Though newly discovered gas reserves off Cyprus are currently driving the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities further apart, they could offer both newfound wealth if, together with Turkey, they would agree to start a new dialogue about exploiting and transporting this find.
Aphrodite’s Gift: Can Cypriot Gas Power a New Dialogue?, the latest International Crisis Group report, examines rising hostility in the eastern Mediterranean since Greek Cypriots unilaterally began drilling in hydrocarbon reserves off the southern coast in September 2011 and found the large Aphrodite field. Turkey responded with tough criticism, naval manoeuvres threatening exploration operations, and agreements with Turkish Cypriots to exploit hydrocarbons around the island.
Ideally, a comprehensive settlement to reunify the Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot communities would end the increasingly dangerous tit-for-tat in the eastern Mediterranean.
“The gas discovery could be the locomotive for reunification, but unilateral developments will make a negotiated settlement even more difficult, further raise tensions and shatter hopes of future security and stability around the island”, says Didem Akyel Collinsworth, Crisis Group’s Turkey/Cyprus Analyst.
An overall settlement to the Cyprus conflict seems as elusive as ever with UN-mediated talks showing no progress. Significant gas revenues may be a decade away, and exploiting the gas in the context of the unresolved Cyprus dispute will drive up costs and scare away investment from major oil companies.
As gas exploration continues, the parties should take independent confidence-building steps to seek mutual advantage and reduce tensions. Both sides on the island should agree to share revenues from any hydrocarbon exploitation and establish an advisory committee to discuss joint use and distribution. Turks and Turkish Cypriots should avoid aggravating tensions and abstain from taking actions inside Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
“A joint approach to eastern Mediterranean natural gas exploitation would ensure benefits for all, while unilateral moves mean lower profits, tensions and delays that could crush current projects”, says Hugh Pope, Crisis Group’s Turkey/Cyprus Project Director. “And it is a Cyprus settlement, not far-away gas revenues, that can provide a quick and real economic bonanza for all”.
To this end, Ankara should reverse its policy of categorically refusing to engage Greek Cypriot officials, even if it does not recognise them as representing the whole island, and agree to enter into a dialogue to defend its claims in the eastern Mediterranean. A gas pipeline project to Turkey may convince Ankara of its interest in cooperating with Greek Cypriots, who should abandon their preconditions. Turkey must also adopt a long-term strategy that ends threats and reassures Greek Cypriots that it truly aims for a Cyprus settlement, normalisation and a withdrawal of Turkish troops.
“The main parties are trapped by their own long-standing national myths about the Cyprus problem and the belief that the other side does not want a deal”, says Sabine Freizer, Crisis Group’s Europe Program Director. “The only way to escape this vicious circle in which everyone has been missing opportunities for so long is to learn each others’ true positions through dialogue”.