Escalating tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean over maritime zones and drilling activities would fade if the Greek Cypriot administration agreed to share the country’s territorial waters and drilling rights with Turkish Cypriots, Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus' (TRNC) Prime Minister Ersin Tatar said this week.
Tatar told The Associated Press (AP) that such a deal should happen before there is a resumption of United Nations-facilitated talks aiming at reunification.
“For us, the hydrocarbons issue is a test if the two sides can agree or not. I believe that if we can agree on this matter, it will act as a catalyst to ensuring regional peace, Greek-Turkish friendship, as well as to resolving the Cyprus problem,” Tatar said.
Tatar's proposal is a fresh take on an older Turkish Cypriot position on the tussle over gas deposits in the East Mediterranean that has again stoked tensions between Greece and Turkey recently.
However, the suggestion has been rejected as a nonstarter by the Greek Cypriot administration.
Tatar said he and Turkey favor setting up a joint committee of Greek and Turkish Cypriots to mark out waters in which each side will be entitled to search and drill for gas.
“Turkish Cypriots can’t have their rights ... kept in the freezer in the hope that one day the Greek Cypriots agree with them,” he said. “We must be able to claim our rights without a comprehensive settlement. Justice and the law necessitate that," he said.
Since the discovery of significant gas reserves in the region a decade ago, countries have been engaged in renewed disputes over maritime borders, while international law presents few remedies. The deepening rift between Athens and Ankara widened with Turkey’s decision to enhance energy exploration activities in the Eastern Mediterranean.
As a guarantor nation for the TRNC, Turkey has consistently contested the Greek Cypriot administration's unilateral drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean, asserting that the TRNC also has rights to the resources in the area.
In 1974, following a coup aimed at the annexation of Cyprus by Greece, Ankara intervened as a guarantor power. In 1983, the TRNC was founded.
Three sizable gas fields have so far been discovered in as many blocks inside Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) off its southern coast where energy companies including France’s Total, Italy’s Eni and U.S. corporation ExxonMobil are licensed to drill.
“Let’s sit and talk about to whom these blocks belong,” Tatar said. “In this way, the crisis won’t get worse and everyone will know which blocks are theirs for drilling.”
He said decades of failed talks to reunify Cyprus as a federation makes it necessary to consider “alternative models” for reunification, including a confederated partnership of two sovereign states within the European Union.
“If we can’t agree on coming together under a federal roof, a ‘velvet divorce' is also a solution,” said Tatar. “It’s unrealistic at this point in time to say that ‘the only road is toward federation’ after all that has happened.”
Tatar said there can be no peace deal without Greek Cypriots recognizing the minority Turkish Cypriots as equals in both sovereignty and decision-making powers at all levels of government, including sharing the island’s top executive post.
“We will have as much sovereignty as the Greek Cypriots,” he said. “Turkish Cypriots must take part in all decision-making mechanisms.”
He also rejected any notion of acceding to a Greek Cypriot demand to scrap the right to military intervention and military bases that the island’s 1960 constitution accorded to Greece, Turkey and former colonial ruler Britain.
Greece agrees to get rid of intervention rights, while Britain has said it would have no objections if all sides agreed to abolish them.
Tatar said it is Turkey’s military that has maintained the peace for nearly five decades, adding that according to opinion polls, “more than 85%” of Turkish Cypriots support “the continuation of the effective and active Turkish guarantees.”
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