PRESIDENT Anastasiades flies to Russia on Tuesday for his eagerly-awaited official visit at the invitation of President Putin. No other official visit by a Cyprus head of state has had the build-up, attracted such attention or been talked about as much as this Moscow trip. Party leaders, politicians, newspaper columnists and radio-show presenters have all been talking and writing about the visit since it was first announced – before the date had even been set – last October, telling Anastasiades what he should be discussing and what type of agreements he should sign with Putin.
Our political and media establishment have always considered Russia – and the Soviet Union – a great friend and supporter of Cyprus, which could always be relied on to help us out when we were in trouble, in stark contrast to the hated Americans and British that were always siding with Turkey. The official narrative, from the time of the Cold War, was that Moscow took a ‘principled stand’ on the Cyprus problem, whereas the US and NATO were responsible for all the harm caused to island. This simplistic approach has been the biggest and most long-lasting success of AKEL propaganda; the party that took its orders from and was funded by the Kremlin during the Soviet era.
This ‘special relationship’ continued after the collapse of the Soviet Union because of the establishment of Russian businesses in Cyprus and the big boost this gave to the economy, even though it had nothing to do with the Moscow government which, a few years ago, placed the island on black-list because of the failure of the tax authorities to provide it with information. There is no doubt that the presence of Russian businesses has been very beneficial to the economy, but if it were up to the Moscow government they would all have re-located to the Federation by now as part of Putin’s de-offshorisation drive.
But the unfounded belief that Russia would always help Cyprus pre-dates the growth of business relations. In the ’60s newspapers were regularly being fed misinformation by the Makarios government about Soviet troops coming to help the Greek Cypriots when Turkey was making threats; they never came. This myth is still alive. After the first Eurogroup meeting, two years ago, the then finance minister went to Moscow to seek financial assistance while our politicians were assuring us that Russia would help us out. No assistance was given and why should it have been? Putin had already loaned the Christofias government €2.5 billion and had no obligation whatsoever to bail Cyprus out again.
Our politicians once again assured us that Russia would come to the rescue in October last year when Turkey issued the navtex and sent the Barbaros into the Cypriot EEZ. Moscow, understandably, sat on the fence and issued a statement that urged both sides to show restraint and avoid actions that threatened the peace process. Its position was very similar to that of the US and Britain that had been lambasted for their stand. Immediately the politicians put across the simplistic view that we had lost Russia’s support because the Anastasiades government had decided to forge stronger relations with the US and had been seeking NATO membership.
This was why in the build-up to this visit some politicians have called for the signing of a defence agreement and urged the government to offer Russia military facilities and ‘align its interests with Moscow’s’ whatever that meant. Some newspapers reported that military bases could be offered and only a statement by the foreign minister, a couple of weeks ago, put an end to the speculation. There will be a defence agreement but it would be nothing more than the renewal of a much older one relating to the maintenance of military equipment and the provision of spare parts.
Anastasiades, who will be accompanied by three of his ministers, and Putin will also sign co-operation agreements on trade, energy, tourism, education, commercial shipping, telecommunications and agriculture, among other things. These are the type of issues that states which enjoy good relations sign agreements on. But our politicians and journalists should compare the Anastasiades visit to Putin’s visit to Turkey at the end of last year which demonstrated how the foundations of strong and deep relations between states are built.
Putin was accompanied by 10 ministers, he offered to lower the price of gas sold to Turkey, proposed the building of a gas pipeline that used Turkey as a transit point and set a target, with President Erdogan, of increasing two-way trade, currently at $33 billion, to $100 billion in the next six years. Strong relations between states are built on common interests, mutual benefits and thriving trade, not on myths, propaganda and wishful thinking.
This is in no criticism of Russia, which like any other country is pursuing what it considers its national interests, but an attempt to give Cyprus’ relations with Moscow a sense of perspective, the lack of which was depressingly evident again in the build up to Anastasiades’ visit.