Greek Cypriot gas station owners are livid with government officials who told the public it is not illegal to buy Turkish Cypriot gasoline, sparking a chaotic debate on Tuesday as protesting fuel dealers move to block motorists from entering the north.
Police have advised motorists in Nicosia that roads leading to the UN crossing point in Aghios Dhometios will be closed on Tuesday morning around 11am due to a demonstration by fuel dealers in front of the Greek Cypriot checkpoint.
It is not clear how long access to the north will remain blocked but Savvas Prokopiou, who represents gas station owners, said protesters would remain there for a short time and then take the demonstration outside the Presidential Palace to deliver their demands.
Local gas station owners are upset with the government and especially Energy Minister George Papanastasiou, who said on Monday that it was not illegal for motorists to fill their fuel tanks in the north, where gasoline is much cheaper.
Papanastasiou drew criticism after it emerged that he reportedly told a House committee closed hearing that gasoline from the Turkish Cypriot north did not violate environmental criteria
The minister pointed out that a Green Line Regulation allows private citizens in the south to buy fuel in the north but clarified that customs officials at Greek Cypriot checkpoints will be instructed to boost inspections to locate and punish those who bring gasoline for trade purposes, an activity deemed illegal.
Papanastasiou drew political criticism after it emerged that he reportedly told the House trade committee during a closed hearing that gasoline from the Turkish Cypriot north did not violate environmental criteria.
Committee chairman Kyriacos Hadjiyiannis, who has been openly lobbying for the gas stations owners, had called on Papanastasiou to issue an executive order to ban fuel from the north on grounds it was environmentally unsafe.
But the Disy MP admitted Tuesday morning on state radio that a bigger issue was at play, saying he had attended an OSCE meeting in Belarus where a Turkish Cypriot delegation was also there pushing for direct trade.
Unfair competition or price manipulation?
Last month Hadjiyiannis spoke against “illicit trade” through the buffer zone and clarified fuel quality measures sought by Greek Cypriots were based on healthy competition, suggesting it was unfair that the south was taxed for pollutants.
“The European Union requires that this Regulation be implemented and we are doing that, we are not obstructing trade out of revenge or to restrict it, on the contrary, we want this to be carried out based on healthy competition as well as additional legislation,” Hadjiyiannis said.
But ranking member Costas Costa, who also spoke on state radio Tuesday morning, made references to a bigger problem and said there was gas price manipulation in the south.
Costa also revealed the minister had told the committee that fuel quality claims by station owners “were not true.”
The Akel MP touched on the political situation of the divided island, saying “the Green Line Regulation was accepted by Greek Cypriots in order to avoid direct trade.”
With a stroke of a pen
But Hadjiyiannis insisted that gasoline sold at petrol stations in the north had more pollutants than the equivalent in the south.
“The minister can issue an executive order about environmental criteria, there is no need to change the Green Line Regulation,” Hadjiyiannis said.
Gas station owners say the situation with the north does not only affect their sector, with Prokopiou going on Sigmalive and making references to drug trade, migration, and other issues.
Close crossing points for two months
“We can close the crossing points for 60 days so that we can recoup and be able to do our jobs correctly,” Prokopiou suggested.
As motorists in the south continue to cross the UN buffer zone and buy cheaper gas in the north, Prokopiou said the situation was now “a matter of survival for us.”
Gas prices in the south remain much higher than the north even after new President Nikos Christodoulides enacted temporary measures to offset the cost.
But that measure is about to expire in July and Prokopiou said more needed to be done to offset the cost.
He said if the price difference was small, then people would think twice before driving north to fill up.
“If the price difference was about 20 cents, someone might think twice or thrice to go to the occupied areas,” Prokopiou said.
“But when it is 50, 60, and 70 cents?” the TV host asked.
“That’s provocative unfortunately,” Prokopiou replied.