NICOSIA — Tensions over the search for oil and gas off ethnically divided Cyprus would fade if Greek Cypriots agreed to divvy up the country's territorial waters and drilling rights with Turkish Cypriots, according to the man who hopes to be the next leader of the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state.
Ersin Tatar, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Turkish Cypriot state in Cyprus' northern third, said such a deal should happen before there's a resumption of United Nations-facilitated talks aiming at reunification.
"For us, the hydrocarbons issue is a test if the two side can agree or not," Tatar told The Associated Press in an interview. "I believe that if we can agree on this matter, it will act as a catalyst to ensuring regional peace, Greek-Turkish friendship, as well as to resolving the Cyprus problem."
Tatar's proposal is a fresh take on an older Turkish Cypriot position on the tussle over gas deposits in the east Mediterranean that has again stoked tensions between Greece and Turkey recently.
However, the suggestion has been rejected as a non-starter by Cyprus' internationally recognized government in the island's southern, Greek Cypriot part. It sees such a move as undermining its own territorial rights while obliquely conferring sovereign rights on an unlawful entity.
Tatar said he and Turkey favor setting up a joint committee of Greek and Turkish Cypriots to mark out waters in which each side will be entitled to search and drill for gas.
"Turkish Cypriots can't have their rights … kept in the freezer in the hope that one day the Greek Cypriots agree with them," he said. "We must be able to claim our rights without a comprehensive settlement. Justice and the law necessitate that."
Tensions in the eastern Mediterranean have escalated sharply in recent weeks as Greek warships shadowed Turkish naval vessels escorting survey and drill ships prospecting for gas in waters where Greece and Cyprus claim exclusive economic rights.
Only Turkey recognizes the Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence that was made after Cyprus was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded in the wake of a coup aiming at union with Greece.
Cyprus' internationally recognized government in the southern, Greek Cypriot part insists the rights of Turkish Cypriots to the country's natural resources are guaranteed under existing agreements encompassed in previous rounds of peace talks.
It has also proposed setting up an escrow account into which a portion of future gas proceeds earmarked for Turkish Cypriots — roughly proportionate to their population size — would be deposited.
Turkish Cypriots could access those funds even before a peace deal is reached if Turkey recognized the borders of European Union member Cyprus' exclusive economic zone.
Three sizable gas fields have so far been discovered in as many blocks inside Cyprus' exclusive economic zone off its southern coast where energy companies including France's Total, Italy's Eni and Exxonmobil are licensed to drill.
Turkey doesn't recognize Cyprus as a state and claims 44% of its exclusive economic zone as falling within its own continental shelf. Turkish Cypriots claim another 25%.
"Let's sit and talk about to whom these blocks belong," Tatar said. "In this way, the crisis won't get worse and everyone will know which blocks are theirs for drilling."
Tatar, 60, who leads the right-wing National Unity Party, says polls show that he will edge out his main rival, leftist incumbent Mustafa Akinci, in a second round of presidential elections slated for mid-October.
He said decades of failed talks to reunify Cyprus as a federation makes it necessary to consider "alternative models" for reunification, including a confederated partnership of two sovereign states within the European Union.
"If we can't agree on coming together under a federal roof, a 'velvet divorce' is also a solution," said Tatar. "It's unrealistic at this point in time to say that 'the only road is toward federation' after all that has happened."
Conversely, Akinci champions a federation of Greek and Turkish zones.
Tatar said there can be no peace deal without Greek Cypriots recognizing the minority Turkish Cypriots as equals in both sovereignty and decision-making powers at all levels of government, including sharing the island's top executive post.
"We will have as much sovereignty as the Greek Cypriots," he said. "Turkish Cypriots must take part in all decision-making mechanisms."
He also rejected any notion of acceding to a Greek Cypriot demand to scrap the right to military intervention and military bases that the island's 1960 constitution accorded to Greece, Turkey and former colonial ruler Britain.
Greece agrees to getting rid of intervention rights, while Britain has said it would have no objections if all sides agreed to abolish them.
Tatar said it's Turkey's military that has maintained the peace for nearly five decades, adding that according to opinion polls, "more than 85%" of Turkish Cypriots support "the continuation of the effective and active Turkish guarantees."