President of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades (L) and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci (R) at a bicommunal event, July 2015. 
Yiannis Kourtoglu / Reuters

At the end of this month, the island of Cyprus is scheduled to undergo another division, adding to its long history of intercommunal splits. At 4 AM on October 31, the southern, Greek side of the island will set its clocks back by one hour in accordance with European winter time. Yet for the first time ever, on the other side of the UN-patrolled buffer zone dividing the south from the Turkish-majority north, time will stay the same. There, in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), the breakaway state recognized only by Turkey, clocks will align with those in Ankara instead, following the Turkish government’s recent decision to abolish daylight saving time.   

This new fracture underscores Ankara’s increasing hold over daily life in the north. It also suggests that, despite official optimism that current negotiations will lead to a settlement of the decades-long Cyprus problem, there are strong forces on the ground pulling things in the opposite direction. Should those forces block a resolution, the consequences could extend far beyond separate time zones, affecting the energy and security environment throughout the eastern Mediterranean.

CLOSING IN

Last April, Mustafa Akinci, a long-time advocate of reunion between Greek and Turkish Cyprus, was elected as president of the TRNC. The election breathed new life into the current round of UN-sponsored talks, which aim to reunite the divided island. Similar talks have been underway since the 1960s, when the unified government of the country collapsed, and especially since the Turkish invasion of the north in 1974. Those talks have generally achieved little. Since October, however, Akinci and Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastisiades have been attempting to hammer out a deal that would create a unified but federated republic. The proposal would be voted on in simultaneous referenda in the north and south of the island. Anastisiades has stated his belief that “2016 could be the year that we end the unacceptable status quo,” and Akinci claimed in September that a deal was possible “within 90 days.” With both Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders committed to finding a solution, many observers believe that a deal is closer now than ever.

Such optimism has been bolstered by strong support from the United States, the UN, and the EU, but it may prove premature. Indeed, after a year and a half of discussions, both Akinci and Anastisiades confirmed early this month that all the historical sticking points that doomed previous talks remain unresolved. Those include redistribution of property lost during and after the 1974 invasion; territorial adjustments; the security arrangements of a reunified state; and the mechanisms for deciding the new entity’s political leadership. The parties have recently intensified their efforts to break the apparent deadlock, with repeated meetings between the leaders and interventions from, among others, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland. The talks are scheduled to move off-island, to Mont Pelerin, Switzerland, in November.

CARBON POLITICS

As hard as these long-time sticking points make finalizing a deal, a potentially explosive issue is emerging that could sink the talks altogether. In August, Cyprus announced a third licensing round for exploratory drilling in a number of offshore oil and gas blocks. The announcement follows major discoveries in recent years of gas fields in neighbouring Israeli and Egyptian waters, as well as an important field in Cypriot waters, called Aphrodite.

The financial stakes, then, are high, and similar licensing rounds have led to a breakdown in negotiations in the past. Greek and Turkish Cypriots—and Turkey—have, unsurprisingly, wildly contradictory views on all of the relevant points, including the extent of their territorial claims in the Mediterranean Sea and what should be done with any oil or gas that is discovered. In the current round of licensing, Turkey has already claimed that several of the blocks auctioned by Cyprus lie within Turkey’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Although Cyprus’ claims carry more international legitimacy, Cyprus and Turkey have not settled their boundaries, and Turkey is not a signatory to the International Law of the Sea agreement. Ankara might therefore view any drilling there as an “infringement of its sovereignty,” according to Mertkan Hamit, an activist with a pro-solution Turkish Cypriot NGO in Nicosia. On the other hand, cancelling or postponing the drilling would be an unacceptable surrender for Cyprus.

This issue last flared up in the summer of 2014, when Cyprus decided to conduct exploratory missions off its own coast. In response, Turkey dispatched exploration vessels to what it—and it alone—recognized as “Turkish Cypriot waters.” The stunt prompted the Greek Cypriot leaders to walk out of negotiations, which were only resumed in May 2015 after Cyprus suspended the exploration program, officially for technical reasons. This time, the fear is that a similar incident might even lead Turkey to dispatch warships to enforce its territorial claims. With the next round of drilling expected to begin in the early part of 2017, both sides have only a few months to find a solution and have it approved in a referendum, before tensions flare back up.

Yet energy is not only a threat to Cyprus’ reunification; it is also the area in which the failure to reach a settlement will have themost damaging consequences for the wider region. 

In the eastern Mediterranean, overlapping territorial claims and complex geography mean that any development of hydrocarbon resources requires cooperation between multiple countries. Plans to send gas from Israel to Turkey, for example, require laying a pipeline through Cyprus’ EEZ. The pipeline would almost certainly require the Cypriot government’s approval, which it is unlikely to grant without a settlement normalizing its relations with Turkey. Plans to send Cypriot gas to Europe via Greece would likewise require that Cyprus, Greece, and Turkey settle their maritime boundaries, an act that would also require diplomatic normalization. In fact, without cooperation between Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, and Turkey, most of the gas in the eastern Mediterranean will, according to U.S. envoy Amos Hochstein, simply “stay in the ground.” 

The ongoing stalemate has a number of other negative effects. For one, it stands in the way of Turkey’s ambitions to join the EU: Cyprus, already a member state, has consistently blocked moves toward Ankara’s accession, and will continue to so. Cypriot-flagged vessels, moreover, are currently prevented from using Turkish ports—a negative for both sides, as Cyprus has the tenth largest merchant fleet in the world. And northern Cyprus, for its part, remains almost wholly isolated from the European investment that has flowed into the south. 

BAD NEIGHBORS

There is one more reason why negotiators would do well to finalize a deal soon: Ankara is moving to assert control over the TRNC in ways that could, if successful, seriously reduce the chances of unification in the future.

The government in Ankara is changing northern Cyprus’ culture in a way that many of the island’s residents resent.

Northern Cyprus, of course, has been financially and militarily dependent on Turkey for many years. Yet recently, Turkish control has become more complete and politically motivated. Since earlier this year, Turkey has supplied water to the north via an undersea pipeline, and is now in the process of linking it to the Turkish electricity grid as well. Ankara could soon be in charge of the TRNC’s most basic infrastructure. There is also a feeling among Turkish Cypriots that mainland Turkish companies are coming to dominate the north’s economy, while also using the TRNC’s lack of international recognition—and therefore of regulations—to exploit both local and imported labor.

The government in Ankara is also changing northern Cyprus’ culture in a way that many of the island’s residents resent. Grants that were once disbursed by Turkey to the Turkish Cypriot central authorities are now often given to municipalities, and favor projects sympathetic to the Erdogan government and its pro-Islamist agenda. For Turkish Cypriots, who are more secular than most other Turks and who generally oppose Erdogan, the sudden burst of regime-sponsored mosque and madrassa building has been alarming. Akinci thus spoke for many when he commented recently that without a settlement, the Greek Cypriots might soon “become neighbours with Turkey on this island.”

Failure, then, is a distinct possibility. Yet it may be the threat of failure that could help Greek and Turkish Cypriots finally come to terms. According to Costas Apostolides, a conflict-resolution specialist with the University of Malta and George Mason University’s joint master’s program, many Greek Cypriots erroneously believe that “we can just carry on as we are.” Yet the profound changes now taking place on the island mean that that may no longer be true. With both sides standing to benefit from a settlement—and aware of the increasingly unpleasant alternatives—they may be inspired to strike a deal for unification before it’s too late.