NICOSIA – As talks to reunite the island have been fruitless, the de facto Turkish Cypriot state is considering to turn to Muslim countries for formal recognition.
“From our Islamic brothers. We haven’t aggressively sought recognition,” chief Turkish Cypriot presidential spokesman Osman Ertug told Reuters in an interview.
“But if things are not moving forward it is something we may have to do.”
The Turkish Cypriot state is a self-declared state that comprises the northeastern part of the island of Cyprus.
Turkey captured the northern part of Cyprus in response to a Greek military junta-backed coup against President Archbishop Makarios III.
Recognized only by Turkey, the Turkish Cypriot state it is considered by the international community as occupied territory of the Republic of Cyprus.
Attempts between Greek and Turkish Cypriots to reunite the island have so far been fruitless.
The Turkish Cypriot side says their first choice would be to negotiate reunification with the Greek Cypriot south, but that after decades of inaction it could not take forever.
“How do you go further? By getting recognition,” Ertug said.
Tension between Turkish and Greek Cypriots has grown in the recent period after the discovery of considerable natural offshore natural gas deposits between Cyprus and Israel.
The Turkish Cypriot side accuses the Cypriot government of acting unilaterally in inviting foreign firms to drill in the area.
It says it wants to see some form of revenue-sharing from any gas production, an idea the Cypriot government rejects.
The Turkish Cypriot state has an estimated community of 300,000 Muslims.
Turkish Cypriots are exclusively Sunni, with an influential stream of Sufism underlying their spiritual heritage and development.
The election of a new Cypriot government last month has revived hopes for progress on the island unification.
“I would say the next few months are crucial,” Ertug told Reuters.
“It is not just the gas. We have a new Greek Cypriot leader who says he is keen on talking. There seems to be willingness to talk when we call…,” he said.
“Things can go either way. The gas can be a tool for cooperation or confrontation. But so far, I have to say it has made things worse.”
The next step in the peace process, he said, should be for newly elected Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades to meet Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu informally at a social gathering in the next few months.
That should lead, he said, to more talks aimed at reuniting the country while safeguarding the Turkish Cypriot minority and sharing gas deposits.
Turkish Cypriots say their economy has been throttled by years of trade sanctions that has left them struggling to keep pace financially with the rest of the island.
Last year, Turkey suggested it could absorb Turkish Cyprus entirely into the Turkish state if the peace process remains stalled.
But Ertug insisted that the annexation option was not on the table.
The Greek Cypriot government – which currently controls slightly less than two thirds of the island – says any attempt to gain greater recognition for Turkish Cypriot independence would severely damage attempts at reconciliation.
“Of course it worries us,” said Andreas Mavroyiannis, permanent secretary at the Cypriot foreign ministry.
“But this threat is there constantly. We had this again when we joined the European Union. It will not deter us from exercising our sovereign rights.”
Racing to agree a financial bailout with the EU, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund, the Cypriot government is keen to push forward gas exploration and production as quickly as possible.
Already working with US firm Noble Energy on exploration, Cyprus this year granted France’s Total, Italy’s ENI and South Korea’s KoGas drilling rights.
“They have some very good cards,” Ertug said of the south.
“They have the international recognition. They have the EU membership. Until the recent crisis, they had a much stronger economy. And now they have the gas.”