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Lost in space: are proximity talks a solution of a sort?

Erdogan: The tenant of the palace of more than 1.000 rooms, 'powerful, obstinate and unpredictable

By Nicos A Rolandis

NICOS Anastasiades took over the helm of Cyprus, after an adventurous and destructive course of 50 years (1963-2013).

So, where is Cyprus today? How do the powerful players of the Cyprus chessboard view two of the pivotal issues, the Cyprus problem and natural gas? Are we hovering somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea, or do we, in reality, sail… lost in space?

For the US, the perennial position expressed by Henry Kissinger in his book “World Order” applies: “America must play a leadership role to preserve world order – not as a moralising global policeman but as a hard-nosed great power…to maintain equilibrium and keep the threat of war within tolerable limits”. So despite the goodwill of Vice-president Joe Biden, Cyprus is in reality a small pawn in the maelstrom of the strategic, political and economic interests of the US.

Europe focuses its attention much more on opening up its gates to Turkey and to the large Turkish market than to human rights in Cyprus. The economy (GDP) of Turkey amounts to US$815 billion compared to the US$16 billion of Cyprus. Furthermore Turkey is a strategic partner of Europe in one of the hotbeds of the world. It should also be remembered that Europe is not on the same page with us on a number of aspects of the Cyprus problem or on hydrocarbons. This is why we are taken aback on many occasions by the decisions in Brussels.

For the United Nations, Cyprus is one of the dozens of problems on its agenda, smaller than the very large issues it has to address nowadays. Furthermore it is obvious that the UN is “tired” of us. We may believe that justice is totally on our side, the truth however – and the international community is well aware of this – is that we are not sinless.

Russia is a good friend of Cyprus, but she is a good friend of Turkey too. She will never disregard her huge interests – strategic and financial – with her neighbour. Amongst many other considerations, the Turkish Stream which was announced by President Putin recently and which will replace the South Stream will transport from Russia to Europe via Turkey 2.2 trillion cubic feet of gas annually, of a value of approximately US$25 billion.

Greece, the mother-country. Extremely weak financially. From a military and defence point of view she did not manage to be of help in the past. She cannot be of help today either.

The neighbouring countries, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon. They are all friends of Cyprus and there may be good cooperation with them in certain fields. It is obvious and natural however that none of these countries would be prepared to go to war for our sake.

Finally, Turkey and her leadership. This is how Turkey’s daily “Today’s Zaman” presents Turkey in an article on February 3 by Robert Ellis: “The rise of the Turkish empire: Totalitarian leaders of the 20th century were known variously as Der Fuhrer (Germany), Il Duce (Italy), Generalissimo (Spain) and El Maximo Lider (Cuba), and now neo-ottoman Turkey has its Reis (Leader) Recep Tayyip Erdogan”. The tenant of the palace of more than 1000 rooms appears to be powerful, obstinate and unpredictable.

In the context of the above, Cyprus reminds me of a poem by Greek writer Zacharias Papantoniou:
“Where do you sail small boat, in such a stormy weather
The sea is violently hitting you, are you not scared?

Things are really extremely difficult. What makes the situation even more intractable is that, in the negative atmosphere of the collapse of the economy and the incredible incidences of corruption, the problem of Cyprus and that of the hydrocarbons are stagnant. And it seems that there is no way to break the deadlock.

We say there will be no talks unless the Turkish Navtex is withdrawn and also Barbaros and the Turkish warships depart from our Exclusive Economic Zone.
Turkey refuses to comply, unless the drilling for oil and gas ceases. This is not accepted by us. Furthermore the Turkish Cypriots refuse to come back to the talks unless the drilling is discontinued.

Turkey states in a very clear language that she is going to bring her own rig to pump the hydrocarbons of Cyprus and that she will not allow the exploitation of the wealth in the sea by the “Greek Cypriot administration”, as she calls us.

Based on my experience I believe that Turkey will not give in. After all, if she retreats from the above positions taken personally by Erdogan, she will destroy his hegemonic image. So, are we moving to the direction of a head-on collision?

The impasse entails many questions and many risks:

Shall we manage to sell the gas in block 12 (Aphrodite) to e.g. Egypt? How shall we find an investor for the undersea pipeline (cost approximately US$2 billion), once the investor will know that Turkey objects to such a sale and that before the pumping of the gas commences Turkey may arbitrarily intervene and stop it?

What will happen if an investor for the pipeline is found and at the end of the day Turkey intervenes and stops the process?

How will Turkey react, not necessarily now, but at the stage when the collection of funds from the sale of hydrocarbons is reached? Will she remain idle? Will she threaten? Will she intervene militarily?

Who will stop Turkey from pumping, through her own rig the hydrocarbons of Cyprus?

It should be remembered that the Turkish argument about the protection of the interests of the Turkish Cypriots is in general terms adopted by the United Nations and by Europe.

In a number of articles of mine in recent years I underscored all the above. And I proposed, when Mehmet Ali Talat was “president”, the following solution: We continue the process of drilling. We deposit a just and fair percentage to be agreed, of all net collections from the sale of oil and gas, in an escrow account in favour of the Turkish Cypriots. This amount will become payable either when the Cyprus problem is resolved or after a period of, say, 15 years, whichever happens earlier. The above arrangement was viewed positively by the Turkish Cypriots; our side did not even react. We thought, in a naïve way as usual, that we would be able to use natural gas as a trump card. We acted in exactly the same manner in the 1960s, again in a naïve way, when our leaders thought that the Turkish Cypriots “would eventually boil in their own juice”. As a result we finally lost 37 per cent of the territory of Cyprus in 1974.

Nowadays we risk losing the hydrocarbons of Cyprus. And nobody will extend a helping hand, as nobody did in 1974. None of our many “friends” showed up. None….

Unfortunately we do not follow the example of Greece, which for the past 40 years has been cautious in the Aegean Sea.

If we want to stop history from repeating itself – and I have no doubt that history will be repeated if we are not cautious – I would propose the following Plan, if it is not already too late:

Commence Proximity Talks. In this case the two sides will be talking to the UN and not to each other. Consequently the position “I do not talk unless…” is circumvented. Such talks were carried out successfully in the second half of 1984 but we scuttled the whole process in January 1985.

The Cyprus problem and the hydrocarbons will be discussed at the proximity talks.

Barbaros will depart, the drilling will continue and the interests of the Turkish Cypriots will be protected through the escrow account described above.
The proximity talks may prove to be a solution of a sort. May be….

Otherwise the small boat of poet Papantoniou will continue its voyage, lost in space, expecting – I do not know what is left anymore – probably a divine intervention, as the poem goes…

“The Christ touches my helm..
And Virgin Mary stands at my bow”.

Nicos Rolandis is a former commerce minister, foreign minister, MP and president of the Liberal Party

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