By Angelos Anastasiou
PRESIDENT Nicos Anastasiades’ remarks against EU-imposed sanctions on Russia at a press conference in Moscow were “surprising” and “made no sense”, according to political analysts, as they jeopardise Cyprus’ relations with the EU and the West for not much in return.
Anastasiades, elected president on a pro-West campaign pledge of joining NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme and who spent the first 18 months of his term building a conspicuously strong relationship with the United States, told the world on Thursday that “neither military means, nor sanctions can provide the answer” to the Ukraine issue.
And on Friday, Anastasiades was reported as saying from Saint Petersburg that Cyprus will “cooperate [with Russia] without regard to who reacts or may have other concerns”.
On a four-day official visit to Russia this week, Anastasiades also signed a number of agreements with the Russian Federation, including formalising an existing agreement which allows the Russian fleet access to Cypriot ports for humanitarian purposes, and “combating terrorism, drug-trafficking, and smuggling”.
The agreement was interpreted by some foreign media as creating a “Russian military foothold” and a “beachhead” in the Eastern Mediterranean. The British press, in particular, quoted military and political sources who expressed fears that the agreement would allow Russian vessels to eavesdrop on electronic intelligence gathering from the British Bases.
Many commentators, however, tend to think that it was not so much the agreement as Anastasiades’ subsequent remarks that were cause for alarm in EU and US diplomatic quarters.
“The agreement is fine, there is nothing there to cause friction,” a veteran politician who spoke on condition of anonymity told the Sunday Mail on Saturday. “The main problem is that when [Anastasiades] gets angry, more often than not he can’t control his mouth.”
The source said that the Russia trip was most likely designed as a harmless crowd-pleasing manoeuvre for internal consumption, which suddenly turned sour after the president’s comments at the press conference.
“Whether we like it or not, we are part of the EU. Obviously, we need to be friends with Russia, but we can’t play one power against another. That is recklessly dangerous.” the source said.
“We can’t think that we are bigger than we actually are.”
Another source, a political analyst who also opted for anonymity, said the move was so controversial that some people have wondered whether Anastasiades’ ill health might be clouding his political judgement.
“Doubts over whether the government really is after a solution to the Cyprus problem also started surfacing, and there is also concern regarding the inner workings of the presidential palace – it seems that an inward-looking situation has developed there, which does not allow for much external advice to come in and tends to magnify and reinforce internally-held views,” the source said.
James Ker-Lindsay, senior research fellow on the Politics and International Relations of South East Europe at the London School of Economics and Political Science, was also sceptical of Anastasiades’ move.
“There’s a complex spectre here,” he told the Sunday Mail. “Greek Cypriots have traditionally viewed Russia as a vital ally since the early days of the Republic’s life, and many on the island feel that Russian support at the Security Council has been one of the few things Cyprus could count on. On the other hand, they feel let down by the European Union. And then we have a pro-West president who has expressed disappointment in recent months over things like the United Nations Secretary General’s report on Cyprus, or the stance of the United States.”
“But right now, at a time when questions are being asked across Europe about Russia, other countries look at this development and feel that certain EU partners appear to be breaking ranks – breaking Europe’s united front.”
Though he acknowledged that Cyprus is by no means the only one to side with Russia, citing Greece and Hungary as examples, Ker-Lindsay pointed out that Cyprus could have opted to refrain from stirring diplomatic tensions by remaining neutral on the issue.
“But actively going to Moscow and signing military agreements, and then voicing opposition to sanctions imposed by the EU as a bloc – let’s just say there is concern at the idea that Russia is the great big friend of Cyprus, as opposed to the West,” he said.
Meanwhile, experts have attributed the mostly British concern over the agreement between Russia and Cyprus – as well as Anastasiades’ remarks – to Britain’s traditionally close ties with Cyprus, and perhaps even to their perceived role as US mouthpiece within the EU.
However, Ker-Lindsay felt that reactions from the UK have been blown out of proportion by the local media.
“There has been some media attention – not that much,” he said. “It certainly is a source of concern and annoyance behind the diplomatic scenes, but there is also a sense that a strong reaction could make matters worse.”
Indeed, on Saturday two local hard-line opposition parties – the Citizens’ Alliance, which has long trumpeted its support for closer ties with Russia, and the Greens, which has long adopted harsh anti-British rhetoric – issued statements criticising what they called “Britain’s traditionally subversive approach towards Cyprus”.
“We hope that the president’s improved image is substantiated and remains unaffected by any reactions from our Western strategic allies and their local representatives,” the Citizens’ Alliance said.
“Our European partners maintain a Pontius-Pilate stance towards Cyprus, imposing sanctions on Russia for the Ukraine crisis but ignoring Turkish actions against Cyprus,” the Green party said in a statement.