By Stefanos Evripidou
THE LAST six months have seen a fundamental shift in Cyprus’ foreign policy, away from “doubtful” positions of the past to a “clear and assertive” stance on key developments in the volatile region, Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides told the Sunday Mail.
The shift in policy is considered an investment, geared towards proving Cyprus’ credibility as a reliable partner to the West in return for which the country hopes to reap dividends later, the minister said.
In an interview with the Sunday Mail, Kasoulides laid out his ministry’s plans for anchoring Cyprus’ foreign policy in Western waters by proving Cyprus’ worth as a relevant and useful EU actor in the troublesome region of the eastern Mediterranean.
“This is exactly the argument we want to make. And we have proven within six months, through our actions, that we are a reliable and credible partner in facing today’s threats to the existing security architecture,” said Kasoulides.
“And the threat is definitely not Russia, because the Cold War is over. The threat is terrorism, extremism, fundamentalism, nuclear proliferation, trafficking of human beings and other forms of organised crime. And we are at the frontline of this threat,” he said.
The minister listed a number of “unequivocal” steps taken by the government of President Nicos Anastasiades since taking power in March that attest to the new shift in foreign policy: extraditing an Iranian national to the US on suspicion of violating UN arms sanctions; prosecuting (and convicting) a Hezbollah member of plotting to attack Israeli citizens in Cyprus; and rerouting a Cyprus-flagged container ship carrying dual use material believed to fall under the EU sanctions regime on Syria.
Kasoulides, a former Member of the European Parliament (MEP), stressed that these actions were in stark contrast to the previous government’s policy where, at best, “there was doubt as to where we stand” on key issues.
He gave as examples the Monchegorsk ship carrying the munitions that eventually exploded at Mari, and the Russian-operated Chariot ship which was allowed to leave Limassol port carrying ammunition and headed for Syria.
Kasoulides said the “change of approach” came from the fear that a “monothematic” foreign policy centred on differences with Turkey risked making Cyprus “irrelevant” and “boring” for interlocutors on the international stage.
“So the first choice of this government is to give emphasis to a specific and assertive foreign policy on other issues than the Cyprus problem” without abandoning the rights of the Cyprus Republic sometimes disputed by Turkey.
“Just to say we have very good relations with our neighbours is not enough. We have to be relevant in all developments in this very volatile and important region that usually, not just now, attracts the attention of the whole world. Cyprus’ foreign policy has to count,” he said.
And because of its geographic location, on the edge of an important yet unstable region, Cyprus can add value to the EU’s common foreign and security policy, he said.
“Just having a foreign policy that retracts into the safety of the lowest common denominator does not offer any benefit,” he said, adding: “Our policy of being a credible and useful partner has to pay dividends for the national interests of this country, without any doubt.”
Earlier this month, Kasoulides visited Cairo to meet the new Egyptian leadership despite heightened fears of an imminent US-led strike on Syria and ongoing turmoil in the North African country.
While some international partners questioned the legitimacy of the Egyptian military forcing from power the democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi, Kasoulides was clear that this was simply the latest stage in the ongoing Egyptian revolution which began in January 2011.
“This was not a coup. We have known coups in Cyprus and in Greece and there is no similarity whatsoever.
“Certainly, some may argue differently, but you have to take a position. It’s either this or the other and we have chosen.”
During his visit, Kasoulides proposed enhancing bilateral cooperation on energy issues. The interim Egyptian government went a step further, proposing a trilateral consultations process and cooperation between Cyprus, Greece and Egypt on a range of issues going beyond energy.
On Syria: “We made a choice there as well. (President Bashar al-) Assad sooner or later will go. As things appear at the moment it will be later and not sooner. Even if he stays… how can he help us?”
Regarding doubts over the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, Kasoulides said Cyprus was not in a position to reach its own conclusions.
“We have never said who used the chemical weapons. We have unequivocally condemned use of chemical weapons as a crime against humanity which should not remain without consequences,” he said.
In any case, Cyprus was never asked its opinion.
“It was asked to serve as shelter for the evacuation (from the nearby region) of all foreign nationals from EU and other friendly countries. So Cyprus has to preserve this capacity as a shelter, which is incompatible with it becoming party to any kind of military operation in Syria.”
But this did not prevent widespread concern in Cyprus that British bases on the island made it a target for possible retaliation attacks by Assad.
Asked to clarify the terms of the Treaty of Establishment of the Cyprus Republic, Kasoulides said the treaty stipulates clearly that the UK should consult the Cyprus Republic government on events of this nature, and take into serious consideration its opinion.
“But the ultimate decision-makers are the British. And so far, on this issue, not only were we consulted, but they are not going to use the Akrotiri base as a launching pad for military strikes, nor were they planning to before the House of Commons vote (against British involvement). Not because we asked them to but because they themselves so decided, so there is no issue here.”
However, the Syrian conflict has served to highlight the risk that engagement in the region poses to Cyprus, whatever choice Britain makes.
“This is a very serious issue. It is true and that is why at the end of the crisis with Syria, we need to take stock of what has happened and discuss this fact very seriously with our partners and other countries,” he said.
“The issue of security for Cyprus has always been the threat from Turkey. Now I think everybody must sit down and reconsider, and begin to see Cyprus as the frontier post of the EU, if not the Western world as I call it.”
In a possible reference to Cyprus’ desire to join NATO’s anteroom Partnership for Peace (PfP), Kasoulides said other countries needed to “review their position of neutrality and equidistance between the two sides of the Cyprus issue, and also view the issues that don’t have anything to do with the dispute with Turkey, but have to do with the fact that we are the frontier, at least of the EU”.
And how will Cyprus’ relationship with Russia evolve in the process?
“We will maintain our relations with Russia. I see nothing incompatible. The Cold War is over. Russia now has something much more than PfP. Russia has a strategic partnership with NATO. They hold joint military exercises.”
It is Cyprus that remains the only EU member state with no relationship with NATO.
“We need some kind of relationship. And the most innocent programmes that exist are within the PfP.”
Does Cyprus stand a chance of getting in, given Turkey’s track record of vetoing Cyprus’ membership to international organisations?
“Let me put it this way. I think a process to bring things to maturity before we apply is necessary. It is much more important for us to declare our disposition and desire to join in order to give the EU and NATO an opportunity to resolve existing problems than the end result.”
On Turkey, the minister said the large country will remain in the eyes of the US and EU an important partner and ally in the region.
“This will never just suddenly go away. And Cyprus has no ambition to change this position vis-a-vis Turkey and its allies and partners.”
But through its foreign policy, he argued, Cyprus can demonstrate, particularly in its triangular relationship with Israel and Greece, that there is another solid platform the West can rely on.
Even if relations between Israel and Turkey improve, this is not a zero-sum game, and ties between Cyprus and Israel are there to stay regardless.
“The relations between Israel and Turkey, whatever their future is going to be, will never be the same again as they were a decade ago. If there is ever an improvement of their relations, this will be based on interests. In the case of Cyprus, Greece and Israel, there is also a commonality of values, which is not the case with Turkey.”
And the benefits emanating from this strengthened relationship with Israel can already be seen through “the Greek-Jewish alliance within the American congress and within US decision-making circles”.
So, how do these developments impact the Cyprus problem, where Greek Cypriots have faced an uphill battle since 2004 to convince the international community of their will for a solution?
“First, it takes two to tango. And second, President Anastasiades and I are in no need of credentials in terms of our political will to solve the Cyprus problem. Our past speaks for itself.”
Kasoulides refused to be drawn into details on efforts to restart the peace talks, saying only Turkey was the most important stakeholder in the process.
He added that the two appointed negotiators have already met twice and will meet many other times until the ground is prepared for the two leaders to be able to meet, issue a common declaration and agree on the methodology to proceed with the talks.
When it is suggested the international community has become exasperated by the lack of progress on the issue, the minister loses the diplomacy.
“There is a notion there that certain people are exacerbated, and they never think how exacerbated we are. I give nobody the right to be more worried about Cyprus than me, and I don’t like the patronising.”
While the return of Varosha could provide an obvious, if somewhat unlikely, boost to the talks, a “game changer” in the dispute is the finding of natural gas in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
“It is a very strong incentive for all stakeholders, including Turkey.”
However, if it becomes the subject of threats and blackmail, it will complicate the Cyprus issue even further and make matters worse, he added.
In the very long-run, Kasoulides feels that hydrocarbons in the eastern Mediterranean could be used to bring all countries in the region closer together, taking as a historic example, the intricate regional collaboration of former enemies that followed the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community after the Second World War.
Cyprus, which has a common and adjacent EEZ with Lebanon, Israel and Egypt could play the role of common denominator, and help implement regional hydrocarbons cooperation.
“I don’t see it happening in the foreseeable future, but as a vision of a long-term perspective,” he said, adding, “For some other generations perhaps”.