Michalis Kontos

Assistant Professor

Department of Politics and Governance, School of Law

University of Nicosia

In the last few months, Turkey’s bellicose rhetoric and forcible activity in the Cypriot exclusive economic zone has dramatically increased tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean. Furthermore, some moves made by the Turkish Cypriot leadership and Ankara on the chessboard of the Cyprus problem reveal a potential change of course that could kill the long-moribund hopes for an agreed and viable solution. Apparently, there is a degree of accuracy in this assessment, but also overstatements. In this article we will attempt to offer some alternative interpretations, in an effort to re-assess the agenda of public discourse.


Coercive diplomacy at two levels

Fall 2019 comes with increased tensions and unclear expectations regarding natural gas explorations in the Eastern Mediterranean. Ankara’s risky moves in the sea, in the context of its strategy of coercive diplomacy, are sending the message that regional energy arrangements that leave Turkey out of the picture may face severe obstacles. Turkey’s forcible activity it the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Republic of Cyprus (RoC) aims to interrupt the Cypriot quest for offshore natural gas findings,  enforce its own agenda at the expense of Nicosia and gain regional primacy in energy affairs.

When it comes to the Cyprus problem, the approach is-more or less-the same: Ankara makes systematically use of its overwhelming military presence on the island in an effort to neutralize the arrangements of 1960 (with the exception of the status of the guarantor powers). At the tactical level, this strategic goal is being pursued through a combination of threats, hybrid activity and diplomacy that will culminate in the eventual enforcement of the “realities on the ground” on the island’s legal order and international identity. Threats and hybrid activity will create the right atmosphere by injecting fear and yieldingness to the other side, while negotiations and diplomacy will create the necessary framework of legitimacy that will “purify” the illegal conduct and outcomes of the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus and make them part of the new state of affairs.


More tension, more interpretations

In Summer 2019, while the RoC was proceeding with its offshore energy agenda and a new UN initiative for the revitalization of the negotiations for the Cyprus problem was unfolding, Turkey intensified its coercive manifestations in an effort to achieve combined gains in both fields. This intensification included some bellicose public statements made by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Minister of Defence Hulusi Akar, warning the Greek Cypriots that Turkey was willing to repeat what it did in 1974 if necessary. This aggressive rhetoric, in conjunction with Ankara’s renewed revisionism in the Aegean Sea, generates tensions that could lead to undesirable military repercussions across the Eastern Mediterranean.

Undoubtedly, these developments suggest a clear indication of Turkey’s military superiority vis-à-vis the RoC and resoluteness to impose its will. However, in order to avoid flawed interpretations and conclusions we should examine them in the broader historical context that has been formed since 2011, when the Cypriot offshore exploratory program was launched. Therefore, we should keep in mind that Turkey’s initial reaction was not that much successful: the RoC ran three consecutive licensing rounds and assigned a number of blocks to eight oil and gas companies (including giants like the French-owned Total and the US-owned Exxon Mobil). Between 2011 and 2019 six drillings were accomplished, leading up to the discovery of three potential natural gas reservoirs. Despite imminent threats, the dispatch of Turkish seismographic vessel RV Barbaros Hayreddin Paşa accompanied by warships in the Cypriot EEZ and the issuing of navigational warnings (NAVTEX) for military exercises offshore Cyprus, Nicosia’s exploratory and drilling program proceeded in a relatively smooth manner. Turkey’s clear-cut military advantage over the RoC has not played a critical role, at least not for the time being. The main reason for this seems to be the presence of multinational oil and gas companies, some of them from countries with high diplomatic and military status and international impact. The fact that Turkey chose to intercept a prescheduled drilling operation in Block 3, which is geographically positioned close to Turkey and is licensed to Italian ENI, while it refrained from any forcible measures in cases where French or US-based companies where involved (including Block 6 where Turkey claims sovereign rights), suggest an indication of the validity of this hypothesis. In that sense, Ankara’s decision to dispatch two drillships in May 2019 (with the symbolic names ‘Fatih’, namely ‘Conqueror’, and ‘Yavuz’, namely ‘Resolute’) offshore Cyprus, evoking rights over its continental shelf as well as on behalf of the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (“TRNC”), suggest a step of escalation that was deemed necessary due to the prior failure to stop the Cypriot drilling program.

In relation to the latest developments related with the Cyprus problem, there is also room for multiple interpretations. The steps taken by the “TRNC” (in full accordance with the Turkish Minsitry of Foreign Affairs) towards the colonization of the enclaved city of Famagusta, along with the marginalization of moderate Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci in favor less pro-solution politicians like Ersin Tatar and Kudret Özersay, were mainly interpreted by the Greek Cypriot media as  signs that the Turkish side is changing the course. The goal of an agreed federal arrangement, the argument goes, is abandoned and now Turkey and the “TRNC” will push for a two-states solution. Maybe this is the case. After all, why would Ankara and the “TRNC” choose to “burn a card” like Famagusta, which could have been used as a low-cost diplomatic quid pro quo in order to safeguard desirable gains in the negotiations? But, on the other hand, why does this happen now? Is it a real indication of a changing strategic goal, or is it just one more manifestation (more resounding this time) of coercive diplomacy aiming to force the Greek Cypriots to comply, both in the Cyprus problem and the natural gas issue? And, if so, doesn’t it look like a hasty reaction?


The three barriers to analysis: bias, sentiment and misperceptions

When it comes to Turkey’s policy on Cyprus-related issues, Greek Cypriot perceptions and inferences are usually driven by two elements: Turkey’s military superiority and the credibility of its threats (due to the traumatic experience of 1974). Furthermore, in the Greek and Greek-Cypriot literature and media, we may observe a typical narrative of an outstandingly efficient Turkish foreign policy, both in terms of designing and execution. There is truth in this assumption, but there is also a degree of exaggeration. Credible analysis should take into account historical evidence, but the analytical and theoretical framework is equally important. Distorted views of reality will definitely lead to equally distorted conclusions and interpretations. To this end, evaluation of incoming information and data must be (to the degree possible) unbiased, unsentimental and free from misperceptions.