Could Cypriot gas discoveries alter its relations with Turkey?

The Republic of Cyprus’s new position of strength, if played right, could draw Ankara to the negotiating table in 2023

An offshore drilling rig is seen in the waters off Cyprus's coastal city of Limassol as a boat passes with a skier. AP Photo
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As 2022 comes to a close, the Eastern Mediterranean and connecting seas have heaved with traffic in recent days, underscoring the aggressive jockeying by regional states looking to play a key role in shaping Europe’s post-Russia energy system.

Early this month, Turkey said the new US-led price cap on Russian oil necessitated stronger insurance oversight, which left nearly two dozen coal and oil tankers sitting near the Bosphorus awaiting approval to pass through the Turkish straits until the issue was resolved.

Around that same time, Turkey’s Abdulhamid Han ship started drilling between the Turkish coast and north Cyprus, while Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush complained about Greece’s “irresponsible” drilling in areas claimed by Libya south and south-west of Crete. Greece and Bulgaria, meanwhile, began discussing a possible joint pipeline that would evade increased Bosphorus transit fees and deliver non-Russian gas to Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine.

Days after President Abdel Fattah El Sisi issued a decree defining the country’s maritime borders, Egypt made a new energy discovery that could contain nearly 100 billion cubic metres of gas. Cairo has been exporting $600 million worth of monthly gas to Europe this year and hopes to increase that to $1 billion by next year.

A resolution to the dispute would put Cyprus on the fast-track to becoming an EU energy hub

On a visit to Cyprus, I witnessed the increased maritime activity first-hand, as the oil tanker bobbing more than a kilometre out to sea from my Larnaca window increased to two, and then three a few days later, just as word came that the world’s fourth-largest oil tanker company, Frontline, had begun relocating to the divided island.

The timing is good. When Eastern Mediterranean gas emerged as the next great energy chase a dozen years ago, many expected the quest for hydrocarbon riches to spur a resolution for Cyprus, finally securing peace after nearly 50 years of division and enabling an equitable distribution of profits.

That has not come to pass, but the latest news could provide a boost. Last week, a consortium led by Italy’s Eni and France’s Total announced a major discovery off Cyprus’s southern coast. On the same day, Cyprus said it had started talks with Israel on a pipeline to bring Israeli gas to the island for processing and transport to the EU – a project that would surely strengthen its energy infrastructure.

With the new gas discovery, in addition to a large August find and a 2018 discovery at Calypso 1, the Republic of Cyprus is now thought to have almost 400 billion cubic metres of gas reserves. This is a fraction of the gas held by Russia or Iran, but it’s surely enough – about the equivalent of Brunei or Peru – to give Nicosia some real leverage.

This may explain why Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognised only by Ankara, pushed back hard on the news. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said hydrocarbon exploration within its continental shelf should never be done without its consent. The TRNC said that Cyprus had drilled “unilaterally”, which meant the find was illegitimate and breached the rights of Turkish Cypriots.

On an almost summery December afternoon, I sat down for an al fresco lunch at Canteen, a hip cafe and burger joint on the Turkish side of Europe’s last divided capital, and spoke with a few Turkish Cypriots. My waitress Deren, a 22-year-old cosmetology student who has lived in Nicosia all her life, is no fan of the government of Turkey-friendly TRNC President Ersin Tatar. She is convinced he only won in late 2020 because recent Turkish immigrants to TRNC swung the election in his favour and says most Turkish Cypriots view the two-state solution advocated by Ankara and Mr Tatar as unrealistic.

“Turkey doesn’t want us to be independent. They just want us to need Turkey,” Deren said as a tourist trolley chugged past playing Turkish Arabesques.

Ankara’s agenda-setting in northern Cyprus seemed to get a boost early this month when the Kibris media group was sold to a Turkish company seen as close to the governing AKP, potentially giving the Turkish government a sizeable media platform – two major newspapers and a radio and television station – to shape Turkish Cypriot views.

That effort began some time ago, with soft power projects such as Once Upon a Time in Cyprus, a series launched last year by Turkish broadcaster TRT. The show paints a dark picture of the Greek side, focusing on deadly 1960s attacks on Turkish Cypriots by a far-right Greek Cypriot nationalist group.

Former Greek Cypriot journalist Stefanos Evripidou works to counter such narratives as senior researcher for the Cyprus Dialogue Forum. The non-profit is based at the Home for Co-operation, an office building, cafe and event space inside Nicosia’s UN-controlled Buffer Zone. Its location is fitting, given the forum’s goal of bridging gaps between the two perspectives to enhance understanding.

“When are you going to finally start talking in a way that’s conducive to finding solutions?” Evripidou rhetorically asks the key leaders. “Because it has been going on for 50 years.”

The Republic of Cyprus is gearing up for a February presidential election, the results of which are widely expected to leave Nicosia’s policies towards Turkey and the dispute largely the same. That might be less than ideal.

Most younger Turkish Cypriots hope to leave for Europe and build a stable life, according to Deren, who blames politicians’ manipulations for making reconciliation a distant dream. “We are one island,” she said, adding that she regularly visits the Greek side and gets along with people there. “We speak different languages, but we are the same. We can live together – but every year it gets more and more difficult.”

Armed with greater energy reserves and more robust backing from Washington, which ended a 35-year arms embargo back in September, the Republic of Cyprus’s new position of strength, if played right, could draw Turkey to the negotiating table in 2023. A resolution to the dispute, which as usual remains a long way off, would put Cyprus on the fast-track to becoming an EU energy hub. But the clock is ticking.

Published: December 27, 2022, 4:00 AM