Why Cyprus should be worried about the Pussy Riot release

11 February, 2014 | Posted By: Vassilis Kappis

Why Cyprus should be worried about the Pussy Riot release
By Vassilis Kappis
In December 2013, the Russian President announced the release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the imprisoned former oil tycoon and political rival, regarded by many in the west as a potential (and desirable) threat to Vladimir Putin’s rule. Amnesty was also given to the members of the female punk band Pussy Riot, who had been sentenced for staging a performance in a Moscow Cathedral as part of a protest against Putin’s 2012 re-election.
These surprising initiatives made headlines, as they came at a time when Russia was facing harsh criticism for its human rights record, with some voices even calling for a boycott of the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics. Most analysts agreed; it was a typical Putin charm offensive, engineered to silence critics and ensure a public relations triumph for the Sochi fiesta.
While 2013 may have been a somewhat complicated year for Russia, it was a disastrous one for Cyprus. When asked, Cypriots tend to limit their thoughts on the financially and psychologically violent bail-in of the two largest banks of the island, which entailed, among others, an unprecedented haircut across deposits.
This fixation is understandable. The shock is still felt throughout the economy, with the local real estate market in limbo, a “numb” banking system incapable of financing an economic recovery and a rather unimpressive foreign tourist inflow. All these translate to the worst economic crisis the island has suffered since its partition by Turkey in 1974.
At first glance, Cyprus can afford to be short-sighted; Syria’s agreement to destroy its chemical stockpile and Iran’s peaceful re-emergence allows everyone to breathe a sigh of relief. For Cypriot policy planners, this implies they can concentrate on economic recovery alone. Defence spending remains at an all-time low (Cyprus spends less than the 2% NATO average) and even marginal purchases such as the two Israeli OPVs, crucial for patrols in the resource-rich Cypriot EEZ, become heavily politicised and are regularly postponed.
The underlying thinking is that alliances (with the US, Israel, Russia, or within the EU, depending on one’s preferences or worldview) should do the trick and keep Cyprus safe. At the end of the day, UN Security Council resolutions and international law provisions have long been regarded as Cyprus’s last resort, able to shield the island against hostile intentions.
This admittedly optimistic attitude may be concealing an inconvenient set of signals. In Syria, despite the crossing of President Obama’s clearly communicated “red line” with regards to the use of chemical weapons, the US government chose to avoid a militarised response and pursued a course of action that took Russian preferences in consideration. This led to an international agreement for the destruction of the Syrian chemical stockpile.
Was this a bad thing? Not necessarily. The agreement may prove to be a more effective solution compared to other alternatives that could destabilise the entire region. The point is, however, that the US acted in accordance with the regional balance of power, foregoing its “red line,” prior assurances to regional and EU allies and the potential impact on its credibility.
The same argument can be applied to Iran. While the “red line” with regards to Tehran’s nuclear programme was kept intentionally vague, the US-brokered agreement angered long standing US allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, acknowledging for the first time the potential of a greater Middle East in which Iran could play a stabilising, if not prominent, role.
Risky? Definitely, though arguably a rational choice by a great power that sees itself turning its focus on the Asia-Pacific. A partial disengagement from the Middle East should allow the US to direct its already stretched resources towards a more dynamic but also volatile corner of the world. Friends, allies and other interested parties will just have to make do.
Should there still be any doubt left about the true nature of international relations, one has only to revisit the Snowden affair. The former NSA contractor revealed impressive details about the agency’s spying programme which managed to create a rift in the Washington-EU axis, admittedly one of the cornerstones of the contemporary international system.
The lukewarm response of the US government indicates that the prominent players of the system are less reliant on “soft-power” attributes. Arguments regarding shared values including human rights and democracy simply bear little policy-changing force nowadays. NGOs, international institutions such as the United Nations and smaller players are becoming less relevant. Even codes of conduct among allies are increasingly violated. Revisionist calculations are becoming pervasive even within long-standing alliances and regional orders.
In this new state of play (just how new is it really?) formerly marginalised states, from Cuba to Iran, feel comfortable because their waiting game has actually delivered. They simply do not sense a threat anymore by the “transformative power of the international community.” The increasingly flexible line between pragmatism and cynicism guarantees their survival with minimal change.
The release of Khodorkovsky and the Pussy Riot members can be better understood under this prism. Russia did not hesitate to send fighter jets and ground troops to Georgia in 2008, in defiance of both NATO and EU warnings. It is unlikely that public opinion suddenly affected Russian calculations to the extent of jeopardising its domestic order. The plain -yet inconvenient- truth is that the aforementioned individuals are no longer perceived as a credible threat.
And this should worry us all. Putin now perceives the international system as more cynical and national-interest ridden and his acumen has yet to be disputed, judging from Russia’s recent successes in the eastern Mediterranean. Cypriot policy-makers seem to operate under a completely different set of perceptions. They should have no illusions, however; diplomacy, international law and cooperation are making themselves comfortable in the backseat of international politics. Cyprus should recalibrate its foreign and security policy accordingly.

Vassilis Kappis is a Fellow with the European Rim Policy and Investment Council (ERPIC) in Larnaca, Cyprus and a PhD Candidate in International Relations at the University of Sydney, Australia. The views expressed herein are those of the author do not necessarily reflect the views of ERPIC.