In the past few weeks, geopolitical developments have underlined the difficult task that Cyprus faces in treading a fine line between its traditional but rival allies and trading partners.
One the one hand, Cyprus is a member of the EU, the eurozone and, more recently, has been named a “strategic partner” of the US.
On the other hand, Cyprus has deep and long-standing ties to Russia, which date back long before the Cold War.
EU membership has led to a significant increase in trade and despite the economic crisis has arguably contributed to an increase in economic and political standards. It also most likely keeps any designs that Turkey may have in check.
Closer ties with the US have encouraged Israel, and now Egypt, to do oil and gas business with Cyprus. And, based on various developments in March 2013, it is my personal opinion that the US and UK worked hard to keep us inside the EU when some in the eurozone were ready to kick us out.
On the other hand, close ties with Russia have also brought a lot of business — the biggest spending and fastest growing tourists until very recently — and diversification of tourism via financial and professional services.
If, like me and the vast majority of EU citizens, you were brought up in a NATO country during the height of the Cold War, you were led to believe that Russia could obliterate you at any moment with just four minutes’ notice.
I believe this explains why Cypriots and other EU citizens do not really understand each other when it comes to relations with Russia.
Equal trading partners
But apart from political alliances, there are also some hard economic realities.
In 2013, exports of services to the eurozone (€1.7 billion), Russia (€1.6bn) and the UK (€1.5bn) were pretty much equal in size.
Services are the mainstay of the Cyprus economy. Exports of services outstrip exports of goods by a factor of almost three.
With figures like these, you can see why it is imperative for Cyprus to remain on good terms with all three major partners: Russia, the eurozone and the UK.
Moreover, if you look at the balance on trade in services (exports-minus-imports), then Russia comes out top, with a surplus of €1.3bn in 2013.
The services surplus for the UK was €870m in the same year, while there was a deficit of €150m for services trade with the eurozone.
Interestingly for the international media who insist that Cyprus is a money-laundering centre for Russian mafia money, €1.2bn of the €1.6bn in services exports to Russia in 2013 was accounted for by travel (tourism) and transport (presumably shipping).
Financial and business services amounted to a mere €323m.
Who will be the biggest?
Changes to EU balance-of-payments methodology mean that there is no back series to examine how exports to each of these markets have grown in recent years.
However, what we do know is that the short- to medium-term outlook for Russia is grim. The IMF’s World Economic Outlook in January expected real GDP in Russia to contract by 3% in 2015 and 1% in 2016.
The outlook for the eurozone is pretty meagre, with the eurozone expected to post growth of 1.2% in 2015 and 1.4% in 2016.
The projection for the UK is the most promising, with growth of 2.7% in 2015 and 2.4% in 2016.
But there is another market close by that is expected to grow even faster.
According to the IMF, the economy of the Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan, and Pakistan is forecast to grow by 3.3% in 2015 and 3.9% in 2016, despite collapsing oil prices and widespread regional conflict.
In separate press releases in February, the IMF said it expected Egypt to grow by 3.8% “in 2014/15 and 5% in the medium term” and Morocco to grow by 4.4% in 2015 and 5% in 2016.
So maybe it is time for Cypriot businesses to look beyond the old markets to the fast-growing economies close by.