The discovery of natural gas is a significant incentive to get Ankara’s backing for a resolution to the Cyprus issue, says the country’s President Nicos Anastasiades, who believes that the prospect of using some of the fuel lying beneath the seabed off the island’s shores to cover a large part of Turkey’s energy needs and transform the country into a regional energy hub could convince Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to make the concessions needed for a reunification deal to be achieved.
In this context, the recent success of ExxonMobil, Total and ENI in securing licenses for gas exploration in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Cyprus is a powerful message that could strengthen Nicosia’s bargaining power.
In an extensive interview with Kathimerini from the Presidential Palace in Nicosia ahead of a multilateral summit on Cyprus in Geneva on January 12, Anastasiades talks about the need for Turkey to withdraw its troops from the island’s occupied north and says that he is willing to agree to a transitional period while this is achieved. He also stresses that Athens and Nicosia are on the same page as regards the issue of guarantees.
The Cyprus president appears determined to achieve a resolution despite warnings that certain facets of such a deal that he is willing to negotiate could be rejected by Greek Cypriots in the ensuing referendum, potentially jeopardizing a deal and his own political future.
Is Erdogan ready for a solution? Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has suggested that the timing may not be right.
We are not among those who insisted on a meeting at the earliest. We want a solution as soon as possible because developments are swift and not always in the best direction. One argument is that there are factors at play which are creating obstacles. But there is also the argument that a solution in Cyprus could be a success for Turkey with all the problems it is facing, which could contribute significantly to its goals.
What incentive does Erdogan have given the tensions between Athens and Ankara, the crisis with the US and his need for support from the nationalists in Turkey?
The most important thing is for [Turkey] to become an energy hub. The normalization of ties with Israel, and the need to get natural gas supplies from there, presupposes that that pipelines will run through Cyprus’s EEZ. The Republic of Cyprus may not have veto rights, but it can raise objections over the pipeline route. Beyond this, the natural gas deposits expected in Cyprus’s EEZ are also of interest to Turkey. Turkey might show interest in buying natural gas from Cyprus; but the possible transfer of natural gas to the European Union could also be of interest to them, given their plans to become an energy hub.
Was natural gas discussed as an incentive for a resolution in the talks?
It has never been a subject of discussion. Our position is well known. Natural wealth belongs to the state and to the benefit of all citizens. We have already submitted a bill for the creation of a hydrocarbon fund. On the basis of this law, development, too, will be distributed proportionally.
Was this issue not brought up by Turkish-Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci?
I never allowed the subject of natural gas to be put up for discussion. It was agreed that management of underwater natural wealth was among the areas of jurisdiction.
Do the energy giants involved link their involvement to a solution?
They would not have submitted bids if they did. In any case, there will be talks to determine a time frame for the explorations.
Therefore, these companies are interested regardless of whether there is a solution or not.
Right now, the sovereign Republic of Cyprus has its own EEZ within which blocks are put up for tender and it will have exclusive responsibility for management, development and so on. A resolution would shift the responsibility to the central government, which would have complete control.
What are your views on the proposal for a rotating presidency?
Naturally our position is that a rotating presidency should not be adopted. Negotiating in theory is not helpful in this critical phase.
Are you satisfied by the progress of talks so far?
We have safeguarded Hellenism with the population ratio that will be enforced from day one and which will be almost exactly the same as what it was in 1960. We have agreed that the future composition of the population, beyond its natural growth, will maintain the ratio that will be in force from the first day: four to one. This is the most important safeguard for Greek Cypriots.
Secondly, all fundamental rights are fully guaranteed: freedom of movement, of residence, to pursue a profession, to acquire property anywhere, without hindrance. Measures are being discussed only regarding the issue of civil rights so that we can safeguard the bicommunal character that has been agreed. The fundamental right to property is recognized and secured through five alternative remedies. We have agreed – and this is an improvement from Zurich – on the composition of the House of Representatives, at 75-25 instead of 70-30. In the Upper House, of course, the number will be equal as it is in all federal states in order to ensure political equality. Most of the powers of the central government have been agreed upon and it clearly seems that when it comes to day-to-day problems, any deadlock on a central government level will not affect the constituent states which are responsible for dealing with citizens’ problems. We have agreed that the central government cannot intervene in state matters in the shape of enforcement, or one state in the matters of central government or those of another state. We have explored a resolution mechanism that may be open to criticism but will be effective in that it will compel the parties to consider working with the mechanism or reaching a compromise of their own accord.
What impact would a settlement have on the economy?
If we do reach a solution, there would be endless possibilities for Cyprus. If we are seeing confidence in the Republic of Cyprus today despite the problem, imagine how much greater the interest in investment will be. Especially given that many Muslim countries today may not be investing because of obstacles raised by Ankara. All sides would benefit from a resolution.
Is solving the Cyprus dispute something you have personally resolved to achieve?
It’s a wager, as long as the other side responds. The resolve of one party is not enough to lead to a solution. I would like to stress to the United Nations and the Turkish-Cypriot leadership that the days that remain should be spent in preparation. Otherwise, if someone intends to bring every issue to Geneva, the only thing they will be guaranteeing is the failure of dialogue and the negotiations.
You have been accused of going back on your commitments and going into the five-party talks with everything on the table.
You can’t really take this criticism seriously when we’ve reached the point that even a reference to conclusions is seen as an abolition of the Republic of Cyprus. My positions and opinions have never changed. A serious discussion needs to finally take place to clear up issues that have been pending for a very long time. We need to understand that endless talk will not lead to the desired result.
Is it true that there has been some disagreement with Athens?
Nothing could be further from the truth. There is no crisis or disagreement. Quite the opposite: There has been very close cooperation and everything that is being fabricated in order to give credence to criticism is a complete falsehood.
Does this apply to both the Greek prime minister and the foreign minister?
We have no differences with either. We are in complete accord on the common position we will adopt on the issue of guarantees. We are in absolute agreement. We had a three-party meeting at the recent European Council summit with the Greek prime minister and [Foreign Minister Nikos] Kotzias, where there wasn’t even the slightest disagreement on the positions of the two governments.
Do you believe that a meeting between Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is necessary?
I believe the Greek prime minister’s position that he wants to prepare the ground is perfectly justified. This does not mean that a solution needs to arise from a meeting between the two. Mr Tsipras wants to explore how far the other side can, or is willing to review certain positions that are unacceptable to us. I can’t predict what Mr Erdogan’s stance will be but I think it would be completely inappropriate, diplomatically unfitting, if he were to refuse such a meeting, especially as it is clear that the Greek government wants to prepare the ground for talks on guarantees.
Do you feel that you have Athens’s complete support in the shape that you would like it?
Beyond a shadow of doubt.
What about the Greek opposition?
The opposition too. New Democracy, PASOK and To Potami have made their positions clear.
To get back to the matter of the Turkish troops, do we accept their presence in the occupied north?
When you draw “red lines” the other side does as well, and in the end you shut yourself up behind them.
Let us assume that Turkish troops are not acceptable.
Given the structure of the state and the fact that Cyprus is a member of the United Nations and the European Union, troops are not required and guarantees are not needed to safeguard residents or implement a resolution.
Is the issue of a guarantor power something the EU has brought up?
I had the opportunity at the European Council to make some explicit references to challenge member-states as to what extent they would accept a third country as guarantor of a state in Germany and whether the Baltic states in particular would accept a specific country – which has never invaded though this remains a concern – as a guarantor. It is clear that the position is that a third country cannot act as guarantor for an EU member-state.
Is this the position that will be expressed in Geneva by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker or Vice President Federica Mogherini?
To have the relevant useful reactions, I had a face-to-face meeting with [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel, who said she will forward my views, as well as with the French president and the heads of the institutions, Mr Juncker and Mr [European Council President Donald] Tusk.
Is it possible for the gradual withdrawal of the troops to remain an issue while other matters are settled?
No, because the withdrawal of the troops will be part of the deal. I repeat in no uncertain terms: The deal will include a time frame for the withdrawal of occupying forces, as well as measures for domestic security, implementation of the resolution, the abolition of guarantees etc. These will all be part of the solution. You can’t solve one problem while the others are still pending.
What if the time frame for troop withdrawal is four years and Ankara backs out of the deal in two?
This is why we need a strong vote in the UN and this is why the role of the peacekeeping force is to monitor the withdrawal of the troops and the smooth implementation of the deal.
Will the Geneva conference be multilateral or just involve the five sides?
Definitely multilateral. The EU will be present, and possibly the permanent members of the [UN] Security Council. If the discussion on the guarantees takes place between the affiliated countries, that is a different matter. But the EU and the Security Council’s permanent members need to be there so that if a resolution is reached, we will need strong UN resolution to safeguard its implementation as well as the upgraded role the peacekeeping force will play over the course of implementation.
How important is who takes the blame in the event of failed negotiations?
If failure is due to the fact that occupier Turkey insists extending its presence as a guarantor, I do not think there is a case of blaming the Greek-Cypriot side for refusing to accept the invader staying on as a guarantor.
Are you worried about the prospect of a [Turkish] annexation of the island?
I do not want estimates to be seen as danger-mongering. We must all be serious and keep in mind all that is happening in the broader international environment.
Does failure to reach an agreement on January 12 mean the collapse of talks?
Can a discussion on security and guarantees take place without a deal on territory and the new map?
The agreement we have is that the meeting on security and guarantees will start on January 12 once the maps are submitted. A process is under way in Cyprus to minimize the differences and achieve greater progress so that we are in a position to reach some kind of agreement in the three-day period before the summit. Any differences can be discussed afterward. If we don’t reach a settlement on January 12, this does not rule out a brief interruption and a resumption of talks later.
Even without a map?
The map is a prerequisite for the January 12 meeting but presentation of the maps is one thing, and convergence another. The January 12 meeting is not about discussing the territorial issue; it is only about security and guarantees. It will be up to us Cypriots to solve the other matters among ourselves. That means that by January 11, we need to have solved most of the issues or leave open issues that depend on the outcome.
So, is the return of Morphou a given?
I have already said that there are certain areas and sensitivities that need to be satisfied for there to be a solution.
Was it the territorial or the guarantees issue that prompted you to agree to the Geneva summit after talks in Mont Pelerin in November failed to strike a deal?
I was more concerned about a lengthy postponement of talks and the eventuality of an unfortunate event that would prevent a return to dialogue.
Yet you were not able to secure any commitments.
I would not like to say anything that could possibly jeopardize the negotiations.
Has the list of pending matters gotten any shorter?
You’re referring to a list by the UN of actions that pertain to issues of a more technocratic nature. Some of these have been settled, but a significant number will need to wait for a resolution, like the drafting of constitutions, for example. We need to set down clear terms for the constitutions of the central government and the constituent states. If and when a resolution is reached, we then need to work on all the pending issues and to determine what will be put to a referendum [in both communities].
Does this mean there will be no interim agreement?
No, there will be no interim agreement. There will be an agreement on a resolution. Everything that is agreed will be put down on paper, whether it’s on the solution or on the drafting of the constitutions, the adoption of a flag, a national anthem etc. Only then will these issues, without any gaps or ambiguities, be put to the people. Once a political solution is achieved, we will need a period of preparation. This does not alter the status quo in any way. The Republic of Cyprus will not be abolished or transformed because of a political solution. The resolution will have to be approved by the people and only then can it start being implemented.