Torn between Turkey and the EU, Zelenskyy learns how difficult it is to please everyone

Addressing the US Congress, he recalled Pearl Harbor and the September 11 attacks and said Ukrainians now face such attacks every day. When he addressed the German Bundestag, he spoke of the Berlin Wall and the Cold War. To Finnish lawmakers, he raised the Soviet invasion of 1939. In Japan, he spoke of the nuclear threat, citing the 2011 collapse at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that displaced thousands of people.

Throughout his world parliamentary tour, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy established a pattern of focusing on the national sensitivities of his audience to highlight a historical threat and make a connection to his country’s plight. Almost without fail, his words earned him a standing ovation, as even the most jaded politicians are moved.

That narrative changed last Thursday when he made a virtual visit to Nicosia, capital of the EU member Republic of Cyprus. At the start of his speech, he thanked the assembled lawmakers, including President Nicos Anastasiades, for backing EU sanctions against Russia and urged them to go further and block all Russian yachts from Cypriot ports. .

The Ukrainian government, he continued, was thinking about one thing every day: ‘How to help everyone we can survive Russia’s brutal invasion,’ Zelenskyy said, showing a video highlighting the destruction and brutality. “God forbid any other nation to have to go through this.”

Yet few countries could understand the plight of Ukraine as well as Cyprus. While the Ukrainian frontman had been near perfect elsewhere, in Cyprus he went deaf because his audience experienced a similar experience firsthand.

“We are disturbed that there was no reference,” Mr. Anastasiades said just after Mr. Zelenskyy’s speech. “We expected today to hear that what the Ukrainian people are suffering now, we also suffered in 1974.”

In July, Athens backed a right-wing paramilitary coup in Nicosia that deposed the president and demanded enosis, or the union of Cyprus with Greece. A few days later, the Turkish army intervened, landing troops in Kyrenia and advancing south towards the capital.

Ukraine’s leader may have dug himself a deeper hole

Hundreds, if not thousands, of Greek Cypriots were taken to prison camps in Turkey, while hundreds of Turkish Cypriots were massacred in spasms of violence that summer. By the end of August, a quarter of the island’s population – no less than 200,000 Greek Cypriots and 60,000 Turkish Cypriots – had been driven from their homes.

They have yet to return and Turkey has used its presence of 40,000 troops to maintain control of almost 40% of the island. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), recognized only by Turkey, is considered by the United Nations to be an occupation.

About a month before the start of the current conflict, I suggested that Russia might consider divided Cyprus as a model for a post-conflict Ukraine. Already a quarter of his country’s population has been displaced, but the fact that Mr Zelenskyy avoided mentioning the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in his speech was certainly no accident. Ankara has been a strong supporter of kyiv’s military – Turkey’s defense exports to Ukraine jumped 30-fold in the first quarter and its Bayraktar TB2 drones have drawn widespread praise for their effectiveness against Russian forces.

Mr Zelenskyy was presumably reluctant to offend crucial military support, let alone the host of the Russian-Ukrainian peace talks. He therefore failed to address the defining event in Cypriot politics over the last half-century, the elephant in the room which to this day largely dictates Cypriot politics.

After his speech, House Speaker Annita Demetriou tried to get Mr Zelenskyy to acknowledge Turkey’s invasion and the line suddenly stopped, with Ukrainian officials later blaming a technical difficulty.

Ukraine’s leader may have dug himself a deeper hole by urging lawmakers to revoke Cypriot passports, granted under a former citizenship-for-investment scheme, to Russian nationals who use Cyprus to evade sanctions.

“Who Cyprus naturalizes, by what criteria and which passports it revokes is its own matter,” tweeted former justice minister Emily Yiolitis in response.

No more comment

Cypriot politicians were probably already feeling depressed after US Undersecretary for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland told a Greek newspaper on Wednesday that the Eastern Mediterranean Pipeline project to deliver Israeli gas to Europe via Cyprus would take too time consuming and would cost too much. This could well be the nail in the coffin of the pipeline project, largely dashing Cypriot hopes of becoming a regional energy hub.

Nicosia’s regional star could fade as Ankara rises. Ms Nuland also urged Cyprus to include Turkey in Eastern Mediterranean energy development, although Ankara has yet to recognize the Republic of Cyprus’s claims to its EEZ or Exclusive Economic Zone.

To top it all off, the main Cypriot opposition party AKEL boycotted Mr Zelenskyy’s speech after he gave a member of Ukraine’s far-right Azov Battalion, which has been linked to neo-Nazi groups, time to address to the Greek Parliament earlier on Thursday. The Azov fighter from Mariupol said he was of Greek descent, so the aim seemed to be a call for ethnic solidarity.

But the move backfired as it brought back memories of Greece’s far-right Golden Dawn, also linked to neo-Nazi groups. “President Zelenskyy has disrespected the Greek Parliament by bringing a Nazi into it,” former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis tweeted. “Same with the Cypriot Parliament – where it refused to engage with its President’s comment that Cyprus too is the victim of an illegal invasion.”

During his Cypriot speech, Mr Zelenskyy spoke optimistically of the EU’s “imminent embargo” on Russian energy supplies. If he hopes to realize that vision and turn off the European tap to Russia, Mr Zelenskyy would be wise to take a more diplomatic line and ensure unity, rather than risk dissent among his EU allies.

Posted: April 12, 2022, 07:00

Sharon P. Juarez