President Nicos Anastasiades said discovery of natural gas around Cyprus could galvanize international efforts to resolve the long-standing division of the island, and smooth development of an alternative energy supply source to Russia.
But he said it was too early to speak of tangible progress in recently relaunched reunification talks.
Deep differences persisted between Greek and Turkish Cypriots that have defied the efforts of diplomats and politicians over four decades.
Almost one trillion cubic metres of recoverable natural gas has already been discovered in the eastern Mediterranean Levant Basin, enough to supply Europe with gas for over two years.
Anastasiades said the discovery and the potential prosperity it could bring to countries in the region brought the need for peace into sharper focus.
“It is important for Europe and the United States,” he told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday.
“Europe will never stop needing Russian gas, but there can be alternative supply sources,” Anastasiades said.
In fact, the predecessor of Anastasiades, the Communist President of Cyprus Demetris Christofias, has first highlighted the importance the offshore gas fields for the island’s reunification. Last year, he stressed that revenue sharing from the newly-discovered resources would only be possible under the conditions of a reunification agreement [read more].
European states have become wary of heavy dependence on Russian energy since Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Black Sea Crimea peninsula last month. Russia provides around one third of the European Union’s oil and gas.
But division of the island, and competing territorial claims, could complicate development of the new fields, which extend also towards Israel.
Turkey, which backs the breakaway state in the north, disputes Cyprus’ rights to a swathe of sea to the island’s south and southeast that are rich in gas reserves. On a number of occasions, Ankara has sent warships to the area.
Cyprus says the waters are part of its own offshore area, where it has awarded research concessions to France’s Total, US company Noble Energy, and South Korea’s Kogas.
Two senior US State Department officials have visited the island over the past two months, lending support to Anastasiades’ call for “bold” confidence building measures.
That includes the Turkish military relinquishing control of Varosha, the now fenced-in seaside ghost resort whose Greek Cypriot residents fled in 1974, and operating a Turkish Cypriot seaport under EU supervision, to facilitate direct exports to the bloc.
“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 said.
Anastasiades explained that confidence building measures could go a long way in restoring faith in the process among a public jaded with peace initiatives, which have come and gone over the decades.
“People are tired, disappointed from a non-solution,” said Anastasiades. “At this point the initial positions of the sides are being submitted, so it would not be possible to expect any so-called progress.”
“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.”
In February, Turkish Cypriot leader Dervi? Ero?lu and Anastasiades agreed 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 rules and regulations.
The President 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.”
Cyprus has been divided since 1974 despite repeated efforts under the auspices of the UN to bring the leaders of the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities to the negotiating table.
Hopes for reunification were raised in 2002 when then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan suggested a two-part federation with a rotating presidency.
In an April 2004 referendum, the Greek Cypriots rejected - and the Turkish Cypriots approved - a UN-sponsored unity plan. The plan's failure disappointed EU officials, who had agreed to allow Cyprus to join the EU that year partly in the hope that doing so would encourage a solution. In May 2004, the Greek Cypriot-controlled Republic of Cyprus became a full member of the EU.
At their December 2004 summit, EU leaders agreed to open accession talks with Turkey on 3 October 2005. One of the conditions specified was for Ankara to extend a 1963 association agreement with the EU's predecessor, the European Economic Community, to the Union's 10 new member states. This group included the Greek Cypriot state, which is not recognised by Turkey.
In July 2005, Turkey signed a protocol extending its customs union to the EU-10 states, but at the same time Ankara issued a declaration saying that its signature did not mean it had recognised the Republic of Cyprus. Turkey also refused to open its ports and airports to Cyprus, as it claims the EU has fallen short of having direct trade with the unrecognised northern part of the island.