Early in the morning of July 11, 2011 at the naval base “Evangelos Florakis” in Limassol, Cyprus, 98 containers filled with gunpowder and TNT explosives detonated leaving 13 people dead and 61 others wounded. The explosion generated a blast wave with a radius of 5-6km, causing incalculable damage to the Naval Base, to the electricity generating station of the Electricity Authority of Cyprus (EAC), and to properties in nearby villages. The tragic irony is that these munitions did not even belong to Cyprus. In 2009 it had seized them within its territorial waters from a Russian ship, en route from Iran and bound for Syria. Over the last three years the containers had been the subject of discussions within the Ministry of Defence and the High Command of the National Guard (GEEF) without any substantial progress as to what to do with them. Also, despite the constant reminders and warnings from the naval base commander, the necessary security measures had not been taken although the risks were very obvious.
This tragic incident in conjunction with other local, regional and international circumstances is likely to create unbearable consequences in many sectors, especially the economy. Furthermore, it raises questions about the role and status of the National Guard (NG) and the country’s future outlook.
The whole world, and especially Europe, is going through a financial crisis which has led to the weakening of national economies and the European Union itself through the crisis within the Euro-zone. Important examples of this European economic downturn are Greece and Spain while in recent months Cyprus has joined the list of affected countries as well. In this context, the circumstances under which the July tragedy took place could not have been worse. The total damage to the Cyprus economy is estimated at more than 3 billion Euros.
In this light it is certain that the Republic of Cyprus will be burdened with huge costs in order to restore the power station, which meets 50-60% of the Island’s energy needs. Apart from that, there are direct economic effects. The lack of electricity has already caused huge economic losses in small and large businesses which drive the Cyrpiot economy. In addition, the hotel industry and tourism related businesses have been seriously affected since the incident, causing holidaymakers to stay away from Cyprus. This has exacerbated the already weak financial picture while also potentially leading to higher unemployment rates as businesses are forced to close. Apart from the impact on Cyprus, this situation also has the potential to affect the EU as a whole, due to the generally fragile economic situation across Europe.
Indeed, the energy crisis on Cyprus caused by the destruction of the electricity station highlights the need for more renewable energy resources and a more efficient exploitation of the country’s undersea energy resources.
The economic weakening of a state implies the reduction of its total power. This does not necessarily mean that the state becomes paralysed but due to it being in a disadvantageous position, it cannot always follow the domestic or foreign policy course that it wants. Often this results in a government losing its popular support and, inevitably, a conflict between state and society. In Cyprus, this scenario is even more complicated because of the political-military problem which the Republic of Cyprus faces with the Turkish occupation.
Turkey has always followed a wait and see policy to exploit any political developments which occur on Cyprus, so that it can gain as much advantage as possible. When a state loses part of its diplomatic power – which cannot remain unaffected given its linkages with all the other sources of state power – then its effectiveness in any kind of negotiation is brought into question. Additionally, if the Republic of Cyprus suffers a significant weakening of its economy, then it will find itself in a disadvantageous position in terms of its agreements with other countries and with multinational corporations regarding the management of its energy resources. Such a situation often leads to a vicious cycle where economic failure and social instability weaken the country’s ability to negotiate on the international stage.
Of course, all of these levels of governance and policy-making are controlled by people who have either personal or collective responsibility, as members of political parties. In Cyprus, the nepotism and self-interest that characterises the state’s administrative machine are chiefly to blame for the political failures and the poor management of the economy which are part and parcel of the current crisis.
The tragedy of July 11th is not the first in the NG’s history and has highlighted systemic problems within both the NG and the Ministry of Defence. Other accidents have preceded this one including errors in the handling of ammunition and weapons, resulting in many deaths and injuries over the years. Some have argued that the NG should receive more state funding to alleviate these weaknesses, particularly given that Cyprus is an occupied state which has to have the means to defend itself in case hostilities with Turkey ever re-ignite. However, the political and military realities are very different from 30 or 40 years ago. Based on any rational analysis, the situation facing Cyprus is made all the more tragic when it becomes clear that demilitarization would be a much better option for the Republic, not only on the political and economic levels but on the strategic level as well. The maintenance of the NG, which has no pragmatic or positive benefits for the state and burdens the economy as well, is clearly a continued handicap for Cyprus compared with the benefits which demilitarization could provide.
There is a truth that needs to be sought in the wake of this tragedy, a problem which the resignation of the Minister of Defence and the Head of GEEF has still not resolved. The realities and possibilities discussed above must be weighed and decisive steps must be taken if Cyprus is to emerge from the current crisis, while the role of the National Guard should be re-examined. In such moments, superficial policies or doctrinal notions are neither suitable nor acceptable. The Republic’s governing authorities as well as every politician should work for the common good. This is their opportunity to demonstrate that political integrity still exists and alter the dubious political image they have been presenting for so many years.
A Greek version of this article can be found here