Turkish and Greek Cypriots may vote in a referendum in March to unify after a four-decade separation if officials from both sides can agree on a plan by end of the year, Foreign Minister Ozdil Nami of the Turkish-Cypriot breakaway state which is recognized only by Turkey said.
Speaking to reporters in Ankara, Nami said that for the first time a Greek Cypriot envoy will visit Ankara, while a Turkish Cypriot envoy will travel to Athens later this month.
The visits come before officials from both sides gather for talks, possibly on November 4, said Nami, who met with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu . “There is a window of opportunity,” Nami said. “The window is narrow, but we won’t be starting from scratch,” Bloomberg news reported.
Cyprus has been divided between Greek-speaking and Turkish-speaking regions since Turkey invaded the north of the island in 1974 following a coup by Greek-Cypriot supporters of union with Greece.
Turkey occupies the northern third of the island and maintains troops there. Reunification negotiations that have been intermittent in the last 39 years have all gone nowhere with virtually no progress on any fronts.
“We are at a critical stage,” Davutoğlu said. “If there is strong will then an opportunity for peace and desired environment for negotiations will rise.”
Citing his recent talks with Greek Foreign Minister Evangelos Venizelos during the UN General Assembly meeting last month in New York, Davutoğlu said Turkish and Greek negotiators agreed on reciprocal meetings in each other’s capitals.
“Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots have been serious about this process, but the same commitment has not been shown by the Greek side,” Davutoğlu said.
Nami said, “Both sides should prepare their own peace plans before the end of the year and they should get their respective peoples discuss these plans and vote for them in a referendum. This issue cannot be allowed to linger on. Otherwise, the world should come up with a different answer,”
The reunification talks have been on hold for 18 months after former Cypriot President Demetris Christofias, who got nowhere, decided not to run again and as Anastasiades has been sidetracked by dealing with the economic crisis.
Discussions on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York last month have lent the process renewed resolve, Turkish officials said, according to the newspaper Hurriyet.
In 2004, a plan proposed by then-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan was rejected by Greek Cypriots in a popular vote. Davutoğlu said the planned November meeting “will be an important psychological step,” adding it could pave the way for a talks in a quartet involving Turkey and Greece.
Nami said the eventual target was to hold a referendum on a proposed deal by March 2014.
The “Cyprus Question” has frustrated diplomats for decades with emotions remaining over the violence of the invasion and the still unaccounted-for fate of 1,619 Cypriots for which Turkey won’t provide any details.
Greek Cypriot officials have played down the prospects of any imminent breakthrough, highlighting a broad range of potential obstacles from territorial adjustments to a complex web of property claims.
Representatives of Greek Cyprus and Turkish Cyprus will visit Athens and Ankara in a couple of weeks, the first time in nearly 50 years. The Turkish side has no preconditions to restart talks and is ready to return land to Greek Cypriots, Nami said. “Reunification may bring great economic advantages to both sides,” Nami said. “The Greek side is spending 1 million dollars on military per day and its trading vessels can’t access Turkish ports, while its planes can’t use Turkish air space; tourism is suffering.”
He didn’t say that the reason Cypriot ships and planes can’t enter Turkey is because they are barred as Turkey won’t recognize the Greek-Cypriot government even though Cyprus is a member of the European Union and Turkey wants to join.
The easing on Turkey’s side comes as its government smells possible riches from energy exploration off the coast of the Greek-Cypriot side and has been demanding a share. If the island is unified, there could be a common access to the revenues.
Talks also may enable Cyprus to export gas to Europe via Turkey, Nami said, offering something to the Cypriot side. Noble Energy Inc. reported Cyprus’s first offshore natural-gas find in 2011. Natural gas reserves in Cypriot waters may be as much as 60 trillion cubic feet, more than six times the UK’s proven gas reserves according to BP.
Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades said on Sept. 17 that the economic crisis he’s been dealing with in an attempt to keep the state banks and economy from collapsing could provide an impetus to solve the long-standing division.
But he said that the country’s natural gas reserves are not a subject for negotiation in reunification talks for divided island. Cyprus may have lost a bargaining chip though when initial tests showed the reserves may be much less than anticipated.
Cyprus, now surviving on a 10 billion euro ($13 billion) rescue from international lenders after its banks almost went bankrupt because of large holdings of devalued Greek bonds and bad loans to Greek businesses that went belly-up, desperately needs new sources of revenues.
The government said it planned to build a multi-billion euro facility, to be called Aphrodite, by 2019-20 to liquefy excess gas supply for export to Europe and beyond.
Energy Minister Yiorgos Lakkotrypis, said Aphrodite contains between 3.6 and 6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. That’s below a 2011 estimate that estimated the size of the field at 5 to 8 trillion cubic feet. The field – being developed by US firm Noble Energy Inc. and its Israeli partners Delek and Avner – lies around 150 kilometers off the island’s southern coast.