If the European Union refuses to impose stronger sanctions for drilling for energy off the island's coast, Cyprus is threatening to use a veto to block penalties on Belarus over President Alexander Lukashenko's alleged rigged re-election.
The EU, after dawdling during weeks of protests in Belarus where Lukashenko, often called “Europe's Last Dictator,” has ruled with an iron hand and repressive and torturous methods, plans to sanction 40 of the country's officials, but not him, The Guardian said of Cyprus' gambit for the EU to get tough on Turkey.
The EU is set for a showdown Sept. 24-25 with Turkey and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over his plans to drill for oil and gas off Greek islands and in Greece's Continental Shelf, which could bring a conflict engulfing the region.
EU foreign ministers were due to meet Sept. 21 and decided on the Belarus sanctions but the bloc's rules require unanimous consent, which often creates deadlocks under the preferred policy of so-called “soft power” that rarely works.
The sanctions on the table would be essentially meaningless anyway as they would compose asset freezes and travel bans on top officials in Belarus except for Lukashenko which would continue to let him crush dissent.
Two diplomatic sources confirmed to the Guardian that Cyprus was blocking EU action on Belarus, because it wants EU sanctions imposed on Turkey over its drilling activity in the East Mediterranean. “It is serious,” said one EU diplomat. “They have basically taken the Belarus sanctions hostage.”
At a meeting of EU ambassadors on Sept. 16, several diplomats took the floor to warn Cyprus against turning Belarusian sanctions into “a transactional issue”. A second EU source said Cyprus was alone, adding: “Everyone is pissed ... everyone is annoyed. I’m sure this could have consequences,” but sources weren't named.
Cyprus is equally upset the EU imposed only soft sanctions on two executives of Turkey's state-run petroleum company for the drilling in Cyprus' Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and wanted meaningful penalties.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has snubbed his nose at the EU over the Cyprus sanctions and said drilling would be renewed as he has ignored threats Turkey could be sanctions if it drills in Greek waters.
Tying the Belarus issue to Turkey's drilling off Cyprus has isolated President Nicos Anastasiades who had praised EU tweets and statements of solidarity but then said they weren't working and he wanted tougher action but was ignored.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, said the EU had to take “a clear and swift position” on values, “be it in Hong Kong, Moscow or Minsk”, declaring that the EU was “on the side of the people of Belarus,” but she left out Nicosia, the Cypriot capital.
Anastasiades said the EU should use “all means at our disposal” to get Turkey to give up its “unlawful” activities and that the bloc should not set “a double standard” in how it deals with authoritarian leaders such as Erdogan and Lukashenko.
Led by Germany, which has 2.774 million people of Turkish origin living in the country, the EU is reluctant to get tough on Erdogan, fearing he will unleash more refugees and migrants on the 27-member bloc through Greece, especially the country's islands.
Turkey is holding some 4 million people who fled war, strife and economic misery in their homeland and were using the country as a jumping-off point to get to the EU before the borders were closed to them, dumping the problem largely on Greece, as well as Malta, Italy and Spain.
Erdogan, however, has let human traffickers keep sending more to Greek islands near Turkey's coast even during the COVID-19 pandemic that has compounded the dilemma.
The EU's foreign chief Josep Borrell, who has been soft on Erdogan, said the bloc and Turkey had reached “a watershed moment in our relations,” and said Turkey should remove a drill ship from Cypriot waters.
Erdogan's spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said the Turkish leader's decision to pull back the energy research vessel the Oruc Reis from near the Greek island of Kastellorizo was done to let diplomacy have a chance but that it would be sent back if that fails.
“We have reached a good understanding over the steps that need to be taken over the next few weeks to resume these talks,” he said, adding that “the opportunity should not be squandered.”
If the Cypriot veto is lifted, diplomats say sanctions against 40 Belarusian officials could come into force within days, although 20 were already on the list and Lukashenko will be allowed to have a free hand.
Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said however that if the protests in Belarus continue and Lukashenko keeps arresting people, some said to be beaten and tortured and as he cracks down on the media that the Belarusian leader could find himself on the list.
Lukashenko was on a previous list of EU sanctions, but was removed in 2016, when the EU removed him, believing he would make reforms before he got tougher and the bloc did nothing to stop him, even now.