A Turkish Cypriot minister has vowed to keep on taking reciprocal steps against what he called unilateral Greek Cypriot moves to explore and exploit gas reserves off Cyprus.
“We will continue to monitor the Greek Cypriot actions on the hydrocarbon issue and take balancing moves in order to protect the legitimate rights of the Turkish Cypriots,” Ozdil Nami, the Turkish Cypriot economy and energy minister, told Al Jazeera.
He added that the Turkish Cypriot side, through a Turkey-based company, is also set to start exploration and exploitation of natural gas and oil reserves off Cyprus unless the Greek Cypriots halt their own activities in the same manner.
The Greek Cypriots, who control the internationally recognised government of Cyprus, has signed exclusive economic zone agreements (EEZ) with neighbouring countries Egypt and Israel and handed hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation licences to international companies through the 2000s and 2010s.
In response, the Turkish Cypriots, who run the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), signed an agreement with the state-owned Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO) in 2011 to explore and exploit hydrocarbon resources in zones determined by the TRNC. The TRNC is only recognised by Turkey.
The tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean peaked last month after the Turkish navy prevented a ship owned by Italian company Eni, licensed by Greek Cypriots, from carrying out a planned drill.
The US-based energy giant ExxonMobil is also scheduled to launch exploration activities soon in a separate zone in the south of the island.
Some of the zones that have been licensed to the TPAO overlap with the zones the Greek Cypriot government determined and licensed to private companies.
The confrontation between Eni’s ship and the Turkish navy took place in the third zone, as named by the Greek Cypriot side, which is east of the island and is one of these overlapping areas, according to the Turkish Cypriot side.
Nami said the Turkish Cypriots repeatedly asked the Greek Cypriot side to wait until a federal settlement is reached on the divided island and then decide on how to utilise the natural resources of Cyprus.
“We have also proposed to form an interim joint committee, similar to the ones we have in other issues, and take steps together for the Turkish Cypriots to have a say on the natural resources they also have legitimate rights on,” Nami said, adding that this can be implemented under the auspices of the United Nations.
“We have similar working committees on certain issues such as electricity sharing and cultural heritages. These joint groups work together on the field. Why can’t we do a similar thing on the hydrocarbon reserves? There is no answer.”
Nami said that the Eni incident has been the only time a preventive measure was taken by the Turkish navy towards a third party, adding that his administration was still hoping to find a diplomatic solution to the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The European Union leaders last Thursday called on Turkey to respect the sovereign rights of Cyprus to explore and exploit its natural resources in accordance with the EU and international law, a statement slammed by the Turkish foreign ministry
Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades recently said, in an interview with Al Jazeera, that there is a “convergence” between the two sides on the exploitation of Cyprus’ natural resources, and blamed Turkey of “using excuses in order to intervene in the sovereign rights of the republic”.
Nami said Anastasiades was trying to mislead the public opinion by claiming that there is such an agreement.
“[The] hydrocarbon issue was among the issues we agreed on in case the Cyprus dispute was resolved and a federal government was formed. But that never happened. So, he is not talking about the situation at hand when he talks about an agreement,” he said.
The TRNC, which has a functioning parliament and state institutions, has only been recognised by Turkey since it unilaterally declared independence in 1983, breaking away from the Republic of Cyprus.
Cyprus has been practically divided since 1974, when Turkey militarily intervened on the island in response to a brief Greek-inspired coup. Ankara said it acted in line with a treaty of guarantee, signed in 1960 when the Republic of Cyprus was founded.
Since the establishment of the de facto TRNC, the north has been described as “occupied part of Cyprus” by the UN Security Council.
Repeated diplomatic efforts to end the partition have failed, as did the latest round of talks to reunify the island in Switzerland in July despite efforts by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
Follow Umut Uras on Twitter: @Um_Uras