Cyprus maintains its principled position regarding the preservation of the Republic of Serbia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and this applies with regard to non-recognition of the unilaterally declared independence of Kosovo ~ Demetrios Theophylactou
As he prepares to conclude his tenure as ambassador in Belgrade, Demetrios Theophylactou tells CorD Magazine that he considers his service in Serbia as the best post in his nearly 30-year diplomatic career! “I did serve on four continents, acquiring rich and diverse experiences, yet Serbia was closer to my heart: culturally, religiously, emotionally…” Cyprus and Serbia are linked by a strong friendship and understanding when it comes to issues of vital national interests, but also by a shared desire to strengthen their cooperation in the face of today’s challenges. As the ambassador explains, this means strengthening economic cooperation and developing shared responses to issues like migrant flows or environmental challenges.
Your Excellency, given that your term in Serbia is coming to an end, how would you summarise your time in our country?
Though my term in Serbia is only two-and-a-half years, simply because I will be retiring on 1st June, I have done my best to achieve concrete results – mainly because I consider this as the best post in my nearly 30-year diplomatic career. I have served on four continents, acquiring rich and diverse experiences, yet Serbia was closer to my heart: culturally, religiously, emotionally – certainly also in terms of thoroughly and systematically strengthening bilateral relations in all sectors, primarily in defence and security, but equally so in terms of academic and scientific cooperation, innovation and renewable energy, sports and culture. Our views on issues of vital national interest are aligned. Moreover, I have worked as consistently as possible in order to promote, along with other EU colleagues, Serbia’s accession path to the European Union. We believe that Serbia’s future lies in the EU. In this regard, working together to promote the rule of law and facilitate the reform process was worth the effort. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my term in Serbia and will maintain close ties with the country and its people, well beyond my retirement.
Since first arriving in Belgrade, you’ve repeated that Cyprus will not recognise Kosovo’s unilaterally declared independence. How do you view the situation in Kosovo today; do you share concerns over the possible escalation of the conflict?
Cyprus maintains its principled position regarding the preservation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Serbia, and this applies with regard to the non-recognition of the unilaterally declared independence of Kosovo. Like other interested parties in the region, most notably the EU, we are quite concerned about the volatile situation in Kosovo and continue to pursue active diplomatic activity with a view to preventing further escalation.
The international law is often used and abused by those who consider themselves as more powerful than others, and therefore above the law, reflecting behaviour that demonstrates arrogance, that other states – regardless of their size – must be consistent when it comes to the letter and spirit of international law, and must apply it as a “weapon”, so to speak, to defend their national interests and maintain a credible posture in international affairs
That would be detrimental not only to the interested parties and the states of the Western Balkans, which also aspire to become EU members, but also to the European continent as a whole. At a time when Russian aggression in Ukraine is placing undue pressure on our economies, not to mention the whole security system in Europe, we must maintain a sense of unity and purpose by continuing our active engagement with the Serbian Government and other parties to prevent escalation and consolidate peace, as well as solid economic prosperity in Serbia and the region.
Speaking in one recent interview about the Cypriot position regarding Kosovo’s independence, you stated that “for small countries like Serbia and Cyprus, the only ‘weapon’ is to call on international law”. However, don’t current circumstances around the world demonstrate that international law often falls victim to the interests of great powers?
That was exactly my point: that is, it is precisely because international law is often used and abused by those who consider themselves as more powerful than others, and therefore above the law, reflecting behaviour that demonstrates arrogance, that other states – regardless of their size – must be consistent when it comes to the letter and spirit of international law, and must apply it as a “weapon”, so to speak, to defend their national interests and maintain a credible posture in international affairs. Having said that, it by no means implies that we neglect our defence capabilities or the readiness of our armed forces to prevent aggression by other, more hawkish states.
Like many other officials of Cyprus, you have also reiterated that your country won’t amend its stance on non-recognition of Kosovo’s unilaterally declared independence. However, you have mentioned that EU member states are under pressure to change that position. From where does this pressure emanate?
Our stance concerning the non-recognition of Kosovo is firm. This is well known, for obvious reasons. In order to be credible, we must maintain our positions of principle and our full compliance with international legal order, in a consistent and non-discriminatory manner. We should not apply double standards, because that’s counterproductive.
At the same time, in line with EU policies, we support the dialogue between Belgrade and Priština, as well as the full implementation of the Brussels Agreement. I cannot speak for others, but no one is applying pressure on us because they know very well that our position is solid. As I said just recently, we should not succumb to political pressure from anyone. Nor should we function arbitrarily and without prior consultation, either with EU partners or other like-minded states.
How does Cyprus view Kosovo’s EU accession request?
Just like Kosovo, Cyprus is also a victim of aggression and invasion, in violation of international law. There are numerous UN Resolutions condemning the invasion and occupation of the northern part of Cyprus, as it is the case of UN Resolution 1244 that applies to Kosovo. In this context, provided that Kosovo is not recognised by a large number of UN Member States, and given that five EU Member States do not recognise this entity either, it is a logical extension that the EU cannot have a unified policy on the issue. Kosovo’s accession request is therefore not an option.
The authorities in Priština are hopeful that Kosovo will soon succeed in becoming a member of the Council of Europe. What will be the Cypriot position?
The positions that I have stated already are more than clear and apply to this issue as well. It is not up to the authorities in Priština to decide that, but rather the states of the Council of Europe. It is well known that any application of the sort would be premature, and thus unsuccessful.
Turkish President Erdoğan recently stated that international lobbying to support the independence of Kosovo should serve as the model for a similar campaign to be initiated by the northern part of Cyprus, which has been under Turkish occupation for almost 50 years. How do you see that statement?
It is widely known that the Turkish President applies a policy not only of double standards but, indeed, of multiple standards; in short, as it suits him. The contradictions in this policy are obvious. As such, its inconsistent application lacks credibility. Ankara has been behind ‘international lobbying’ in support of the so-called independence of Kosovo from day one.
Provided that Kosovo is not recognised by a large number of UN Member States, and given that five EU Member States do not recognise this entity either, it is a logical extension that the EU cannot have a unified policy on the issue. Kosovo’s accession request is therefore not an option
Nonetheless, much like the unilateral declaration of independence is illegal, both in occupied Cyprus and Kosovo, as per relevant UN Resolutions, the legal basis differs. Subsequently, one cannot serve as a model for the other. Moreover, in the case of Cyprus, Turkey aims to impose a permanent division, instead of unification, through a two-state solution, in contradiction of relevant UN Security Council Resolutions.
There are plenty of media articles that refer to military cooperation between Cyprus and Serbia. What forms the basis of that cooperation and what are its key aspects?
There is nothing to hide regarding our military cooperation with Belgrade. As a militarily neutral country, Serbia has been a traditional partner of Cyprus in terms of military cooperation, which dates back to the 1970s, during the time of the former Yugoslavia, and continues to date with the supply of small arms, firearms, rocket launchers, ammunition and spare parts. Most recently, Cyprus acquired the new edition of the Nora Alexander TGS from Serbia. The supply of this weapons system is part of the multiannual plan for the upgrading and modernisation of Cyprus’s defence capabilities. Moreover, several activities and joint training exercises are being carried out in the framework of our annual bilateral military cooperation programme. Cyprus also participates in the EU Battle Group (HELBROC), together with Serbia and Greece, as a Framework Nation.
Could you tell us something about current activities unfolding within the scope of the Cyprus, Greece and Serbia trilateral framework?
We see trilateral cooperation mechanisms as a way to further strengthen the bonds of friendship amongst countries and, mainly, creating a platform for practical collaboration in various sectors of mutual interest. This format of enhanced cooperation has its own added value. The aim is to create a positive agenda, in the interest of participating nations. The ultimate objective is to promote stability and prosperity. Trilateral cooperation also offers participating states the opportunity to exchange views on current developments, on a regular basis, and assess challenges, for instance, on security and economic matters, as well as environmental issues and migratory flows, amongst others.
Trilateral cooperation between Serbia, Greece and Cyprus was launched two years ago, and therefore needs time to achieve more tangible results. Needless to say, this trilateral cooperation applies to all sectors, some of which have the potential to unfold into a regional strategic partnership. For example, in the context of energy policy, Cyprus and Greece have actively promoted trilateral and quadrilateral cooperation with countries such as Israel and Egypt. Moreover, in the framework of regional cooperation, the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) was founded by seven countries of the region. The founding members are Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan and Palestine, while France joined in 2021. The Forum enjoys the full support of both the European Union and the United States. It is a platform for structured dialogue on technical and trade cooperation between import, export and transit countries to the natural gas pathway.
Subsequently, expanding this energy-based cooperation beyond the Eastern Mediterranean and interconnecting the European continent via the Western Balkans, for instance, provides opportunities for countries like Serbia to serve as a transit point.
This enhances the geostrategic position of Cyprus and Greece in the region by contributing to EU’s security of supply and diversification of routes. Likewise, it could enhance the regional strategic position of Serbia, as well as other states – both EU Member States – like Bulgaria – and candidate states – like North Macedonia. This type of trilateral-plus cooperation will allow gas from the Eastern Mediterranean to be transferred to European countries and contribute to the European Union’s security of supply and diversification of sources and routes.
Along these lines, trilateral Serbia – Greece – Cyprus cooperation can unfold in the context of EU security policies, including EU Peacekeeping Operations.
When it comes to bilateral relations between Cyprus and Serbia, you mention historical mutual understanding and cooperation, but you also suggest that it points to the need to constantly move forward in the modern world. During your time in Serbia, have you succeeded in advancing economic cooperation between the two countries?
Bilateral relations are premised on strong historical ties and shared values, yet in our days they can grow even further precisely because the focus is on more strategic sectors, such as energy efficiency and related technologies, research and innovation – as is the case, for example, in the context of climate change. In 2022, the volume of economic and trade exchanges increased by over 30 per cent. One of my priorities when I assumed this post in 2020 was to increase synergies amongst relevant institutions, but also between the public and private sectors, including with universities and research institutes. The ultimate objective is to promote subsequent applications, as a result of more focused scientific collaboration, generating economic activities. This takes time to yield results; yet the ambition and potential is there.
In the case of Cyprus, Turkey aims to impose a permanent division, instead of unification, through a two-state solution, in contradiction of relevant UN Security Council Resolutions
Moreover, we are in the process of setting strong foundations for cooperation in the fields of education and science, as well as modern agriculture, including agrotourism, with joint environmental protection projects. For instance, our Ministry of Agriculture, Rural Development and Environment is engaged in joint activities with AP Vojvodina. Some of these activities can also take place in the context of, and benefiting from, EU-related programmes and funding schemes, which benefit membership candidate countries and allow for synergies with EU member states. In addition, joint efforts to strengthen cooperation in key sectors like defence and security, education and science, sports and culture, including youth exchanges, can all contribute to enhancing broader bilateral economic cooperation. We can further promote business activities with a more active collaboration between the two chambers of commerce. I am keen to pursue my mission until the end of my tenure, by pushing relevant ministries and institutions to enhance collaboration, because I believe that all the extra effort is worth it.
Tourism seems to be the area that most clearly shows the results of strengthening cooperation between the two countries. With the exception of tourism, what else can serve to connect Cyprus and Serbia today?
The Cyprus Embassy in Belgrade has pursued an active promotion of tourism and tourist exchanges. Several events have taken place over the last two years, even during the difficult period of the COVID-19 pandemic. That effort proved quite successful. As a result, we are glad to see a steady increase in the number of visitors from Serbia to Cyprus, for instance, with direct flights continuing on a regular basis. Tourist exchanges can certainly increase, with more scope and attention to special interest tourism, i.e., in business, medical, scientific, educational, sports, cultural and religious tourism. Connecting our peoples and institutions is best exemplified, in my view, in enhanced cooperation between universities, where synergies – at the academic and research level – do achieve excellence, while at the same time facilitating valuable youth exchanges.
In order to be credible, we must maintain our positions of principle and our full compliance with international legal order, in a consistent and non-discriminatory manner
In 2022, the volume of mutual economic and trade exchanges increased by over 30 per cent
Increasing synergies amongst relevant institutions, but also between the public and private sectors, including with universities and research institutes