Tensions in Cyprus flared last week following a February 28 announcement of formal invitations to apply for licenses to prospect for oil and natural gas in 11 offshore blocs, totaling nearly 27,000 square miles of southern Cypriot Mediterranean waters. Reportedly U.S., Chinese, and Russian energy companies have expressed interest.
Cyprus has been divided between two NATO members, Greece and Turkey since 1974. When the southern Greek-dominated portion of the island joined the European Union as the Republic of Cyprus on May 1, 2004, the partition issue was exacerbated, as the northern “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” foundered in diplomatic isolation.
Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Levent Bilman issued a written statement commenting, “We expect Greek Cyprus to end its initiatives to launch international tenders that violate the joint rights of the island’s two communities and amount to a fait accompli. Continuation of the tender process will adversely affect peace and stability on the island of Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean” (Turkish Daily News, February 16).
Nicosia said that five international companies have already contacted the government about the tenders (Monday Morning, February 28). Estimates of potential reserves range from 4 to 10 billion barrels of recoverable reserves worth up to $400 billion.
The tender comes in the wake of earlier Greek Cypriot agreements, signed in 2005 with Egypt and another signed earlier this year with Lebanon, both of which were denounced by Ankara.
On February 26 Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul agreed to discuss the issue with his Egyptian counterpart, Ahmed Abdul Gheit (Zaman, February 26). Gul emphasized that Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot community in the north of the island also has legitimate regional rights and interests, calling the Greek Cypriot initiative a “big provocation. This is a very serious matter. I am sure that the whole of Europe, NATO, and coastal countries in the Mediterranean have seen that this is a big provocation and how dangerous such initiatives could be without a comprehensive settlement in the island.”
Complicating the issue is that under the Article 22 of the 1982 Third United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Mediterranean is regarded as a “semi-enclosed sea,” with competing claims by 21 coastal states with delimited sovereign rights over exclusive maritime economic zones. Turkey and Greece have overlapping maritime, air, territorial, and boundary disputes in the Aegean.
Greek government spokesman Christodoulos Pashiardis responded to a comment in an interview given by Russian Ambassador to Cyprus Andrei Nesterenko, who said that the oil issue could become entwined with any plans for a final settlement of the status of Cyprus, by saying, “The timeframe for solving the Cyprus issue depends exclusively on the Turkish side, and given the fact that oil extraction and co-exploitation will take a long time, then there is ample and capable time for solving the Cyprus question,” adding that the issue could be decided in the future if and when oil is found (Cyprus Mail, February 27).
Adopting a belligerent tone, former Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus president Rauf Denktas said, “Turkey has to demonstrate that it will actively do everything necessary to guard the interests of the TRNC and itself. Turkey should urgently send seismic ships to the waters of the TRNC, and also drive away other ships that belong to third countries, if there are any. Turkey and the TRNC have to sign an agreement on the natural resources of Northern Cyprus. We have to transfer the exploration and extraction of the oil to the Turkish Petroleum Cooperation” (New Anatolian, February 27).
Last month General Yasar Buyukanit, chief of the Turkish General Staff, denied that the Turkish military was increasing its naval presence around Cyprus, telling reporters, “We already have ships that patrol the eastern Mediterranean, the Aegean. It’s nothing new. There is no need to send new warships” (ABHaber, February 2).
Buyukanit’s comments did not reassure Nicosia, with Greek Cypriot official Alexandros Zenon commenting that his government was monitoring the situation and would “act accordingly” if there were a “violation” of its territorial waters. “The way Turkey behaved in recent days makes it a destabilizing factor in the area, at a time when our wider region needs stability” (Cyprus News Agency, February 2).
Greek Cypriot government spokesperson Christodoulos Pashiardis upped the rhetoric, telling journalists, “We are proceeding within the day, to report Turkey’s stance both to the United Nations and the European Union. We will not be hauled into a public debate over an issue which solely concerns the lawful government of the Republic of Cyprus and in which neither Turkey nor the illegal [Turkish Cypriot] regime has any say. We assess Turkey’s threats as unjustified, and the reaction of the incorrigible troublemaker of the region as unfounded” (New Anatolian, February 2).
Mechanisms exist for potentially defusing the situation. In February 1996, a 26-hour standoff between Greek and Turkish coast guard vessels in the Aegean waters off the uninhabited island of Imia (Kardak), nearly led to armed conflict. Subsequently, Greece and Turkey instituted a series of military confidence-building measures designed to prevent potential clashes in the Aegean. These efforts could well be extended to cover the Cyprus oil dispute.
The issue has potentially ominous military overtones that extend beyond possible Greek-Turkish military confrontation. Great Britain maintains two Sovereign Base Areas in Cyprus at Akrotiri and Dhekelia. If not resolved the dispute also has the potential to put added pressure on the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan from the Turkish military’s National Security Council. If the NSC decides to take high-profile action in the case, it could have severe repercussions for Ankara’s stated goal of joining the EU. A 2005 EU Commission report stated, “Reforms concerning civil-military relations have continued, but the armed forces still exert significant influence by issuing public statements on political developments and government policies” (European Commission, “Turkey 2005 Progress Report,” November 9, 2005). Accordingly, it is in the interests of politicians on all sides to defuse the issue as quickly as possible, perhaps by enlisting the services of Britain as an “honest broker.”
According to Panos Papanastasiou, head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Cyprus, “There is absolutely no way of knowing whether there is oil out there or how much of it. Right now, it’s a shot in the dark. Making statements to the effect that $450 billion worth of oil is out there waiting to be tapped is supremely arbitrary and, frankly, lacks seriousness” (Cyprus Mail, March 4). Armed conflict over a potential hydrocarbon chimera would be in no one’s interest.