The delay of announced reciprocal visits of Cypriot special representatives from the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC) to Athens and the Greek Cypriot administration to Ankara -- which were scheduled for the second half of October and seemed a prelude to higher-level meetings -- is a result of stalling on the Greek side, according to KKTC officials and academics who believe that the Greek side's desire to get the upper hand before negotiations start is preventing progress on the peace talks.
Meeting in New York on the sidelines of a recent session of the UN General Assembly, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Greek Foreign Minister Evangelos Venizelos agreed that the KKTC and the Greek Cypriot administration would send a special representative to each others' countries for negotiations to reunite the east Mediterranean island.
Officials from both the KKTC and Turkey had expressed a desire to start the talks in October. KKTC President Derviş Eroğlu announced in a televised interview early last month that the reciprocal visits would happen in the second half of the October. The visits, however, have yet to happen.
When asked about the delay, Osman Ertuğ, the KKTC president's special representative, told Sunday's Zaman that the KKTC is still waiting for the Greek side to set an exact date.
“The visits -- planned for October -- didn't happen. The ball is in the Greek side's court. We are still waiting for a date from them. Both Greece and Greek Cyprus are dragging their feet on the visits of the special representatives. They have a number of concerns. However, the problems that they talk about are not the real ones. For example, Greek Cyprus says that Ankara and Athens should agree on the [date of the] visits, about which they had previously agreed [at the time of the UN meeting],” he said.
Ertuğ said the Greek side has employed delaying tactics and fears that hosting him will boost the status of the KKTC. Neither government on Cyprus recognizes the other, and the mutual visits of the special representatives are seen as an important step in the reunification talks.
The Greek Cypriot administration, which joined the European Union in 2004, is internationally recognized as representing the entire island, while only Turkey recognizes the KKTC.
Cyprus has been divided between a Greek Cypriot south and a Turkish Cypriot north since 1974, when Turkey sent troops to the island in the aftermath of a Greek-backed coup to unite the island with Greece. Talks have been stalled since January 2012 due to various delays from Greek Cyprus. No significant progress has been achieved so far in the decades-old UN-backed talks between Turkish and Greek Cypriot leaders. Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots want a quick end to the talks, while the Greek Cypriots reject setting a deadline.
Economic concerns will open the way for reconciliation
In his remarks to Sunday's Zaman, Mehmet Hasgüler, a Turkish Cypriot academic who teaches at the European University of Lefke, said that the reciprocal talks were a new step that would change the atmosphere on both sides of Cyprus.
“The Greek Cypriots have been dragging feet. They don't express their unwillingness for peace directly and make up several excuses. First, they enjoyed contact with Ankara but then the chauvinism of the Greek Cypriots rose again. Greece wants to establish good relations with Turkey but the economic crisis forces them wrestle with questions. … The Greek side wants to start to talks with the upper hand and try to gain an advantage before the negotiations,” Hasgüler said.
Hasgüler added that the Cypriots were talking about the reunification talks in an open-ended manner. However, he continued, the peace talks will now be discussed in concrete terms. “Peace in Cyprus will be realized not because of political concerns but economic ones. This will be a functional economic integration. Cyprus will gain its real identity with economic cooperation,” he said.
In the first months of 2013, Greek Cyprus faced bankruptcy. In its attempts to tackle its debt crisis, cash-strapped Greek Cyprus secured a 10-billion-euro bailout package from its European partners and the International Monetary Fund.
While the economic crisis in Greek Cyprus brought international attention to the island, an unexpected maneuver came from Archbishop Chrisostomos II of the Greek Orthodox Church in Greek Cyprus. The archbishop said that if exporting natural gas from the Mediterranean through Turkey benefits the Greek Cypriots, he will welcome it at the beginning of the 2013.
Greeks' main excuse: Maraş
The eastern Mediterranean rose in importance due to its natural gas reserves, explored by Israel and Greek Cyprus, and it is believed that the region holds enough natural gas to meet Europe's energy needs for decades. In September 2011, American oil company Noble Energy Inc. began exploratory drilling in Cyprus Block 12's Aphrodite field and found between 5 and 8 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of natural gas -- more than Cyprus could consume in a century. Turkey has long warned the Greek Cypriot government against unilateral moves to extract natural gas and oil reserves off the coast of Cyprus, saying that the Turkish Cypriots, who have their own state in the north of the island, also have a claim on these reserves.
Now the two sides are closer to peace than ever before because the Greek Cypriots have neither the money nor the technology to benefit from the gas that was discovered, and energy and water deals with the KKTC are an attractive solution.
Hasgüler said the Greek Cypriots want to recover the city of Maraş (also known as Varosha) before reunification to gain psychological superiority. Once a famous resort region, Maraş was an important asset for the Greek Cypriots in terms of tourism revenue. Since the Turkish intervention in 1974, entering the district has been forbidden, with the exception of Turkish army personnel.
“Greeks want to start negotiations with some advantages, because when the negotiations start, the UN will be a part of the talks and Turkey will throw its weight around. They won't be strong enough to stand up to Turkey's power. That's why they put Maraş on the table when they feel stuck.”
According to the academic, one of the reasons that the Greek Cypriots are postponing the reciprocal visits is their fear that Turkey's status as the KKTC's guarantor will be recognized. He said that Greeks want to discuss Turkey's guarantor status, decreasing the number of Turkish soldiers on the island and increasing the Greek population on the northern part of the island.