What is the Growing Impact of the Cyprus Problem?

In a recent podcast Fiona Mullen – Director of Cyprus-based consultancy Sapienta Economics, spoke with Ahval editor David Lepeska about the growing impact of the Cyprus problem, Turkey’s questionable claims to the waters around the island, and how the European Union has largely failed to protect South Cyprus from Turkish aggression in the eastern Mediterranean.

Fiona Mullen has lived in South Cyprus for 15 years.

Conflict over drilling rights

In the introduction to the interview Mullen said that the Israelis discovered the Tamar gas field in 2009. Subsequently, in 2011 South Cyprus found its own gas field. (Aphrodite).

At the start, there was hope that the gas discovery would prompt reunification of Cyprus. However when drilling began in the Aphrodite field in 2011, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) signed an agreement with Turkey to drill offshore the island.

In short, Greek Cyprus’ unilateral search for hydrocarbons offshore the island had the opposite effect.

This recently became more complicated by the agreement between Turkey and Libya to search for gas in their continental shelves, ownership of some areas are disputed with Greece.

Turkey’s actions have been condemned and South Cyprus was hoping for support from the EU. International Italian energy giant ENI and Total-France have both paid millions for drilling rights offshore Cyprus. Nevertheless, Turkey is now on its 5th drilling operation in bloc 8 of South Cyprus EEZ – if indeed they have performed any drilling at all, she noted. The deal with Libya has made the situation more complicated and it could be that all Cypriots from the north and the south may find themselves excluded from international deals.

Greek Cypriots have tunnel vision

Turkish Drillship – Yavuz

Mullen went on to say that the Greek Cypriots have tunnel vision. Their only focus is on Turkey and the invasion of Cyprus, not the Turkish Cypriots. She said that what they should worry about is that Greece’s priority is to get the Libya maritime agreement with Turkey cancelled. They were willing to throw the Cypriots under the bus to achieve that end, she said.

The waters off the west of Cyprus are claimed by Turkey to be part of its own continental shelf. This is part of South Cyprus EEZ but no one has drilled there as yet. Turkey, (using more diplomatic language) threatened to shoot if anyone tries to drill there. Turkey says that it is drilling on behalf of the Turkish Cypriots.

Mullen questions the logic of the Greeks Cypriots’ actions. They unilaterally sold drilling licences to international energy companies and in response Turkey began its own drilling programme in disputed areas. In international law, EEZ claims are stronger compared to continental shelf claims. It should be beyond the pale, but the EU doesn’t seem to want to do much about it, she said.

In the event of reunification, Turkish Cypriots should get at share of revenues. Previously agreed convergences stated that in a reunited Cyprus the joint governments would get those revenues. More recent offers by the Greek Cypriots to put a share of the money into an account for the Turkish Cypriots indicates that reunification will not happen, said Mullen.

Turkey wants to be a player in the energy field

North Cyprus News - Gas PipelineThe presence of Turkeys ships was intended send a message to international energy companies that Turkey is a player in the energy field. Turkey has said for a long time, that gas finds should be transferred to Europe through Turkey. However, Mullen believes that Egypt is the natural hub.

She said that the Greek Cypriots have good relations with every country in the region except for Turkey.

Turkey could be a serious player but they have approached it the wrong way round, said Mullen.

The Greek Cypriots are getting frustrated that the EU has not imposed sanctions on Turkey and in retaliation, has blocked EU sanctions on Russia for its incursions into the Crimea. This has driven a wedge between South Cyprus and the EU. The EU and NATO proposals get blocked because either Cyprus won’t deal with Turkey or Turkey won’t deal with Cyprus as it does not recognise it.

Good relations are essential

North Cyprus News - Security and Guarantees - Crans-Montana
Cyprus Conference Crans-Montana – 2017

The background view is that the failure of the Crans-Montana Cyprus Conference in 2017, is the fault of the Greek Cypriots, she said. This was because they wouldn’t progress to the next level where the Prime Ministers of the relevant countries would meet. Of course the Greek Cypriots blame Turkey because Turkey would not put in writing certain conditions such as security. However, the Greek Cypriots are losing a certain amount of goodwill in the international community, Mullen said.

It didn’t help that former President Tassos Papadopoulos said ‘no’ to the Annan Plan in 2004, she added.

So the international community is saying if the Cyprus problem had been solved back then, the current problems regarding energy resources would not have emerged. Mullen also mentioned that Turkish President Erdogan has leverage by threatening to send Syrian refugees to Europe rather than keeping them in Turkey.

Greek Cypriots backed themselves into a corner

Eastern Mediterrean Gas Forum – July 2019

Regarding the recently formed Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum during a meeting in Cairo on July 25, 2019, by the energy ministers of Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, the Palestinian territories and a representative of the energy minister of Jordan who said they would form a committee to elevate the forum to the level of an international organisation that respects the rights of its members to their natural resources. This forum excluded Turkey – unless it “behaves itself”, Mullen said. The Greek Cypriots joined in the hope that this would support them and stop Turkey pushing them around. But this is clearly not the case, said Mullens.

The outcome is that rather than use diplomacy Turkey continues to feel provoked.

Asked if Athens and Nicosia are also partly to blame and how serious are they to reunite Cyprus, Mullen replied that solving the Cyprus problem would bring stability to the Eastern Mediterranean. However, the international community thinks that the Greek Cypriots did not try hard enough at Crans-Montana in 2017.

What do Cypriots think?

North Cyprus News - UNFICYP

Asked what do Cypriots think. Do they get along? Mullen said that some recent polls taken in October 2019 and not yet published, showed that the Greek Cypriots became more intent on solving the Cyprus problem after Turkey’s drillships arrived. But the Greek Cypriot political elite are not. If the two Cypriot community leaders agreed, including on issues such as security, the Greek Cypriots would support reunification. Asked why there is such a consensus by over 50% of Greek Cypriots who were polled, Mullen said that following an initiative by the United States, UNFICYP could be removed from the island, thus making them feel more vulnerable, she speculated. Also, there is the sense that the EU can’t protect Cyprus and its gas ambitions.

Other factors such as Turkey building a new observation post in the UN buffer zone have prompted the Greek Cypriots to feel that they are losing the battle. At the political level, where the leadership is very risk averse, it is toying with the idea of a two-state solution. This is a complicated argument given that Cyprus is an EU country, she said.

North Cyprus News - Varosha - Maras
Varosha – Maras

Referring to the proposed reopening of Varosha/Maraş, Mullen declared her own interest in the Famagusta Eco City project. In the event of the re-development of Varosha, the project envisages the town being a green eco development. However, plans regarding reviving the whole of Famagusta, including Varosha, have stalled because of Turkish Cypriot political infighting, she said.

Mullen said that it would be a shame if it was only a casino city. And redevelopment would not be in keeping with UN security council resolutions which are to return Varosha to its former owners. If Turkey is the only investor, a casino town is the more likely outcome, said Mullen.

Greek Cypriots from Varosha are, therefore, quite pro-solution as Varosha would be returned. Developing the area into a casino strip would create another wedge between the two communities, she said.

The need to solve the Cyprus problems is important for the E. Mediterranean

Prime Minister Ersin Tatar – President Mustafa Akinci

Asked if she expected any progress in 2020, Mullen replied that it depends on who wins the forthcoming Turkish Cypriot presidential elections in April. UBP candidate Ersin Tatar is not pro-solution. He won’t want reunification under a federal umbrella, she said. Incumbent President Mustafa Akinci is the best hope for a solution, although Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades remains risk averse.

She noted that not all UBP members like Ersin Tatar and could vote for CTP leader Tufan Erhurman. Nevertheless Tatar has best the relations with Turkey. Akinci has long-since fallen out with Turkey.

Mullen believes that the international situation with Libya and Greece could force a “stitch up” solution affording de facto formal partition of Cyprus, thereby maintaining the status quo. It is not ideal, she said. But Turkish Cypriots would have fewer problems currently attached to non-recognition and maybe Varosha will be returned to the Greek Cypriots and they will continue to explore for gas unhindered by Turkey, she speculated.


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