- The Washington Times - Monday, March 10, 2014

NEWSMAKER INTERVIEW:

The top diplomat from the Turkish north of Cyprus said core differences with the Greek south could be resolved in a “matter of months,” putting the divided Mediterranean island’s reunification within reach for the first time in four decades.

Cyprus is at a threshold of tapping potential wealth from natural gas, vast reserves of which have been found in the eastern Mediterranean — and the future export from a united Cyprus could wean Europe off its dependence on Russian energy, said Ozdil Nami, the foreign minister of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

“Of course, the precondition to achieve that scenario is first reaching a settlement to the Cyprus issue,” Mr. Nami told editors and reporters at The Washington Times on Monday, during a wide-ranging interview that included an assessment of the Obama administration’s role in the historic reunification talks that got underway last month.

Cyprus was split into an internationally recognized Greek-speaking south and a Turkish-speaking north in 1974, when Turkish forces invaded after a coup by supporters of a union with Greece. Turkey does not recognize Cyprus as a sovereign country, while most of the world does not formally recognize the Turkish Cypriot state.

Despite a series of failed attempts at reunification, the two sides came together in February with an eye on sharing the potential windfall from the region’s energy reserves. So far, both sides have agreed on a common goal of establishing a bizonal, bicommunal federation with political equality between the Turkish and Greek Cypriot communities.

The next step is to deal with property claims, territorial adjustments and security guarantees. While Mr. Nami described such issues as “difficult and challenging,” he confidently predicted that it will now be just “a matter of months, not years, to finish these talks and create a new comprehensive settlement agreement.”

“What is required now,” he added, “is the political determination to reach compromises.”

In 2004, the Greek Cypriot side rejected a United Nations plan for reunification — a plan endorsed by Turkish Cypriots — and Cyprus joined the European Union as a divided island. But Cyprus‘ economy was badly hurt by its exposure to Greece’s recession-hit economy in recent years. It was forced to take an almost $14 billion international bailout to rescue its banking system.

Greek Cypriots continue to face enormous economic challenges.

Mr. Nami estimated that it would take up to 20 years for Greek Cypriots to attain the standards of living to which they were accustomed before the economic collapse.

“In order to make that a shorter time frame, they need a jump,” he said, adding that it “can only be achieved through resolving the Cyprus issue.”

Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot negotiators are now meeting almost twice a week, and their leaders plan to review progress before the end of March.

The two sides will undertake a series of confidence-building measures that include greater ties between Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot businesses; cooperation on health, the environment, protection of cultural heritage sites and fighting crime; and opening more crossing points.

The Turkish Cypriot side has tried to sweeten the pot by promising to share water and electricity that it hopes to eventually get from Turkey. “This is something which motivates our counterparts for reunification,” Mr. Nami said. “We are actually trying to make a deal much more attractive.”

“Maybe, in our own terms, this is our soft power,” he added.

U.S. engagement

Mr. Nami stressed that the Obama administration has helped the push toward reunification.

Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, the department’s point woman on Europe, traveled to Cyprus ahead of the talks, and her visit was “quite instrumental in putting the final dot on the paper,” said Mr. Nami, who will meet in Washington this week with senior State Department officials and members of Congress.

The discovery, meanwhile, of vast reserves of natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean, especially in the seabeds around Cyprus, Egypt, Israel and Lebanon, has fueled reunification efforts.

The pursuit of profit from the reserves could pave the way for unprecedented regional cooperation, especially between Turkey and Israel, over the construction of an underwater pipeline that connects the eastern Mediterranean to Western Europe through Turkey.

“We need a catalyst to make the Israeli-Turkey-Europe link much stronger, and so when you look at the picture from this perspective all roads lead to the resolution of the Cyprus issue,” Mr. Nami said. “We are almost there. It is the project with minimal risk and greatest return. It has a huge chance of success.”

The political crisis in Ukraine, where Russia has deployed troops in response to the ouster of the pro-Kremlin president last month, has put a spotlight on Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas.

Russian concern

Analysts say some European nations have been hesitant to fully back U.S. sanctions on Russian officials because of this dependence.

“The Ukrainian crisis reminded us of the urgent need to diversify the natural gas supply routes,” said Mr. Nami. “The resources around Cyprus are definitely an alternative means to meet the demands in Europe.”

Further, he said, the Turkish Cypriot side hopes future revenue from natural gas sales will provide much-needed money to cover heavy costs associated with reunification.

In addition to serving as an impetus for the ongoing talks, the discovery of natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean has created tensions on Cyprus — as well as between the Greek Cypriot side and the government of Turkey.

There have been concerns on the Turkish side, for instance, that the Greek Cypriot government has been trying to take sole control of the island’s gas reserves.

“Any unilateral steps taken, either by Greek Cypriots or Turkish Cypriots, without cooperating with each other is bound to lead to conflict,” Mr. Nami said.

This is why it is so important to establish a federal government overseeing both sides of the island with the authority to grant licenses and draw revenues from these resources, he said.

Mr. Nami added that the natural gas supply “is going to change the whole atmosphere in the region, create huge interdependence, great benefits, make the Western alliance much stronger in the region.”

“There is a very positive scenario there which is within our grasp,” he said. “All we need is to focus on resolving the Cyprus issue in the coming months and then this will unlock very positive developments.”