Efforts to find a just solution to the age-old Cyprus problem are on hold yet again. This time, the tension emerged in early October as a result of the exploration activities by a Bahamian-registered ship, the SAIPEM 10.000, on the behalf of the Republic of Cyprus (RoC). The exploration area was unilaterally declared an exclusive economic zone by the RoC, which was not recognized by the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) and Turkey. To show its displeasure, Turkey sent a patrolling mission to the disputed area and the TRNC Foreign Ministry issued a strong condemnation on Oct. 3, repeated by the Turkish Foreign Ministry the next day. On Oct. 7, Nicos Anastasiades, president of the RoC, announced that he would not attend the scheduled meetings with his Turkish Cypriot counterpart under U.N. auspices.
The latest round of negotiations started in February this year, after a two-year break, with the encouragement of the U.S. Although the potential hydrocarbon reserves in the eastern Mediterranean encouraged the sides to come together, the recent row once again showed how wide the differences are and how unwilling the disputants are to compromise.
Over the years, the attempts to explore and drill in the region have caused tension, which has increased since the announcement of a discovery of an estimated 5 trillion to 7 trillion cubic feet of off-shore natural gas reserves at the south of the island by Noble Energy in December 2011. Recently, while the RoC licensed an Italian-Korean consortium of ENI-Kogas for the exploration and drilling on the south of the island, Turkey authorized the Barbaros Hayrettin Paşa scientific ship on Oct. 20 to carry out seismic surveys around the same area.
The RoC, backed by a similar statement from Athens, declared Turkey’s move as a violation of its sovereign rights and issued threats to close down the checkpoints between the two sides on the island and block the opening of new chapters in Turkey’s EU accession process. Suspending Turkey’s operations in the area were also put forward as a precondition for the resumption of negotiations. Turkey and the TRNC ignored the threats and the precondition.
At the root of the latest dispute lies the maximalist approach of Greek Cypriot politicians to the negotiations and their unwillingness to be “the one” that finally signs a compromise deal. Thus, whenever the negotiations reach a stage where the final deal is within sight, Greek Cypriot politicians start getting jittery. We have seen this repeated many times, most famously with the far-reaching attempt at a solution with the 2004 Annan Plan, which was put to referenda on both sides and accepted by the Turkish Cypriots but rejected by the Greek Cypriots. Since then, although the commonality of the island’s resources is one of the fundamental principles of any solution, the Greek Cypriots have not hesitated to act unilaterally in licensing exploration and drilling activities off of the island.
The reaction of international actors, including the U.N., the EU, the U.S., and the U.K. to the recent rupture has been subdued and cautious. They all called on the interested parties to avoid further tension and return to the negotiation table. Statements by the Greek Cypriots after the walkout have shown that they have not thought through the result of their action, while Turkey has been too preoccupied with the Middle East to notice Greek Cyprus’ displeasure.
As elections are coming soon both to Turkey and the TRNC, Turkey-EU negotiations are not likely to thaw any time soon and the Turkish side will not be in a hurry to return to the table but will instead need some innovative persuading.
The Greek Cypriots should use this time to reflect on what they did and why.