By Nicos Rolandis
There is a journey for all of us, a journey that marks and gives colour to our lives.
In Shakespeare’s Othello, Othello tells Gratiano:
“Here is my journey’s end, here is my butt, and very sea-mark of my utmost sail.”
There has been a starting and a finishing point of my own journey in the history of Cyprus’ oil and gas. I describe below in brief the chronicle of the hydrocarbons in Cyprus from day one, when I first started the process on March 31, 1998, until the day I passed on the baton on February 28, 2003.
When I started that journey almost nobody in Cyprus had even the faintest idea of what it was about. Today oil and gas constitute the “life” and the “future” of our country.
The data I put forward are absolutely authentic and based on government documents, newspaper reports and my own diary.
The very beginning of my journey actually dates back to August 4, 1980 when I was foreign minister. MJ Ambrose, senior executive of US oil majors Amoco and Standard Oil of Indiana, met me in my office and told me that the above corporations were interested in investing and exploring for hydrocarbons in the sea south of Cyprus. Ambrose talked about “large reserves”.
In the meantime our public relations office in Washington DC had informed us that Turkey had learned about the American oil and gas interest and had threatened to proceed with “a further military operation in Cyprus”.
I took Ambrose to President Spyros Kyprianou the following day and after the meeting he asked me to call and seek the advice of UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim on the subject. Waldheim came back to me and discouraged us from proceeding on account of the Turkish threats. The president called a halt “for the time being”.
On September 20, 1983 I resigned as foreign minister, because I differed with the president over the Cyprus problem, but I took with me a copy of the file of the meetings on oil and gas.
I also carried strong memories from the late 1940s when I was a boy and three Limassol friends of my father’s, wine barons Demetris Hadjipavlou and Kleanthis Christophorou and businessman Polyvios Kyriakides had invested a fortune and drilled, near Moni, for oil and gas without success.
On March 1, 1998 I was appointed minister of commerce, industry and tourism. Energy was one of my portfolios. I placed the oil and gas file from the foreign ministry on my desk and kept wondering whether I should raise the matter officially.
My instinct told me that there were hydrocarbons down there, but I feared that in case of failure I might ridicule both the government and myself. After all, since 1960, when the Republic of Cyprus was established, no commerce minister had raised such an issue.
Before the month was out, however, Archbishop Damaskinos of Switzerland and Greek Ambassador to Syria John Mourikis (I knew them both quite well) called and advised me that important US oil companies were interested in the oil and gas sector of Cyprus. The information encouraged me.
I arranged a meeting with President Clerides which was fixed for Tuesday March 31.
Initially the president looked at me strangely and asked me to brief him in detail. I spoke for approximately 15 minutes.
Clerides pondered the subject for a while. “You may proceed, Nicos,” he said. “Bring the matter to the Council of Ministers for approval”. The big “Yes” for Cyprus was there.
According to what my then colleague and now DISY chairman, Averof Neophytou, later told a TV programme, the members of the cabinet were smiling in disbelief, but they agreed on a plan that I should proceed under conditions of absolute confidentiality.
On July 1, 1998 I met in my office the representatives of US oil corporations Crest and Brown & Root, prominent American establishment people and companies.
We discussed the possibility of supplying Egyptian gas to Cyprus and also the question of possible oil and gas reserves beneath the sea around Cyprus, leading to the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding.
Our cooperation continued in the years that followed, though plans to get gas from Egypt faced many practical difficulties.
I reorganised the energy department at the ministry.
The management team on hydrocarbons was composed of director-general Michael Erotokritos (and later on Sotiris Sotiriou) and also Olympia Stylianou and Solon Kassinis.
Then, on September 24, 2000, a daily newspaper broke the story. In the following months, the local press wrote increasingly on the subject, gradually ensuring that natural gas became a household term.
But the natural gas project was mostly treated scathingly. On January 26, 2001 the British High Commissioner Edward Clay quipped that “there is as much oil in Cyprus as there is peanut butter below Manchester”.
In the wake of his comment the press accused me of turning Cyprus into a laughing stock. Others argued that natural gas was simply a soap bubble invented by me to help DISY in the parliamentary elections of May 2001.
Below are just some of the choicest comments from the press cuttings of the time which I have in my archives:
“What a beautiful tale over-imaginative Rolandis has discovered to gain publicity!”
“God save this country from the stupidity, the day dreams, the imagination and the visions of those who govern us. Where did Clerides find a minister like Rolandis?”
“Mr Rolandis, please remember me when you sit as an equal together with the emirs and the sheikhs of OPEC.”
“Since the day the rocket of petroleum was shot up into the air, Rolandis has not ceased talking.”
“If Nick Rola stays for a few more years, in 2003 we shall not have a presidential election, we shall elect the ruler of the planet”.
“Rolandis keeps harping on the tune of oil. He is sacrificing the national interest to gain publicity”
“Oil and gas: Rolandis is a Don Quixote”
The humiliating comments continued throughout the first half of 2001. By the summer I was informed by a close associate that certain circles at the presidential palace were trying to convince the president to fire me because of the damage caused by my daydreams about oil and gas.
I called and fixed an appointment with the president on Wednesday, October 3 when I told the president what I had heard. Clerides looked at me and he said:
“Nicos, put these things into one of your ears and take them out of the other ear. Go on with your work”.
I thanked him for his support and I continued my work which included:
a) Discussion of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) with the ambassadors of Israel Shemi Tzur and Michael Eligal.
b) Meeting in Lebanon in September 2002 for the preliminary delimitation of the EEZ with President Emile Lahoud, Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and Oil Minister Mohammed Baydoun.
c) Meeting at the end of April 2001 in the USA with former President George Bush, his brother Neil Bush, Minister of Commerce Don Evans, Minister of Energy Spencer Abraham and senator (and future presidential candidate) John McCain.
d) Meetings in Russia, Algeria, Syria and Greece with my counterparts.
e) Preliminary meetings at the ministry with specialised companies for surveys in our EEZ.
Egypt was a very important country for us. With Egypt’s Minister of Petroleum Sameh Fahmy we agreed the delimitation of the EEZ of Cyprus and Egypt after hard negotiations.
The Egyptians’ initial stand was to draw the separating line against us, 30 kilometres to the north, because of the very long coastline of Egypt compared to ours.
Eventually they accepted the Median Line in order to create a precedent for the Red Sea. Our ambassador in Egypt Jimmy Droussiotis helped a lot in this regard. The median line was a great success for us, and on February 17, 2003 I signed the EEZ Agreement in Cairo with Egypt’s Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher.
It was the first agreement of this nature ever signed in the Mediterranean.
My firm position during all these years and ever since has been that hydrocarbons should be used as a tool and a catalyst for the solution of the Cyprus problem and for peace in the wider area.
As for the bitterness created by the press publications of 2001, vindication and satisfaction came in article published 11 years later by the newspaper with the largest circulation.
On January 1, 2012, the newspaper wrote: “As memory in politics is short, we would remind readers, that if anybody was vindicated in regard to the hydrocarbons it is Nicos Rolandis. When the man was talking about the natural wealth of Cyprus, he was considered naïve and people were smiling in disbelief, even those of his own political environment. He deserves a reference to the struggle he first commenced.”
This was my journey, my utmost sail, my butt, to use Othello’s words.
Nicos Rolandis is a former commerce minister, foreign minister, MP and president of the Liberal Party