After a first round of talks ended Thursday, 12 January, rival Turkish and Greek Cypriot delegations have agreed to continue negotiating an agreement on the final reunification of their island into one state.
A context of new geopolitical factors sets this deal apart from previous attempts at reunification. $50 billion in natural gas reserves have been found in Cyprus’ waters where the construction of a pipeline between Israel and Turkey is also under discussion. An agreement would strengthen European energy independence and represent a boon in Turkey-EU relations, potentially assuaging the distrust that has grown from the migrant crisis and accusations of a Western role in the failed July coup d’état attempt.
The European Union currently imports most of its natural gas from Russia. Despite publicly supporting Cyprus’ reunification, Russia has been accused by sources within the government of Nicos Anastasiades, President of the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus, of trying to undermine the UN talks. Exxon Mobil, Total, ENI and Quatar Petroleum all won contracts last month to explore and drill off the island’s southern shores, according to CNBC.
Turkey, also dependent on Russian gas, is vying for a new pipeline to import natural gas from Israel. Yet, Anastasiades’ government has stated that any such pipeline running through its waters would be blocked if the island remains divided.
If an agreement is found, a referendum will likely take place this summer, giving ethnic Greeks and Turks a chance to put forty years of tension behind them and live in mutually recognized federal states. Greek Cypriot president Nicos Anastasiades and the Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akıncı are both eager to only sign an agreement that they think can gain majority support from both their camps. A similar referendum for what was termed the Annan Plan was rejected in 2004, with most Greeks voting ‘no’ and a majority of Turks voting ‘yes.’ The Republic of Cyprus, located in the Greek south, subsequently joined the European Union. Turkey continues to claim the Northern Republic of Cyprus, where it stations 30,000 troops, as its own.
Points of contention include the status of its guarantor countries—Greece, Turkey and the UK—who have played some role in Cyprus’ security for the past hundred years, Turkey’s troop levels and the boundaries between the two states.
Even if technocrats manage to hammer out a deal that’s viable for both sides, a referendum would ultimately decide the fate of Cyprus’ unity. Turkey has shown willingness to substantially reduce its troop levels. But the younger generations have become accustomed to division. It remains to be seen whether public sentiment will be swayed by growing energy investment in the Levant basin.