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Risky stalemate in the East Med

Turkish drilling vessel Yavuz

By George Koumoullis

ON January 30 Turkey’s foreign ministry issued an announcement proposing the suspension of all energy-related activities in the seas around Cyprus until the settlement of the Cyprus problem. In other words, Turkey proposed a moratorium until June to create a more favourable climate for the negotiations due to start in May. Cyprus and Turkey, at least for short period, would not be at odds over the exploitation of hydrocarbons.

The ministry’s announcement reminded that “the Turkish Cypriots, as co-owners of the island, have equal rights over the island’s natural gas and oil resources.” Shortly afterwards, the presidency rejected the proposal, citing the well-known arguments: that the sovereignty of the Cyprus Republic would be restricted, that the rights of the Turkish Cypriots were secured and that the Cyprus Republic was acting within the bounds of international legality. The presidency’s tune was repeated by all the political parties.

What astonishes is the parties’ refusal to consider what the consequences of a military incident between Greece and Turkey in the Aegean or south of Crete could have for Cyprus. President Erdogan has already announced that Turkey will carry out explorations in the area of the sea delimited by the Turkey-Libya memorandum, which to a large extent is within zones under Greece’s jurisdiction. The Greek government has made it clear to everyone that in such a case it would react.

The Greek journalist, lawyer, politician and former minister Panos Panayiotopoulos, on the show ‘Western’ on Kontra Channel, keeps repeating that such an episode is almost certain to occur by April or May. Nobody will come to Greece’s aid. The United States could, of course, stop Turkey but does not want to isolate it, pushing it out of the western alliance; the US would restrict itself to acting as a mediator as it did in the dispute over the uninhabited island of Imia.

This raises the big question: what happens to Cyprus in the event of hostilities between Greece and Turkey? Without the moratorium, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Turkey would take over all of Cyprus using a thousand and one pretexts, such as security (as it did in the case of Syria) or sharing natural gas between the Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. A tragedy, much worse than that of 1974, could unfold.

It is a possibility, however unlikely, that our politicians ignore. But if a moratorium were in force and talks were in progress, then tension in the Cypriot EEZ would markedly decrease and Turkey would have no grounds to attack. Here is a compelling argument for accepting the moratorium proposal. After all, the military might of Turkey would force us to honour it.

We should not bury our heads in the sand. The energy programme of the Cyprus Republic has in practice already been put on hold. The oil firms have frozen all activities while Turkey is carrying out exploratory drilling in block 8 of our EEZ, south of Limassol. Acceptance of the moratorium would have helped the Republic set a date for the start of negotiations, while on the communications front it would have countered Ankara’s rhetoric that it was seeking the exclusion of Turkey from the eastern Mediterranean.

We declare – quite rightly – that we cannot sit at negotiations under the threat of gunboats. Yet our refusal to accept the moratorium not only contradicts this declaration but also ignores the Security Council resolution of January 30, which “expresses deep concern about the further escalation and increased tension in in the eastern Mediterranean in relation to hydrocarbon explorations”.

It also “calls for a reduction in tension in the eastern Mediterranean and calls on the leaders of the two communities and all involved parties to refrain from all actions and rhetoric…” We will once again be accused of following a mixed-up policy on the Cyprus issue and that we do not really know what we want.

There is, however, another serious parameter. As we all know, in April, there are elections in the ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’. These elections are of vital importance for the future of Cyprus. If Mustafa Akinci loses, the likelihood is that a bizonal bicommunal federation will no longer be on the negotiating table and partition will be the only option. Unfortunately, the rejection of the moratorium is already being exploited by Turkish propaganda, which claims the Greek Cypriots want to monopolise the exploitation of hydrocarbons, rhetoric that is likely to alienate people who were planning to vote for Akinci.

Cypriot politicians use huge amounts of grey matter discussing the mistakes of their opponents. Self-criticism is considered “self-flagellation” and therefore a political taboo. They are not aware of what the ancient Greek philosopher Democritos said. “It is preferable to examine your mistakes instead of the mistakes of others.” This is why I do not expect any of our politicians to utter a mea culpa over their rejection of the moratorium proposal.

George Koumoullis is an economist and social scientist

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