By Jean Christou
Russian ambassador Stanislav Osadchiy’s statement last Monday that Cyprus was discussing a request from Moscow for military facilities in the fight against ISIS in Syria, has raised eyebrows in diplomatic circles where it was labelled an unacceptable interference in Cyprus’ affairs.
Osadchiy’s statement sparked hasty denials from both Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides and afterwards the Russian foreign ministry, with both of them saying Moscow had only asked for the same humanitarian facilities as France and Germany already have.
These would include assistance in evacuating Russian nationals from war zones and allowing refuelling to take place at the Andreas Papandreou air base in Paphos. Additionally the Russian military could use Cyprus’ ports and airports in an emergency but this comes under international law and applies to all countries.
But it was not so much what Osadchiy said that left diplomats scratching their heads but the where, when and why he said it.
First of all, the statement came within days of a visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during which Kasoulides stated publicly that Cyprus was discussing the granting only of humanitarian facilities to Russia. If Moscow was seeking wider military facilities, it would more logically have been brought up during Lavrov’s visit and not by his ambassador a few days after he left.
Secondly, Osadchiy was speaking of what would be have been monumental news not – as might be expected – after meeting with foreign ministry officials, but with the leader one of the smaller opposition parties, EDEK’s Marinos Sizopoulos, who has been pushing the government to offer military facilities to Russia, as have the Citizens Alliance.
Thirdly, the biggest question remains why the ambassador said anything at all, especially since it was quickly denied as being completely incorrect and Moscow had not even asked for such a thing.
Many in the diplomatic community have been taken aback by Osadchiy’s actions. One former Cypriot ambassador told the Sunday Mail that it was the main topic of a lunch conversation he had with two serving foreign diplomats in Cyprus during the week.
“They raised it immediately,” he said. None of the three could account for the ambassador’s actions. “Was it on instructions from Moscow or was it on his own initiative?” the former Cypriot diplomat said.
Whether it was the former, or the latter, what was clear was that Osadchiy – even if he had also raised the issue with the government – had still broken a number of protocols by making public statements on a high-profile matter of state following a meeting with an almost inconsequential political party.
“This was not customary diplomatic behaviour… to intervene in internal affairs. It is not the job of an ambassador and it’s not easy to understand,” the former diplomat added. “An ambassador has to act within the framework of diplomatic customs. There are no written rules but there are rules that are followed. We’ve never seen anything similar being done. It’s unacceptable.”
Protocols aside, Osadchiy’s statement, if it hadn’t been quickly nipped in the bud, could have caused international repercussions for Cyprus.
Russia’s air strikes in Syria are a source of great irritation to Western powers whose main aim is to oust Syria’s Moscow-backed Bashar al-Assad.
Even a whiff of discussion about offering military facilities to Russia, especially when it comes from the mouth of an ambassador, could have placed the government at odds with the same Western allies whose support it needs to help resolve the Cyprus issue, and to finance a solution.
It is also this turn to the West by the conservative government that is prompting the rejectionist parties to crank up the pressure to ‘turn back to Mother Russia’.
But Cyprus and Balkans expert James Ker-Lindsay, Senior Research Fellow at the London School of Economics told the Sunday Mail Russia has actually done very little in recent years to help efforts to resolve Cyprus. “Indeed, as far as I can see, it has not taken a single step to help with reunification efforts. Even when relations between Moscow and Ankara were good, there was never any sign that Russia tried to use that to press for a settlement,” he said. Neither had the Russian government done anything to foster bi-communal contacts.
“Serious questions could and should be asked,” he said, adding that various rumours that the Russian embassy has been increasing its contacts with the opposition were “troubling on a number of levels”.
Ker-Lindsay said it ran contrary to established diplomatic practice. Russia, he added, was lauded by the opposition for respecting the sovereignty of the Republic of Cyprus when Lavrov refused to cross to the north to meet Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci, “and yet working with that same opposition to put pressure on the government in this way actually amounts to an unacceptable interference in the domestic affairs of the country”.
The analyst said these contacts were also worrying as it suggested there could be some sort of collusion between the Russian embassy and the nationalist opposition.
“This obviously raises very serious concerns about how this will affect reunification efforts. Has the opposition identified Russia as a key ally in their efforts to try to scupper the talks? This is perhaps not as outrageous as it sounds,” Ker-Lindsay said.
A Western or NATO guaranteed Cyprus solution would be anathema to Moscow likely fearing a waning of its own long-time influence on the island. In what many saw as blatant interference in a country’s sovereign affairs, Osadchiy said as much in September this year. When asked in an interview with Turkish Cypriot newspaper Havadis about the issue of the guarantor powers post-solution, he said: “Russia cannot accept NATO guarantees.”
So whether Russia has entered an unholy alliance with the rejectionists remains to be seen as a solution draws closer. Moscow’s stated commitment to supporting a settlement agreed by the two sides will be put to the test at the UN Security Council if and when the time comes.
A former top-level Cypriot politician told the Sunday Mail: “The problem is the so-called rejectionists want by hook or by crook to create a situation where we want to appear as if we have other means in terms of the Cyprus problem. We have the Russian ambassador going around making speeches to support Cyprus and the opposition parties are making a meal of it. I do not think anyone [Moscow] sent him [with that message]. It’s out of the question,” he said.
The former politician said it was more likely the rejectionist parties were exerting their influence on Osadchiy rather than vice versa. His impression was that the Russian ambassador was a bit of a loose cannon and that the whole thing had not been properly thought through when he opened his mouth.
Former Foreign Minister George Iacovou didn’t necessarily agree.
He told the Sunday Mail an ambassador acting without instructions from the top was “almost unheard of”, especially when it came to Russia.
“It did not happen without instructions,” he said, and added that it was not normal to go through the opposition parties to make public statements on such a sensitive issue.
But Iacovou said given that ruling DISY does not have traditionally close ties with Moscow, compared with AKEL and the smaller parties, that might explain why the Russian ambassador was using that medium to push an agenda. “If all of the opposition parties got on board, it would be a means to pressure the government, making it hard for them to say no. It’s all tactics,” said Iacovou.
The subject matter was, he added, incredibly sensitive and should only have been handled through the foreign ministry, especially as the Russian foreign minister was in Cyprus just a few days beforehand.
“I saw Mr Kasouldies on TV. He handled it very well,” said Iacovou.
Osadchiy has been talking about discussing military facilities for Russia for at least a year, long before Russia began air strikes on Syria, and always after a meeting with one or other of the rejectionist parties whom he meets frequently, though the former Cypriot ambassador said in most of these cases, it is the parties who issue the invitations to the foreign diplomats.
It was one thing for the parties to promote their agendas, he said. “They exist to promote their positions.” A foreign ambassador’s job, he added, was to discuss the issues quietly with the government, especially defence matters. “That is the normal way of doing things.”
A second former Cypriot ambassador had a different take, however, when it came to foreign diplomats promoting agendas. “If using opposition politicians to promote the interests of the country’s ambassador were reprehensible that would have brought successive ambassadors of Cyprus to the United States under this category,” he said.