By Michele Kambas
NICOSIA (Reuters) - One of the three leading candidates for the presidency of Cyprus in February 17 elections says he would press for renegotiation of a financial bailout, and that outsiders should have no say in how the island manages natural gas finds.
George Lillikas, whom opinion polls put third in the race, said that by securitizing the undersea gas reserves, Cyprus could swiftly extricate itself from onerous terms of aid now under discussion with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.
"Cyprus should not be economically dependent on anyone, because states which have an economic dependence have a political dependence too," Lillikas told Reuters in an interview on Friday.
Cyprus applied for financial aid from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union eight months ago. Aid is delayed by their concerns about how the debt will be repaid and misgivings over the island's financial transparency.
Lillikas, who is running as an independent with support from the small socialist party, is garnering 17-20 percent in opinion polls.
The clear favorite is conservative opposition leader Nicos Anastasiades. If elections drag on to a runoff, Lillikas might play the role of kingmaker.
Lillikas has an unyielding attitude on the divided island's long-running conflict, and is scathing about the way authorities have handled economic crisis.
He appeals to a growing mass of people who have seen their living standards plummet, and is attracting support from many of the record 15 percent of Cypriots who are unemployed.
He says Cyprus could swiftly extricate itself from the clutches of lenders if the island made better use of its offshore hydrocarbons wealth.
He is critical of a draft memorandum of understanding (MOU), which, he says, is open to multiple interpretations on how much say lenders will have in telling Cyprus what to do.
"I would want to negotiate all these issues before deciding whether to accept it (the MOU) or not. I cannot accept Cyprus doesn't have any other option. Cyprus does have alternatives," he said.
The island reported its first offshore find of 7 trillion cubic feet of gas, with an estimated current market value of 60 billion euros, in December 2011. It expects gas to come on line domestically in 2018, and export by 2019.
This year, authorities licensed Total, Italy's ENI and South Korea's Kogas to explore for oil and gas, joining U.S. based Noble Energy.
Lillikas wants the future revenues to be utilized in advance. "There are two ways to do it, either by securitization, or pre-selling quantities," he said.
In seeking a say on how Cyprus handles its reserves, lenders could be wading into one of the world's most intractable conflicts.
Turkey, Cyprus's large northern neighbor, openly disputes the island's right to explore for oil and gas. The island was split in a Turkish invasion in 1974 which was triggered by a brief Greek-inspired coup.
The internationally-recognized government in the south of the island is doing the exploring. Turkey has sent gunboats to the area and Cyprus has responded by freezing Turkey's EU energy chapter in negotiations with the EU, one of several on hold because of the Cyprus issue.
Lillikas, who served under an administration which rejected a United Nations reunification blueprint for Cyprus in 2004, says he will go a step further.
"Turkey cannot occupy (northern) Cyprus ... and think that it can achieve admission to the EU, or get a special privileged status with the EU," he said.
(Editing by Andrew Roche)