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39 Years Later, Why Is This Time Different?

Thursday, July 25, 2013  | 

This past weekend, the world marked the 39th dark anniversary of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus.  We witnessed the memorials and heard the statements of resolve and commitments to reunifying Cyprus that we’ve become accustomed to.  Yet this year, perhaps for the first time since July 2003, the commemoration felt a little different.  Were the upbeat messages coming out of Cyprus and Washington, D.C. a signal of a true opportunity to end this four decade long injustice, or just rhetoric that should be expected on this date?

With speculation of a new round of reunification negotiations kicking off this fall, there are several reasons to believe that there is reason to be optimistic on Cyprus:

#1.   Natural Gas

Over the years, several commentators have joked that if Cyprus produced oil rather than olive oil, the Cyprus problem would be solved.  Little did they know that their joke was in some sense a prediction.

Since 2008, the Republic of Cyprus has been exploring for hydrocarbons in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).  In 2011, Noble Energy announced a discovery of 5 trillion to 8 trillion cubic feet of gas, with a potential value of hundreds of billions of euros in profits if all of Cyprus hydrocarbons are developed carefully.  This represents merely the beginning of a resource that could transform Cyprus.  Most of Cyprus’ EEZ still needs to be explored for additional hydrocarbons.  A Liquified Natural Gas facility built on Cyprus — and potentially financed by Israel and Europe — is in the cards.  An influx of high tech workers (and the required services to support them) and the ability to shift employees from the banking sector to the energy industry will help Cyprus’ economy recover that much faster.  Permanent economic cooperation with Israel on energy could lead to more investment and a more modern economy.

Most importantly, the natural gas discovery offers an immediate financial incentive to both Turkish Cypriots and Turkey to settle Cyprus.  For Turkish Cypriots, sharing in the profits of a new Cypriot energy sector would help them stand on their own feet and break away from their status as a Turkish colony.  One of the greatest weaknesses of Turkey’s economy is it status as an energy importer.  Thus, there is a strategic opportunity for Turkey to improve its political standing (by no longer being an occupier) and its very economy by making a deal with the Republic of Cyprus.  This would also advance Turkey’s EU aspirations.

On top of the benefits to Cypriots and Turkey, Europeans have a chance to reduce their energy dependence on Russia, and the U.S. has companies involved (and the prospect of the first Western, democratically controlled energy resource in the region.)  Cyprus — both economically and in terms of the Cyprus problem — was in need of a game changer.  Here it is.

#2.     A firm Western orientation

In his victory speech, immediately after addressing Cyprus’ economy, President Anastasiades declared his government’s intention to apply to NATO’s Partnership for Peace program.  At the same time, the relationship between the Republic of Cyprus and Israel is deepening by the day.  The anchoring of Cyprus to the Western security structure has been greeted warmly throughout NATO and EU capitals.

This is more than just mere membership in an additional regional organization.  Cyprus is — more than any time in recent history — in the eye of the storm.  The Eastern Mediterranean has been defined in the last two years by economic crisis (Greece, Cyprus), mass protests (Egypt, Turkey), and extreme violence (Syria).  Governments have fallen (or been overthrown) and Islamist groups are on the rise.  Syria is breaking apart, Turkey has replaced a “zero problems” foreign policy with a “problems with everybody” foreign policy, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the transit of international terrorist on the Mediterranean have become a pressing challenges.  Cyprus is not only a sea of tranquility given these atmospherics, but it is an asset that has especially proven its worth of late.  The first conviction of Hezbollah was in Cypriot courts this year, and that helped lead to the blacklisting of Hezbollah’s military wing by the EU.  Cyprus is a key part of the Proliferation Security Initiative and has seized Iranian weapons en route to Hamas.

At the same time, Western leaders are aware that Cyprus could go another direction.  If the present government — considered pro-American — does not succeed in leading Cyprus through its economic crisis or in delivering a workable reunification of Cyprus and end to the Turkish occupation, what will come after?  Will another AKEL government withdraw the commitment to Partnership for Peace.  Will Russia be able to successfully negotiate agreements that would allow its navy to use Cyprus as a port?  American policy makers know that this orientation in favor of the Western security structure is not preordained, and they cannot take Cyprus for granted.

#3.     Problems with Turkey

While Cyprus has further anchored itself to the West, Turkey has not.  In the past year, Turkey has joined the Russian/Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization, failed to capitalize on the opportunity for rapprochement with Israel by expressing anti-Semitic sentiment over and over, continued to back the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and — for good measure — kept its habit of threatening force against Cyprus and promising formal partition/annexation of the island.

On Cyprus, Turkey’s turn east has caused tension with Turkish Cypriots.  Turkey has persisted in its policy of colonizing the northern part of Cyprus and has accelerated its program of changing the demography of these areas that it occupies.  Turkish Cypriots have not only become a minority within occupied Cyprus, but their very own identity (which is distinctively Cypriot and secular) is being threatened by the importation of AKP/Islamist culture, and by people who have never had a history of living side by side with ethnic Greeks.  Turkish Cypriots are starting to push back.  In the upcoming so called “elections” in the occupied north, all Turkish Cypriot parties are expressing pro-settlement/reunification sentiment.  The Turkish Cypriot leader — Derviş Eroğlu — is feuding with the Erdogan government in Ankara.  And his predecessor and potential successor — Mehmet Ali Talat — has complained openly of subjugation of the Turkish Cypriots by Turkey.

Are these factors enough to prevent the occupation and division of Cyprus from reaching a 40th dark anniversary?  Maybe, maybe not.  But they certainly are new factors in the equation that is the Cyprus problem, and perhaps the most important factors in play at this point.

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