Cyprus threatens EU Belarus sanctions block if similar not done to Turkey in East Med dispute

(Updates to the article with Greek-Turkish political contact in paragraphs 14-15, EU diplomat quote in paragraphs 12-13, background in paragraphs 9-11)

Cyprus has threatened to veto European Union sanctions on Belarus if the bloc refuses to levy similar measures against Turkey over a territorial dispute in the eastern Mediterranean, according to news reports on Thursday.

The collision between two unrelated foreign policy crises has bogged down the EU in competing initiatives a week before a summit aimed at showing Ankara a united front.

The EU vowed three weeks ago to sanction 40 Belarusian officials accused of election fraud or orchestrating the brutal crackdown on protesters that followed, but the plan was derailed by one of the bloc’s members, Cyprus.

Cyprus will not agree to the sanctions unless the EU also puts sanctions on Turkey over its drilling activity in the eastern Mediterranean, which has created a standoff at risk of escalating into a direct confrontation.

Two diplomatic sources confirmed to The Guardian that Cyprus was blocking EU action on Belarus. “It is serious,” said one EU diplomat. “They have basically taken the Belarus sanctions hostage.”

At a meeting of EU ambassadors on Wednesday, several diplomats warned Cyprus against turning Belarusian sanctions into “a transactional issue”, however the discussion failed to break the impasse.

“It’s an extremely difficult issue,” one senior member state diplomat told Reuters. “It is probably the single most worrying issue for the EU in the coming days.”

An EU source told The Guardian that Cyprus was alone, adding: “Everyone is pissed (off), everyone is annoyed. I’m sure this could have consequences (for Cyprus).”

The development is the latest in an ongoing territorial spat between over offshore energy resources between Turkey, Cyprus and Greece. Greece and Cyprus say that islands have their own continental shelves granting them extensive exploration rights, a claim Turkey contests.

Ankara, which does not recognise Cyprus as a state, claims half of the country’s exclusive economic zone on behalf of the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and has repeatedly carried out warship-escorted offshore drilling in its environs.

The dispute has drawn attention to a series of other tensions involving Turkey, from its involvement in Syria and Libya to what the EU says is growing authoritarianism under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The Oruç Reis research ship’s return to port on Sunday served to complicate a unified EU response from all 27 member states, Reuters said.

“Turkey is trying to divide the member states,” another EU diplomat told Reuters.

However, Greek government spokesperson Stelios Petsas said on Thursday that Greece has resumed high-level political contacts with Turkey to try and de-escalate the dispute, saying the Turkish Navy-escorted Oruç Reis pulled back from disputed waters, the Associated Press reported.

The spokesman said that direct communication between Erdoğan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was possible ahead of the EU summit on Sept. 24-25.

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