Cyprus becomes the black sheep of the EU

Cyprus’ president Nicos Anastasiades, left, and Greece’s prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis arrive for the EU summit in Brussels (AFP).

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The Republic of Cyprus may be tiny in size, but it certainly punches above its weight. The island’s internationally-recognised Greek Cypriot government proved that in September by almost taking the European Union’s foreign policy hostage. The bloc needed all 27 member states to approve economic sanctions on Belarus, but Nicosia refused to give its approval until EU leaders could promise to implement similar sanctions on Turkey if it did not withdraw its seismic vessels from a disputed maritime area claimed by Cyprus.

Nicosia’s stance irked much criticism from its EU partners, a number of whom argued that sanctions on Belarus and Turkey were two separate issues that should be independent of each other.

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By insisting on its stance, Cyprus was taking a tremendous risk, as there was no united resolve among EU countries on how to deal with Turkey. Considering that Ankara holds more intrinsic leverage in the realm of geopolitics, it is understandable that given the choice, some EU countries would rather upset Nicosia than risk waking up the sleeping giant that is Turkey.

In the past, Turkey has shown what it is capable of achieving in Europe, as hundreds of thousands of refugees from conflict zones in the Middle East and Central Asia travelled through its territory to overwhelm the EU’s asylum system. The tidal wave of migrants brought EU states to loggerheads as borders went up and poorer Mediterranean countries, like Greece, were left to bear the brunt of the crisis, with very little support from their allies. Today, refugees on a number of Greek islands in the Aegean outnumber locals, while Greek police reinforcements from the mainland deal not only with rioting migrants who complain of inhumane conditions in their squalid, overcrowded camps, but also Greek islanders who accuse Athens of breaking its promise to spread the new arrivals out across the country and using their homeland as a dumping ground.


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Perhaps that is why even Greece, Cyprus’ closest ally, stayed surprisingly mum on Nicosia’s approach to the dilemma as other EU nations started pondering whether or not to push through with the Belarus sanctions regardless of Cypriot objections.

Greece, buoyed by French support, verbally backed EU sanctions on Turkey, but did not mention anything about linking these sanctions to Belarus. However, just ahead of the much-anticipated EU summit in which these two issues would be tackled, Greece and Turkey announced that they had agreed to revive talks regarding their maritime dispute in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkish seismic vessels were abruptly recalled from waters off the Greek islands of Crete and Kastellorizo, and Cyprus was left alone to face what could have winded up becoming a major embarrassment.

Nonetheless, President Nicos Anastasiades’ administration was spared its blushes when the EU issued a strong statement in support of Cyprus, threatening sanctions on Turkey if it didn’t withdraw its ships from around the island. Shortly afterwards, Turkey did just that, and the EU was able to pass the Belarus sanctions smoothly. Regardless, Cyprus proved its point. It proved that it was not an EU member to be overlooked simply because of its small size. It also proved to Turkey that it had the ability to rally powerful allies who could collectively match, if not surpass Turkey’s sway in the geopolitical arena. But that may have come at a cost.

More trouble than it’s worth

There has generally been a distrust towards Cyprus from other EU members since it was accepted into the bloc in 2004. Senior officials in Europe have even gone as far as expressing regret over the decision to grant Cyprus membership to the EU owing to the still unresolved “Cyprus Problem”. Cyprus is the only state in the EU that does not exert full control over its entire claimed territory. The northern part of the island is host to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), a breakaway state of Turkish Cypriots who declared independence from the Republic of Cyprus in 1983, nine years after a Turkish military intervention split the island. The TRNC is not recognised internationally, and is considered by Greek Cypriot authorities in the island’s south to be a Turkish occupation of its territory. The EU shares the same position, although the situation in Cyprus pre-dates the island’s accession to the bloc.

There was a last-gasp attempt to resolve the frozen conflict in Cyprus before its EU accession by holding parallel referendums on both sides of the island that could have resulted in it being reunified. A positive result would have led to Turkish troops pulling out of Cyprus, with the possibility for the door for Turkey to also join the EU being opened. With Turkey’s encouragement, the Turkish Cypriots largely voted in favour of reunification, but the Greek Cypriots voted down the plan, which was spearheaded by then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. Despite the outcome, a divided Republic of Cyprus joined the EU as a full and equal member, veto rights and all. The Turkish Cypriots, meanwhile, despite being recognised as citizens of the Republic of Cyprus and therefore EU citizens, were left with no real representation in Brussels and therefore no way to voice their worries in the European Parliament.

The Greek and Cypriot Republic flags are visible across the separating green line from the Turkish and Turkish Cypriot flags in Nicosia (GETTY IMAGES).

While the EU does not recognise the TRNC, it does, with Turkish Cypriot permission and Greek Cypriot blessing, fund and manage restoration projects in the Turkish-controlled north. The EU also leads on cultural peace initiatives, often based in the UN-controlled buffer zone that runs along the ceasefire line, to help bring Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots together. The EU is therefore able to act as a peace-maker on a local, grassroots level between the island’s divided communities. But, as a direct result of it accepting the Republic of Cyprus as a member state while its government remains devoid of Turkish Cypriot representation, the EU is not able to play the role of an impartial arbitrator on an international level. Due to Nicosia’s veto, the EU likewise cannot make progress on Turkey’s accession process to the bloc. This means that instead of delivering a batch of blue flags to be flown as far as the borders of Syria, Iraq and Iran, the EU has been dragged into a dispute with Turkey, home to the second largest army in NATO, along its evermore exposed southeastern frontier.

Russia’s mole in the EU

There are also concerns within the EU over Cyprus’ commitment to the bloc’s values. Nicosia has been under fire for its so-called “golden visas” scheme, which allows mega-investors to become citizens. The scheme has allowed shady oligarchs from Russia and China, some of whom are suspected of involvement in organised crime, to enter and exploit the EU via Cyprus.

Anastasiades’ government, as well as previous Greek Cypriot governments, have long had a soft spot for Russia. The island has become a second home for many Russian expatriates, many of whom have settled around the port city of Limassol, which has appropriately been dubbed “Limassolgrad”. Cyprus also serves as an offshore haven for huge amounts of Russian money. This perhaps explains why Cyprus consistently flouts EU rules and norms when dealing with Moscow. The Limassol port regularly hosts Russian warships that use it as a pit-stop in the Mediterranean. In the past, Cyprus even allowed Russian arms shipments destined for Syria to depart from the port in spite of EU embargoes.

Previous EU-led attempts to curb Russian influence in Cyprus has had very little impact. In 2013, when Cyprus was on the verge of bankruptcy amid the eurozone economic crisis, Nicosia was only able to secure a 10 billion euro bailout by agreeing to place a levy of 6.75 percent on bank deposits of over 100,000 euros. Russian investors in Cyprus were most hard hit by the levy. The EU hoped that by shaking Russian confidence in Cypriot banks, they’d ultimately abandon Cyprus, consequently setting the island up for greater economic integration into Europe. Having recovered from the crisis, however, Cyprus continues to encourage Russian investment, and its dependence on Russian money is increasingly showing in its foreign policy.

Unlike Turkey and Greece, Cyprus is not a NATO member. Until last year, Cyprus itself was subject to a US arms embargo, which Washington decided to lift on the condition that it no longer offers its facilities to the Russians. Anastasiades rejected this condition, and even when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced in his recent visit to the island the partial lifting of these embargoes as an incentive to help get the Greek Cypriots more onboard, Anastasiades’ government remained aloof on the subject.

Cyprus’ coastal resort town of Limassol — locally called ‘Limassolgrad’ — is stacked with high-rises owned by Moscow’s business elite. Above, a Russian supermarket (AFP/GETTY IMAGES).

In fact, many commentators have noted that Nicosia’s demands on Turkey to unlock the sanctions on Belarus came after Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov visited Cyprus at the beginning of September to mark 60 years of Russian-Cypriot ties. Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko, who is often referred to as Europe’s last dictator, is a strong Russian ally who has been infamous for keeping his country’s pro-European opposition out of power. Fearing a repeat of what happened in Ukraine in 2014, when demonstrators forced the country’s pro-Russian president to flee Kiev, Russia is eager to keep Lukashenko in power. It would therefore be no surprise if Russia seeks to court Cyprus to act as a mole within the EU in order to derail sanctions on their ally in Minsk. With Nicosia so heavily reliant on Russian money, it is hardly in a position to turn down such requests.

The delegation from Nicosia may have made their mark in Brussels, but it would certainly be unwise of the Greek Cypriots to allow their success to get to their heads and lead them to overestimate their importance. Cyprus remains the EU’s black sheep, and its behaviour has many of its European allies suspicious of its intentions.

Thus far, the only interest the Greek Cypriots have shown in regards to being part of the EU community is in gaining extra leverage against Turkey. Occasionally it is able to cherry-pick individual member states, like France, to help create an anti-Turkish front when their national interests overlap. Yet, from time to time, Cyprus demands more than the EU could possibly deliver, with even its closest ally Greece having to put stops on their relationship. When the EU can’t deliver, Nicosia rarely hesitates to seek that leverage from elsewhere, even if that means cooperating with non-EU states against the EU’s interests.

Test of loyalty

Another test for Cyprus will be in the conflict that has just broken out between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The Greek Cypriots are largely Orthodox Christians, just like the Armenians, and together, they share a similar hatred towards Turkey. Greek Cypriots and Armenians are therefore natural allies, while Azerbaijan is a Turkish ally. Cyprus is also home to a large Armenian diaspora (although nowhere as large as the Turkish Cypriot population). Meanwhile, Russia, another nation largely composed of Orthodox Christians, is also a key Armenian ally. Yet, although sympathies towards the Armenians are prevalent throughout European societies, it is more than likely that Russia is using Armenia to destabilise the region close to a junction through which an important gas pipeline is expected to pass. The pipeline — running through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey (and bypassing Armenia) before reaching Europe—aims to help the EU diversify its gas imports away from Russia.

While most EU states will call for calm, if the war between the Armenians and Azeris becomes a matter of supporting either one or the other, European nations that are more averse to Russia than they are to Turkey will be secretly rooting for the Azeris. In this instance, the Greek Cypriots may have to resist their more base instincts that incline them to support the Armenians, and accept that being part of the EU means putting aside one’s self for the greater good of the family, even if that equates to bowing down to Turkey’s supremacy. If the EU was almost prepared to disregard Cyprus’ veto for the sake of implementing sanctions on Belarus, one can only imagine where Cyprus would be left on even more pressing issues.

Ertan Karpazli is the Editor-in-Chief of Radio EastMed.
All views expressed by the writer are solely his own.

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All the latest news and geopolitical analyses from the Eastern Mediterranean.