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  February 6, 2017

Natural Gas Fuels Cyprus Reunification Efforts (1/2)

Reunification of the Island is being marketed as a solution to its economic crisis along with the development of natural gas infrastructure enabled by better relations with Turkey, says political scientist Leandros Fischer
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SHARMINI PERIES: It's The Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

Direct talks are taking place in Geneva for the reunification of Cyprus. Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when the Turkish military occupied the northern third of the island, and still maintains an occupation there through a self-declared, Nation of Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is recognized as a sovereign state only by Turkey. The rest of the island, known as the Republic of Cyprus, is occupied mostly by Greek Cypriots.

Between the two countries there is a UN-maintained buffer zone. On to talk about the history of the divided island, and where the peace talks may be going, is Dr. Leandros Fischer. He's a political scientist and currently a research associate at the Cyprus University of Technology. Formerly, he's a visiting lecturer at the Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies, of the University of Marburg, in Germany. Thank you so much for joining us, Leandros.

LEANDROS FISCHER: Thank you very much for having me. It's an honor.

SHARMINI PERIES: So, let's get started. It's been 40 years since the island was divided. Why are reunification talks taking place now?

LEANDROS FISCHER: Reunification talks have been taking place actually for some time now. The talks, as such, have been taking place since the mid-'70s, or actually since the late 1960s, but there were actually low-level talks between the leaders of both communities taking place for the last 10 or 15 years, or so. So, I would say that the reason why there has been this momentum right now is, on the one hand, there's been a lot of convergence on some key aspects of the Cyprus conflict which has taken place during talks in recent years. Those talks have been taking place in Cyprus, and it's on the basis of this convergence on certain aspects that, you know, the scene for the discussion on the key aspects of the Cyprus problem is taking place now.

As to the broader regional and geo-political framework of the talks, I think it's, you know, it's very complicated to answer that question. But essentially I think that you can understand why talks are taking place, if you take into account the current economic crisis, in its many aspects and facets. And one of them is this growing uncertainty, you know, in capitalism in general. And this uncertainty is being felt, not only by, you know, the Greek State or the Turkish State, but also by both communities on the island.

SHARMINI PERIES: What's causing the current economic crisis?

LEANDROS FISCHER: Well, the current economic crisis has many manifestations. Its manifestation in the Republic of Cyprus in the south is, of course, the Eurozone crisis. The Eurozone crisis in Cyprus manifested itself as a banking crisis, and the reason... Well, it's a very long story, but I think Costas Labariza was on your show three years ago to explain that.

SHARMINI PERIES: This is when the Russians stepped in and became the savior of the failing banks in Cyprus?

LEANDROS FISCHER: Well, they didn't exactly become the saviors of the banks. They didn't... the problem was much deeper. So, its essence was that the Cypriot banking sector was expanding very rapidly in the last 15 years prior to the collapse. And it got heavily involved with Greek State bonds, and it was badly affected by the so-called haircut of Greek bonds that took place in Greece, I think, in 2011 or '12. I'm not quite sure.

But essentially what happened was, that the Cypriote government stepped in to basically save the banks that have gone bankrupt. And as we know from other places in Europe, the banking crisis was transformed overnight into a fiscal crisis of the State, because the State was of course, broke, and had to repay the debt. So, Cyprus was forced into the European stabilization mechanism, the ESM. So, it came effectively under the control of the troika, like in Greece, which you know, imposed all the known ... measures, privatizations, slashing wages, liberalizing the job market, you know, mostly putting up profitable state-run enterprises up for grabs for foreign investors and so on, and so on.

SHARMINI PERIES: And why would the reunification help the economy in Cyprus?

LEANDROS FISCHER: Because there's another aspect, well an official discourse at least, which is the discovery of very large reserves of natural gas in the sea area, roughly between Cyprus, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt. So, there have been rumors about the existence of natural gas in that area for some decades now, but due to the very, you know, tense political climate, no Cypriote government had, you know, the political will to undertake exploration and provide licenses to multinational companies to extract the natural gas.

Turkey basically says that... Turkey does not recognize the Republic of Cyprus. It calls the Republic of Cyprus the Greek Secret Administration, because in its own legal reading of the Cypriote conflict, the Cypriote State as it was founded in 1960, ceased to exist in 1974. So, Turkey says that any exploration, or drilling, must have the consent of Turkey and must also benefit the Turkish-Cypriote community in the north. So, it's almost a consensus that, you know, in order to have a peaceful, so to speak, exploration of natural gas, there has to be some sort of political settlement.

The other aspect of this story is that, the... Well, first of all, I have to clarify I am not an expert on natural energy resources, but roughly speaking, the cheapest way to transport natural gas to Europe, runs through pipelines that go via Turkey. But there cannot be any construction of pipelines, if you have this ongoing frozen conflict. You know Cyprus and Turkey are officially at a state of war. So, the whole idea of reunification right now is marketed as an antidote to the economic crisis by basically saying that, you know, a reunified Cyprus will have an entirely different economic model than the failed model of financial services have, that used to prevail in the last 3 years. And, you know, there will be a lot of growth due to the natural gas. So, natural gas and prosperity are basically used as incentives to get both sides on the negotiating table and, you know, reach an accommodation. But of course, you know, this is only one aspect of the whole context.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Now, Leandros there's much more to talk about when it comes to Cyprus, particularly its history. And you had written a very good article in Jacobin Magazine about the communist left, history and its significance today, or lack of significance today.

But we're going to talk about that in the next segment of this interview. So, let's take that up and hope you can join me.




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