Pre-conditions were not met, government admits

By Martin Hellicar

THE GOVERNMENT yesterday admitted that the decision not to bring the S-300 missiles had been taken even though the pre-conditions it had set for non- deployment in Cyprus had not been fully met.

The day after his dramatic climbdown on the S-300s, President Clerides was yesterday branded a traitor by his political opponents. The President’s supporters said the decision to deploy the £200 million ground-to-air missiles in Crete proved Clerides was a wise custodian of the country’s best interests.

Governing Disy tried to pass the buck for the controversial decision to Greece, but there were also signs of discord within the party over the S- 300 decision.

The President himself kept a low profile yesterday.

Government Spokesman Christos Stylianides defended Clerides from the barrage of criticism for his decision but also, surprisingly, conceded that the government was not completely satisfied by last week’s two UN resolutions on Cyprus and pledges of active support for these from the US and Britain.

Foreign Minister Yiannakis Cassoulides indicated last week that the resolutions and promises meant the government’s pre-conditions for non- deployment (significant progress towards a settlement or demilitarisation) were being met. This paved the way for Clerides’s decision – something the President made plain in announcing his decision on Wednesday night.

But Stylianides apparently contradicted Cassoulides and Clerides yesterday. “Clearly, the conditions and pre-conditions set have not been met to the extent that we had hoped. This can be considered an admission of fact, we do not deny it,” the spokesman said during his daily press briefing.

The two UN resolutions adopted on December 22 called on UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to intensify his efforts towards a settlement and demilitarisation.

Stylianides said Clerides’s “re-think” on the missile issue was “in the interests of Cypriot Hellenism and wider Hellenism.”

He said non-deployment would help the settlement process and Cyprus’ EU accession course. Cyprus began accession talks with the EU in late March.

The spokesman insisted, as Clerides had on Wednesday, that Turkish threats to destroy the missiles and pressure from the US, UN and EU not to deploy had played no part in the decision.

The public was sufficiently aware of “political realities” to support Clerides’s decision not to bring the missiles, Stylianides said.

“The President believes that this decision of his is approved of by the majority of the people.”

Opinion polls have suggested only 11 per cent of the public favoured missile deployment in Crete.

The reaction from Clerides’ established political foes, but even from some of his erstwhile backers, was scolding.

“If I were the President I would have resigned,” Diko leader and former President Spyros Kyprianou stated at a midday press-conference. Kyprianou, an outspoken Clerides critic, said the missile decision was just plain wrong. He said his party would vote against all defence spending until “clear” explanations of government defence policy were given.

Nicos Koutsou, leader of the minority New Horizons party, said Clerides had “betrayed the people” and described the decision not to bring the missiles as an “unconditional retreat.”

Clerides secured re-election in February on the back of a promise to bring the missiles.

The leader of junior government partners Edek, Vassos Lyssarides, also spoke of treachery. He likened the Cypriot public to a bride and Clerides to an S-300-bearing groom.

“You don’t let the bride go to church and then not bring the groom. Even if the bride is wrong, the responsibility in the end belongs to the groom – it is a betrayal.”

Edek has repeatedly pledged to abandon the government if the missiles are not brought. The party executive committee convened at 3 pm yesterday to decide what the party should do after Clerides’s decision.

Lyssarides declined to say which way his party would go but made his bitterness at the President’s choice clear.

“I have no doubt the public are dejected and disappointed.”

“I believe this sense of dejection must be taken on board by those who take decisions so frivolously,” the veteran socialist said.

Defence Minister Yiannakis Omirou, an Edek minister, re-stated his oft- repeated opposition to non-deployment, saying Cyprus had a right to self- defence.

Presidential advisor Alexis Galanos, leader of the Democratic Renewal Movement, said the decision represented a “big diplomatic defeat.” He said Clerides was not the only one to blame. “The decision in no way honours the government – and we must all bear the responsibility for this.”

Main opposition party Akel again claimed that Clerides had failed to consult the National Council before ordering the missiles from Russia in January 1997. This oversight had started the rot, which led to the débâcle of Wednesday’s U-turn, Akel spokesman Andreas Christou claimed.

Akel’s reaction was however not one of complete condemnation, Christou conceding that his party supported the principle of joint decisions with Athens on military issues.

Clerides has stated he took the decision to send the S-300s to Crete with Athens’ wishes on the issue uppermost in his mind.

Greece – bound by the 1993 Common Defence Dogma military pact to defend Cyprus in the event of Turkish aggression – had made it plain it favoured the Cretan option as a compromise solution aimed at appeasing mounting international opposition to the missile deal. The decision not to bring the missiles was fully backed by Greece on Wednesday.

The leader of Clerides’ Disy party, Nicos Anastassiades, said Athens had made clear its opposition to deployment in Cyprus as long ago as November 1 this year.

He told Antenna television last night that Greek Foreign Minister Theodors Pangalos had told his Cypriot counterpart Yiannakis Cassoulides that Greece would no longer support Cyprus if it brought the missiles.

Clerides is initially said to have disagreed with the Greek government on the issue, insisting the missiles would come.

Anastassiades again backed Clerides to the hilt, but there were signs of dissent within the right-wing party yesterday.

Disy deputy Dimitris Syllouris called a news conference in which he described the President’s decision as an “messy retreat” which had made Cyprus a “laughing stock”.

United Democrats leader George Vassiliou gave Clerides his unconditional backing. Vassiliou, who heads Cyprus’s EU accession talks team, said there had been “clear indications” entry talks would have been jeopardised by bringing the missiles to Cyprus.

The EU – along with the US and the UN – had made it clear it did not favour deployment, fearing arrival of the missiles could spark renewed military conflict in Cyprus.