A Viable and Lasting Settlement of the Cyprus Problem Would Be in the Best Interests Not Only of the Greek and Turkish Cypriots but Also of Europe and its Future

E. Mr. Stavros Avgoustides was appointed Ambassador of Cyprus to Bulgaria in 2014. He is a member of the Diplomatic Service of the Republic of Cyprus since 1998. He has served in several Diplomatic Missions overseas, representing Cyprus in various bilateral and multilateral fora. He was posted as Deputy Head of Mission and Consul at the Embassy of the Republic of Cyprus in Damascus, Syria (1999-2001); as Consul at the Embassy in Athens, Greece (2002-2006); as Chargé d' Affaires a.i. at the Embassy in Sofia, Bulgaria (2006-2009); and as General Consul at the Consulate General of the Republic of Cyprus in Toronto, Canada (2009-2011).

In August 2011, Mr. Avgoustides returned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where he served as the Head of the Department of Consular Affairs. With the assumption of the Presidency of the European Council by the Republic of Cyprus in July 2012, he successfully served as the Chairman of the European Council’s Working Group on Consular Affairs (COCON). At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Nicosia, Mr. Avgoustides has also served in the Protocol and Consular Affairs Division (1998-1999) and in the European Union Division (2001-2002).

Avgoustides was born in Nicosia, Cyprus in 1972. He holds a master's degree in Business Administration (MBA) from the University of Reading (Henley Business School), UK, and a master's degree (MA) in International Relations and European Studies from the University of Kent (London Centre of International Relations), UK. He received his bachelor’s degree (BA) in Political Science and Economics from Arizona State University, Tempe (AZ), USA.

Stavros Avgoustides is married to Mrs. Daniella Ioannidou - Avgoustides and they have two children.

- Your Excellency, the diplomatic relations between Cyprus and Bulgaria were established immediately after the proclamation of the independence of the Republic of Cyprus in 1960. At what level are they at the moment?

- The level of our bilateral relations was and remains excellent. Cyprus and Bulgaria enjoy excellent relations of friendship and cooperation at the bilateral level, as well as within the European Union, in the Council of Europe and in other international fora.

Friendship between our two countries is solidly founded on common values and principles, such as peace, democracy, respect for human dignity, human rights, freedom and justice. On the fundamental values of the European Union: equality, tolerance and the rule of law.

We are conducting extensive exchanges and cooperation in political, economic, cultural areas, as well as on people-to-people relations. More than 30,000 Bulgarians live and work in Cyprus. They are indeed a highly respected members of our society.

During President Anastasiades state visit to Bulgaria in February last year, our leaders had the opportunity to sign highly important Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) in the fields of Energy, Tourism and Agriculture and Rural Development. More recently our two countries signed, in my opinion, I very important MOU for cooperation against trafficking of cultural treasures and articrafts.

Cyprus is determined to further deepen the mutually beneficial cooperation with Bulgaria and build on our strategic relationship by intensifying the exchanges and consultations between our two governments.

- Can you brief us on the latest developments of ongoing peace negotiations in Cyprus? Are you optimistic about the future?

- First, I wish to reiterate the sincere and deep appreciation of the Government of the Republic of Cyprus for the consistent and principled stance of the Republic of Bulgaria on the Cyprus issue and the ongoing peace negotiations, aiming at a comprehensive, viable, and fair settlement. A settlement safeguarding the principles upon which the European Union is founded and ensuring the peaceful co-existence and prosperity of all Cypriots.

The negotiations have now reached a very critical juncture.

The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced on June 4th that President Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci agreed to attend the Conference on Cyprus which will reconvene in Geneva on 28 June 2017, with the participation of the three guarantor powers (Greece, Turkey and the UK), with the EU as an observer.

It has been agreed that the chapter of security and guarantees will be discussed first, and there will be parallel negotiations on the other important chapters.

In the meantime, till June 28th, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Cyprus Mr. Espen Barth Eide has been mandated with drafting a "common document" in consultation with all stakeholders that will form the basis for discussion, in Geneva, of the chapter of security and guarantees.

As our Government spokesperson has clearly indicated: We expect that discussions on the chapter of security and guarantees will be structured, focused and results-oriented, and not a repetition of the rhetoric of the conference held earlier this year in Geneva.

The fact remains that the EU provides the security needed and that Cypriots do not need guarantors, nor the presence of an occupation army to protect us from foreign forces.

We hope that Turkey will finally engage constructively in this process and submit its position, so that progress can be achieved.

A viable and lasting settlement of the Cyprus problem would be in the best interests not only of the Greek and Turkish Cypriots but also of Europe and its future. It would end the paradox of having an EU member state under occupation, forcibly divided with the presence of foreign troops and at the same time would enhance Cyprus’ role as security provider in the south-eastern Mediterranean.

You’ve asked if I am optimistic about the future. I have a more realistic approach. We can stop being optimists; if we do, then we may as well accept that the solution of the Cyprus problem is unattainable. Yes, there are obstacles, but we remain hopeful that we will face the challenges and overcome our differences. 

- Is the Cypriot economy recovering after the worst financial crisis in 2013? Did our bilateral economic relations get influenced and if so, how?

- The financial crisis had also a negative impact on our bilateral economic relations. However, since 2015 Cyprus’ economy is in the process of recovery. We have benefited from the Economic Adjustment Programme, emerged from the recession and we are steadily returning to a sustainable growth path.

The improved robustness of the Cypriot economy and the banking sector is evident in the significant reduction in the yields of government bonds, the upgrade of the economy by the international rating agencies, the significant reduction of the Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) and the significant investor interest as a result of the participation of foreign investors in the banking and other sectors.

Moreover, our government is implementing a series of fiscal, structural and institutional reforms to promote competitiveness and growth. And even though there are still challenges to overcome, the Cypriot economic reform programme has created opportunities for Bulgarian companies in a number of sectors of the economy.

- Does the Cypriot business have investment and trade interests in Bulgaria and vice versa - what is the ground for Bulgarian investments in Cyprus? In what areas are those interests?

- Traditionally, trade and investment have been critical aspects of Cyprus - Bulgaria bilateral ties. Despite the challenges caused by the recent financial crisis, Cyprus remains amongst the largest source countries of foreign investment in Bulgaria.

Further development of trade and economic cooperation between our two countries will enhance our bilateral relationship.

Moreover, investment strengthens people-to-people relationships. I underline the need for further enhancing investment between our two countries and urge business people from both countries to consider investing. The existing agreements on investment protection from 1988 as well as the agreement for avoiding double taxation from 2001 offer a firm little framework, which aims to encourage investments and economic activity in general.

Although Cyprus may have a small domestic market, its prime geographical location places in the crossroad it near a huge market and this is something that may interest Bulgarian businesses. 

At the same time, we are aggressively promoting the idea of Cyprus private-sector investment in Bulgaria. The Bulgarian economy is growing steadily. The country is rapidly upgrading its infrastructure and has shown political will in making responsible reforms. Cyprus values Bulgaria as a market with great potential and as a reliable trade partner.

- What is your opinion on the BREXIT and the upcoming negotiations between the EU and the UK?

- Cyprus believes in a "smooth" exit and the avoidance of a "cliff-edge" scenario. At the same time we want to see continuity and legal reassurances for all EU citizens and businesses rights and status.

I expect that Brexit negotiations, like every "divorce" procedure, will be difficult for both sides. However, I think that the negotiations will be conducted in good faith, and I hope that in the end of this process, with its ups and downs, the relations between the EU and the UK will remain close and strong. 

- Many Cypriot youths study in Bulgaria and receive their higher education here. What attracts them in our home and what is the trend?

The economic crisis in Cyprus had its negative impact in the field of education as well. The number of Cypriot students in Bulgaria, which in previous years was high, has gradually declined. Many high school graduates chose to remain in Cyprus to continue their education in local universities and colleges. This year, however, based on our knowledge, a significant number of Cypriot students were admitted in Bulgarian Universities.

Bulgarian universities, both public and private, may certainly offer a superior level of education to all undergraduate and post graduate students. This fact is clearly illustrated in the success and talent of most Cypriot graduates of Bulgarian Universities. Many Cypriot successful entrepreneurs, artists, politicians, and above all, good citizens and distinguished members of our society have graduated from Bulgarian universities. 

The Embassy maintains a direct contact and constant communication with the Cypriot students. We try to provide reliable support and services to the Cypriot students in Bulgaria and to enhance and strengthen the educational and cultural relations between our two countries.

- You are an ambassador who has a special relationship to art and culture, as you yourself paint and you are exhibiting your works in the Sofia Gallery for the initiative "Art 4 Charity". Tell us more about it.

- I am extremely proud of our initiative "Art4Charity", launched in 2015. In February 2015 our Embassy organized a charity exhibition, with artworks by Bulgarian artist Nikolay Russev, and my paintings. All proceeds were given to UNICEF in support of the Organization’s charity programs in Bulgaria.

I am also extremely proud of our support and contribution to the Foundation "For Our Children". I am strong supporter of their project for the construction and renovation of the Complex for Early Childhood Development in Sofia.

I urge everyone to join us in supporting this important project and give the opportunity to underprivileged and children with special needs in Bulgaria, but also abilities, to receive the necessary care and have access to appropriate emotional, social and physical development.

At the same time, along with Bulgarian exploring photographer Ventzislav Petrov we initiated last year the "Sofia in fragments" Art Project. It includes photographs and artworks inspired by the city of Sofia. The project focuses on unnoticed aspects of public life; people, buildings, abandoned or ruined landscapes, architecture, streets, rooftops, tiles, objects and more. All these that you walk by every day and you don’t really pay attention to or you don’t bother to explore or question their existence or purpose.  We will even incorporate voices of the ordinary people and sounds too often unheard.

We will attempt to unveil some of the city’s secrets and/or hidden treasures and to gently awaken the ‘sleepwalker’ of Sofia’s sidewalks. Indeed, the project will challenge people’s notions of discovering the hidden character of their city and living environment. It is an open-ended interactive project; we therefore urge and provoke our followers to contribute and actively participate by sharing ideas of potential sites or "hidden treasures" in the city of Sofia. We are truly excited about this project and believe that it can reach a large and diverse audience.

Finally, the Embassy is participating in other local charity initiatives and projects. I have the honour and pride to donate my artworks to the annual charity Gala of "For our children" foundation.

- Your paintings have a unique artistic identity and they are exceptionally colourful, positive and create a good mood. What inspires you to draw and what do you express through them? What is for you diplomacy and what is art, and is there anything in common between them?

- Drawing and painting is something very special to me. It is an "escape" from the daily routine; a way to express my thoughts and feelings.

I pay attention to numerous small, detailed parts, designs and detect different colours and materials. I am curious as an observer and I want to show what stands behind the reality. My drawings are not simple illustrations of flowers, birds, cities and people. In each object there is a hidden treasure, another dimension or reality, which I try to show. All these detailed designs, shapes and multiple colours are our life’s "mirror". Painting or drawings help me see the "colours" and the "positive" message in everything I do; including my professional work as a diplomat

Almost every day - I feel the urge, the need, to create something; even if it is just a small drawing or a single line. That is what I try to inspire my children to do; to learn to express themselves through creation. Lately I have realised that I have, to be honest -unintentionally, "inspired" my wife to use artistic creation as a getaway from her daily hectic routine.   After all, we are all creators of our own perceived reality. Art offers us infinite possibilities to create whatever we may desire and express our emotions and feelings freely. Believe me – it is addictive!!

- Do you organize any events for the promotion of the Cypriot culture and traditions in Bulgaria? What are our relations in the cultural sphere at present? Do you believe in the power that art and culture offer to bring peoples closer together?

- Culture has been a vital component of our historical bilateral relations. From literature to drama, form music to poetry and art, Cypriots and Bulgarians have maintain throughout the years a strong and meaningful relationship.

We are doing our best to promote the expansion of cooperation and interaction in extremely broad field of science, education and culture. Both our Embassies, in Nicosia and in Sofia, are organizing visits, meetings, events and give everything for the implementation of the bilateral cultural program.

I am a strong supporter of "cultural diplomacy", or better as I call it, the "diplomacy of/ for culture". In 2015, I had the privilege of presenting this exact topic in Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski". In my understanding this means the use of diplomacy in all its forms and magnitude, to promote, protect and preserve world culture as a whole. To promote and preserve tolerance and acceptance. As I have often argued, culture is over and above politics, national borders or interests.

- You are Ambassador to Bulgaria since 2014. What is your impression of our country? Which are your achievements of you are proud and what else would you like to do?

- Above all, I am proud and honoured to represent my country in Bulgaria. For many reasons, personal and professional, Bulgaria has a special place in our hearts and minds.

As an Ambassador I primarily represent the interests of the Republic of Cyprus in the Republic of Bulgaria with the aim of widening and deepening relations and advancing bilateral cooperation at all levels. In this respect, my aim is to further promote, expand and encourage political, cultural, business and trade relations between Cyprus and Bulgaria. There is not a limit to the development of our bilateral relations and I strongly believe there is a great potential for further development of our relations in many fields.

At the same time, we are at the service of Cypriot citizens residing, studying or visiting the Republic of Bulgaria. We will continue doing our outmost to ensure effective communication and provide useful information and services to all our citizens.

Photos: personal archive of H. E. Mr. Stavros Avgoustidis

On them: Ambassador's works of art