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Cyprus heading for shipwreck in EEZ gas battle

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The government has proved itself way out of its depth in the gas dispute with Turkey, negated some genuine strategic assets and created possible conditions of war

By Makarios Droushiotis

People have been stopping me in the street and asking me, genuinely worried, if war is going to break out. They are justifiably uneasy over events in our region; the future looks uncertain.

Speaking on CyBC radio, Foreign Minister Nicos Christodoulides said Turkey is escalating the crisis because it “wishes to change the basis for a settlement of the Cyprus problem”. But Christodoulides knows full well that it was our side which changed the basis of the peace talks. Could it be that the causes of the current crisis lie elsewhere, and that those who are in charge of our fortunes are incapable of comprehending them? Turkey is, after all, a difficult and irascible country, and knowing how to handle Ankara depends on being familiar with, and correctly analysing, its policies. But judging by the foreign minister’s hackneyed take, it looks like he hasn’t correctly assessed the situation and is unaware of the dangers.

The backdrop to Turkey’s recent actions in the eastern Mediterranean is her publicly stated position that a broader anti-Turkish alliance is being created in order to encircle Turkey and cut it off from the region’s energy sources. Certain people are glad about this, deluding themselves that at long last a powerful alliance is taking shape to protect us. We need only remind such people that ‘encirclement’ was what caused the crisis of 1964 and the invasion of 1974.

The fear of being surrounded by enemies has been the cornerstone of Turkey’s policy vis a vis Cyprus since the 1950s. For Turkey, Cyprus has always been entwined with her own security, just as Cuba was for the United States, or Finland for the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It matters not whether such fears are unjustified or exaggerated. In order to accurately gauge the situation, we must first understand what dangers these perceptions pose and how we can neutralise them.

In 1974 Turkey invaded Cyprus on the pretext that the coup would speed up Enosis (union with Greece) and that Greece would extend up to the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey reacted to this hypothetical danger without hesitation and in a violent manner, causing pain, misery and humiliation. War is by its nature terrible and its consequences cannot be undone. Cyprus is not the sole, nor the worst example of a country ill-treated by history. Today, almost 50 years on, that which matters the most is that such events must never happen again. What every normal Cypriot desires is to live on this island in security and prosperity.

If we are to find the means of securing a safe and prosperous existence, we must first and foremost learn from history and reconcile ourselves with geography. Turkey won’t budge from the map, nor will Cyprus sink into the Mediterranean. No, we are destined to coexist in this turbulent region of the world. The European project, the most successful peace project in history, teaches us that only economic cooperation can absorb and neutralise passions, bringing peace, security and prosperity.

Since 1974 we have tried out all options other than cooperation: the long and unwavering struggle, appeals to the United Nations, the unified defence dogma, the S300 missiles, ‘alliances’ with Russia and Israel, lately with the United States – their common denominator being to forge an anti-Turkey axis. To no avail. That said, it’s not as if we had a lot of options, merely latching onto whatever or whomever we could.

In 2004 there occurred an unexpected revolution. Cyprus joined the EU and the Turkish Cypriots were roused, calling for a European solution. EU accession coincided with the discovery of significant natural gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean. Together, these two developments improved the odds for Greek Cypriots. Accession to the EU provided a security umbrella, while hydrocarbon resources served as a counterweight against a more powerful neighbour and as a strong incentive for economic cooperation.

As it happened, EU accession and hydrocarbons also brought about a change in Turkey’s priorities regarding the Cyprus issue. The standard narrative is that “Turkey does not seek a solution.” It’s a very static viewpoint. No one wants something unless it’s useful. And today Turkey does need a settlement on Cyprus so as to improve relations with the EU and secure access to energy sources. None of the Turkish priorities clash with our own. On the contrary, for the first time in the history of relations with Turkey we held a solid bargaining chip. Another development was the election of Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci, a leader with courage and a vision for the whole island.

Rather than capitalise on these strategic assets, we negated them in the clumsiest way imaginable. Before peace talks in Crans-Montana reached a critical point, in July 2017, then government spokesman Nicos Christodoulides was working backstage, disseminating misinformation to the media and spreading poison back home through fearmongering. Meanwhile President Nicos Anastasiades sought to meet with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to tell him that Greek Cypriots do not wish to share anything with Turkish Cypriots and that other forms of a settlement should be sought out. He asked Cavusoglu for a grace period – elections were coming up – promising him he would subsequently undertake initiatives for sharing the island’s wealth, including the hydrocarbons.

Nevertheless, upon returning to Cyprus Anastasiades began accusing Turkey of intransigence, while behind the scenes he was telegraphing his determination to promote a two-state solution.  He even gave the cabinet a special briefing, went as far as to publicly urge Turkey to drill in the north, and commissioned a chief diplomat to prepare a study on how the exclusive economic zone could be partitioned!

It was of course delusional to think that they would give away half of Cyprus to Turkey, and that Turkey would leave them alone to govern in the other half. This plan could not hold up, be it in Cyprus, in Europe, or elsewhere. In September 2018 Anastasiades and Christodoulides met Cavusoglu in New York, telling him that a two-state solution was off the table and that they should start talking about a confederation. Once they returned to Cyprus, Anastasiades convened the National Council and announced that Cavusoglu had proposed two states but that he – Anastasiades – countered with a loose federation.

The fiasco at Crans-Montana had been preceded by the initiative of US Vice-President Joe Biden, in Davos in January 2016. Biden secured Turkey’s tacit tolerance for a new hydrocarbons licensing round by Cyprus, where gas prospecting would run until the pending solution. The third licensing round was hurriedly launched a month later, in February 2016. Biden brought ExxonMobil, and Turkey brought Qatar, its most trusted ally.

Two years on from Crans-Montana, the Turks came to believe they had been tricked and decided to call Anastasiades’ bluff by revealing the secret talks, with Nicosia unable to mount a robust denial. In a bid to counter the Turkish reaction, Anastasiades turned to Benjamin Netanyahu, who has his own reasons for rubbing Erdogan the wrong way. Thus the EastMed pipeline was resurrected, a pipeline which will never get built but which gave Erdogan the perfect pretext to invoke Turkey’s encirclement theory. Erdogan took it upon himself to show who is ‘boss’ in the region. He signed a maritime deal with Libya in order to block the phantom pipeline, and he’s testing our limits by dispatching a drillship and his fleet to waters south of Limassol.

This entire affair, which started out as a PR stunt, is now turning into a real crisis driving public opinion in turn driving commitments, and commitments leading to a state of affairs spinning out of control. How is this crisis to be defused? And who will come to our rescue should the situation get derailed even more, even if by an accident? Will it be Russia, which regards as illegal the EU’s sanctions on Turkey and is doing everything it can to make sure that our gas stays under the seabed forever, while Putin and Erdogan are busy inaugurating pipelines running through Turkey? Or will it be Israel, which for 10 years has been denying us an agreement on cross-border exploitation of the Aphrodite gas field?

These, then, are the results of photo-op diplomacy and memorandums of understanding, which began intended to buttress the EEZ but ended up destroying it. A diplomatic farce is fast turning into an uncontrollable crisis. And all for a pipeline that will never get built. A pipeline for which adequate quantities of gas have yet to be discovered, and for which no end-buyer exists because its price could not compete on the market.

Literally for nothing, we have created conditions of war which could destabilise the region from the eastern Mediterranean to Libya, dragging Athens into a crisis which it never sought, and without a realistic exit strategy.

God help us.

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