Changing Tides in Divided Cyprus

The victory of an Erdogan ally in Northern Cyprus spells danger for the island’s reunification prospects—and sets Turkey up for regional hegemony.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Turkish Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Turkish Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar during an official visit in Ankara, Turkey, on Oct. 26. ADEM ALTAN/AFP

For decades, the Turkish army had kept the beach town of Varosha in Northern Cyprus fenced off and closed to the public—a symbol of the stalemate between the Turkish and Greek sides of the divided island. Greek Cypriots who fled the Turkish invasion of the northern part of the island in 1974 have never been allowed back to reclaim their property at the once-thriving resort. But as long as the area remained sealed off, they could dream of returning one day.

But earlier this month, hard-line Prime Minister Ersin Tatar of the National Unity Party announced—together with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan—that parts of the shoreline would be reopened. The following week, in a presidential election clouded by the Varosha decision, Tatar defeated the moderate incumbent, Mustafa Akinci.

Elections in Northern Cyprus are not recognized internationally—Turkey is the only country in the world that accepted the Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence in 1983. Still, previous votes have been deemed relatively fair, and this one carries particular weight. According to analysts, the results deal a significant blow to the prospects of the island’s reunification and signal one more way Erdogan is throwing his weight around in the region.

Elections in Northern Cyprus are not recognized internationally—Turkey is the only country in the world that accepted the Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence in 1983.

“When you look at the overall foreign policy of Erdogan—with each step he is getting more hawkish,” said Sertac Sonan, a Turkish Cypriot who teaches political science at Cyprus International University in the north. He described the election outcome as the “end of an era.” (Sonan has publicly supported the outgoing Akinci and participated in joint committees established by the Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders to advance bi-communal relations.)

Umut Bozkurt, an assistant professor at Eastern Mediterranean University in Famagusta on the northeast coast of the island, said the Varosha gambit may have contributed to Tatar’s victory and called it a “card for the nationalists.” She noted that some Turkish Cypriots visited the beach after the opening carrying Turkish flags.

Tatar has advocated scrapping proposals to unify the island as a federated but unitary state, favoring instead a political partition in the form of a “two-state solution”—meaning total independence for the north. Many analysts are concerned that his actual role will be to advance whatever Turkey wants. Long before the vote, decades of negotiations on the terms of reunification had foundered, giving Cyprus the unfortunate reputation as a “graveyard for diplomats.”

The “bizonal, bi-communal federation” formula that Tatar opposes has long been the orthodoxy in talks between the two sides. It was negotiated by the leaders of the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities in the late 1970s and affirmed explicitly by United Nations Security Council Resolution 649 three decades ago. That U.N. decision and subsequent ones preclude any resolution in Cyprus via partition, secession, or unification to join another country.

In 2004, a U.N.-brokered federation plan was put to a referendum on both sides; a majority of Turkish Cypriots voted in favor, but three-quarters of Greek Cypriots voted against it. Cyprus entered the European Union that year as an unresolved conflict. The next serious summit took place in 2017 in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, but again failed to produce a deal.

In negotiations over a federation, the Greek Cypriot side has balked at proposals that afford too much power to Turkish Cypriots—a minority on the island—and don’t adequately address their property claims in the north. The Greek Cypriot side also insists that Turkey remove itself altogether—both its lingering troop presence in the north and its influence as a “guarantor” power. (Its guarantor status dates back to Cypriot independence in 1960, via a treaty permitting Greece, Turkey, or the United Kingdom to intervene in Cyprus should one of the others make a grab. The treaty provided the legal vehicle for Turkey’s initial intervention in July 1974 in response to the Greek-backed coup in the Republic of Cyprus.) Given the Greek Cypriot opposition to elements of even carefully negotiated plans under U.N. auspices in 2004 and 2017, it’s hard to imagine Greek Cypriots tolerating negotiations for partition through a two-state approach.

In the past, Turkish Cypriot leaders have put forward the idea of a loose confederation as a less rough-edged version of a two-state solution; in the wake of Tatar’s election, the term has resurfaced. Still, a confederation doesn’t look any more amenable to the Greek Cypriot side than two states. “We [would] lose the umbrella of Cyprus as a federal state,” said Andreas Bimbishis, the political editor of Phileleftheros, the highest-circulation Greek newspaper in the Republic of Cyprus.

If none of these, then what? In September, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres proposed informal talks with the two leaders and the three guarantor powers, but no date has been set. Given the inauspicious prospects for unification, Sonan, the Turkish Cypriot academic, said “even the status-quo, hanging on to what we have now, looks good to me.” But judging from Turkey’s recent actions, including its role in reopening parts Varosha, the status quo could be fading fast.

Judging from Turkey’s recent actions, including its role in reopening parts Varosha, the status quo could be fading fast.

Turkish and Greek Cypriots alike agree that Turkey is likely to tighten its existing military, economic, and political grip on Cyprus. Bozkurt said Tatar owes his narrow victory to Turkish interference, largely through mobilization of so-called settlers—mainland Turks who migrated over the years and attained citizenship in Northern Cyprus. The point is backed by the research of the political and demographic analyst Mete Hatay, a Turkish Cypriot.

Though Turkey’s regional policies have clearly taken a more aggressive turn—from gunboat diplomacy in Eastern Mediterranean natural gas explorations to bolstering Azerbaijan’s position in Nagorno-Karabakh escalation—most local analysts do not expect Cyprus to turn violent. Still, no one can be sure. Varosha’s reopening sparked demonstrations by Greek Cypriots at a checkpoint between north and south. The Greek Cypriots arrested were too young to remember the 1974 invasion, but emotions in Cyprus, as in other conflict areas, can deepen with each passing generation.

Divining what Turkey will do next prompts the question of what Erdogan actually wants. Leverage in hydrocarbon exploration is just one answer.

“Erdogan wants to be the great power of the East Med, the Middle East, the Arab world, and the Muslim world,” said Bimbishis, the Greek Cypriot editor.

Hubert Faustmann, a professor at the University of Nicosia in the south, sees deeper threats to the international system. He described Turkey’s attitude as, “screw international law, ignore the U.N.”

“Turkey has an understanding that it’s too big to fail,” Faustmann said. “He’s losing popularity, but nationalism is always popular.”

But Bimbishis believes Turkey may also prefer to resolve rather than aggravate the festering Cyprus problem in order to advance its ambition to be a major power broker in the region. This may hold for Europe as well. The EU prefers to de-escalate conflicts at its doorstep and work cautiously with Turkey, which maintains the threat of flooding Europe with Middle East refugees. As Turkey’s main export market, the EU has leverage.

Yiorgos Kakouris, a Greek Cypriot journalist living in Brussels, points out that infrastructure for a cooperative Eastern Mediterranean relationship exists; perhaps the recently inaugurated multilateral gas exploration forum could seek to cooperate with Turkey rather than confront it, in the right circumstances.

Varosha and the upset victory of Turkey’s candidate provided the latest fuse between north and south. Resolving the Cyprus problem will be harder now, but it’s also more urgent.

Dahlia Scheindlin is a public opinion expert and political consultant, a fellow at the Century Foundation, and a writer at +972 magazine. Twitter: @dahliasc

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