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To reduce actors’ motives to just natural gas or maritime boundaries detracts attention from goal of settlement on Cyprus


The writer is a graduate of the School of Geography and Environment at Oxford University. His DPhil focused on natural resource conflicts, with particular emphasis on the relationship between the peace and natural gas development processes on Cyprus.

With EU sanctions looming for Turkey over its drilling activities offshore Cyprus alongside headline tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, there is no better time than now to ask: what is the motor for it all?

The decades-old and seemingly intractable political situation on the divided island of Cyprus can be seen as the genesis of the fallout being witnessed today.

Back in 2012, then UN Special Adviser on Cyprus Javier Perez de Cuellar warned of the danger to come: “Is it really tolerable to let this tangle of issues [the Cyprus problem] linger unresolved? […] I do not even want to get into the confrontation brewing over exploration and exploitation of Eastern Mediterranean hydrocarbons.”

In 2015, Espen Barth Eide, another UN special adviser to Cyprus, said, “The hydrocarbon crisis is in essence an illustration of the deep disagreements that lie behind the whole understanding of what the Cyprus problem is. […] A lot of these issues are issues because of the division and will actually evaporate once a solution is found, because they are expressions of the division.”

Seen this way, the natural gas issue is an epiphenomenon of the Cyprus problem.

It is the status-quo on the island upon which various tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean are built.

To reduce the motives of relevant actors to just about natural gas or maritime boundaries is tangential, and detracts attention from where attention should really lay: a settlement on Cyprus. Without it, with each new discovery (and the speculation it fosters), each new bilateral maritime boundary agreement (that may ignore relevant third parties), and, from the Turkish perspective, each new attempt to ostracize Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots from the region, will only fuel further enmity.

The Libyan Civil War has now been drawn into a vortex, with Greece and Turkey on opposing sides with future maritime boundary agreements in the region seemingly at stake. “Solve the Cyprus problem then, and all expressions of the division should tumble.” But in what is regarded as the “diplomat’s graveyard,” such a line of reasoning is deceptively simple.

Formal talks between the Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot communities began in 1968. There has been no comprehensive agreement since.

A UN peacekeeping mission arrived in 1964, and has not left since.

It is habitual to refer to a peace “process” on Cyprus; a process with a clear endpoint: the establishment of a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation.

But across the years, the peace process has been a staggered, intermittent, and ultimately fruitless endeavor.

Though the parties to the dispute agree on the general model of a solution, the fundamental lines of division find nuanced expression in terms of issues such as power-sharing, territory, property, and even the future balance of citizenship on the island.

In 2014, Crisis Group International summed the state of affairs best: thousands of meetings in dozens of formats, and various locations have resulted only in “glacial, incomplete normalization of the de facto partition between the Greek Cypriot majority in the south and the Turkish Cypriots in the north.”

In February 2014, the leaders of both communities published a communique known as the Joint Declaration. It emphasized that the status-quo was unacceptable.

With no detraction whatsoever for the very real pain suffered by both communities, the status quo, is simply not a state of catastrophic doom and gloom.

The conflict really is, for want of a better word, ‘comfortable’. In fact, the status quo is both the envy of the violent inter-communal conflict that preceded it and, relative to the seemingly persistent bloodshed that blights its near-neighbors, Cyprus is unquestionably peaceful. A tourist to Cyprus would be hard pressed to find brazen evidence of an intense conflict.

Hughes-Wilson (2011) said what is sometimes difficult to say; that the “irony is that the Turks’ intervention or invasion — call it what you will — has brought peace to Cyprus.” However, be it a frozen conflict or negative peace now, what is needed instead is a just, equitable, and sustainable settlement.

But will an internal resolution on Cyprus be enough to eradicate chances for future tension? Will peace on the island be enough to pull the rug from beneath the plethora of regional tensions?

With independence from the United Kingdom in 1960, the newly emergent Republic of Cyprus was a reluctant one.

Cyprus was meant to be non-aligned, but the two communities were anything but. From the outset, the Greek Cypriots vied for union with Greece. In response, the Turkish Cypriots vied for partition of the island between Turkey and Greece. The power-sharing mechanism between the two communities lasted all but three years before the island descended into bloody conflict. The Greek Cypriots are now the sole custodians of the internationally recognized government on the island, with the Turkish Cypriots relegated from the system despite token gestures to the contrary.

If with reunification the Turkish Cypriots would be relegated to the status of a politically impotent minority, there would simply be no reunification in the first place.

This is why effective Turkish Cypriot participation in a unified federal “Republic of Cyprus” comprised of two constituent states with one international “personality” is a necessity. The more the Turkish Cypriots are pushed to the sidelines, the less counterbalance there would be against the more anti-Turkish elements of Greek Cypriot society (and vice versa). What will be dialed down, hopefully, is the historical antagonism replaced instead by sense of humility and compromise baked into the island’s institutions, but also its foreign policy as avowedly neither anti-Turkish nor pro-Greek.

A reunited Cyprus would then introduce the Turkish Cypriot voice into the European Union and remove a major thorn between Europe and Turkey.

Without the compromises necessary from all parties to the dispute, the more the division of the island remains, the more the status-quo can and will be used as leverage to sabotage Turkey-EU relations further.

With the Turkish Cypriots respected as political equals on par with the Greek Cypriot community, relations between Turkey and the island could flourish. Greece supports EU membership for Turkey, and a reunified Cyprus will most likely too.

But “peace” is a polysemic term. It means different things to different people, and this is where the conflict starts.

Back in 2007, former Council of Europe Member Rene van der Linden opined on natural gas: “If this goal [of a solution] is kept in mind, I don’t see a reason for a crisis to be born. If used appropriately, this factor may positively help dynamics.” But the trouble is exactly that; nuanced differences in what exactly peace should look like. If both the proceeds from natural gas exploitation and the ostracizing of Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots from decision-making processes in the Eastern Mediterranean are used to enforce a one-sided peace, that peace cannot be sustainable.

Hence, it is not with peace per se but a particular settlement that will suspend current tensions and lay the groundwork for a more equitable and cooperative future.

Until then, though news fatigue is often felt by various analysts and consultants from the policy-making and oil and gas world, it takes but one new development, one new crisis, one new discovery, for the sound of the “East Med” bugle to call again, for the loudest voices to rally around the flag once more, and for political leaderships in the region to posture against each other without meaningful, humble, and constructive, inter-dialogue.

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of CypriumNews.

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