Ambassador Julie Fisher: Cyprus has an important role to play in countering its reputation

With Cooperation between the United States and Cyprus at what she calls ‘a historic high’ the US Ambassador to Cyprus, Julie Fisher, underscores the deepening ties between the two countries, spanning security cooperation, efforts aimed at combating money laundering, and facilitating foreign investment.

She was speaking as part of the GOLD magazine’s February Cover Story, featuring 11 heads of diplomatic missions in Cyprus.

In his recent ‘State of the Nation’ address, President Christodoulides emphasised the priority of advancing Cyprus’ membership of the US Visa Waiver Program in 2024. Can you provide an update on the progress of this endeavour?

We are excited to be working together with the Office of the President as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) and we are focused on making as much progress as possible in 2024. The Deputy Minister to the President, Irini Piki, and I meet regularly to ensure that we are clear on the requirements and what has been achieved to date, and to find a path forward. I look forward to continuing our work with the Cyprus authorities, bilaterally and through the US-EU Tripartite process, on steps for Cyprus to meet the VWP requirements. VWP membership will create many new opportunities for increased cultural, economic and security cooperation between the United States and Cyprus. The programme will permit Cypriots to travel to the United States for tourism or business, without a visa, for up to 90 days. Of course, there are various statutory criteria that a VWP candidate country must meet to be eligible for designation and the process entails technical and legal issues that take time. But I am optimistic that we are moving in the right direction.

In recent years, Cyprus has deepened its engagement with the US in military and security cooperation, marked by significant milestones such as the lifting of the arms embargo and agreements facilitating logistical support and exchanges in 2022. What can you tell us about this cooperation?

The United States works closely with Cyprus to advance our shared priorities of security and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean region. Cooperation between the United States and Cyprus is at a historic high. Since we signed the Statement of Intent on bilateral security cooperation with Cyprus in late 2018, we have been breaking new ground in our security relationship. The United States welcomes the broadening and deepening of our security cooperation. Perhaps the most significant development has been the establishment of the State Partnership Program between the New Jersey National Guard and the Cyprus National Guard, formalised in March 2023. This aims to build enduring, whole-of-government partnerships and has seen great success in its 30 years in Europe. The unique roles and responsibilities of our state national guards open the door to a wide range of cooperation, best practice sharing and training opportunities. Cyprus and its leadership provided incredible support as we prepared for the potential evacuation of American citizens from the Levant in late 2023. While, thankfully, the need for an evacuation did not come to pass, we did assist the departure of Americans and their families by ship to Cyprus, when air travel from Israel was limited. We are grateful for the leadership and collaboration of the Cyprus authorities as we planned for the best way to get American citizens home. We have also seen tremendous growth in our International Military Education Training (IMET) programme. Beginning with seven participants in 2021, we anticipate sending 23 participants from a range of Cyprus ministries on technical and leadership courses in the United States in 2024. This kind of exchange builds long-lasting, people-to-people ties. We look forward to continuing to seek out and explore further areas for security cooperation in the coming year and beyond.

Given the burgeoning military and security ties between the two nations, alongside US firms’ involvement in developing offshore hydrocarbon resources in Cyprus’ EEZ, what plans does the US have for fostering regional stability in the East Mediterranean?

In Cyprus, at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa, we see up close the ripple effects that regional stability and instability can have globally. As such, the United States values the important role that Cyprus plays in fostering regional stability. We currently live in an era defined by conflict and rapidly changing geopolitical landscapes. When Hamas terrorists brutally attack Israeli civilians and cower behind Palestinian children, when we mark the second anniversary of Russia’s inhuman and unjustified war against Ukraine, when Houthis assault commercial ships navigating the Red Sea and endanger global shipping routes and global food security, we see how critical Cyprus’ stability is.

The American Embassy in Nicosia is partnering with Cyprus to enhance security cooperation, support European resilience, counter terrorism, illicit finance and mala fide actors, and to further facilitate travel and exchanges between our countries. And, as always, we endeavour to increase bicommunal engagement in Cyprus to achieve progress toward a comprehensive and durable solution to the Cyprus Problem. Progress toward resolving the Cyprus Problem would be a tremendous step in enhancing regional stability and we welcome the recent appointment of the UN Secretary General’s Personal Envoy to Cyprus as she engages the sides to seek common ground for the resumption of talks.

The US and Cyprus maintain robust commercial relations, with US direct investment in Cyprus standing at $10.4 billion in 2022, while several US companies have chosen the island as a base for their operations. What makes Cyprus such an appealing destination for American investors? And in which sectors do you see the potential to boost commercial relations between the two countries?

The US-Cyprus relationship has never been stronger, largely due to the deep commercial and economic ties between our two countries. Cyprus’ position as the easternmost member of the EU, with strong regional relations with Israel, the Arab world, northern Africa, fellow EU members and the UK, no doubt appeals to investors looking for stability. This island presents an inviting market for American tech companies looking to commercialise research, nurture innovation and encourage entrepreneurship. Issues like advancing Cyprus’ digital transformation, unleashing an ICT ecosystem, harnessing the power of AI technologies to drive growth and tackling cybersecurity threats are of critical importance to American and Cypriot businesses alike. Cyprus’ commitment to bolstering economic growth is clear and the United States is eager to be the partner of choice to meet these ambitious expectations. At the same time, existing American investments must find pathways to profitability and meaningful partnerships with key ministries for Cyprus to attract additional American investors.

Conversely, Cyprus’ thriving tech sector, a key driver of GDP growth, views the US as a significant market for exporting technologies. What initiatives or policy changes are under consideration to broaden avenues for the local sector to sell in the United States?

At the Embassy, we have a team committed to ensuring that American enterprise and American products are what come to mind when Cypriots look for trusted business partners. Congress and the American people have high expectations in this regard – our partnership with the American Chamber of Commerce in Cyprus is at the very core of this effort. The United States is open to increasing trade with our partners and these are commercial decisions made by private sector actors. I hope that, as American companies doing business in Cyprus find success, we will be able to interest a broader range of American investors. Of course, what is happening in the energy sector sends high-profile signals to American business leaders about the climate in Cyprus, so what is most important is that we have success stories, as these breed more success. We will keep working towards that together. The strength of the Cypriot investment climate is derived from how successfully it attracts and retains foreign direct investment from responsible, accountable sources. We need to be opening more doors, paving the way for Cyprus to benefit more fully from the access to global markets that American business offers.

Some €1.2 billion in Russian-owned assets managed by Cyprus-registered companies were frozen in compliance with sanctions imposed on Russia. With a new EU sanctions package coming into force this month, what should we expect from the US?

The United States remains committed to using sanctions as one of many tools to impose costs on Russia for its illegal and brutal full-scale invasion of Ukraine. As long as Russia persists in prosecuting its illegal war against the Ukrainian people, the US, UK, EU and other partners will continue to go after those who are fuelling the war. So, if there are companies or individuals in Cyprus that contribute to the Kremlin’s ability to prosecute this war, to acquire the material they need to make or buy equipment, we will continue to target them and we will do it in cooperation with Cyprus. We have a history of long-term cooperation between the FBI and the Cyprus Police, the Ministry of Justice, MOKAS, and other law enforcement agencies. The question is: what more we can do together? That is what we are currently working on. The US Department of Justice’s Resident Legal Advisor (RLA) programme in Cyprus creates opportunities for rule of law stakeholders to exchange best practices in the fight against transnational crime, by offering skills development programmes and exchanges for partners in Cyprus, including the police, prosecutors and the judiciary.

In recent years, Cyprus has ramped up its efforts to combat money laundering, working closely with the US – in 2023, a team of US experts came to the island to aid the Government’s efforts. Can you tell us more about these collaborative anti-money laundering initiatives?

This is a really important question in light of the transatlantic consensus on countering Russia and supporting Ukraine. Cyprus has an important role to play in countering its reputation as a place that has been utilised by malign financial actors – sanctions evaders, shell companies and others enabling the Kremlin’s war. A lot of people have been working hard to change not just the perception of Cyprus’ role but also to really change its role, and the United States is a willing partner in that effort. We welcome President Christodoulides’ commitment to addressing illicit finance, a scourge that afflicts most countries today, and his directives to strengthen the integrity of the banking and legal sector. The United States and Cyprus have cooperated on anti-money laundering efforts, countering sanctions evasion and combating other forms of illicit finance. This cooperation continues and will add a new line of effort as US law enforcement experts work with their counterparts.

What can you tell us about the number of US citizens residing in Cyprus and their main occupations?

I wish I could say I have this information at my fingertips but it’s just not something we track at the Embassy. As Ambassador to Cyprus, I have had the opportunity to meet Americans who reside here, who study and work here, and whose ties of family and friendship to this island are enduring.

How do you perceive Cyprus’ lifestyle and culture? Are there specific aspects of local life that have left a lasting impression on you during your time here?

I have found Cyprus to be a wonderful and welcoming home. From the gracious hospitality of many new friends to the collaboration between our governments, it has been a pleasure to get to know Cypriots from across the island. I appreciate every minute I am outdoors, enjoying the unparalleled beauty and the history of the island. And of course, I have to mention how much fun I’ve had attending both football matches and concerts. I’m looking forward to more opportunities to get to know Cyprus better.

(This interview first appeared in the February edition of GOLD magazine. Click here to view it.)

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