In February, Cypriot voters chose to break the longstanding grip of established parties on the country’s presidency. The new leadership offers the chance for the Republic of Cyprus to repair the international damage done by the infamous “golden passports” scheme but a change of course towards a more ecologically sustainable model of development remains a distant prospect.

This year’s presidential elections in Cyprus were consequential as, for the first time, a candidate not-backed by the island’s two largest parties, left-wing AKEL (Progressive Party of Working People) and right-wing DISY (Democratic Rally), was elected as president of the republic.

Nicos Christodoulides, a diplomat and former foreign minister in the Nicos Anastasiades administration, managed to beat his main rivals, Averof Neofytou, leader of ruling DISY and AKEL-backed Andreas Mavroyiannis, to become Cyprus’ next head of state.

With the elections now behind us and Nicos Christodoulides officially assuming the presidency, the citizens of Cyprus have their eyes set on the future. The new president has before him a multitude of open fronts both at home and abroad, which he will be called upon immediately to face and find solutions.

The Cyprus problem continues

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Nicos Christodoulides is the “Cyprus problem”. Since 1974, the island has been divided and, with each passing year, a solution becomes more of a difficult, even impossible task. The current period cannot be compared with the past when if one considers the ongoing Turkish provocations against Cyprus. The status quo has been changing, at the expense of the Republic of Cyprus, as Turkey puts pressure on Cyprus to consider a “two-state” solution. The actions of the occupying regime and Turkey against the Greek and Turkish Cypriots make up a very ominous picture of the intentions of the occupying power in Cyprus and outline the possible outcome of the negotiations.

Already, Turkey has the creation of an air base in occupied Lefkoniko for unmanned drones in the works. Moreover, Turkey recently fenced off an environmentally significant area in occupied Karpasia to use as a naval military base. The area is designated as a “national park” and was proposed for inclusion in the Natura 2000 European Habitats Network.

Projects for the settlement of Famagusta are high on the agenda of the occupying regime, the highlight of which was a provocative picnic of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with the Turkish Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar, in the enclosed city of Varosha, where in his statements in the area he spoke of a “two-state solution”.

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For its part, the United Nations – as well as the European Union – have not taken any substantial steps to protect the rights of the Republic of Cyprus from Turkish provocation and interference.

Turkey is gradually implementing its plans to colonise Famagusta, while the UN and Europe are only making verbal statements without any substantial action to stop or remove them. The result is that Turkey’s aspirations for a “two-state solution” are slowly taking shape. The resumption of talks for a solution to the Cyprus problem within the already agreed framework of a Bizonal Bicommunal Federation is considered very difficult – with Turkey’s insistence on a two-state solution – and here is the challenge that the new President of the Republic of Cyprus will have to overcome and find a solution.

Corruption tarnishing Cyprus’ image abroad

Corruption and the numerous scandals involving officials of the Anastasiades administration are among the biggest wounds left behind by the outgoing government. A striking example is the “golden passports” programme, which was created in an effort to boost the economic recovery the economy of the island after the 2013 Cypriot financial crisis.

The programme enabled the super-rich to acquire a Republic of Cyprus passport if they invested at least 2 million euros in real estate, stocks, government bonds or Cypriot businesses. Successful applicants received the right to live and work in the EU.

However, the programme was abused for financial gain. Many loopholes opened the door to Cyprus – and by extension to Europe – to criminally wanted persons and oligarchs.

A probe by Cyprus’s audit office published in August 2022 revealed the consequences suffered by Cyprus, deriving from the programme’s mismanagement and which damaged not only the country’s reputation but also its economy. The audit office discovered an estimated loss of public revenue of more than 25 million euros from the non-payment of the specified contribution of 200,000 euros and a loss of revenue of 204 million euros due to applications for a reduced VAT rate related to property worth 1.6 billion euros. At the same time, real estate purchases worth 3.5 billion euros that resulted in the buyers being granted Cypriot citizenship, may not have materialised and there is a high risk that they were fictitious, as many real estate sales contracts, were found to be cancelled. Many commentators concluded that the golden passport scheme’s contribution was, in reality, a bubble.

From August 2020 to August 2021, the government refused to provide investigators from the audit office with any information, based on an opinion by Attorney General George Savvides (who served as justice minister between 2019 and 2020). In fact, an interim report on the golden passports scheme showed that Savvides had a clear conflict of interest in denying the release of information, as a law office connected to him acted as an intermediary in issuing Cypriot passports and benefited financially.

The same was the case for Assistant Attorney General Savvas Angelides (who served as minister of defence from 2018 to 2020), other former ministers, but also for the president of the republic himself. The law firm bearing the President’s name, Anastasiades & Partners, featured in the Pandora Papers as it was found benefiting from consulting numerous individuals, including Russian oligarchs, on how to benefit from the golden passports scheme.

One way to restore Cyprus’ image is for the new president to convince that the country has left behind the bad habits of the past, to take responsibility in practice, and to proceed with far-reaching reforms.

As the audit office characteristically states: “it seems that the extremely negative image that has been created, inside and outside Cyprus, regarding the implementation of the Program, was the inevitable result of an unsound situation, possibly not even free from corruption and other criminal offences”. Moreover, its report concluded that “the flimsiness of the program remained virtually unchanged until its abolition”. As a result, the Cypriot government decided to abolish the scheme in October 2020.

The fact that the government of Nicos Anastasiades, opened the doors of Cyprus and Europe to criminals and people wanted internationally for financial – and not only – crimes, struck a heavy blow to the image of Cyprus abroad.

How could Cyprus now ask third countries to support it in its demands for a just solution to the Cyprus problem and the removal of Turkish troops, when citizenship was so easily given to foreigners without the necessary controls and safeguards?

The political damage the programme dealt to Cyprus is hard to calculate.

One way to restore Cyprus’ image, both at home and abroad, is for the new president, Nicos Christodoulides, to convince that the country has left behind the bad habits of the past, to take responsibility in practice and to proceed with far-reaching reforms. This will only happen if the new government decisively promotes the handing over of information on many suspicious golden passport cases to competent authorities.

The migration crisis and the rising far right

At the same time, an unprecedented rise in migration is creating a polarised climate within the island. Many say that Turkey is using migration to destabilise Cyprus by facilitating the arrival of migrants in the free areas of the Republic of Cyprus via the Green Line (the dividing line between occupied and free areas in Cyprus). Cypriot bureaucracy and lengthy asylum procedures lead to the overcrowding of migrants in temporary accommodation centres, resulting in violent outbursts between groups of migrants.

The negative climate regarding migration on the island has led to a rise in the popularity of the far-right party Elam. The party achieved its best-ever results in the 2021 parliamentary elections and became the fourth-largest party in parliament. In the 2023 presidential elections, the party’s leader Christos Christou received 23,988 votes, an increase of 2000 votes compared to the previous presidential race.

East Mediterranean gas and the Cyprus problem

The exploitation of fossil-fuel deposits in Cyprus’s Exclusive Economic Zone of Cyprus will undoubtedly be high on the new president’s agenda. The exploitation of the deposits will have both an economic and a political impact on the island, as the issue is intertwined with the Cyprus problem. The United States has said it sees Turkey and Israel as the common denominator in any partnership in the Eastern Mediterranean, an approach that seems to be followed by the European Union. With verbal instructions to Ankara to respect the sovereignty and sovereign rights of member states, the EU seems to be trying to convey to Turkey that its actions are unacceptable. One hope is that gas could be the “key” to the solution to the Cyprus problem, as it could benefit both sides economically and “soften” Turkey so it dampens down its provocations and fully invests in negotiations.

In Cyprus, the “green transition” revolves around accepting natural gas imports as an intermediate solution until it becomes possible to produce 100 per cent of the island’s energy needs from renewables. With proper planning on the part of the government, 100 per cent coverage of Cyprus by renewable energy sources is feasible. With coordinated efforts including the reduction of energy demand, it will be possible to implement the transition by 2050.

The survival of Cyprus’ richest natural habitat is on the line

The island’s environment was the big loser of the Nicos Anastasiades administration. The previous government was the worst government ever in Cyprus when it comes to the environment. In many areas, its policies were strongly opposed by the local Green party. There are countless cases when the Nicos Anastasiades government submitted policies to the EU that were never implemented. A striking example is the energy and climate policy, where the Republic of Cyprus undertook to plant one million trees by 2030. Neither the municipalities nor the communities allowed anyone to plant, leaving the responsibility to the new government to plant over 140,000 trees a year or about 400 trees every day.

For 10 years, the Anastasiades government idly watched the economic cost of pollution caused by the Electricity Authority of Cyprus increase from a few million a year to 200 million euros in 2022. Thus citizens bear the burden of a mishandled energy system that has not been renewed and continues to run on electricity production. However, the primary environmental issue on the island at this time is the protection of the Akamas Peninsula. An area of unparalleled beauty and environmental value faces the prospect of changing the law to allow considerable development inside the Natura-2000 protected area, something that will alter it irreparably. Currently, derogations to allow the construction of major development projects and roads to the detriment of the environment are in the works.

Citizens are patiently waiting to see what the future of Akamas will be. Will the area be changed forever by five-star hotels and luxury villas, or will it remain pure and unspoiled as a gift to future generations?

The new president faces many challenges. Unfortunately, during his electoral campaign, Christodoulides did not place the environment high on his priority list. It is still too early to judge the new government on its policies. But if we consider the lack of focus Christodoulides gave environmental issues during his campaign, we do not have much reason to hope that he will take a different approach to his predecessor.

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