Despite opposition within his own government, Greek Cypriot President Glafcos Clerides announced on December 29 that Cyprus would not take delivery of a January 1997 order of Russian S-300 ground-to-air missiles. The anti-aircraft missiles were a source of tension for Greece and Turkey as well as Cyprus, which has been divided since 1974 into autonomous and mutually hostile Greek and Turkish communities.
Turkey had claimed that the missiles threatened its aircraft and the Turkish mainland and had warned that all means, including military force, would be used to stop deployment of the S-300s. The Greek Cypriots, who have a 1993 defense commitment from Athens—an original backer and long-time defender of the missile purchase—remained steadfast in deploying the missiles up until Clerides' announcement. The reversal of course came amid growing talk among European capitals, including Berlin, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union (EU) for the first six months of 1999, that the missile issue could jeopardize EU membership for Cyprus. (The EU announced in December 1997 that Cyprus would be one of six states to begin accession talks.)
The United States, which had criticized the S-300 purchase as a mistake while also condemning Turkey for its threats of force, welcomed the decision, as did the EU. However, the Cyprus Socialist Party EDEK, including the Cypriot defense minister, decided to withdraw from the government on January 2 over Clerides' announcement. Cyprus may now seek shorter-range missiles as an alternative and plans to negotiate with Russia for delivery of the S-300s to the Greek island of Crete.