On April 21, Russia used its veto power – for the first time in ten years – to block a draft UN Security Council resolution on Cyprus. A British- and U.S.-sponsored resolution would have guaranteed the security of Greek and Turkish Cypriots if they accepted a UN-backed plan to unify the island. Some experts believe the move demonstrates the Kremlin’s more assertive foreign policy. Other commentators, however, argue that the veto was a sign of weakness, revealing both Russia’s uneasiness about the EU’s eastward expansion and its susceptibility to Greek pressure – in particular, Moscow’s concern over huge assets parked in offshore banks in Cyprus.
Russian officials called the veto “technical,” arguing that Moscow was opposed not so much to the UN Cyprus unification plan as to the way it was “unceremoniously imposed” on the island’s two ethnic communities. The Anglo-American resolution, Russia’s top diplomats contended, would have influenced the free will of the people of Cyprus in the twin referenda addressing the UN blueprint. Three days after Russia’s UN demarche, Greek Cypriots overwhelmingly rejected the unification plan whereas the majority of Turkish Cypriots supported it.
The Russian media have generally lauded Moscow’s veto. A commentary published in the Profil journal described the move as a step toward restoring Russia’s “lost superpower status.” The Politcom.ru analytic website portrayed the veto as “a demonstration” that Moscow “from now on intends to conduct a more energetic, even aggressive, foreign policy.” A commentary in the Izvestia daily said that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will be “more assertive and more aggressive” than was former Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.
The outcome of the Cyprus referendum also appeared to have pleased the bulk of the Russian analytic community. The “no” vote by the Greek Cypriots means that “the U.S. and the EU have suffered a grave diplomatic defeat,” an analyst writing in the Russky zhurnal noted with satisfaction. In the opinion of a number of experts, Russia was sidelined in the process of the Cyprus settlement. Therefore, the Kremlin decided to send a strong signal that Russia is not a country that can easily be written off – in particular, on the issues that it deems to be strategically important.
There is a minority point of view, however, that Russia’s demarche was, in fact, a sign of weakness, a demonstration of Moscow’s feeling of geopolitical uncertainty vis-à-vis the EU enlargement. The Russian veto came at a time when Moscow was holding tough talks with Brussels over extension of the EU-Russian Partnership and Cooperation Agreement to the ten new EU member states. “Russia’s unusually harsh move has less to do with the Cyprus issue and more with the general process of the EU enlargement,” argued Fedor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the journal Russia in Global Politics, in an op-ed piece published by the Vremya novostei newspaper. To be sure, the Russian veto will not prevent the EU’s expansion, Lukyanov and other analysts have said, but it will definitely demonstrate that the Kremlin is displeased with the way the enlargement is proceeding.
There is also a view among the Russian strategists that it is in Moscow’s interests to have a group of friendly countries inside the EU capable of countering the growing influence of the EU’s “pro-American bloc,” which includes the countries of Eastern Europe and the Baltic states. The Russian veto did help the Greeks, and it will make them more dependent on Moscow’s policies, at least with respect to the Cyprus issue. As a result, “our country will get additional leverage on the EU,” a commentary in Russky zhurnal contended.
But some Russian and international experts hold that, in fact, Moscow is more dependent on the Greeks and not the other way around. Over the past decade, billions of dollars from Russia were deposited or moved through Cyprus offshore banks and shell companies. This naturally has made the Greeks a special interest group, one that appears to have enough power to influence Russia’s foreign policy, some analysts say. On April 26, the Vremya novostei and Kommersant dailies cited a report that appeared one day earlier in Austria’s Der Standard newspaper. It said that Greek Cypriot Foreign Minister George Iacovou had prompted the Russian UN Security Council veto by “hinting” at the possibility of an investigation into Russian offshore companies. REN-TV on April 25 said there was “an economic calculation” behind the veto, and a commentary in Kommersant on April 23 argued that “the blocking of the resolution could have been payment for the safekeeping of Russian money and property even after the country joins the EU.”