Cypriot union threatened

by dispute over oil and gas rights

Greek Cypriots’ pursuit of ‘hegemony’ jeopardizes peace process, Turkish Cypriot official says

By Guy Taylor – The Washington Times

PipelineA top official from the Turkish north of Cyprus says the Greek Cypriot government has jeopardized a delicate peace process between the two long-divided sides by pursuing “hegemony” over oil and gas exploration operations in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

“The moment of truth has come,” M. Ergun Olgun, the chief Turkish Cypriot peace negotiator, told The Washington Times, asserting that Greek-Cypriot officials must decide “whether they want power-sharing with Turkish Cypriots or to be the masters of their land only.”

While talks between the two had appeared to gain historic momentum early last year, the process effectively broke down during recent months amid bitter disagreement over oil and gas in waters surrounding Cyprus — situated just south of Turkey and just west of Israel.

Greek Cypriot officials suspended the talks in October, citing “aggressive” moves by Turkey to support Turkish Cypriot exploration in areas where the Greek Cypriot government had already signed its own licensing deals with outside companies to drill.

Flag
flag of North Cyprus

Mr. Olgun pushed back at such assertions during a visit to Washington last week.
In an interview with The Times, he claimed the Turkish Cypriot side simply wants “inclusion” in the ongoing exploration activities, and that it is, in fact, the Greek Cypriots who have endangered the peace process by icing his side out of the licensing deals.

Flag South Cyprus
flag of South Cyprus

In addition to contracting the U.S.-based Noble Energy Inc. to search for oil and gas off the island’s coast, the Greek Cypriot government is said to be in talks with Israel and Greece over plans for a major pipeline that would eventually transport liquid natural gas to the European Union — a plan that reportedly went out of its way to exclude Turkey.

According to Mr. Olgun, the Greek Cypriot side is essentially “trying to claim and, in fact, coerce the [Turks] to accept its hegemony.”

“Cooperation on the hydrocarbons issue is a must,” he said. “By claiming they have the single sovereign rights to exploit this resource, the Greek-Cypriots are blocking that cooperation, first with the Turkish-Cypriots and through that with Turkey.”

His remarks presented a stark departure from optimism expressed last year by both Cypriot sides toward the prospect that a true reunification might be on the horizon after more than four decades of division on the island.

cyprus map
Cyprus – divided since 1974

Cyprus was split into an internationally recognized Greek-speaking south and a Turkish-speaking north in 1974, when Turkish forces invaded after a coup by supporters of a union with Greece. Turkish Cypriots declared an independent republic in 1983. But during the decades since, Turkey has never recognized the Greek Cypriot government as a sovereign nation, while most of the world — including the U.S. — has never formally recognized the Turkish Cypriot state.

Washington has long called for a federalized unification of the two sides. But in 2004 the Greek Cypriot side rejected a United Nations plan for reunification — a plan that was endorsed by Turkish Cypriots — and Cyprus joined the European Union as a divided island.

More recent years saw the island’s economy hurt badly by its exposure to Greece’s recession-hit markets. The development appeared to inspire Greek-Cypriot interest in unifying with the north, and the two sides suddenly came together in February of 2014 with an eye on sharing the potential windfall from the region’s energy reserves.

Ironically, the oil and gas dispute is now sucking the wind out of such goals.

While Mr. Olgun would not say so explicitly, his visit to Washington last week seemed driven by a desire to encourage the Obama administration to take a more proactive role — perhaps by calling on the Greek-Cypriot government to embrace a more multilateral approach to the exploration activities.

Ergun Olgun image
Ergün Olgun

“There is a need to facilitate cooperation in the area based on the Greek principles of political equality and co-ownership of [natural resources],” Mr. Olgun said. “The enemy of this is unilateralism. We have to deter unilateralism.”

“The U.S. is a friend of both the Turkish-Cypriots and the Greek-Cypriots, as well as a friend of Turkey and Greece and a strategic ally of Israel,” he added. “All these are key players in the region, and we need cooperation between all of them for eastern Mediterranean security and stability.”

Whether the message had any traction with the Obama administration remains to be seen.

After speaking with The Times, Mr. Olgun met with Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland, who declined to comment for this report.

Her office pointed instead to remarks by U.S. Ambassador to Cyprus John Koenig, who recently urged “both Cypriot sides and other interested international parties to redouble efforts toward a resumption of settlement talks.”

U.S. officials “hope to see the talks resume as soon as possible,” said Mr. Koenig, who called on the two sides to work with the U.N.’s special adviser on Cyprus, Barth Eide.

Mr. Eide is slated to visit the island on Tuesday and Wednesday. In a statement last week, his office said the “purpose of the visit is to ascertain directly from the leaders their views of the current impasse.”

But there is little mystery around the matter, according to Mr. Olgun.

Noble natgas platform“Hydrocarbons can be a blessing or a curse,” he told The Times. “It needs to be managed well, and the key to managing it well is inclusiveness and cooperation.”

There should, he said, be a “transitional executive council to start sharing power and acting together on issues until a final agreement” can be reached on how oil and gas exploration will proceed, along with how potential revenues will be shared.

“A Turkish-Cypriot offer has been on the table to start cooperating by forming a joint committee that will be involved with respect to all the previous contracts signed without challenging or obstructing the execution of contracts and activities that are currently underway,” Mr. Olgun said.

The recent drop in global oil prices is only adding urgency to the situation, he said.

“This is a deep-sea exploration, which is quite expensive,” Mr. Olgun said. “To make the price attractive, which is the best way? Is it going to be a floating LNG terminal? Are we going to sell it to Egypt?

“Are we going to make a pipeline to take it to Turkey? Which is the market that we can at competitive prices sell this product? Do we need to take it to Europe? Through which route can we take it to Europe?” he asked. “These are all valid questions that should be negotiated between the two sides.”

Source: Washington Times