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Russia and the Cyprus gambit

17.05.2012 - 14:53

Russia’s age-old ambition of securing a foothold in the Mediterranean has been achieved not only through the establishment of a naval base at Tartus in Syria but also because of its long-standing relationship with Cyprus.

In 1955 the Greek Cypriot leader, Archbishop Makarios, attended the Bandung Conference in Indonesia, which laid the foundation for the Non-Aligned Movement.

It was as the first president of Cyprus that Makarios six years later took part in the founding meeting of the NAM in Belgrade. When Cyprus became independent in 1960, it was with ‘a fettered independence’ that shared power between the Greek Cypriot majority and the Turkish Cypriot minority and was guaranteed by the United Kingdom, Greece and Turkey.

The Greek Cypriot struggle for self-determination began with the EOKA revolt against Britain in 1955 and the constitution that was imposed on Cyprus was seen by both the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots as an interim measure before they could achieve their ultimate aims – enosis (union with Greece) and taksim (partition).

As Christopher Hitchens put it, “both sides circled around each other like scorpions in a bottle.”

It was in the name of self-determination that Makarios enlisted the support of the Non-Aligned Movement and the Soviet bloc, which ultimately led to the Greek junta’s coup against Makarios and Turkey’s intervention in 1974. As the Greek prime minister George Papandreou wrote to President Johnson in June 1964, “If Natification [NATO membership] of Cyprus does not occur, the island will inevitably be transformed into another Cuba”.

In fact, it was the threat of Soviet intervention in the event of a Turkish invasion in 1964 that brought East and West to the brink of a new Cuba crisis. Cyprus also imported Soviet arms from Egypt and Czechslovakia, and Russian support has continued to the present day. The purchase of S-300 missiles in 1997 resulted in a new confrontation with Turkey and Russian hardware can be seen at Independence Day celebrations.

In 1978 an Anglo-American Canadian plan for the reunification of Cyprus was initially accepted by both parties but was torpedoed by the Cypriot communist party, AKEL, acting on instructions from Moscow. And in April 2004 Cypriot Foreign Minister (and now Presidential Commissioner) George Iacovou was sent to Moscow to secure a Russian veto of the Security Council resolution in support of the Annan Plan.

Ironically, after the Greek Cypriots rejected the Annan Plan, the best hope for reunification was the election of AKEL’s general secretary, Demetris Christofias, as president in 2008. Educated in Moscow and a fluent Russian speaker, Christofias shared the same trade-union background as his Turkish Cypriot counterpart, Mehmet Ali Talat.

However, talks suffered a major setback when Talat was replaced by Derviş Eroğlu, who insisted on the equal sovereignty of two peoples rather than the single sovereignty of a federal state. Last year the Turkish Cypriot Trade Unions’ Platform organised two mass demonstrations against Turkish rule and in a letter to Ban Ki-moon rejected any proposal based on two separate states but instead stated their will to be the politically equal co-founder of a United Federal Cyprus.

Christofias has announced his intention not to run again in the presidential elections next February, ostensibly because he has failed to honour his election pledge to solve the Cyprus problem. The real reason is his catastrophic drop in popularity after the explosion at the Mari naval base in July last year, which killed 13 people and destroyed a nearby power station.

In January 2009 98 containers of Iranian munitions were confiscated from a Cypriot-flagged Russian freighter bound for Syria and stored in an open field at the naval base. According to a leaked report Christofias had assured Bashar al-Assad the cargo would remain in Cyprus until it could be returned to either Syria or Iran. Cyprus had also refused assistance from the US, Britain, France and Germany to dispose of the munitions and a request by the UN Sanctions Committee to inspect the cargo was stalled.

There were mass demonstrations outside the presidential palace and an independent report found that the President had “failed miserably” to take the necessary measures. In a similar incident in January a

Russian ship bound for Syria put in at Limassol because of bad weather and was found to carry “dangerous cargo”. Despite an assurance it would not sail to Syria, the ship continued to Tartus and unloaded 60 tonnes of ammunition.

Cyprus functions as an offshore financial centre for Russia, so that the island figures as Russia’s largest source of foreign investment. On a state visit two years ago President Medvedev stated that investment in Russia through Cyprus exceeded 50 billion dollars, and in May 2010 alone an estimated $18.7 billion was paid into local banks from Russian sources. There are also over 60,000 Russians living in Cyprus and 40 percent of property buyers are Russian.

The Cypriot economy has been heavily hit by exposure to Greek debt, but a Russian loan of €2.5 billion is expected to cover refinancing requirements for 2012. One Cypriot bank may need a bailout by the end of June, which might make it necessary for the government to apply to the European Financial Stability Facility for a loan.

Russia also has a vested interest in the delivery route for the offshore gas finds in Cyprus and Israel’s Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). Gazprom has put in a bid for the construction of a gas transmission pipeline in Greece and both Gazprom and Novatek have put in a bid in a second licensing round for Cyprus’ offshore reserves.

However, Turkey has given permission to the Turkish Petroleum Corporation to drill in six areas that belong to Cyprus’ EEZ. Russia has already manifested its authority by despatching a battle group to the eastern Mediterranean, and the Russian Ambassador to Cyprus, Vyacheslav Shumskiy, has stated that Moscow fully supports the sovereign right of Cyprus to exploit its natural resources.