Current Geopolitical Issues in the Eastern Mediterranean: Energy Issues – Prof. Aftab Kamal Pasha May 27, 2015
Current Geopolitical Issues in the Eastern Mediterranean: Energy Issues
Speaker: Professor Aftab Kamal Pasha, Centre for West Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India.
May 27, 2015
Good evening Chairman of the ERPIC, fellow panelist and distinguished participants. Today’s topic is on the current geopolitical issues in the Eastern Mediterranean region with focus on energy. And in the twenty five minutes I have, I’ll try to focus on four issues. First, giving a very brief historical background of this region, although most of you are familiar. Then, going into the current geopolitical issues. Thirdly, what are the energy issues we are talking about. And finally, see what the possible scenarios in this region are.
Being a student of maritime history and also contemporary political and diplomatic events, I have been teaching my students about the importance, the centrality of Mediterranean Sea throughout the known historical period, or the recorded period. It has been a theatre of great activities: maritime trade, military activity and movement of people, whether it is the Greeks, or the Romans, or the Phoenicians, Jews, Persians, so on, so forth. This Eastern part of the Mediterranean has been the hub for the famous Silk Road all the way from China, Korea, Japan, present-day Taiwan, India, Afghanistan, Central Asia, the Ottoman Empire, present day Iraq, Syria, terminating at Byblos, Izmir, Gaza, Alexandria, Tripoli, and of course Cyprus being a very important component of this trade route.
The second point we have to remember is the two conflicting events, that is conflict and cooperation. Much of this trade activity, which involved people around this Eastern Mediterranean region, involved periods of conflict, although short, but bulk of it was peaceful cooperation for trade, commerce, exchange of culture, so on and so forth.
Coming to the current geopolitical issues, three-four points. One is, of course, the current geopolitical issues. Cyprus, unfortunately, being a divided country over the last forty years, although some modest attempts have been made for reconciliation, but nothing concrete has been achieved, only prolonging the agony, suffering and the pain the two communities have been facing. I believe confidence-building measures are possible, sustainable, and necessary to improve the present climate which could be for reunification, renewing cooperation, but very essential for improving the standard of living of the people which has seen deterioration, not only here, but also in the neighboring areas.
Related to this is the need for continuing the process of reconciliation between Turkey and Greece, which was started in late ‘90s, but halted around 2003, or so.
It is also essential to have peace between Syria and Turkey, Israel and Turkey, Palestine and Israel, Israel and Syria, Lebanon and Cyprus, Israel and Lebanon. In fact, like what existed thousands of years ago, the zone of peace and cooperation, the discovery or the potential availability of gas is an opportunity for the entire region for reviving what existed thousands of years ago. That is peaceful cooperation between the peoples in the Eastern Mediterranean region with Cyprus as the hub. This is what I feel, and to be reinforced by the interest shown by the European Union, the United States, and to a certain extent Russia also, which is going to be an important player.
Now, what are the main challenges for this cooperation which I envisage in this region? Obviously, different actors have conflicting foreign policy goals, and it is very difficult to reconcile these conflicting aims and objectives. But what can be initiated is the common minimum program. In most conflict situations we have the most achievable objective being taken up first and gradually to reduce tension, work for rapprochement, and eventually to make, or strive to make energy as a pillar, the discovery of gas as a pillar for cooperation, peace, and stability. This is a unique and unprecedented opportunity in this region, that is the availability of gas which can initiate this process.
Now, what is this energy we are talking about? Of course, the Cyprus conflict has been on and off the agenda of the international community for decades, as I mentioned, with nothing worthwhile having been achieved, although there are positive signals from the Turkish Cypriot community. But in recent times the spotlight has been on Cyprus due to the gas discovery explorations. As I said, this presents significant challenges and add further complexities to the Cyprus dispute. And all of these revolve around the sovereignty of this island state, and the balance between the two antagonistic Cypriot communities. And gas exploration rights and benefits from gas income and revenue could be the first concrete step to bridge this growing gap between the two communities. And later on go to the second step and see how this will impact the Greek and Turkish foreign policies, because cooperation between these two supporters of the two rival communities is extremely important. Because both these actors can sustain an enduring peace and bring stability to the Eastern Mediterranean region, and also undermine these two aspects.
I believe that energy, or the gas, can of course fortify one player at the cost of the other. There is this option for the Greek Cypriots to tie with Greece and with Israel, to completely ignore the Turkish Cypriot community, Turkey, and so on. But in my perception this will only aggravate traditional hostilities in an already perilous geopolitical environment. But what is interesting is it has now ample space for cooperation that can bring absolute gain to all the parties: to Greece, to the Cypriot communities, to Turkey, to Israel and other parties involved. And in fact, energy unites the prosperity of different political communities while ensuring interdependence which can become a major factor for stabilization. So, here the keyword is interdependence. Because Cyprus cannot on its own explore and export gas, either it needs the cooperation of Greece, or Turkey, or even Israel. And this could become a factor of stabilization. So, politics instead of reproducing, aggravating past rivalries can be conceptualized on the basis of yielding emphasis on higher goals of peace, stability and order that are beneficial for all the parties. And I believe energy which has been discovered can be a game changer which can boost the reconciliation process, rapprochement between the parties.
I also believe that, despite current disagreements, mechanisms can and should be created and established to carry forward interdependent networks and enhance energy security in the region, and eventually it may lead to permanent solutions to traditional rivalries in the Eastern Mediterranean region.
What is the amount or quantum of gas we are looking at? In fact, Block 12 of the Aphrodite well alone is estimated to have 142 to 227 billion cubic meters (bcm). Of course, there are other wells being explored. And if you consider what is needed for Cyprus, the surplus is something like 30 to 100 billion euros expected alone from Block 12’s well. So in that way the benefit is not only for Cyprus, which is now using oil to generate electricity at high cost, especially after 2011, when the main power plant was destroyed. The conversion to gas would reduce prices, overall prices, and help the economy, especially under the strenuous financial crisis and the subsequent rounds of debt downgrading by rating agency for this country.
Of course, licensing processes for other promising blocks have been launched, but because of the political uncertainty the gas export has become a big question mark. In that way, gas exports may enhance security of Cyprus, and also of the European Union and the larger international community, and also defend Cyprus and avoid any conflict which may prevent the flow of gas supplies to the European Union.
Now, from the two communities’ point of view, exploration gas by Cyprus: Turkey and Turkish Cypriots see this as illegal and unacceptable. The response flowing from this denies to accept the sovereignty of Cyprus. That is at the root of the problem. Turkey is critical of the initiative taken by the Greek Cypriots. And, I feel that to win over the Turkish Cypriot community, a sympathetic consideration from Cyprus to earmark gas income to them compared to their population could be a beginning. And most viable option, I feel, is to start the reconciliation process between the two communities and take Turkey as the hub for export of gas to EU and beyond. Which will also be appreciated by not only the EU dependent on Russian gas, but also by the United States, which wants to cut down the EU dependence on Russian gas.
There are other places, as I mentioned: you have Egypt, you have Israel, you have Lebanon, you have Syria – the continuing turmoil in Syria – and also eventually Palestine, which would be interested. And once this becomes operational between the two and Turkey, I think the other parties would see the benefit from this determination of Cyprus or the Cypriots and Turkey to carry forward this process.
In this connection it also needs some attention to establish energy-rich bi-zonal state solution between the two parties. I have other ideas about how this can be operationalized with other countries.
But coming to the last section of my presentation, what are the future scenarios we are talking about? As I mentioned, the Greek Cypriots-the Turkish Cypriots-Turkey option offers the most feasible one. Number one, it will initiate the reconciliation process, given the optimism shown by the Turkish side here. Number two, sharing of gas income between the two Cypriot communities would compel both the parties to see the cost-benefit analysis of this prolonging the agony and division which the international community wants both the communities to put an end to. Third one, Cyprus agrees to integrate or coordinate with Turkey, as far as gas supply chain is concerned. Fourth, direct gas linked to Turkey and to the EU linking to and boosting the Nabucco project, which has been in the hibernation.
In other words, traditional hostilities, tension, suspicions, although they do not evaporate, conciliatory and cooperative framework could be put in place once the leadership here puts on table the option. And I also feel that this is the most competitive option. Because laying a pipeline through Greece and through Israel and other parties would cost Cyprus heavily, whereas it will take 10% of the cost of the LNG. Of course, in this scenario Israel and Greece may feel they are the losers, but Cyprus has a unique opportunity to use its diplomacy, and to also bring EU and the US influence to maintain stability in the Eastern Mediterranean region, which these two major powers would be looking into.
And of course, the final point I would like to make is the ideal solution is new arrangement on the political status of Cyprus, namely reunification on strict legal, political and judicial guarantees, demarcation of exclusive economic zones among Cyprus, Greece and Turkey, and a progressive understanding between Greece and Turkey on the Aegean Sea.
Thus gas can become the game changer and a crucial factor in managing conflicts and contributing to security and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean region, especially in an interdependent world where cooperation is essential. And that’s how I see gas becoming a tool to unleash forces of cooperation to the rising challenges in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Thank you for your attention.