Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades and his Turkish Cypriot counterpart Dervis Eroglu Tuesday relaunched talks on ending the island’s division, with optimism that the energy card could provide a breakthrough.
The two leaders, meeting in the UN-controlled buffer zone, at the now defunct Nicosia international airport, were expected to ratify a roadmap for a renewal of UN-brokered talks after an almost two-year break.
The joint declaration was finalized last week after protracted haggling over the text delayed a relaunch originally earmarked for November.
Turkish Cypriots suspended the last round of talks in mid-2012 when Anastasiades’s internationally-recognised Republic of Cyprus assumed the European Union’s rotating presidency.
A draft text of the joint statement leaked to the media says any final agreement would be subject to simultaneous referenda in both communities.
"This is the best chance for peace since 2004 because of oil and gas," said Hubert Faustmann, associate professor of history and political science at Nicosia University.
Cyprus joined the EU in 2004 still a divided island, after Greek Cypriot voters rejected a UN reunification blueprint that was approved by Turkish Cypriots.
And current President Anastasiades was one of the few Greek Cypriot politicians to back the controversial UN plan 10 years ago.
But the island’s untapped gas and oil riches offshore and a huge natural gas find in waters off neighbouring Israel have changed the dynamics in the region.
Hopes are high that these factors can transform the current frosty climate into one of reconciliation and trust that would make an elusive peace deal achievable.
"Turkey and Israel’s energy cooperation has triggered an American intervention and forced both sides to agree on a joint statement leading to a resumption of talks," Faustmann told AFP.
"Washington has put so much weight behind this latest peace effort because oil and gas is a game changer in the wider context ... It’s a win-win situation for all," he added.
He said the lack of a Cyprus settlement after 40 years of division was hindering Israel’s cooperation with Nicosia to export gas.
"Israel is looking to diversify by gas pipeline through the sea of Cyprus to Turkey and invest in an LNG plant on the island, but Israel won’t give its gas to Cyprus unless there is a solution," said Faustmann.
The US -- which has commercial interests in the island’s gas and oil exploration -- is aware that a divided Cyprus is a source of tension for NATO members Greece and Turkey.
Turkey is opposed to Cyprus exporting oil and gas - saying the energy wealth also belongs to Turkish Cypriots -- and been accused of «gunship diplomacy" by the Greek Cypriots.
"There are huge time pressures for energy investment and any delay will see more economic misery for Cypriots," said Faustmann.
Greek Cypriot government spokesman Christos Stylianides said Tuesday’s meeting would be of a procedural nature and in the coming days the chief negotiators would visit both Athens and Ankara to push the process forward.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was upbeat about the resumption of talks.
"We are heading toward a new process in Cyprus. God willing, there will be no backpedalling and we will solve the Cyprus problem," Erdogan said on Tuesday.
Greece has given its backing to renewed talks, with Prime Minister Antonis Samaras calling them «one of the leading priorities of Greek foreign policy".
A resumption of talks was delayed by the eurozone debt crisis, which forced Nicosia to secure a bailout from international creditors last March, plunging the island into deep recession.
Cyprus has been divided since Turkish troops invaded and occupied its northern third in 1974 in response to an Athens-engineered coup aimed at uniting it with Greece.
A breakaway state which Turkish Cypriot leaders declared in 1983 is recognised only by Ankara. [AFP]