Cyprus was expected at an Oct. 1-2 meeting between European Union and Turkish officials to again block proposed sanctions over Belarus' alleged rigged Presidential elections unless penalties are imposed for Turkey drilling for energy in Cypriot waters.
Greece's demand for sanctions had been expected to dominate the meeting but that seemed unlikely after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan withdrew an energy research vessel and warships from around the Greek island of Kastellorizo to give diplomacy a chance.
With Greek and Turkish officials set to meet at some point in Ankara – not Athens – the EU was eager to give those talks a chance while saying that “all options” remain on the table against Turkey if provocations keep up.
Erdogan said in a letter to the 27 leaders: “I would like to emphasise once again that we are ready for dialogue with Greece without any preconditions,” as he urged Brussels to “remain impartial” to help resolve a “new test” in bilateral relations, reported Al-Jazeera's John Psaropoulos.
The EU has been reluctant to provoke Erdgoan, fearful he will unleash on the bloc through Greece and its islands more refugees and migrants who went to his country fleeing war, strife and economic hardship.
Turkey is holding some 4 million or more, mostly containing them under an essentially-suspended swap deal with the EU although Erdogan has allowed human traffickers to keep sending more to Greek islands even during COVID-19.
Turkey and Greece haven't talked for four years and Turkey has moved to claim waters around Greek islands under a maritime deal with Libya no other country recognizes, Greece countering with a similar agreement with Egypt.
Erdogan withdrew his vessels from Kastellorizo, less than two miles from Turkey's coast but has kept up drilling in Cyprus' Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) parts of which Turkey doesn't recognize, also not accepting the legitimate government and barring its ships and planes.
Cyprus earlier blocked sanctions against Belarus, which would exempt President Alexander Lukashenko, also called Europe's last dictator, whom critics said stole another election to keep his 26-year reign of power going.
Cyprus again threatened to veto sanctions on Belarus even as Lukashenko is jailing protesters and sending hooded security forces into the street to kidnap demonstrators, some of whom were said to be tortured.
“It will be extremely difficult for Cyprus to drop its veto threat without getting something in return … we could hit a dead end. The thriller at this summit will be over Cyprus,” Kostas Yfantis, a professor of international relations at Panteion University in Athens and Turkey expert told Al Jazeera.
That stance has irked many EU members who accused Cyprus of being too stubborn and unwilling to be lenient on Turkey, their countries unaffected.
“Cyprus continues to veto sanctions against the repression and election falsification in Belarus. This will become a powerful argument in favor of abandoning the principle of unanimity on issues like these,” tweeted Swedish former Prime Minister Carl Bildt, who now co-chairs the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank.
Germany, which holds the EU presidency and helped broker the renewed Greece-Turkey talks but rejects sanctions, reportedly told Cypriot officials those won't be on the table because it would further harden Erdogan's already hard line.
“I don’t understand the logic. You now have a power with armies on Syrian, Cypriot, Iraqi and Libyan soil, in three of them illegally … and we have an EU obsessed with Lukashenko not holding fair elections,” said Angelos Syrigos, a Professor of International Law and Member of Parliament.
“What’s been happening on the Greek continental shelf for the last two months is happening on Cyprus’ continental shelf since 2014. If Cyprus had an army and were threatening war this would have stopped immediately … Greece has an army and that’s why the EU is getting involved,” he said.
Curiously, Greece – which almost always backs the Greek-Cypriot government, wants no part of the dilemma as it also seeks sanctions.
“What’s really important is that we have the list of sanctions because that is what seems to have acted as a deterrent to Turkey’s provocative actions recently,” said Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas before the meeting.
“Cyprus is saying the obvious: You can’t have sanctions against Belarus … which doesn’t directly affect an EU member – they’re sanctions of principle – and fail to have them against a third country that’s actually trampling on the maritime sovereignty of a member state,” said Konstantinos Filis, Executive Director of the Institute of International Relations in Athens.