LAST WEEKEND Turkey did exactly what it had been threatening to do for some time now. The drillship Fatih, escorted by another three ships, moved into Cyprus’ EEZ, some 60km west of Paphos, and began preparations for exploratory drilling. A few days later, Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, unconvincingly claiming that “we are moving according to international law”, said a second drillship would follow soon.
While Turkey can argue that as it is not a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) and therefore not bound by it, its action can in no way be said to be in accordance with international law. It was a flagrant violation of Cyprus’ sovereign rights, a case of a big and powerful state imposing its own rules on a small and weak neighbouring country because it could. Not for the first time, Cyprus was faced with the reality that might is right.
This was one of the reasons why President Anastasiades labelled Turkey’s action as a “second invasion”. To an extent it was with Ankara attempting creating a new fait accompli in the sea by openly challenging the Republic’s sovereign rights and staking its own claims regarding hydrocarbon exploitation rights, allegedly in defence of Turkish Cypriot interests. Deploying a drillship is a concrete action and also a clear message that Turkey was in the Cypriot EEZ to stay, regardless of international law. This was underlined by Cavusoglu who said the period of seismic surveys was over.
The Cyprus government protested and secured a strong statement condemning Turkey’s actions from EU’s foreign affairs boss Federica Mogherini and subsequently from the president of the European Council Donald Tusk. Milder statements, which could be described as fence-sitting, were issued by the US and Russia, the former via its embassy in Nicosia, both urging avoidance of actions that could increase tensions in the area.
The US also repeated the familiar words about recognising the Republic’s to develop its hydrocarbon reserves, with the caveat that any revenue should be shared equitably between the two communities in the framework of a comprehensive settlement. Russia said economic activity should be in line with international law, and expressed concern about actions that could create additional obstacles to a Cyprus settlement. The UN secretary-general steered clear of controversy, his spokesman stating that the two Cypriot leaders had “previously agreed in their negotiations that natural resources in a unified Cyprus would lie within the competence of the future federal government”.
While the Anastasiades government claimed it was satisfied with the response of the international community and said it had a plan of action, its options are limited. Calls by the political parties for taking measures that would incur a “a real political and economic cost to Turkey” are nothing more than hollow talk as are the demands for EU sanctions of the type taken against Russia after its annexation of Crimea, which incidentally Cyprus parties had objected to. The EU might freeze pre-accession funds to Turkey as a gesture of solidarity, but this is unlikely to force Turkey to back down and stop the drilling.
If the reaction to Turkey’s illegal drilling plans showed one thing, it is that the international community, led by the UN, believes the dispute should be resolved by a settlement of the Cyprus problem. It is the only way through which the Republic could reach an agreement with Turkey on hydrocarbon exploitation. It is no coincidence that the US, while recognising the Republic’s sovereign rights, always mentions that hydrocarbon revenue must be equitably shared with the Turkish Cypriots, or that the UN repeats hydrocarbon exploitation must be the remit of the federal government.
This concern about the rights of the Turkish Cypriots is a diplomatic way of the US acknowledging Turkey’s right to be directly involved and have a say in the energy plans of the eastern Mediterranean. The US is not concerned about the Turkish Cypriots’ interests but supports Turkey’s active role and involvement in energy plans for the eastern Mediterranean and believes this could be secured through a Cyprus settlement. By always referring to the Turkish Cypriots’ share it is in fact telling us that no energy plans can be implemented without Turkey.
Anastasiades had hoped he could press ahead with his energy plans through his alliances with Israel and Egypt (the former avoided taking a stand over Turkey’s actions), by forging stronger ties with the US administration and having ExxonMobil drilling for gas in one of Cyprus’ blocks. This is now being exposed as a big miscalculation, based on an over-estimation of the Republic’s ability to proceed with its energy plans without taking into account the Turkey factor.
Nobody can predict what else President Erdogan has planned to push Turkish energy claims, bearing in mind his disregard for international law and our government’s inability to stop him. And we suspect that, just as in the case of the occupation, we will be urged to solve the latest dispute with Turkey through talks or, as the US keeps saying, a settlement of the Cyprus problem.