Cyprus: Energy not a reason but a prize of solution
Serhan Ünal*Although the discovery of huge hydrocarbon reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean has created a significant opportunity for a solution to the Cyprus question, energy alone may not be enough for a solution. There are two reasons behind: Firstly, the current situations on both sides of the island are still economically and politically sustainable; secondly, the conditions that required the partition of Cyprus in the first place are still valid to a degree. Deteriorating Turkey-EU relations also work against a solution.
Hydrocarbon reserves discovered in the Israel-Lebanon-Cyprus-Egypt quadrangle are thought to be a new and positive parameter for a solution to the Cyprus question. Indeed, this project could create economic opportunities for an atmosphere of cooperation between the peoples of the island and countries in the region. However, due to regional problems its political feasibility remains unclear because the Cyprus question is one of the “fixed” variables of Eastern Mediterranean geopolitics.
Despite the death of Rauf Denktaş in 2012, who was often regarded as the main cause of deadlock, the Cyprus problem still persists five years later. This shows that the problem sources from structural reasons rather than specific leaders. Firstly, the position of the Greek side produces no costs of any kind to it, which causes asymmetry between the two sides. Secondly, the political motivation for a solution is weakening in Turkey. It can also be said that the conditions which caused the Cyprus question have not disappeared completely.
The Greek Cypriot side - although it has sustained its irreconcilable attitude toward the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (and Turkey) - faces no serious costs from the international community. The best example of this is the Annan Plan referendum of 2004, in which the Turkish Cypriots voted “yes” and the Greek Cypriots voted “no.” Following the referendum, the EU kept none of its promises to the Turkish Cypriots. Similarly, after the Mont Pelerin talks - which collapsed due to the extreme territorial demands of the Greek Cypriot side - neither the EU nor any other internationally influential actor criticized Greek Cyprus. There has thus not been any significant cost for Greek Cyprus in insisting on its extreme demands, which encourages it to start every round of negotiations from a too lofty position.
For Turkey, until very recently the most powerful political motivation for solution in Cyprus has been the EU membership process. However, the damage to the Turkey-EU relations is so fundamental that the Cyprus issue has become only a minor topic in the negotiations. Just a few years ago, it could still be said that if the Cyprus problem was solved, Turkey’s accession process would have been accelerated. But today Turkey-EU relations are deteriorating almost independently from the Cyprus problem, and Ankara’s political motivation for a solution on the island will decrease parallel to its appetite for EU membership. In other words, Turkey’s position on Cyprus has become relatively more bearable in a regional atmosphere where the cost of the issue has decreased as a percentage of the total sum of the political cost paid by Turkey in various regional matters.
What’s more, a large number of the conditions that created the problem of partition of the island in the first place continue to exist. Turkey’s intervention in 1974 was a product of Ankara trying to deter Greece militarily, and securing Turkey’s southern coasts. The delineation of maritime boundaries was another problematic issue in relations. These issues depend upon military and political pillars, and it seems that conflicts between Turkey and Greece on all these three matters still persist. As a result, Turkey still unfortunately needs the benefits brought by the 1974 intervention in Cyprus.
Energy, in this picture, takes place among the possible economic benefits of a solution. If the Cyprus problem is solved, in addition to the Leviathan and Tamar fields, economical utilization of the natural gas in the Aphrodite field will be easier. Perhaps with a fair final agreement the Aphrodite field will able to be developed with investments from all parties. But this happy ending seems far from reality, due to the unresolved Cyprus problem, for the time being.
Can energy solve the Cyprus problem on its own? The answer is closely related to whether politics or economic concerns dominate the regional geopolitical agenda, in which security is currently at the top. The Cyprus problem has to be solved with a politically and militarily realistic approach first and foremost, otherwise similar problems may reoccur in the future. For example, if energy is omitted from the equation or if energy-based wealth disappears for some reason, today’s ignored and unresolved military/political problems may create a similar violent and dangerous conflict again. Petrodollars may not be enough to erase historical grievances. For this reason, enduring solutions should depend on political reconciliation, not on temporary economic appetite.
Energy alone is not enough for a solution in Cyprus, so it should not be seen as a reason but rather as a prize of a solution.
* Serhan Ünal is director at Turkish Energy Foundation (TENVA).