Cyprus, throughout history, has been the object of desire of all empires
Dimitris Christofias welcomes José Manuel Durão Barroso to the Cypriot presidential palace in Nicosia after the troika reviewed the accounts of the country (Propias).
Less than an hour’s flight from Beirut and Tel Aviv and four from Brussels (and Moscow ), the euro crisis takes a new perspective from distant Cyprus, trapped by the easy credit that flooded the European economies after adopting the common currency.
The strategic position of the Mediterranean island has made it the target of the great powers and civilizations throughout history: Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, the Crusaders and Templars, the Ottoman Empire and, finally, the British, who controlled the island between 1878 and 1960.
Today, with the north of its territory occupied by Turkey since 1974, Cyprus is part of the European family (it joined the EU in 2004) but remains the object of the desire of foreign powers such as Russia or China, eager to set foot in the region, especially now that the island has discovered significant gas reserves on its southern coast.
Despite its distance from European decision centers, Cyprus is dangerously close to the focus of its crisis, Greece. “A volcano that we get too close to and that, due to a lack of expertise, has taken us ahead,” says a Cypriot minister.
The contagion has been fierce. Cypriot banks, with assets equivalent to 750% of the country’s GDP, support a large exposure to the Greek economy, which has led him to ask for financial assistance from the EU. There is the talk of 10,000 million euros (almost half of what the country produces a year).
The decision came as Cyprus assumed, for the first time, the rotating presidency of the EU. The arrival of the communist authorities in Nicosia coincided with the presence of the feared troika, the EU experts, and the IMF, whose faces jumped to the cover of the newspapers from the first day. The island is rich in intrigues but too small to keep secrets.
Neither the responsibility of presiding over the European Union (less than a time ago) nor the delicate financial situation of the country has led its president, the communist Dimitris Christofias to hide his distrust of Brussels and his cordiality with Moscow, where he received his education.
“The Russians are good friends who care about us,” Christofias defends to justify that while negotiating a loan with the EU, Russia has requested an extension of the credit of 5,000 million euros that he already asked in 2011
“What’s wrong with that? Russia today is not the USSR of yesterday, but a country that tries to adopt capitalism,” underlines Christofias, who defends the right of Cyprus to maintain good relations with third countries. “What do you think they are going to do, plan the assault of Europe from here?” The president asks, incredulous, in a meeting with European correspondents organized by the Government.
The negotiating tactics of the Cypriot authorities have baffled and irritated its European partners, who do not believe that Cyprus deserves a partial rescue like the one they have offered to Spain (only to recapitalize banks) but should undergo a full program to reform their economy.
Vassos Shiarly , the retired investment banker who, coming from London, accepted the position of finance minister of his country of origin a few months ago, has decided to play hard in his negotiation with the EU and to present himself as a collateral victim of the agreement by the that Greece was forgiven 75% of its debts.
“They forced us to pay a high price,” says Shiarly. “It was fair? I think not”. Cypriot banks suffered losses of 4,200 million euros (25% of the country’s GDP), when if the cost had been divided among the 17 countries of the eurozone the impact would have been minimal: 200 million, Shiarly calculates, “change in the times that run. ”
The government’s official plan is to use the two loans,
the European and the Moscow loans (if granted), although in private their ministers do not hide that the Russian letter is a trick they want to use in their negotiations with the EU, so as not to be subject to too many conditions and preserve, like Ireland, its very low corporate tax (10%).
Cyprus insists that Moscow leaves money “at low interest” and “without conditions” but does not hide its interest in its Cypriot gas reserves. Tens of thousands of Russian citizens and fortunes have their domicile in the sunny country, of Orthodox religion, which asks few questions when opening a bank account.
The discovery of gas in the south of the island (there is the talk of seven trillion cubic meters) has turned the outlook on Cyprus, which sees its problems as a conjunctural event while dreaming of becoming a key geopolitical actor for Europe and the Middle East. Meanwhile, the government is studying the Norwegian example of oil revenue management and plans to create a similar state fund so that the benefits revert to future generations and “are not used to plug holes in the budget”, explains the Minister of Commerce, Neoklis Sylikiotis.
“Our ambition is to turn Cyprus into the energy center of the region and launch a new corridor to strengthen Europe’s energy security,” he says. The commercial exploitation of the reserves has attracted the attention of companies around the world and in five years should allow the island to cover its internal gas needs. In 2019, he hopes to start exporting.
The signing of a cooperation agreement with Israel has aroused misgivings in Turkey, which sees the alliance with concern. For Cyprus, the exploitation of the reserves could serve as a “catalyst” for the reunification of the island, says Sylikiotis. President Christofias, disenchanted with the failure of the negotiations, is skeptical about the possibilities of resolving the conflict and accuses Turkey of behaving as “a colonial power in the XXI century.”
The competition between Turkey and Russia in the region also passes through Cyprus.
In January, a cargo ship arrived in Syria allegedly loaded with weapons after making a stop in the Cypriot port of Limassol (Limasolgrado, called by the abundant Russian local population) in violation of the European arms embargo. “Chinese stories” without a trace of truth for President Christofias. “The Russians are good friends and do not want to create problems, on the contrary,” he says.