Torn between Turkey and the EU, Zelenskyy is learning how hard it is to please everyone

Getting Greece and Cyprus onside with Ukraine should have been easy

Cyprus' President Nicos Anastasiades, left, and the Cyprus' parliament president Annita Demetriou comment as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses the Cyprus' parliamentarians via video link, in Nicosia, Cyprus, on April 7. AP

Speaking to US Congress, he recalled Pearl Harbour and the attacks of 9/11 and said Ukrainians were now facing such assaults every day. When speaking to Germany’s Bundestag he talked of the Berlin Wall and the Cold War. To Finnish lawmakers he pointed to the Soviet invasion of 1939. To Japan he spoke about the nuclear threat, invoking the 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant that displaced thousands.

Throughout his global parliamentary tour, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has established a pattern of honing in on his audience’s national sensitivities to highlight a historical threat and establish a link to his country’s plight. Almost without fail, his words have earned a standing ovation as even the most jaded politicians are moved.

That narrative shifted last Thursday when he paid a virtual visit to Nicosia, capital of EU-member Republic of Cyprus. Early in his speech, he thanked the assembled lawmakers, including President Nicos Anastasiades, for joining the EU’s sanctions against Russia and urged them to go further and block all Russian yachts from Cypriot ports.

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

Yet few countries could understand Ukraine’s plight as well as Cyprus. While the Ukrainian leader had been nearly pitch-perfect elsewhere, in Cyprus he came off as tone-deaf because his audience knew firsthand a similar experience.

“We are disturbed by the fact 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 ourselves also suffered in 1974.”

That July, Athens backed a right-wing paramilitary coup in Nicosia that deposed the president and sought enosis, or the union of Cyprus with Greece. Days later the Turkish military intervened, landing troops at Kyrenia and advancing south toward the capital.

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Ukraine’s leader may have dug himself a deeper hole

Hundreds, possibly 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 late August, a quarter of the island’s population – as many as 200,000 Greek Cypriots and 60,000 Turkish Cypriots – had been forced out of their homes.

They have yet to return, and Turkey has used its 40,000-troop presence to maintain control of nearly 40 per cent of the island. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), recognised only by Turkey, is viewed by the United Nations as an occupation.

About a month before the current conflict began, I suggested Russia might view divided Cyprus as a model for a post-conflict Ukraine. Already a quarter of his country’s population has been displaced, yet Mr Zelenskyy's steering clear of mentioning of Turkey’s Cyprus invasion in his speech was surely no accident. Ankara has strongly supported Kyiv military – Turkey’s defence exports to Ukraine leapt 30-fold in the first quarter and its Bayraktar TB2 drones have drawn great praise for their effectiveness against Russian forces.

Mr Zelenskyy was presumably loath to offend a crucial military backer, not to mention the host of Russia-Ukraine peace talks. He thus failed to touch on the defining event of Cypriot politics for the past half-century, the elephant in the room that to this day largely dictates Cypriot policy.

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

Ukraine’s leader may have dug himself a deeper hole in urging lawmakers to revoke the Cypriot passports, granted under a defunct citizenship-for-investment programme, of Russian nationals seen to be using Cyprus to evade sanctions.

“Whom Cyprus naturalises, under what criteria and which passports it revokes is its own matter,” former Justice Minister Emily Yiolitis tweeted in response.

Cypriot politicians were likely already feeling low after US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland on Wednesday told a Greek newspaper that the planned eastern Mediterranean pipeline to deliver Israeli gas to Europe via Cyprus would take too long and cost too much. This may well be the nail in the coffin of the pipeline plan, largely dashing Cypriot hopes of becoming a regional energy hub.

Nicosia’s regional star may be fading as Ankara’s rises. Ms Nuland also urged Cyprus to include Turkey in eastern Mediterranean energy development, though Ankara has yet to acknowledge the Republic of Cyprus’s claims of its EEZ or Exclusive Economic Zone.

To top it off, Cyprus’ main opposition AKEL party boycotted Mr Zelenskyy’s speech after he had given a member of Ukraine’s far-right Azov battalion, which has been linked to neo-Nazi groups, time to speak to Greece’s Parliament earlier on Thursday. The Azov fighter from Mariupol said he was of Greek heritage, so the aim seemed to be an appeal to 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 disrespected Greece's Parliament by ushering into it a Nazi,” former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis tweeted. “Likewise with the Cypriot Parliament – where he refused to engage with its Speaker's comment that Cyprus too is a victim of an illegal invasion.”

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

Published: April 12, 2022, 7:00 AM
David Lepeska

David Lepeska

David Lepeska, a veteran journalist who has reported widely across the region and contributed to top outlets including the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Atlantic, is the Turkish and Eastern Mediterranean affairs columnist for The National