Cyprus playing regional energy card to perfection

6 mins read

Travel is not such an easy option in the coronavirus-riddled landscape of social distancing, temperature checks and the need to prove you are COVID-19 negative.

Even the President had to call off his official visit to Israel next week as coronavirus cases have begun to spike in the neighbouring country.

Publicly it was stated that Anastasiades and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu had a cosy chat on the phone where they both agreed that it would be best if the elderly Cypriot didn’t venture into someone else’s COVID backyard.

Having said that, Netanyahu is 70 and Anastasiades slightly the elder statesman at 73, both need to be careful in keeping their distance if the disease is spreading.

With the virus no respecter of political reputations – look at Boris – both leaders most probably thought it wise not to take any unnecessary risks.

Anyone over 65 is considered more vulnerable to coronavirus and prone to complications which is why most young people think they are invincible to it.

Although France’s Macron was undeterred by the situation in the UK to pop over and have a serious conversation with Boris over his lockdown road map.

Ironically, days before the postponement of the Israel trip, Cyprus had demoted the country to a higher risk group obliging Israeli tourists to take a COVID-19 test before arriving on the island.

Israel had also declared it planned to open its doors to Cypriot and Greek tourists in August without the need for quarantine.

Israeli tourists rising to become the island’s third-largest source of tourism underlines the renaissance in Cyprus-Israel relations during the Anastasiades-Netanyahu bonding years.

A relationship that has taken on greater significance with the discovery of large quantities of gas in the East Med and Cyprus emerging as an energy player.

It would have been the Cypriot President’s first trip abroad since the COVID-19 pandemic following hot on the heels of the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

There is no coincidence in Anastasiades seeking to beef up energy, tourism and defence ties with his influential ally.

A prime opportunity for Cyprus to do some regional grandstanding with a friendly neighbour as it tries to navigate the hostile waves that Turkey has created.

As the fog of the pandemic health emergency lifts, Nicosia has refocused on regional power politics while Ankara ratchets up the tension over maritime boundaries and energy rights.

Even with so much gas in the East Med, Cyprus as a lone ranger could not spark a fire even if it lit a match.

Alone, Cyprus has no leverage or voice to placate Turkey’s aggression or deter its gunboat diplomacy, especially as Ankara does not recognise the Republic.

Turkey has no qualms about annoying Greece – which has a proper air force and navy – with violation of air space and disregarding for borders, Cyprus poses no obstacles.

Cajoling its EU partners into doing something or banging its shoe on the UN table are policies proven to have been woefully ineffective over the decades.

Cyprus can’t simply bribe world leaders with halloumi pies and cheap red wine to protect its integrity.

Discovering energy reserves has been its get-out-of-jail card, something it can barter with to get a seat at the table or gain access to the private members club where decisions are made.

Nicosia also had to be cuter on the global stage, waving banners proclaiming ‘Justice for Cyprus’ wasn’t going to open doors.

It had to become an important cog in a regional power play based on energy alliances and self-interest.

Aligning itself with East Med power-brokers Egypt and Israel, with a helping hand from Greece, has enabled Cyprus to build a platform for regional diplomacy as a buffer against Turkey.

This calculated gambit for regional prowess has not been overlooked in Washington, Nicosia had intertwined itself with America’s interests for stability in the area.

Following a calculated gamble by Nicosia, Cyprus was included in its East Med policy, a US arms embargo was lifted accompanied by funding and defence cooperation.

By bolstering alliances that had been neglected or shunned in the past, Anastasiades is exploiting his political survival skills to navigate Cyprus to higher ground where it can see the enemy coming.

Once COVID-19 has been put to the sword, there are other more conventional battles to fight.