NICOSIA: Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades said Wednesday that the discovery of natural gas around Cyprus could galvanize international efforts to resolve the island’s long-standing division and help the European Union decrease its dependence on Russian energy.
“It is important for Europe and the United States,” Anastasiades told Reuters in an interview, explaining that the discovery brought the need for peace into sharper focus.
“Europe will never stop needing Russian gas but there can be alternative supply sources,” he said.
But the president said it was too early to speak of any tangible progress regarding recently relaunched peace talks over the ethnically partitoned island.
“There is a lot of interest by international players and Europe. I hope that at some point we could be in a position to make a relevant announcement but it’s premature to say anything for certain,” said Anastasiades, a conservative whose presidential building in Cyprus’ divided capital still carries shrapnel damage from an abortive 1974 coup by Greek Cypriot militants that triggered a Turkish invasion days later.
Deep differences persist between rival Greek and Turkish Cypriots who have defied four decades of reconciliatory efforts from diplomats and politicians.
Almost 1 trillion cubic meters of recoverable natural gas has already been discovered in the eastern Mediterranean Levant Basin, enough to supply Europe with gas for over two years.
European states have become wary of their heavy dependence on Russian energy since Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Black Sea Crimea peninsula last month. Russia supplies around one third of the EU’s oil and gas usage.
The division of Cyprus and competing territorial claims could complicate development of the new fields, which extend toward Israel.
Turkey, which backs the breakaway northern Cyprus territory, disputes Cyprus’ claims over swathes of sea to the island’s south and southeast that are rich in gas reserves. It has sent warships to the area on a number of occasions.
Cyprus says the waters are part of its own offshore area, where it has awarded research concessions to France’s Total, U.S. company Noble Energy and South Korea’s Kogas.
Two senior U.S. State Department officials have visited the island over the past two months, lending support to Anastasiades’s call for “bold” confidence-building measures.
Such measures would include the Turkish military relinquishing control of a now fenced-off seaside ghost resort whose Greek Cypriot residents fled in 1974, and the operation of a Turkish Cypriot port under EU supervision to facilitate direct exports to the bloc.
Anastasiades added that confidence-building measures could go a long way in restoring faith among the Cypriot public, which has been left jaded by the various peace initiatives that have come and gone over the decades.
“People are tired, disappointed from a non-solution,” he said.
The president, who oversees peace talks in his capacity as Greek Cypriot leader, restarted negotiations with Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu in February.
“At this point the initial positions of the sides are being submitted, so it would not be possible to expect any so-called progress,” said Anastasiades, adding: “Progress is the fact that we are back in a dialogue, with a framework which we must all focus on, so that negotiations do not deviate from that framework.”
Eroglu and Anastasiades agreed in February to relaunch peace talks on the basis of an agreed agenda, calling for the creation of a partnership under a federal umbrella in tune with EU standards.
“There is a gap in our positions, a gap in the positions of the Turkish side and even more so from the European acquis,” Anastasiades said, referring to EU regulations.
He said that any impression given by Turkish Cypriot negotiators that the sides were at a bargaining stage were “false.”
“I’m not saying this to accuse anyone, or to enter a blame game. ... I wish it were like that, but we are not there,” he said.
Cyprus has been partitioned since the 1974 Turkish invasion, but the seeds of division were sown much earlier, when a power-sharing Greek-Turkish Cypriot administration crumbled in 1963, just three years after the island secured independence from Britain.
Many Turkish Cypriots withdrew into enclaves after the 1974 invasion. The island’s U.N. peacekeeping force, deployed in 1964, is one of the world’s longest serving worldwide. Turkey is the only country that recognizes northern Cyprus as a legitimate state.
Four decades after the 1974 invasion, the troops sent in by Ankara have not left, frustrating Turkey’s bid to join the European Union.