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Op-Ed: One Year After Obama: What Has Changed on Our Issues?
February 24, 2010—No. 13 (202) 785-8430

Op-Ed: One Year After Obama: What Has Changed on Our Issues?

WASHINGTON, DC—The following Op-Ed by AHI Executive Director Nick Larigakis appeared in The National Herald 2-13-10, The Hellenic Voice 2-17-10, Greek News 2-21-10, Hellenic News of America 2-9-10, and The Greek Star 2-25-10.

One Year After Obama:  What Has Changed on Our Issues?

by Nick Larigakis

February 9, 2010

It has been twelve and a half months since President Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. In that time what, if anything has changed regarding our core issues affecting U.S. relations with Greece and Cyprus? Well, let’s see.

  • Cyprus continues to be illegally occupied by over 40,000 Turkish troops, now into their 36th year;
  • Provoking tensions in the Aegean, Turkish military aircraft continue to violate Greek national airspace almost daily. And Turkey continues to threaten Greece with war (casus belli) and promotes claims that are unfounded and devoid of any legal basis as it relates to the Aegean Sea;
  • The Halki Patriarchal School of Theology remains closed and the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s rights, freedoms, and security continue to be threatened;
  • The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) is continuing its intransigent and provocative actions against Greece refusing to negotiate in good faith to resolve the name issue; and
  • Greece is still not in the Visa Waiver program.

Therefore, as we can see, when it has come to any positive substantive changes on any of our core policy issues, there simply is none!

However, the Obama Administration has been better than the Bush Administration when it has come to rhetoric and campaign statements.

When in 2009 the President visited Turkey, that trip provided the president with a great opportunity to send a strong message to Turkey as it relates to stability and U.S. interests in the region within the context of outstanding issues relating to Greece and Cyprus.

It is commendable that he raised two very important issues in his speech to the Turkish Parliament, that of Cyprus and the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Regarding the Patriarchate he said:

“Freedom of religion and expression lead to a strong and vibrant civil society that only strengthens the state, which is why steps like reopening the Halki Seminary will send such an important signal inside Turkey and beyond. An enduring commitment to the rule of law is the only way to achieve the security that comes from justice for all people.”

A more definitive comment along the lines of his pre-election statement and not one that implied it will be a good “step” to re-open Halki, would have been more appreciated. In his October 2008 statement, he said:

“[He was] one of 73 Senators who signed a letter to President Bush in 2006 urging him to press Turkey to restore the full rights of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Orthodox Christian Church in Istanbul. [And he had sent] Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice a personal letter on the same matter. [He called on] Turkey to respect the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s rights and freedoms, including its property rights. Turkey should allow the reopening of the Patriarchate’s school of theology on Halki Island and guarantee the right to train clergy of all nationalities, not just Turkish nationals.”

As pointed out by this statement, there are a number of serious issues facing the Ecumenical Patriarchate, not just Halki. He should have also called on Turkey to address them as well.

Also, not withstanding the incredible and well deserved red carpet welcome that the Administration accorded the Ecumenical Patriarch while on his visit to Washington, DC in November, it would have sent a stronger message to Turkey if he had visited with the Ecumenical Patriarch at the Patriarchate itself rather than in his hotel, when he visited Turkey.

Turkey’s restrictions on the religious freedom of the Ecumenical Patriarchate reveal that democratic norms have still not taken root. In view of Turkey’s horrendous human rights record, U.S. policy toward Turkey should be driven by forceful incentives for democratic reform.

Under the International Religious Freedom Act (IFRA) of 1998, the President of the United States is obligated to oppose violations of religious freedom in any country whose government “engages in or tolerates violations of religious freedom and promote the right to religious freedom in that country”. The Act further obligates the President to take one or more of 15 enumerated actions with respect to any such country.

In the same speech in Turkey, the President also said the following regarding Cyprus:

“Advancing peace also includes the disputes that persist in the Eastern Mediterranean. And here there’s a cause for hope. The two Cypriot leaders have an opportunity through their commitment to negotiations under the United Nations Good Offices Mission. The United States is willing to offer all the help sought by the parties as they work towards a just and lasting settlement that reunifies Cyprus into a bizonal and bicommunal federation.”

Here again, it’s commendable that the President raised these issues within the context of a “bizonal and bicommunal federation.”

However, he equated President Demetrios Christofias, who is internationally recognized as the President of the Republic of Cyprus, except by Turkey, with that of the leader of the 18% Turkish Cypriot minority, Mehmet Ali Talat, when he referred to both as being the “two Cypriot leaders.”

And it is important to note that the president did not make any mention of the continuing ongoing Turkish occupation on Cyprus the way he did in his October 2008 campaign statement.  At that time he said in part:

“…A negotiated political settlement on Cyprus would end the Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus and repair the island’s tragic division while paving the way to prosperity and peace throughout the entire region.”

It would have been extremely useful to the current ongoing negotiations process had he reiterated this in his speech.

The removal of Turkey’s troops, colonists and barbed-wire fence would end the Turkish Cypriot’s economic isolation caused by Turkey and go a long way to solving the Cyprus problem because the Greek and Turkish Cypriots could then work out a fair and effective agreement.

Advocating these policy decisions would underscore support for the rule of law and respect for international law.  This would illustrate that the United States truly wishes to advance the cause of solving the 35-year-old Cyprus problem. Continuing former failed policies that promote a double standard in applying the rule of law to Turkey and the continuing appeasement of Turkey does not serve U.S. interests.

Regarding FYROM, when he was in the Senate, President Obama was one of three original lead co-sponsors of Senate Resolution 300, which urged that the FYROM work with Greece within the framework of the United Nations process to reach a mutually acceptable official name for that country and achieve longstanding U.S. and U.N. policy goals.

In his campaign statement he stated:

“…[I] support the UN-led negotiations and believe that there can and should be an agreement between Skopje and Athens on a mutually-acceptable name that leads to greater stability in the Balkans.”

To date his Administration has done nothing to persuade FYROM to negotiate in good faith with Greece to resolve the name issue and to cease immediately their irredentist propaganda against Greece. That propaganda violates the UN-brokered Interim Accord, as stated in Article 7 paragraph 1 of the Accord, signed in New York on September 13 1995 between FYROM and Greece.

If anything, the Administration seems more pre-occupied with trying to achieve entry of FYROM to both NATO and the EU!

The immediate settlement of the name issue, in a way that is acceptable to Greece, will allow the United States’ strongest ally in the Balkans to be the driving force for FYROM’s membership to NATO and ultimately to the European Union.  FYROM’s “passport” to NATO and the European Union is Greece.

Regarding events in the Aegean, in a July 6, 2009 interview with the Greek newspaper, Kathimerni, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Philip Gordon, when asked to comment on the persistent incursions into Greek air space by Turkish jets, gave the following response:

“We have been watching that very closely and frankly we are disturbed by it…it’s a dangerous situations which, if it goes on, can lead to an accident. It obviously leads to tensions, but it could be even worse. Something could happen that could cost lives or damage, and seriously erode an important relationship…We are disturbed by the recent trend and have engaged already…we obviously have close relations with both countries and their militaries, and are asking both to show restraint and stand down; particularly military over-flights over inhabited islands are something we could do without.”

While this was an important statement by a senior State Department official, it still comes short of completely placing the blame on Turkey. The President should instruct his State Department Spokesperson to come out and publicly state that the United States does not accept the unfounded Turkish claims in the Aegean Sea, which are in contravention of the relevant international treaties.

The relevant agreements are the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923, the Italy-Turkey Convention of January 4, 1932, the Italy-Turkey Protocol of December 28, 1932 and the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty, under which the Dodecanese Islands and adjacent islets were ceded by Italy to Greece.

The United States is a signatory to the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty and that treaty is U.S. law. The State Department has refused to declare publicly what the law is and should do so now. The United States should also vigorously repudiate any challenge to the treaty-defined boundary and urge Turkey to:

  • adhere to international law and legal procedures with respect to any dispute it has with Greece in the Aegean Sea; and
  • immediately abandon its provocative actions in its violations of Greek territorial waters and airspace.

Continuous threats by Turkey create serious problems in the Aegean Sea. This is a very important issue as it also relates to the stability of the region and by extension U.S. interests there. The President needs to pay more attention to this very volatile issue.

Pertaining to the Visa Waiver, it’s extremely disappointing that Greece did not enter in 2009, when in fact there was strong indication that was going to happen.  However, there are indications, once again, that 2010 will be the year that Greece finally joins. Nonetheless, even in this relatively easy issue, the final deal continues to be elusive. Unfortunately, terrorist incidents such as the Christmas Day Detroit bomber, has cast shadows of doubt on the over all program on Capitol Hill. The point, however is, that frankly Greece should have been in long ago.

Not withstanding FYROM and Visa Waiver, all the other issues mentioned above require the Obama Administration to ratchet up the pressure on Turkey. Thus far, there are no signs that the Administration is willing to do this. On the contrary there have been a number of misguided comments that would support the opposite.

On his visit to Turkey, the President, in an effort to appease Turkey, referred to Turkey as being a “…resolute ally and a responsible partner in transatlantic and European institutions.” How? By occupying a European Union country? By continuing to threaten Greece, a NATO ally, with war (casus belli) and promote claims that are unfounded and devoid of any legal basis? By not allowing our soldiers to advance through Turkey into northern Iraq during the Iraqi War unless we gave them 32 billion dollars? The list is long and I could continue.

President Obama followed this up with a statement he released on December 7, 2009, after he met with Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey. At that time he said in part:

“Turkey is a NATO ally, which means that we are pledged to defend each other…And given Turkey’s history as a secular democratic state that respects the rule of law,  (emphasis added) but is also a majority Muslim nation, it plays a critical role I think in helping to shape mutual understanding and stability and peace not only in its neighborhood but around the world.”

Again, I ask…how?

And last but not least, one of the more troubling recent comments comes from none other than the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, James Jeffrey. In a February 3, 2010 interview with Hurriyet he was asked “Do you still support Turkey’s EU process?” His response was frankly alarming. He said in part:

“Of course, I am hopeful. Because the values of Turkey and the EU are very compatible. Turkey is a democratic country. It is a free market economy. It is a peaceful country. It doesn’t invade neighbors.  It has security concerns in Cyprus and in Northern Iraq. Basically, Turkey is a country with peace and stability elements in the region and reflects European values…Moreover, geographically, Turkey is closer to the EU than Cyprus. Cyprus was still an EU member when I last checked. As a matter of fact, most of Turkey is closer to Berlin or Paris. Under these conditions what keeps Turkey out of the EU?...”

What security concerns in Cyprus? What democratic country? What peaceful country? And Turkey doesn’t invade its neighbors? In essence is he justifying or supporting the Turkish invasion and occupation of Cyprus when he states that Turkey has security concerns there? And what kind of logic is he using when for him it seems geography precedes the other criteria to join the EU?

The issues discussed above and their successful resolutions are all embodied within the fundamental principles of democracy and are founded on the rule of law.

While the President did at least raise a number of our core issues in public settings in 2009, he fell way short in ultimately facilitating a successful resolution to any of them.

The President stated that the cornerstone of his Administration will be the rule of law and transparency as he forges ahead to deal with the serious issues facing our nation at home and abroad.

At least as it relates to Turkey and our issues, that has not been the case thus far.

Nick Larigakis
Executive Director
American Hellenic Institute




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