Cyprus has long had an important geopolitical position in the Mediterranean. But the island has been divided along ethnic lines since 1974, when Turkish troops seized the northern tip of the island in response to an Athens-inspired Greek Cypriot coup, aimed at uniting Cyprus with Greece.
The northern part of the island is ruled by the government of the self-declared Northern Cyprus, which is recognised by Turkey and guarded by its armed forces.
Several UN-mediated efforts to reunify the island have broken down. Most recently, in July 2017, peace talks in the Swiss town of Crans Montana failed to solve the dispute.
Speaking to Al Jazeera at the presidential palace in Cyprus’ capital Nicosia, President Nicos Anastasiades says he’d be ready to jump out of the interview and begin peace talks immediately if the Turkish Cypriot leader, Mustafa Akinci called him.
“I’m always ready to continue the deliberations from the stage they have been left during the Crans Montana conference,” he says.
Every time we are failing to reach a settlement, the disappointment of the people and the distrust are increasing.
“There is only one plan, Plan A; and Plan A means the reunification of the island, and most importantly, to build up a viable, lasting solution. A functioning state, a modern state, a real European state, this is what we are looking [for], without privileges to the one community or the other”.
The recently re-elected president acknowledged that 40 years of division and uncertainty has taken its toll on Cypriots on both sides of the divide.
“Every time we are failing to reach a settlement, the disappointment of the people and the distrust are increasing,” he says.
The dispute escalated last month, when the Turkish Navy blocked access to an Italian drillship. The vessel was part of efforts to explore recently discovered gas fields on the southeastern tip of the island.
The heads of the EU backed Anastasiades, with the European Commission’s President Jean-Claude Juncker saying he was “strictly against the behaviour of Turkey”.
In response, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a warning to Cyprus and foreign companies, asking them not to infringe on Turkey’s sovereignty.
Anastasiades claims a “convergence” has been reached for the exploitation of Cyprus’ natural resources, and accuses Turkey of “using excuses in order to intervene”, calling indications that the government of self-declared Northern Cyprus plan to begin drilling in waters they consider their own as a “threat”.
“For four years now, we have been negotiating to find a solution and the hydrocarbon issue has never been on the table, because it has been agreed, and therefore we took steps to prove that we mean business.”
“Natural resources are belonging to the state and to all legitimate people of Cyprus, either these are Greek or Turkish Cypriots.”
He confirms that US energy giant Exxon Mobil will shortly begin explorations, but would not confirm or deny having asked the US for military support to ensure the success of the venture.
“I hope that Turkey will refrain from any hostile act … I don’t want to involve any military … but it’s up to the United States to protect their own interests … Be sure that we have done whatever it is necessary to be done in order to succeed to the energy programme of the Republic.”
Anastasiades says the exploration process may take several years and that a solution for the Cyprus problem can be “easily” found in that time if there is a “goodwill”. But goodwill may prove illusive with a raft of contentious issues to be settled.
“We are not the ones who is occupying the properties of the other community,” says Anastasiades. “We haven’t done anything against the Turk Cypriots. We don’t what to get advantage of what they are entitled to.”
He also said the Turkish Cypriot leaders were “always welcome” to participate in the Greek Cypriot government.
Under the 1960 constitution, Cyprus’ two main communities agreed to divide power, with the executive branch governed by a Greek Cypriot president and a Turkish Cypriot vice president.
The vice president was granted the right to veto fundamental laws, but the position has been vacant since 1963, when the Turkish-Cypriot community withdrew from the government.