CYPRUS FEARS RUSSIA COULD WRECK REUNIFICATION
By SARA STEFANINI 1/12/17- POLITICΟ
Moscow has plenty to gain from keeping Greek and Turkish Cypriots divided.
GENEVA — As Cypriot leaders tussle with Greece, Turkey and the U.K. over the most delicate parts of an agreement to reunify the island, there’s a growing fear that Russia could spoil a deal. That’s because the Kremlin has little to gain from the end of a four-decade split between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.
A peace deal would ease tensions between the European Union and Turkey, open the way to formal cooperation between the EU and NATO (blocked because Turkey and Cyprus don’t officially recognize each other), give Turkey a new source of natural gas imports and hand Brussels a diplomatic success story after a series of blows last year. None of those advance Russia’s interests.
The fear on the Greek Cypriot side is that Moscow is using social and mass media, as well as ties to fringe nationalist political parties and the Greek Orthodox Church, to undermine the settlement talks.
“The government is aware of Russian activities and monitoring the situation,” said a source close to the government of Nicos Anastasiades, Cyprus’ internationally recognized president and the Greek Cypriot leader.
The concern comes amid reports of the Kremlin intervening in U.S. and European elections with cyberattacks, “fake news” propaganda and support for populist and anti-establishment movements.
Russia isn’t directly involved in the discussions underway this week in Geneva between Anastasiades and Mustafa Akıncı, president of the self-declared Turkish Cypriot state, and, as of Thursday, officials from Greece, Turkey, the U.K., the United Nations and the European Union. But the worry is that it will use its soft power to influence public opinion, especially if the two sides reach a peace deal and start campaigning for a referendum in the coming months. There’s some indication that Moscow has already started to do that. Russia’s ambassador to Cyprus, Stanislav Osadchiy, has drawn criticism on the island over the past month by sending mixed messages about his government’s position on reunification.
In what the Greek Cypriot newspaper Politis described as a “political blunder,” Osadchiy was the only foreign representative to attend a seminar in late December between five smaller political parties, where the focus was on opposing reunification and attacking Anastasiades’ role in the talks. He was quickly summoned to the Cypriot foreign ministry to explain, Politis reported. A few days later, Osadchiy stressed his government’s support for a settlement deal, as well as its readiness to attend the Geneva meeting if the U.N. Security Council’s five permanent members were invited.
“We first of all support the solution, we expect difficult days ahead, but Russia sincerely wants a solution to the Cyprus problem and we hope that one will be achieved in Geneva,” Osadchiy said on December 30, according to the Famagusta Gazette. The Russian embassy in Cyprus could not be reached for comment.
Despite talk last month of inviting the Security Council members, in the end the Geneva meeting was limited to the Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders and the three countries currently charged with guaranteeing Cyprus’ independence and security. The United Nations facilitates the negotiations, as it has done since the process started 20 months ago, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, attended as supportive observers. The aim of the open-ended session is to come to a broad political agreement on the biggest sticking points in the talks, then allow Anastasiades and Akıncı to return to Cyprus and tie up the final issues.
The Cypriot government is wary of Russia because Moscow has caused problems in the past, trying to disrupt the only other chance Cyprus has ever had at reunification — a 2004 referendum on a U.N.-driven deal. That agreement failed because Greek Cypriots rejected it, but Russia also vetoed a resolution in the U.N. Security Council on changes that would have taken effect if Cyprus had reunified, while the 14 other members voted in favor. It was Moscow’s first veto since 1994.
The question is whether Russia will do the same, either publicly or secretly, this time around.
“Russia is gaining something of the upper hand, has always been opposed to reunification, and now wields a large amount of influence over the process via the U.N. and via Turkey,” said Mujtaba Rahman, head of the Eurasia Group consultancy’s Europe analysis. Along with Osadchiy’s attendance at the political seminar, there’s concern in Nicosia about negative news coverage of Anastasiades and apparent efforts to discredit him and the deal he’s negotiating. One source of this coverage is the Moscow-based journalist and blogger John Helmer — named by KGB agents as an intelligence asset in the 1980s. He suggested in October that the U.S. government is pushing Anastasiades toward a deal that favors Turkey by, for instance, accepting “Turkish military occupation of northern Cyprus under a NATO flag,” aimed at loosening Russia’s links to the country.
An official from the Russian permanent representation to the EU rejected suggestions that Moscow was undermining Cyprus’ reunification, arguing that Russia has historically supported “a just and durable settlement,” including through resolutions at the U.N. Security Council in 1977 and 1979 and by offering a solution plan in 1986. “All along we insisted that the two communities should be given an opportunity to decide, without external interference or artificial timelines, on the future of their country,” Russia’s EU Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov said in an emailed statement sent on Friday evening, after this article was first published. Both the Greek and Turkish Cypriot sides “actually thanked Moscow” for its “technical veto on an ill-prepared U.N.S.C. resolution” in 2004, he added. “So, attempts to shift blame for the lack of success in efforts to settle the problem before a specific date or on the basis of artificially imposed templates are both unfair and misleading,” he added.
Ties between Moscow and Greek Cypriots run long and deep — financially, culturally, and politically.
Cyprus was the top destination for direct investment out of Russia in 2014, and the largest source of foreign investment into Russia, according to U.S. government data. Russia loaned Cyprus €2.5 billion during its 2011 financial crisis, and the two countries signed a military cooperation agreement in 2015 allowing Russian naval ships to stop in Cypriot ports for emergencies.
The island is a favored destination for Russian tourists and Moscow also sees itself as a defender of Orthodoxy, the predominant religion of Greek Cypriots.
But if Russia is interested in keeping Cyprus divided, it’s for broader geopolitical reasons, analysts and diplomatic sources said.
Those include the possibility that a united Cyprus could be pressured into joining NATO, the potential for Turkey and maybe the EU to import new gas supplies along a pipeline from Cyprus and Israel, and the diplomatic success reunification would deliver to both the EU and the U.S.
As long as Cyprus remains divided by a U.N. buffer zone, Turkey and the Anastasiades government don’t recognize each other. As a result, Turkey hampers NATO efforts to cooperate with the EU, Greek and Turkish relations in NATO remain tense, and Turkey remains reliant on gas deliveries from Russia’s Gazprom. The EU and Turkey are Gazprom’s top two customers.
“So there are concerns and reasons why one would believe Russia might not be necessarily supportive of a solution, although I need to underline that it has always in public rhetoric supported it,” said Harry Tzimitras, director of the PRIO Cyprus Centre, an independent research institute.
Despite Moscow’s public backing for reunification, stories like Osadchiy’s appearance at the political party seminar in December — where he received a round of applause, according to the Cyprus Mail — and his apparently “cordial” relationship with anti-reunification parties do raise eyebrows, a European diplomat following the talks said.
“Observing from the outside, there are elements that could make one think that maybe Moscow is cultivating other expectations [for the Cyprus talks],” the diplomat said, asking not to be named.
This article was amended on January 14 to add a comment from Russia’s EU Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov which arrived after publication.