By Elias Hazou
HEAVILY reliant on the Russian Federation economically and politically, Nicosia needs to maintain and boost ties with Moscow, yet at the same time as an EU member it must walk a fine line, especially at this juncture with the Ukraine crisis in full swing.
President Nicos Anastasiades’ trip to Russia is precisely about juggling these two – seemingly irreconcilable – goals, political commentator Louis Igoumenides told the Mail.
Having initially voted along with the rest of the EU for sanctions against Russia, Nicosia’s task will be to smooth this out with Moscow.
“For Cyprus, it’s a tough position to be in, but not an impossible one,” said the analyst.
“There’s some room for manoeuvre, and that’s what this visit is all about: mollifying the Russians through personal contacts, stressing the importance of our traditional relations and so forth. That might do the trick.”
The EU bloc and the United States are now mulling tougher sanctions against Russia after a recent cease-fire in the Ukraine was violated. On paper, an EU decision to impose new sanctions on Russia will require a unanimous vote. Where will Cyprus stand when it comes to that?
On Tuesday, commenting on a Cyprus Business Mail report, the government spokesman told the state broadcaster that boosting relations with Russia was not a zero-sum game.
Predictably, Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides has been stressing that Nicosia favours a diplomatic resolution to the Ukraine crisis. But when push comes to shove, will Cyprus risk bucking the EU trend?
“Most likely we’ll find a way not to vote either way, perhaps by abstaining. That way we can play off each side against the other,” suggested Igoumenides.
What’s more, there is the long-standing Russian request for access to air and naval facilities on the island.
Again, Nicosia cannot grant Moscow military use of the Andreas Papandreou airbase in Paphos, but it may meet the Russians half-way.
As both the President and his foreign minister have clarified, any facilities given would be limited to evacuating Russian nationals from the Middle East area in emergencies.
It’s understood that the Russian government officially made the request for use of the Paphos airbase over a year ago. Nicosia, aware and wary of the West’s reaction – even outright hostility – to this eventuality, has opted not to respond to the request. It’s expected that behind closed doors in Moscow this week all this will be discussed in diplomatic-speak.
The issue of a base in Cyprus became pertinent due to the ongoing conflict in Syria and Russia’s concerns about the possible loss of its key naval base in Tartus.
To Hubert Faustmann, associate professor for history and political science at the University of Nicosia, granting the Russians full military use of a base here would be a “colossal” foreign policy blunder.
It’s not clear whether Nicosia had at any point seriously considered the Russian request. More likely, talk of updating a defence pact with Russia was a bluff – perhaps a tit-for-tat stemming from Anastasiades’ frustration with the Americans.
The President had expected the United States to intercede with Turkey so that the latter would lift the NAVTEX, or marine advisory, for hydrocarbons explorations in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone. Washington did not deliver.
The first advisory expired on December 30 and was not renewed by Turkey. On January 5 Anastasiades stated he would not resume peace talks unless Ankara guaranteed it would cease explorations in the EEZ. The following day Turkey issued a new NAVTEX.
Anastasiades had also thrown in a carrot, offering for the first time to the Turkish Cypriots to discuss the sharing of the island’s hydrocarbons resources at the tail end of the talks process.
“He probably felt let down by the Americans, not to mention he was exposed on the domestic scene, and perhaps the talk of boosting ties with Russia was an impulsive reaction. But I doubt Anastasiades, who has always been pro-West, would take this too far,” Faustmann said.
But even a watered-down agreement, granting Russia access to ports and an airbase for strictly humanitarian purposes, would be greeted with suspicion by the US-EU.
“It might be for humanitarian purposes etc, but such deals often have loopholes,” Faustmann noted.
Whether the airbase is a hot issue or simply hot air and media speculation, is anyone’s guess. This week, in the British House of Lords, Lord Sharkey posed an oral question to Her Majesty’s Government.
It said: “Lord Sharkey will ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the governments of the Republic of Cyprus and other European Union member states about the proposal to establish a Russian military base on Cyprus.”
The question is to be discussed at the House of Lords on March 10. A week ago, UK Foreign Office Minister Baroness Anelay said before the House of Lords that London was aware of press “allegations” over the terms of a military agreement between Russia and the Cyprus Republic.
But London was also aware of the denials by Nicosia, she added.
That the matter has come up at the House of Lords should not be blown out of proportion, foreign chief diplomat Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis said when contacted by the Mail.
Marcoullis, who served as foreign minister from August 2011 to February 2013, said there was no reason why Cyprus should not offer Russia limited use of air and naval facilities on the island.
“We do the same for France and Germany, so why not Russia?” she noted.
And she did not see any foreign policy contradiction, given that the EU, of which Cyprus is a member, is not a defence alliance.
“Turkey is part of NATO and yet has strong economic and political ties with Russia,” she offered.
Marcoullis went on to stress the importance of not alienating the Russians. Since the 1960s, she said, Moscow has been unwavering in its support to Cyprus in the UN Security Council.
“Take for example the UNSC resolution calling on members not to recognize the breakaway regime. For a country the size of Cyprus, the wording of such resolutions carry real weight, and we can’t afford to lose the support of a key long-time ally like Russia.”