- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 7, 2012

NEW YORK — The discovery of vast reserves of oil and natural gas off the coast of Cyprus has ignited hope for stalled talks to reunify the Mediterranean island, which is split into an internationally recognized ethnic-Greek south and an ethnic-Turkish north.

More than 8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas was discovered when Greek-Cypriots began offshore exploration earlier this year.

“These new prospects of natural gas exploitation could be a very strong incentive for reunification of the island,” Cyprus‘ Foreign Minister Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis told The Washington Times in an interview in New York, where she was attending the U.N. General Assembly session.

Cyprus was split in 1974, when Turkey invaded to protect Turkish-Cypriots after a coup by supporters of a Greek military junta attempted to unify the island with mainland Greece. Turkey has no diplomatic relations with Cyprus and is the only country that recognizes the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

Recent geological surveys have concluded that the eastern Mediterranean — especially the area around Cyprus, Egypt, Israel and Lebanon — has about 450,000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

“Potentially, this area of the eastern Mediterranean could be a new corridor for natural gas exports to Europe, but also to other countries,” said Ms. Kozakou-Marcoullis.

“Reunification will mean cooperation between the two communities in a joint government, a federal government where both communities will be benefiting from this treasure that we have,” she said. “The prospects are huge for not only our generation, but also for many, many generations to come.”

Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu presented U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon with a proposal to use money from the sale of oil and natural gas to finance reunification of the island when the two leaders met in New York on Sept. 29.

Neither the Turkish Cypriots nor the Greek Cypriots have earned any revenue from the hydrocarbons so far.

Ms. Kozakou-Marcoullis declined to comment on Mr. Eroglu’s proposal because she had not seen it at the time of the interview.

Ahmet Erdengiz, the Turkish-Cypriot representative in Washington, said the proposal is important because any solution to the division of the island would be costly. He said it would also require a substantial amount of money for reconstruction, compensation for landowners on both sides and for resettlement of Cypriots uprooted after the failed coup.

“Our proposal aims to create a catalyst out of hydrocarbon resources for a comprehensive settlement,” said Mr. Erdengiz.

“If the Greek Cypriot side agrees to exploit and explore these resources jointly and then use these resources for financing a comprehensive settlement, it can definitely become a catalyst; but if they decide to explore and exploit these resources unilaterally and deny the benefits from the Turkish Cypriots, then it cannot be a catalyst or a solution,” he added.

The Greek-Cypriots are proceeding with a second round of licensing for hydrocarbon exploration.

The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus signed an agreement with state-run Turkish Petroleum Corporation in April to start exploratory drilling on land. That exploration will be extended offshore.

Ms. Kozakou-Marcoullis was skeptical about Turkish-Cypriot efforts, saying they lacked the appropriate technology and predicting that foreign oil companies would be wary of investing in northern Cyprus.

“I think that there will not be any foreign companies that will put in danger their credibility and prestige by engaging in illegal activities,” she said.

“When you conduct hydrocarbon exploration in a sovereign area of a state without the approval of that state, definitely it is an unacceptable, illegal activity which nobody would like to undertake,” she added.

Mr. Erdengiz, however, insisted that the island’s natural resources are jointly owned by the two communities.

“The Greek Cypriots do not have the right to arrogate themselves the sole ownership of the natural resources of the island,” he said, adding that the Turkish Cypriots were left with no option but to do their own exploration because the Greek Cypriots refused to accept their offer for joint exploration.

Ms. Kozakou-Marcoullis said Cyprus has followed the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Seas to the letter while carrying out the exploration.

The latest efforts to reunify Cyprus faltered in April, as the Cypriot government blamed the Turkish-Cypriot leader and Turkey.

Ms. Kozakou-Marcoullis described the saga of the talks as a “very sad story.”

She said she has not seen any change in the posture of the Turkish-Cypriot side that would give her reason for hope.

Turkey is responsible for this situation. The Turkish-Cypriot leadership is following the decision of the leadership in Turkey,” she said.

Ms. Kozakou-Marcoullis said the United States should leverage its good relations with Turkey to press for a resumption of reunification talks.

Cyprus is located in a volatile neighborhood where anti-government uprisings of the Arab Spring have toppled dictators throughout the region.

Ms. Kozakou-Marcoullis said these changes have been positive, but she cautioned that the transition period in these countries will be long.

“We have to ensure that the situation that will prevail will be truly democratic… [and] fully respect not only human rights but also religious rights and religious beliefs of the different communities that exist in these countries, especially the Christian communities,” she said.

Cyprus has joined Greece, Italy and Malta to open a joint initiative to engage countries affected by the Arab Spring.

On July 1, Cyprus assumed the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union.

Ms. Kozakou-Marcoullis described this role as a big challenge, but also a big responsibility.

“The times are very critical,” she said. “We have an economic situation in Europe; but also with all the developments that are taking place in our neighborhood, one of our priorities is relations between the EU and countries of the Middle East and North Africa.”