LARNACA, Cyprus (AP) — U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday hailed Washington’s newly minted “strategic partnership” with Cyprus and expressed hope that a long elusive reunification accord could turn the east Mediterranean island into a source of stability in a tumultuous region.
Biden, the most senior American official to visit Cyprus since his predecessor Lyndon Johnson in 1962, voiced strong support for a new round of talks to reunify the island, which was divided along ethnic lines in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of union with Greece.
“This island can, and should be the bedrock of stability and opportunity for Europe and for the eastern Mediterranean,” Biden told reporters after touching down at the country’s main airport.
Numerous rounds of negotiations over four decades have failed to work out an envisioned federation acceptable to internationally recognized Greek Cypriots and minority Turkish Cypriots whose 1983 declaration of independence is recognized only by Turkey.
“I’ve travelled today because I believe that this time, can be different,” Biden said. “Whether it will, depends on the people of this island.”
He quashed speculation that he would either “impose or present” a peace deal during his visit, saying that an accord bringing “incredibly greater prosperity” and greater security can only come from Cypriots themselves.
He also eased Greek Cypriot concerns that his visit with Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu in the breakaway north of the island would impart any official recognition, saying his contacts wouldn’t change long-standing U.S. policy.
Biden also noted the role that Cyprus can play in regional energy security following the discovery of natural gas off the island’s southern shore, close to a larger, Israeli gas field.
A Cyprus peace deal would have regional repercussions as it could help mend strained relations between key U.S. regional allies Turkey and Israel. Those countries fell out after Israeli commandos stormed a Turkish ship trying to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip in May 2010.
A reunified Cyprus could also act as a conduit to transport Cypriot and Israeli gas to Europe through Turkey via a pipeline, helping to reduce the continent’s energy dependence on Russia, which has threatened to cut deliveries amid the Ukrainian crisis.
U.S. company Noble Energy is already involved in developing the island’s sole proven gas field, along with Israeli partners Delek and Avner.
Biden’s visit comes on the invitation of Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, who has realigned Cyprus’ policies more in favor of the U.S. and Europe in contrast to his predecessor, a move the U.S. administration has welcomed.
Biden will also delve into the possibility of stronger sanctions against Russia over the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.
But bailed-out Cyprus relies on Russian tourists and bank deposits to buoy its weakened economy and doesn’t want to harm its long-standing relationship with Moscow. The Cypriot government favors excluding some EU countries from a harsher sanctions regime or granting them the ability to opt out.
“We have to be resolute and united in the face of Russian intervention,” Biden said. He added that he recognizes Cypriots have faced “tough economic challenges” and made “painful sacrifices” as a result of the bailout that crushed the country’s banking sector, significantly shrunk the economy and dramatically increased unemployment.
Biden, who was accompanied by his wife Jill on the trip, departs late Thursday.