The Hydrocarbon-isation of the Forgotten Cyprus Conflict

by Katharina Schmitz

People usually associate Halloumi-cheese with Cyprus, not the world's last divided capital nor a UN buffer zone separating two ethnic communities for over 40 years. In the summer of 2020, tensions about disputed Cypriot gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly between Turkey, Greece and the Republic of Cyprus, culminated in the mobilisation of Greek and Turkish naval forces. While this alarmed fellow NATO partners and caused worldwide attention, the so-called ‘Cyprus Problem’ remained strikingly absent from media and political analysis. I argue that a lack of sheer attention, knowledge and focus on the ‘Cyprus Problem’ in analysis prevents thorough comprehension and adequate international response to the gas dispute. 

Tensions started with the Republic of Cyprus’s first gas reserve findings in 2011, after which Turkey began hydrocarbon surveys in areas claimed by both the Republic and Northern Cyprus. The gas dispute takes place in a conflict setting in which it is rarely contextualised, although hydrocarbons have been both inciting and complicating peace talks. The Cyprus conflict seems to be a forgotten conflict. Only few are aware that a non-recognise quasi-border divides Cyprus into the Greek Cypriot South and the Turkish Cypriot North and is guarded by a United Nations Peacekeeping Force (UNFICYP). With no peace treaty signed, the conflict has been frozen for over 40 years and approximately 30,000 Turkish soldiers remain stationed in Northern Cyprus. Its peaceful settlement has recently be compared as a “try to square a circle” by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. [1]

The Cyprus Conflict

Following Ottoman and British rule, Cyprus only experienced short, fragile stability after its independence in 1960. Ethno-nationalist political leaders promoted mutually exclusive post-colonial futures: Enosis (Grk: re-/union), the union with Greece, and Takism (Trk: separation), the island's partition [2]. Meanwhile, the ‘Guarantee States’ Great Britain, Greece, and Turkey designed an independence settlement that was supposed to compromise these interests in institutionalised power-sharing in the form of a Greek Cypriot President and Turkish Cypriot Vice-President. 

In 1963, violent clashes following proposals for constitutional changes favouring the Greek Cypriots left hundreds killed, wounded and kidnapped. Thousands of Turkish Cypriots became displaced and relocated into enclaves where they lived under economic and military stress. Their leadership began to administer the community’s affairs themselves. Pressured by the Guarantee States, the United Nations Security Council mandated UNFICYP to prevent further violence. 

However, in 1974, the Greek junta attempted a coup against the Greek Cypriot President, inducing an escalation of armed violence on the island. Turkey resumed its Guarantee power to intervene and occupied one-third of the island [3] [4]. In the events, hundreds of thousands Greek Cypriots became displaced, and thousands of people were killed or went missing. After the ceasefire, Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots were pressured to move and create ethnically homogenous zones. Proceeding, Turkish Cypriots self-proclaimed their breakaway Republic only recognised by Turkey, while UNFICYP created a buffer zone along the demarcation line. While often referred to as an 'ethnic conflict', it was not ethnically driven, but a conflict on power and resource-sharing exercised along ethnic lines. 

The EU accession of Cyprus in 2004 meant to incite a peace settlement but further complicated the issue: it was accompanied by the UN-brokered ‘Annan Plan’ that proposed the bi-zonal, bi-communal, federal ‘United Cyprus Republic’. In simultaneous twin-referenda, this peace deal was rejected by the Greek Cypriots, while accepted by the Turkish Cypriots. Notwithstanding, de jure, the entire island accessed the EU, while de facto, only the South did. Turkish Cypriots received EU passports but felt betrayed. They remain marginalised in a surreal scenario of existing in a non-place. 

Besides the buffer zone physically manifesting the conflict and ethnic separation, fundamental grievances continue and consolidate the communities’ locked position as adversaries (Bădulescu 2017). The pivotal role of “societal beliefs, opinions and concerns […], fears, pain and mistrust” (Hadjipavlou 2007, p. 363) remain often overlooked in analysis and negotiations but pose significant obstacles to peacebuilding. 

Greek Cypriots aim to use both the vote on the Annan Plan and the EU membership as leverage against the Turkish ‘occupation and threat’ in future negotiations (Casaglia 2019) [5]. This reveals their understanding of the conflict. The trauma of the 1974 Turkish “occupation, invasion and aggression” (Bădulescu 2017, p. 36) constitutes the reference point in their collective identity. From their perspective, Turkey is solely responsible for the conflict, the primal threat in the present and the stumbling block for peace in the future. They blame Turkish Cypriots for not emancipating from Turkey which allegedly substantially finances and ‘controls’ Northern Cyprus (Bryant & Yakinthou 2012). 

In contrast, Turkish Cypriots perceive Greek Cypriots as unwilling to share power and resources. They feel marginalised by both the Greek Cypriots’ side-lining and Turkish paternalism (Bryant & Yakinthou 2012). Their collective point of reference and trauma is the accumulated suffering of “‘inhumane practices’, ‘unbearable conditions’ and the ‘veritable siege’ that took place between 1963 and 1974” (2017, p. 41). Thus, Greek Cypriots are considered primarily responsible for the conflict and its solution. 

This dynamic of appointing responsibility to external (f)actors (Hadjipavlou 2007) prevents dialogue and trust-building between the communities and collective ownership over the peace process. Any political development like the gas dispute is understood through these discursive and cognitive patterns. In the gas dispute, Turkish Cypriots feel confirmed in their marginalised position, while Greek Cypriots use the leverage of EU membership to position themselves against the perceived Turkish threat. Consequently, the gas dispute consolidates fears, mistrust and ethnic divide. 

The Hydrocarbon-isationof the Cyprus Conflict [6]

The gas dispute is as much characterised by questions on territory, sovereignty and power as the Cyprus Conflict and the Greek-Turkish Aegean dispute [7]. With growing interest in hydrocarbon exploitation, the Republic of Cyprus concluded agreements with Egypt, Lebanon and Israel to delineate its Continental Shelf and to declare and delimit its exclusive economic zone at least in the south of the island in accordance with the International Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS)[8] [9] [10]. Because Turkey, has neither signed the convention nor considers it binding and has, alongside Northern Cyprus, questioned the Republic's sovereignty and rejected the EEZ agreements. Furthermore, Northern Cyprus criticises that the Republic refuses to involve it in the exploitation of the island’s gas and distribution of the resulting wealth. It should be noted that the gas reserves are assumed to be too small to position any state as a global energy playern [11] . 

Isolating the dispute as a hydrocarbon driven conflict between Turkey and Greece ignores its Cypriot dimension and its “significant conflict potential” (Faustmann) [12]. In this frozen conflict context, hydrocarbon exploration is utilised for reasons of power rather than energy (Efthymiou 2019). Gas becomes a political tool and leverage to shift the balance and dynamics of power and re-position oneself as the player with the upper hand in future (peace) negotiations (Kahveci Özgür 2017). Therefore, on the one hand, gas-related tensions provide urgency and yet another reason to bring parties to the table which incited both the promising peace talks in 2014 and the informal UN ‘5+1’ Cyprus Talks in April 2021. At the same time, gas has substantially spoilt peace talks and consolidated and legitimised “historical mistrust and maximalist negotiation positions” (Oosterholt 2019, p. 72) [13]. 

Consequently, gas is significant for the re-continuation of talks but not decisive, because it has neither been the cause of conflict nor will it be the catalyst for peace. Those arguing that commercial incentives from a cooperative hydrocarbon exploration sufficed to initiate or even sustain a Cyprus settlement and Turkish-Greek rapprochement remain on a one-dimensional and de-contextualised level of analysis. This cost-benefit-ratio-lens obscures the hyper-complex conflict situation, disregards psycho-social factors and, frankly, displays wishful thinking. Gas became “part and parcel of other unresolved aspects” (Tziarras) rather than promising future peace through cooperation[14]. 

Firstly, de-contextualising the gas dispute form the Cyprus Conflict obscures that they are characterised by the same causes and dynamics (Oosterholt 2019). In a way, the border where the Cyprus Conflict manifests shifted to the Eastern Mediterranean (Efthymiou 2019). Thus, gas became a proxy for the Cyprus Conflict. The gas dispute became a projection surface/screen where every-present conflict issues, narratives of victimhood, threat, mistrust, insufficient power-sharing and territory are re-produced and perpetuated, consequently hardening and legitimising pre-existing lines of conflict. 

Secondly, de-contextualising the gas dispute from the Cyprus Conflict obscures its consequences on the latter. While the international community tried to cool down the Aegean dispute, only a few wondered whether the frozen Cyprus conflict warmed up (again). Not only was the energy issue superimposed on the pre-existing conflict, but it further consolidated, deepened and complicated it (Tzimitras) [15]. 

Consequently, languished in obscurity from the international community, the Cyprus Conflict and its peace process became hydrocarbon-ised. While the frozen status quo was shortly but significantly de-stabilised, the Cyprus Conflict, however, remains “largely frozen” (Tziarras). 


According to the currently dominant discursive and cognitive patterns informed by victimhood, mistrust and trauma, both Cypriot communities blame and hold the respective 'Other' responsible. Consequently, gas could not escape Cypriot conflict politics and culture and was re-interpreted within this conflict context (Efthymiou 2019). 

The international community failed to address the gas dispute as the crop that grew on the conflict-ridden soil of the Cyprus conflict. The snapshot focus on an isolated Greek-Turkish gas dispute reveals that the international community’s hegemonic international security paradigm selects whose conflicts are worth remembering. In contrast to the gas dispute, the Cyprus Conflict does not attract sufficient interest from the international community. Considering the Turkish soldiers on de jure EU land and Cyprus's strategic geographical position, this is surprising. 

As this analysis has shown, the Cyprus Conflict's dynamics and dimensions must be considered and the gas dispute must be contextualised to comprehend and adequately respond to it. Otherwise, the political stalemate of non-recognition and de-legitimisation between Turkey, the Republic of Cyprus (and Greece), and Northern Cyprus is cemented. Despite fierce civic engagement like in the Unite Cyprus Now campaign, the 2011/2014-2017 peace talks’ failure due to irreconcilable core issues and this year’s Geneva talks crashing on even harder conflict lines dash hopes for a re-unified Cyprus in near future[16]. And so, political elites continue to bargain for power instead of negotiating peace. In this zero-sum game, each player is striving to gain the upper hand, believing that gas can be the trump card for victory. 


[1] In: Buttkreit, Christian, “Europa heute”, Deutschlandfunk, Podcast, 20.07.2021.

[2] According to the Greek nationalist Megali Idea. See: Lymperopoulos, L. (2012). Kurze Geschichte Neugriechenlands. APuZ Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, 62(35-37), 23-30.

[3] On developing Turkish perceptions on Cyprus: from the mythicised ‘babyland’ and national cause to a national burden and its recent transformation to a national opportunity due to hydrocarbons see: Bryant, R. & Hatay, M. (2015). Turkish Perceptions of Cyprus. 1948 to the Present. Nicosia: PRIO CC & FES Cyprus.

[4] The Guarantee States had resumed each other the right to intervene unilaterally ‘to protect Cyprus's security’.

[5] Casaglia, A. (2019). Northern Cyprus as an 'inner neighbour': A critical analysis of European Union enlargment in Cyprus. European Urban and Regional Studies, 26(1), 37-49.

[6] Previously coined by Kahveci Özgür 2017.

[7] See: Tsikas, T. (2020). Is there a solution to the Aegean dispute

? Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung,

[8] It “comprises the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas that extend beyond its territorial sea throughout the natural prolongation of its land territory” (UNCLOS Art.76).

[9] The EEZ “is an area beyond and adjacent to the territorial sea” (UNCLOS Art.55) in which the “sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources” (Art.56).


[11] Notwithstanding, their exploitation promises to reduce energy dependency and have a “geopolitical, economic and diplomatic game changing impact” (Kahveci Özgür 2017, p. 31).

[12]  Dr. Hubert Faustmann. Director of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Cyprus, Professor at University of Nicosia. Private interview on 02/03/2021.

[13] On why gas should in fact be excluded from negotiations: Kaymak, E. “Wealth Sharing and Gepolitical Strategies: Excluding Hydrocarbons from the Cyprus Negotiations”, in: Faustmann et al. Cyprus Offshore Hydrocarbons. Regional Politics and Wealth Distributions. PCC Reports 1/2012, p.17-22. FES Cyprus, PRIO Cyprus Centre: Nicosia.

[14] Dr. Zenonas Tziarras, researcher at PRIO Cyprus Centre. Personal interview 03/03/21.

[15] Dr. Harry Tzimitras, director of PRIO Cyprus Centre. Personal interview 03/03/21.

[16] In 2017, power-sharing, post-conflict justice, territory, and the Turkish military presence in a re-unified, federal Republic presented ‘Red Lines’ (Bryant & Yakinthou 2012). While in 2021, Turkey and Northern Cyprus demanded the latter’s equal status and to discuss a two-state solution which was firmly rejected by the Republic of Cyprus and the EU (Agapiou 2021, Psaropoulos 2021 (30/06/2021).

[17] In: Buttkreit, Christian, “Europa heute”, Deutschlandfunk, Podcast, 20.07.2021.

Cited literature 

Bădulescu, C. L. (2017). Interplay of Social Representations, Trauma and Victimization in Intractable Conflicts: The Case of the Cyprus Conflict. Europolity: Continuity and Change in European Governance. 11(2), 19-50.

Bryant, R. & Yakinthou, C. (2012). Cypriot Perceptions of Turkey. Nicosia: Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation TESEV and Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

Efthymiou, S. A. (2019). Nationalism, Militarism and Masculinity in Post-Conflict Cyprus. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hadjipavlou, M. (2007). The Cyprus Conflict: Root Causes and Implications for Peacebuilding. Journal of Peace Research, 44 (3), 349-365.

Kahveci Özgür, H. (2017). Eastern Mediterranean Hydrocarbons: Regional Potential, Challenges Ahead and the 'Hydrocarbon-ization' of the Cyprus Problem. Perceptions, 22(2-3), 31-56.

Oosterholt, R. (2019). Gas and Reunification in Cyprus. Exploring the Linkaged Between the Politics of Natural Gas and the Peace Talks in Cyprus. Master's Thesis. Utrecht University. Centre for Conflict Studies.

About the author

Katharina Schmitz (26) holds a BA European Studies (Passau) and MSc Post-conflict Justice & Peacebuilding (Aberdeen). Having worked in Cyprus, the Western Balkans and Czech Republic, she is now training to become a civil peacebuilder while volunteering in a local peace organisation and has a cultural affairs coordinator in an NGO. Katharina is an early career scholar and writer with a focus on post-/ frozen/ long-term conflict societies.