts said Washington hoped to not only bolster its waning presence in the eastern Mediterranean through energy, but was clearly aiming to bring pro-American countries together in a region that had become increasingly anti-western with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism since the Arab Spring.
"Israel has discovered huge deposits and it desperately needs safe export routes through pipelines that either go via Cyprus or its exclusive zone," said Faustmann. "For an administration that needs a foreign policy success Cyprus seems to be fixable and this is what Biden's visit is all about."