Thursday, 17 June 2021

Cyprus prepares for talks, but Turkey holds the cards

This article was published by Al Jazeera

ATHENS, Greece - Greek and Turkish Cypriots are preparing for new talks on reunifying their island. This time, the UN has asked them to figure out not how to share power, territory and resources, but whether they want a shared future at all. 

“The purpose of the meeting will be to determine whether common ground exists for the parties to negotiate a lasting solution to the Cyprus problem within a foreseeable horizon,” said the office of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. 

That’s because three attempts at reunification have failed since 2004 – the most recent at the Swiss resort town of Crans Montana in 2017. Last October, Turkish Cypriots elected a president who says it’s time to give up on forming a bizonal, bicommunal federation, which has been the UN goal for two-and-a-half decades. Instead, says Ersin Tatar, Cyprus should split into two states - a position backed by Ankara. 

This brings Turkey and Tatar into direct opposition to Greece and Cyprus. “The solution can only be found in the context of a bizonal, bicommunal federation - one sovereignty, one nationality, one international representation, including, of course, the departure of occupying armies and abolition of the Treaties of Guarantee,” said Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on March 21, when he met with Cyprus’ president Nikos Anastassiades in Athens. 

Mitsotakis was referring to the almost half century-long occupation of the northern third of the island by the Turkish army. Turkey invaded Cyprus after Greece engineered a coup attempt there in 1974. 

Turkey says it had a legal right to intervene militarily, because Cyprus’ independence from British rule in 1960 anointed Turkey, Britain and Greece joint guarantors of the new state’s constitutional and territorial integrity. 

Cyprus became a European Union member in 2004. Greece and Cyprus say the 1960 Treaties of Guarantee are incompatible with the sovereignty of an EU member. It is the EU, they say, which now guarantees the rights of the Turkish Cypriots, rendering occupying armies unnecessary. 

Turkey has been adamant about keeping its troops in place and Treaty of Guarantee intact, but thanks to its military presence, many observers believe that it is Turkey which now holds the key to a solution. 

Back and forth 

Turkey’s position is not new. Nine years after the invasion, it proclaimed the north of the island the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus - which only Turkey recognises. 

When the decision was first made in 1996 to admit the whole of Cyprus to the EU with or without a solution, Turkey showed its displeasure by claiming it would seek a two-state solution. It held that position for two years, but ultimately participated in UN-sponsored talks for reunification. 

Since 2000, Turkish Cypriots, too, have oscillated. In 2005 they deposed hardline leader Rauf Denktash for Mehmet Ali Talat, who supported reunification. In 2010 they elected Dervis Eroglu, a throwback to the Denktash years. In 2015 they voted for Mustafa Akinci, who again favoured rapprochement with the Republic of Cyprus. In Tatar they have swung back to a president who seems intent on doing Ankara’s bidding. 

That creates a problem for Turkish Cypriots, says Ahmet Sozen, who heads the political science department at Eastern Mediterranean University in northern Cyprus. 

“Turkish Cypriots very much desire to become EU citizens… when you look at the polls, yes, they are still committed to a bizonal bicommunal federation, the majority of them… What is worrying me is the developments in Turkey in the last couple of years,” he says. 

Sozen worries that Turkey’s economic crisis, made worse by the pandemic, has led to a confrontational foreign policy. “The AKP government and [president Recep Tayyip] Erdogan have become more and more authoritarian and nationalist… We have seen more and more engagement with gunboat diplomacy and less and less engagement with peaceful diplomacy.” 

A bigger game

Others believe Turkey’s difficulties present an opportunity. Its relations with Western allies have deteriorated as a result of its military involvement in Syria, Libya and Azerbaijan. Since December 2019, the EU has condemned its oil and gas explorations in areas of the Mediterranean claimed by Greece and Cyprus.

On March 24, Joe Biden became the first sitting US president to recognise the 1915 massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as a genocide. That was also the first day Biden called Erdogan – four months after he assumed office. As a NATO ally, Turkey is normally accorded greater foreign policy priority. 

“Turkey is under some pressure due to uncertainty vis-a-vis the US and its economic problems. It is perhaps a little more receptive to something happening,” says a diplomatic source on condition of anonymity. “They have reasons to send a positive message to markets and seek a positive testimony from somewhere - from the Americans or the Europeans.” 

Among other things, Turkey wants to EU to expand customs union to enable it to export agricultural goods and services, and bid for state contracts. It also wants more money for absorbing 3.6 million Syrian refugees. This creates leverage for a softening on Cyprus. 

Then there is the fact that the UN cannot pursue a two-state solution unless the two sides both request it and the Security Council sanctions it, “but of course the Greek Cypriots aren’t going to do that,” says the diplomat. 

Sozen agrees that the two-state solution is “not realistic”, and suggests it is a maximalist position designed to be traded. “We have a saying in Turkish,” he says, “Showing death, and getting the other side to accept malaria - which is the bizonal, bicommunal federation.”

But will the Greek Cypriots accept malaria? “Almost three years passed without any substantive negotiations, so this created in the minds of a lot of Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots that [Anastassiades] is not sincere,” says Sozen. “In their minds the Greek Cypriots are not ready to share power.”

Perhaps Anastassiades, too, has softened with time. His administration was rocked when Al Jazeera Investigations revealed that the speaker of parliament and other senior officials were involved in a conspiracy to sell passports to international fugitives under the table. And Tatar’s election has come as a shock. 

But Anastassiades is, at least, coming to the table in agreement with the UN’s mandate. Turkey and Tatar are not. The onus will be on them to clarify their position. “The General Secretary doesn’t want this to be a purely theoretical exercise,” says the diplomatic source. “He wants to know, do we have a chance of success or not?”

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