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Anastasides or Davutoglu: whose strategy is deeper?

After contending themselves with EU membership only until recently, the Greek Cypriots now follow a multi-dimensional foreign policy enhancing their regional status

Among all Eastern Mediterranean politicians, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has been the most dedicated devotee of the idea of “strategic depth”.

In his understanding, Turkey owned a deep “room for expansion” due to its cultural and historic ties within an extended geography, where it could exert larger influence. However, this was not realised during his 5 years of foreign ministry, and with current trends, it is unlikely to be the case during his tenure in the office of Prime Minister.

Instead of extending its sphere of influence, the AKP (Justice and development) government is on the contrary being countered by the emergence of a new alliance in the Eastern Mediterranean. Unexpectedly, the actors that the Turkish foreign policy intended to sway now challenge it with its own principles, as Greek Cypriots explore their own “room for expansion”.    

The emergence of Cairo-Nicosia axis

When his “Democratic Rally Party” won the elections in 2013, the Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades encountered a peculiar context compared to his predecessors. For every leader in his position, the 40-year-old reunification attempts between Cypriot Turks and Cypriot Greeks had been the sole political issue. But, Anastasiades was also obliged to deal with the consequences of the 2012 economic crisis and develop a rational roadmap in exploiting the rich natural gas resources discovered within Cypriot EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) in 2011. In the beginning, he prioritised the economic crisis, then began with natural gas cooperation feasibilities, and for the first time the Cyprus issue became diminished to secondary importance.

Although at odds with the traditional Greek Cypriot posture, it is lately becoming clear that this choice has enlarged the “Democratic Rally” administration’s diplomatic capacity before sitting on the negotiation table for reunification. Two developments would justify this assertion.  

In the first place, the beginning of the Anastasiades government was marked with delimited economic policy options due to the 2012 crisis and EU-IMF imposed reform packages. Except for EU membership, there were insufficient international openings to help overcome the crisis.  His predecessor Demetris Christofias had prepared the grounds for energy cooperation with Israel, but still Nicosia had little involvement in general regional affairs. During the “Democratic Rally” rule, the economic rehabilitation endeavours ushered in an upsurge in trade relations with other regional governments, particularly in Egypt, Israel, Iran and United Arab Emirates. This trend is likely to escalate as long as Nicosia is motivated, as its geographic position and EU member status make it an attractive trade pole within the Eastern Mediterranean.

Although still largely in deficit in its foreign trade, these new enterprises would in the short-term allow the Anastasiades government to benefit from an important diplomacy network among Muslim countries concerning the Cyprus stalemate. There recently was an important indication of this prospect when Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi demanded the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to remove the term “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (TRNC - The unilaterally declared State by Turkey in the North of the Island after division in 1974) in a resolution concerning Cypriot Turks. Moreover, this demand was supported by the United Arab Emirates and Iran.

In second place, the Anastasiades government has effectively benefited from the Egyptian “shift of axis” after Sisi’s rise to power.

Such an anti-TRNC stance within the OIC would be unconceivable only less than two years ago when Ankara seemed to have an inducing competence over Egypt’s former Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Morsi government, particularly regarding the Cyprus issue. This was clearly demonstrated when it cancelled the maritime borders of the EEZ agreement signed between the Mubarak and Greek Cypriot governments in 2003. This was faultlessly in line with the Turkish AKP’s regional strategies, as the Morsi government had also insisted on the creation of new borders in presence of Turkey as a third party. The move was aimed at forcing the Anastasiades government to negotiate the status of the Aphrodite gas field and its environs within southern Cypriot territorial waters, which were estimated to hold 7 trillion cubic metres feet of natural gas. According to the Morsi government, Turkey was also to be involved in the new border delimitation negotiations as a guarantor country over the rights of Turkish Cypriots that also had to have a say on these rich resources.

Since his access to power, Sisi’s posture has been entirely opposite as he made the Anastasiades government a big ally and the AKP a big rival, in coherence with their divergent reactions to his actions.   

Sisi was always treated with indulgence by the Greek Cypriot government since the violent suppression of Morsi supporters last year under his command as the Egyptian army chief. This translated into good relations with his rise to Presidency to replace Morsi, while the Turkish AKP government permanently condemned his military intervention and subsequent government as deeds of an illegitimate military coup.

Following reciprocal condemnations, the Egyptian and Turkish sides halted their diplomatic relations, while Anastasiades found a suitable environment to benefit from his country’s biggest assets: geographic situation, affiliation in the Western bloc and energy resources.

Waiting longer for reunification

With its Egyptian opening, the Anastasiades government has taken a significant step in becoming a true energy hub in the Eastern Mediterranean. The two sides improved their partnership by signing a unitization deal on the basis of the 2003 EEZ agreement. They are hence now not only declaring mutual respect to each other’s maritime borders, but also accepting to share the commercial interests of any natural gas reserves found in areas that could cross either side of the dividing line between their reciprocal EEZ.

This deal is likely to become the core pillar of a larger cooperation movement, both in sectorial and geographic terms. While on the one hand the two governments have signed other cooperation agreements from aviation to cultural cooperation, the governments of Israel and Greece are also becoming involved in this new alliance.

In the middle run, the Gulf countries could also become incorporated.

As the Anastasiades government increases its options, the first reaction of the Davutoglu government, troubled with the Iraq and Syria crisis, becomes following the natural gas drilling activities through Turkish navy and issuing NAVTEX (Navigational Telex), a notice that it is reserving areas south of Cyprus for seismic surveys from October 20 to December 30. 

So far, the only outcome of this attempt to “remind itself” has been another suspension of the peace process in Cyprus, as Anastasiades pulled himself out of the recent reunification talks with Turkish Cypriot leadership. 

Within this setting, the Greek Cypriots would continue to prioritise regional dividends and economic opportunities over reunification attempts and seek increased diplomatic support from their new partners. Davutoglu government, on the other hand, left with no partners in the Eastern Mediterranean, would mainly undertake more activities to remind that it is still a stakeholder of the Cyprus problem, being also obliged to develop new strategies in confronting the emerging alliance.

When it came to power in 2002, the AKP government had developed a formula for the Cyprus problem: being proactive and one step ahead of the Greek side. It seems like this is no longer the case as both sides are not even walking towards the same direction.

Parenthetically, their also Turkish Cypriots. They will simply continue to live under isolation. 

- Ozan Serdaroglu has research experience on Turkey and the Eastern Mediterranean, with a focus on political and economic development, Euro-Med relations, conflict management, regional cooperation and energy issues.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Turkey's Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stands among Justice and Development Party (AKP) supporters during a meeting in Ankara on 26 September