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Update No: 119 - (30/04/07)

There is no doubt that a major crisis is developing in the Mediterranean over Cyprus. At the bottom of it is the discovery of oil offshore. The finding of black gold causes trouble as unfailingly as of the yellow variety. 

The real opponent - Turkey
There is no question that there are three powers that really matter for Greece, The EU, the US and Turkey. Russia is dear to the Greeks, fellow Orthodox in religion as they are, just as Greece is to Russians.

But Turkey is far more important in every sense. Even Russian energy supplies come via its main rival.

Turkey is both a danger to itself in the Aegean and a major threat to Greeks in Cyprus, who are regarded as virtual compatriots. No Greek has forgotten the goal of Colonel Grivas half a century ago, enosis, Cypriot union with Greece. All expect it to happen one day. The colonels bungled it in 1974. They are just biding their time.

Greek-Turkish Military Altercations Expected as Cyprus Readies for Offshore Oil Exploration 
A major military face-off between these perennial rivals is looming, motivated by Turkish alarm over the imminent plan of the Cypriot government to explore for oil in the Mediterranean Sea. The showdown will reach a peak sometime between May 20-July 20, according to Greek media reports, now confirmed by high-level sources in Athens and in Western Europe.

This is obviously a major flashpoint in world politics. It is extremely fortunate that it comes after years of improved relations between the two countries, greatly helped by their common membership of NATO. Those who doubt the usefulness of that organisation should reflect accordingly. 

Violence, however unlikely, could, nevertheless, come about through yet another provocative encounter between military aircraft over the eastern Aegean, as was witnessed with last summer's F-16 collision that left one Greek pilot dead. Greece and Turkey have long been at odds over boundaries in the island-studded Aegean Sea, and regularly send armed fighters to intercept each others' military flights.

The Greek fighter planes encountered Turkish planes near the island of Karpathos, well within Greek territory. The majority of simulated dogfights, which take place on a regular basis and have one positive result (of giving the pilots some real-life training), however take place closer to Turkey and the Aegean coast where several islets disputed by Turkey lie. The closest Greece and Turkey came to war was a decade ago, over such an islet near Kalymnos.

The summer 2006 altercation occurred, Greek media widely speculated, because of intense Turkish interest in state-of-the-art Russian-made mobile anti-aircraft units in place in the Lassithi prefecture of eastern Crete. This suspicion was quickly confirmed by military sources in Athens. The question now is whether Turkey's level of interest would exceed that of last year, in relation to the emerging situation in Cyprus.

Turkish initiative to disarm fighters
There are positive indications here that Turkey does not want to escalate the situation. Turkish Chief of General Staff Gen. Yasar Buyukanit has proposed that Greek and Turkish fighter jets should stop armed flights over the Aegean Sea, to defuse military tension that led to the fatal collision last year. Buyukanit said Turkey was prepared to disarm its jets flying over the Aegean. "I cannot understand why our aircraft have to be armed," he said. "We are not enemies."

"We want a solution without weapons," Buyukanit said. "We are ready to disarm our jets. (Greece) can do it (too)."

Referring to the May collision, Buyukanit said it was "very dangerous for our pilots to fly so close, as close to 300 metres from each other."

The two neighbours' military leaders started a more direct dialogue after the accident, and Buyukanit visited Athens in November, returning a visit from his Greek counterpart, Adm. Panagiotis Chinofotis. Greece and Turkey also set up telephone hot lines between their air commands and chiefs of staff.

The Cypriot jewel; Turkish alarm
Cyprus is a most splendid place. It is hardly surprising that so many have coveted it down the centuries. This was for its magnificent scenery, climate and coastline. Now it turns out to have oil as well.

Nicosia's bold initiative to explore for oil, with the assistance of multinational oil companies, has brought the Turkish military to near-panic mode. A successful find and subsequent investment would dramatically increase the Greek Cypriot government's foreign support and thus bargaining position with Turkey over the divided island.

Cyprus' geopolitical value, even preliminary to hydrocarbons, lies in its strategic location, between three continents, near Israel and a stop en route to Suez. During the Israeli-Lebanese conflict last summer, thousands of foreign tourists, including many Americans, were evacuated quickly to Cyprus- a fact gratefully acknowledged by the US government when it sent a naval vessel to Cyprus on a goodwill visit meant to recognize the Cypriot contribution to securing the safety of Americans during the fighting.

Until now, the international community has tended to view Cyprus only in terms of its perennial security problem, resulting from the 1974 Turkish invasion and occupation, in an operation called Attila (1 & 2). However, 2007 looks likely to be the year in which Cyprus takes the first steps towards becoming an energy hub- if the government's plan to proceed in exploiting the rumoured hydrocarbon reservoirs deep beneath the Eastern Mediterranean Basin are allowed to go on unimpeded by military provocations further north.

In December 2006, the first media reports came out of Nicosia revealing the intention of the Cypriot government to search for oil assumed to be found offshore, southwest of the island. Moreover, Cyprus then signed agreements with Lebanon and Egypt so as to draw lines in relation with the zones allocated to each state.

In late January 2007, the Turkish leader of the self-proclaimed Republic of North Cyprus, Mehmet Ali Talat, stated that an unpredictable situation might occur should Cyprus go along with its initial plan. Basically, the Turkish leader formulated a threatening scenario backed by the government of Turkey, considering that it was soon followed by a warning from Ankara to Beirut and Cairo not to proceed along with Cyprus in exploiting oil deposits in the region.

When the Cypriot announcement was made, Turkey seemed to be caught off-guard diplomatically; it had assumed Cyprus would not be able to initiate such a dramatic decision that could alter the political realities in the Eastern Mediterranean should oil is found. Greece has not voiced full support for Cyprus yet, deciding not to inflame the already delicate Greek-Turkish relations.

Army on full alert
However, behind the scenes the Greeks are taking great care to ensure that the situation does not escalate, and if it does, that the military is prepared. According to information received by from high-level military sources in Athens, the Greek army went on an emergency footing on April 7, in anticipation of a new Turkish provocation in the eastern Aegean. This source also cited the period of greatest danger as being roughly between May 20-July 20.

Among the likely spillover effects of this will be to dramatically alter the discussions that will take place on the sidelines at NATO's upcoming round-table discussion, set for late June in Ohrid. While most of the private discussion between officials (delegations are expected from dozens of countries) is expected to centre around NATO enlargement, energy security and the Kosovo issue, a breakout of hostilities between Greece and Turkey would put these issues on the back burner, at least temporarily.

A more independent Cyprus?
For the first time in its history, perhaps, Cyprus is with the oil issue formatting a policy that will empower its diplomatic arsenal without having to rely on Athens. Of course, this does not mean any breakdown in the traditional alliance and common national bonds between these two states populated by the same nation. What is essential, though, is that the entrance of Cyprus into the EU, and the overall economic dynamism of the island have enabled it to become more resilient in promoting its national interests. 

A first consequence of this new confidence would be the ability of Greece to concentrate its efforts around Greek-Turkish relations in a more advantageous level than before. Simply put, if Cyprus is strong enough to look after itself on its own, Greece will have more resources to spare on other fronts relating to Turkish territorial claims that have led the two countries towards conflict, as was seen in 1955, 1964, 1974, 1987 and 1996.

Fall-out for the Turks
The crisis has many implications, not the least of which is the vital importance of keeping alive Turkey's hopes of joining the European Union (EU). That is what gives the West leverage to negotiate a peaceful outcome, which the Turks appear to want.
Following the oil announcement, the Turkish Navy reportedly patrolled the area in question, even though no concrete data on its activities could be found. During the past few months, quite a few Turkish analysts, journalists and public officials have proclaimed a looming crisis in case Cyprus becomes an oil-producing country, thus creating the perfect framework by which the EU could accuse Ankara of not conforming to European norms. This would, of course, hinder Turkey's ability to seek an eventual entrance in the union.

The world takes interest
On the purely business level, the possibility of oil underneath Mediterranean Sea in a period of global concern on energy security; has attracted the attention of most of the world's oil multinationals. Large oil companies from the USA, Russia, UK and China, Norway, France and Germany seem to be interested in investing in the assumed hydrocarbon reserves offshore Cyprus.

Despite Turkish opposition, Cyprus has already begun the process of initiating a bidding procedure for the aforementioned oil fields. 11 areas off of southern Cyprus will be the first where the tests for oil will begin. The total surface area is around 70,000 sq. km, and there are also good indications of discovering natural gas as well. French consultants employed by the Cypriot government have already stated that at depths in excess of 3,000 meters there is also a high probability of discovering gas fields as well.

Cyprus has already stated that it will issue three types of permit in relation to the oil fields. The first will be for tests covering a one-year time-frame, the second for three years and lastly a 25-year development license according to which the companies will be able to produce and process oil and gas. As part of its marketing endeavours, from now until mid-July (when the first permits are set to be issued), the Cypriot government plans to organize trips across the major oil capitals of the world in order to market the new riches of the island to prospective investors.

The Americans, who traditionally have placed more weight on the special relationship with Ankara than with Nicosia, have expressed a neutral position and the US Ambassador to Cyprus, Ronald Schilcher, has stated in Cypriot media that it is a sovereign right of the Cypriot Republic to conduct any kind or research on its territory.

Currently, American interests dictate a wide interest in every new oil field that could produce adequate amounts of oil, so as to secure the West from either Russian or Arab control. Therefore, if Cyprus is a country abundant with that resource, the US would be more than happy to support its initiatives and of course to gain a percentage through their own oil conglomerates. Cyprus could thus be considered to be travelling a course towards a NATO entrance, since the alliance has apparently been reincarnated as an armed safeguard of Western 'energy security' vis--vis Russia.

Athens measured reserve; a new understanding with Ankara in place 
What is most interesting is the absence of any Greek interference during the past few months, even at the level of mere rhetoric, against Turkey's aggressive threats to Cyprus. Even though there are still quite a few incidents between Greece and Turkey due to continuous airspace violations by Turkish fighter planes, and a sense of stressful relations between the two states; Greece did not take advantage of this situation to bash Ankara in Brussels, or to protest before the international community about Turkey's hardline attitude against Cyprus (a nation with 1/100 of its population). 

Most probably, the Greek government wants to let international interests make their intentions known - a process that will unfold over the coming months and until July - before it makes a statement. That is, unless the anticipated showdown in the Aegean occurs, and forces Athens' hand in advance.

Western consulting firms to the oil and gas industries have had their hands full with the Cyprus dossier for the past several months. According to one consultant closely related with the American intelligence establishment, "some of the companies interested are leery about the risk of potential violence, which we have been aware of and relayed to them." And so, the source states, oil interests find themselves trying to decide whether the anticipated riches outweigh the reward.

The name of the end-game
Relevant to this is another side-effect of possible Turkish aggression, about which the Greek intelligence services are not entirely unaware. That is the spectre, on the other side of the Turkish frontier, of an increase in activity from the Kurdish PKK and intensified activity on the Turkish-Iraqi border. 

Whether such activity could be orchestrated by Greece as a defensive mechanism, or materialize simply as a Kurdish tactic for taking advantage of a moment when Turkey's military is looking westward rather than eastward, is unclear (Greece did, of course, support former PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan surreptitiously in the 1990's). 
In either case, however, it is likely that in the case of violence in the Aegean within the May 20-July 20 time-frame, Kurdish insurgents will try to take advantage of the situation and fighting in eastern Turkey is expected to increase.

The world should take note of this hornet-nest of problems. 


PM discuses SEECP meeting with Sioufas, receives EU's Dimas

Greek Prime Minister, Costas Karamanlis, received Development Minister, Dimitris Sioufas, on April 5th to discuss issues related to his ministry and the meeting of SE European Cooperation Process (SEECP) energy ministers held in Zagreb, New Europe reported.
Sioufas said their talks had also focused on the energy and natural gas markets and the major investments planned for these sectors, which he stressed would bring major benefits for consumers and in terms of employment, and the need to intensify efforts on all levels and sectors of the government's overall work.
"The citizens must be sure that we are listening to their voice and meeting the commitments that we have undertaken toward them," ANA quoted Sioufas as saying, expressing conviction that the government's policies would bring the desired results.
Immediately afterward, the prime minister also received Greece's European Commissioner for the environment Stavros Dimas.
On April 4th, meanwhile, Karamanlis had separate meetings with National Education Minister Marietta Yiannakou and Culture Minister George Voulgarakis.
In talks with Yiannakou he discussed issues concerning developments in the sector of education and the implementation of the programme, while the meeting with Voulgarakis focused on the culture ministry's action plan until the summer. 
Voulgarakis announced that the draft law on the National Dance and Theatre Centre will be tabled in Parliament on April 17th.
He also said that he briefed the prime minister on the return of more antiquities in April, following relevant discussions that have taken place.
Lastly, the minister further revealed that he and the prime minister discussed the culture ministry's activities, such as the Athens Festival, the Herod Atticus Theatre and Epidavros.

Papoulias visits Hungary, discusses bilateral ties

Greek President Karolos Papoulias paid a three-day visit to Hungary recently. Papoulias, who was accompanied by Defence Minister, Evangelos Meimarakis, and Deputy Foreign Minister, Evripidis Stylianidis, was welcomed by the local residents, whom he told "we are pleased because you have also overcome one of the most tragic pages in modern Greek history." Papoulias also visited the National Gallery in Budapest and met with representatives of Hungarian opposition parties, while on the third and last day of his visit he is due to tour the Lake Balaton region. Meanwhile, Stylianidis inaugurated a Greek-Hungarian business forum on March 28th, New Europe reported.



Tourism minister meets Moscow mayor

Greece's Tourism Development Minister, Fani Palli-Petralia, held multilevel talks on cooperation on tourism issues with the Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, on March 22nd. Speaking to reporters after the talks, Petralia said that there will be an agreement between the Greek National Tourist Organisation (EOT) and the municipality of Moscow, focusing on strengthening tourism cooperation between the two sides, New Europe reported.

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