North Cyprus knocking on the door of recognition

Ersin Tatar was elected as president of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) in October 2020. Photo: GETTY.

Scroll down to listen to the audio version of this article.

It’s been over three months now since Turkish Cypriot secessionist Ersin Tatar was elected to be the president of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), an internationally unrecognised state that declared its independence from the Greek Cypriot-dominated Republic of Cyprus in 1983. Tatar, who was at the time of the election serving as the country’s prime minister, heading a coalition government led by his right-wing National Union Party (UBP), was elected president on the premise that he would seek recognition for the TRNC once in office.

The new president’s message was significantly different to that of his predecessor Mustafa Akinci, a leftist politician who has spent much of his career trying to work out a way Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots can reunite following the division of their island on 20 July 1974, the day Turkey decided to exercise the guarantor powers granted to it by the 1960 Treaty of Guarantee. The Turkish military intervention came five days after a Greek-inspired coup ousted the island’s then-president Archbishop Makarios and threatened to pave the way for Cyprus to be annexed by Greece, at the expense of the politically sidelined Turkish Cypriots, who were categorically opposed to the project their Greek Cypriot counterparts called ‘enosis’.


Turkish Cypriots hostage to peace talks

Cyprus becomes the black sheep of the EU

Kastellorizo for Cyprus: An amicable exchange?

According to the text of the treaty, which was also signed by Greece and the island’s former colonial power Britain, all parties to the treaty had the right to militarily intervene in Cyprus, either collectively or unilaterally, in the event of a disruption to the island’s state of affairs with the aim of restoring those state of affairs. Greece, which was at the time under nationalist military rule, did not uphold its role as a stabilising force. Instead, it was the main orchestrator behind the coup that destabilised the island, prompting Turkey to take action. Turkey failed to elicit British support for its plans to intervene, so the Turkish army went in alone.

Legally speaking, Turkey had the right to seize temporary control of the entire island and remain there as a guarantor of peace until Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots could properly form a new government under the auspices of the 1960 Cyprus constitution. However, the Turkish military operation that started from the island’s north and made its advance southwards was halted at what is today known as the Green Line, a UN-controlled buffer zone that splits the island in two. While the island’s Turks sought safety in the Turkish-controlled north, Greeks harboured themselves in the south. Thus, these two people were never given the opportunity to get on with life as it was before the division. This became the status quo in Cyprus, and 47 years on, numerous discussions about reuniting the island have come to nothing.

Nonetheless, every time talks failed, hope for further negotiations were soon revived. Even in 2004, when Greek Cypriots rejected then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s plan for reunification in a referendum, reunification still remained on the table. Talks continued at various levels, even when they were being attended by officials who themselves weren’t so keen on them. In 2014, the UN approved a bi-zonal federal plan for the reunification of Cyprus, and this was when the Turkish Cypriot side was being led by Dervis Eroglu, who himself was more in favour of secession. Yet it was the will of the people on both sides of the divide that dictated to their leaders what should be done, and strangely enough, Turkey too was encouraging Turkish Cypriots to engage with their Greek Cypriot counterparts.

Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades (L) and former Turkish Cypriot President Dervis Eroglu shake hands as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative to Cyprus, Lisa Buttenheim in the UN buffer zone of Nicosia, Cyprus, on February 11, 2014. (AP)

Based on the framework of the 2014 agreement, the island’s two dominant communities came within a fraction of an inch of resolving their decades-long dispute at talks held in Crans Montana in 2017. This was seemingly the closest the two sides had ever come to agreeing terms, and if it wasn’t for a disagreement over the continuation of the aforementioned treaty, they very well might have resolved their problems. However, this time the mood after the collapse of negotiations was different. There was a sense of exhaustion, particularly on the Turkish Cypriot side, and a deep feeling of hopelessness.

Ersin Tatar successfully tapped into these emotions during his election campaign when he promised to get the TRNC recognised on the international scene. Tatar became a symbol of change for the Turkish Cypriots — not necessarily change for the better, but change nonetheless. His election rival Akinci, on the other hand, could promise nothing but the same disappointment, and really, in the absence of negotiations, Akinci had pretty much become redundant.

Days before the election, Tatar pulled a trick out of his sleeve by reopening part of the closed city of Varosha. It was a move that brought about an air of triumph, enough to secure the support of the Turkish Cypriot right-wing. This was particularly the case for a large segment of the society who had migrated to the TRNC from Turkey post-1974, as they fear that they will be the hardest hit by any reunification deal owing to the fact that they settled in homes that were once occupied by Greek Cypriots. The fact that Tatar announced the reopening of Varosha alongside Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also symbolised his backing from Ankara, which while polarising the country’s native Turkish Cypriots, certainly cemented his support from the Turkish migrant community. Tatar’s tactics ultimately worked in getting him elected, but now that he is in office, he is expected to deliver on his election promises.

Incentives to recognise

The rhetoric coming from Tatar certainly hasn’t stopped. He is still talking about a two-state solution to the Cyprus Problem, one that envisions two separate states on the island that have good bilateral relations with each other. “We should have two new states — the one in the north and the one in the south — and they should recognise each other,” Tatar said in a recorded message aired on Turkish Cypriot state-owned news channel BRT on 26 January, noting that his policy is “supported fully by the Turkish government”. But when it comes to how he plans to achieve this, he is still yet to explain his strategy. Throughout much of his speech, he talked about how the international community should recognise the TRNC as if it was some kind of entitlement, and his argument was largely based on the fact that Turkish Cypriots have been living under their own sovereignty for several decades anyway.

In a brief reference to international incentives for nations to recognise the TRNC, Tatar touched upon the disputes between Turkey, Greece and the internationally-recognised Republic of Cyprus over natural gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean. “Since the hydrocarbon energy reserves have been on the agenda, we’ve had a lot of headaches,” he said, after insisting that a two-state solution to the Cyprus Problem would also bring peace to the wider region. Again, Tatar fell short in explaining how exactly this would work, but his adviser Professor Huseyin Isiksal did a better job in saying that natural gas pipelines from the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe would cost seven times less if they were laid through Turkey than if they were to be laid under the sea between Cyprus and Crete. He also argued that a two-state solution would benefit the Greek Cypriot economy, as it would allow Nicosia to divert some of its spending on defence to other sectors. Yet even his comments left many unanswered questions.

First of all, all substantial hydrocarbon reserves discovered so far have only been found off the southern coast of Cyprus. By opting for a two-state solution, Turkish Cypriots would be forgoing their rights to profit from those reserves. They would also be limiting themselves to any reserves found off their northern coast, where no substantial reserves have yet been found. Owing to the narrow passage of the Bay of Iskenderun between the northern coast of Cyprus and the southern coast of Turkey only being about 40 miles wide, any reserves that may be found in the area would be split with Turkey.

Turkey’s EEZ (blue) and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus EEZ (yellow). Gas fields shown in red. (TRTWorld)

The only real way to profit from hydrocarbon reserves off Cyprus would be for both sides of the island to combine their reserves with other reserves found in Egyptian and Israeli waters, and export the gas using the same pipeline network going through Turkey. Turkey’s unresolved political differences with Egypt and Israel aside, before such a construction project can commence, there must first be enough gas discovered in the region to economically justify it. Drilling costs must also be considered, as well as political issues. Russia would not want to see a competitor to its monopoly over the European gas market emerge from the Eastern Mediterranean. Moscow would pull all the strings it can to ensure that such cooperation does not come into fruition, regardless of a two-state solution or otherwise. In other words, the promise of offshore natural gas alone is not enough of an incentive to change the status quo in Cyprus, neither for the international community nor the Cypriots themselves. Currently, this topic is just one big ‘maybe’.

Who are the ‘ten countries’?

Nevertheless, Isiksal continued to insist that there are at least ten countries that are thinking about recognising the TRNC. He refused to name those countries, but based on the current political climate around the world, one can take a few guesses. First on the list is definitely Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan has brotherly relations with Turkey, which being the only country to recognise the TRNC at present is referred to by Turkish Cypriots as the ‘motherland’. That arguably makes Azerbaijan somewhat of a ‘cool uncle’. What’s more is that Turkey is confident that Azerbaijan wouldn’t attempt to undermine its grip on the TRNC, first of all because Azerbaijan has no interest in doing so, and secondly because Turkey and Azerbaijan are mutually dependent on one another. Baku would not risk losing Ankara as an ally to make inroads in the Eastern Mediterranean, especially since Baku has no real need or desire to interfere in the region.

But in making this decision, Azerbaijan must also weigh up the pros and cons for itself in recognising the TRNC. By not recognising the TRNC, Azerbaijan doesn’t lose anything, but if they were to recognise the TRNC, they would no doubt lose the Republic of Cyprus as a trading ally and potentially upset other trading allies that have good relations with the Greek Cypriots, not to mention become the target of international sanctions if the powers that be see fit.

Azerbaijan’s predicament also goes for other nations that have warm ties with Turkey, but prefer not to risk being black listed by recognising the TRNC. Pakistan and Bangladesh were already intimidated into backing down following threats by the world’s big players in 1983, and not much has changed since then. Therefore, any country that wishes to recognise the TRNC would most likely be a state that doesn’t care much for international relations, has little to no trade relations with the Republic of Cyprus, and is most likely just as politically and economically isolated as the TRNC is.

The first country that immediately pops to mind is North Korea, but bilateral ties between the TRNC and Pyongyang are hardly likely to be lucrative, as any food products the Turkish Cypriots export to North Korea would most likely rot before they arrive at their destination. The same could be said for Venezuela, which under President Nicolas Maduro has become extremely isolated and consequently has nothing much to lose in recognising the TRNC, but very little to gain from it either.

Countries that could potentially recognise the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC): Venezuela, Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Palestine, Pakistan, Bangladesh, North Korea and Taiwan. South Ossetia and Abkhazia not included.

Outside of that, one could be forgiven for thinking that Iran and perhaps even Palestine could be making preparations to establish official ties with the Turkish Cypriots, but Turkey would certainly be foolish to allow a power like Iran to step on its turf, especially considering Tehran’s geopolitical ambitions in the region and its ability to export its influence, soft power and even proxy militias to an island from which they can expose Turkey’s vulnerabilities. As for Palestine, any bilateral interactions between the TRNC and the Palestinian Authority would most likely have to be conducted through Turkey anyway, mainly because of logistical impediments put in place by Israel. A lot will also ride on who takes charge of the Palestinian Authority in the upcoming election there.

Another suspect is Turkmenistan, a non-aligned former Soviet nation in Central Asia which already has a lot of its citizens living in the TRNC. Turkmenistan is a nation that pretty much keeps itself to itself, and due to it being host to a huge amount of natural gas reserves, it may have the self-confidence necessary to make such a bold move as recognising the TRNC, without having to worry too much about a backlash. What would Turkmenistan get in return? Well, not much, but it would be able to open an embassy in northern Cyprus to make life for its citizens there a little easier.

As for other countries who may be interested, the TRNC might opt for a ‘like-for-like’ approach, meaning they would recognise another unrecognised state in return for their own recognition. Taiwan, for example. Taiwan enjoys unconditional support from the West as a counter-weight against China. It is too important to the West’s containment strategy against China to come under crippling sanctions for its recognition of the TRNC.

Breakaway regions like Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia could also be included in some kind of deal between Turkey and Russia. These two entities are similar to the TRNC in that they are independent administrations backed by one powerful overlord. In their case, this is Russia. While Russia will always abstain from recognising the TRNC itself, allowing these two breakaway states in Georgia to establish bilateral ties with the TRNC would not drastically disrupt the power balance in the Eastern Mediterranean, and in return Moscow might be able to negotiate a mutually beneficial deal with Ankara on other matters. Turkey would also not be threatened by either of these would-be micro-nations walking into its geopolitical playground.

Is recognition necessarily better than status quo?

Needless to say, getting any kind of recognition outside of Turkey would be a step up for the TRNC, even if it only gains that recognition from a completely irrelevant country like Kiribati or Tuvalu. But the recognition Turkish Cypriots dream of is one that puts them on par with the rest of the nation-states of the world. In the words of Professor Michael Stephen, author of ‘The Cyprus Question’ and former adviser to Rauf Denktas, the founding president of the TRNC, a country needs “critical mass” to be considered a recognised state. “One country recognising would be brushed aside. But if you have 20, or 30, then you have recognition,” he said during the livestream meeting that was aired on BRT.

But Stephen also warned that the recognition of the TRNC could prove fatal for Turkey, suggesting that anti-Turkish sentiment in the TRNC would be “actively promoted” from the south and from some embassies if the state gained recognition. “Why would Turkey want the TRNC to be an independent actor on the world stage?” he said. “If (Turkey) can keep northern Cyprus in the state of near-total dependence on Ankara, into which the Turkish Cypriots have been forced by international isolation, why would Turkey want to risk being told by a recognised government of the TRNC to remove its troops from Cyprus, which it sees as essential to its own security?”

Indeed, perhaps the worst thing that could happen to the TRNC is if the Republic of Cyprus actually comes out and officially accepts its secession, opening the doors for the international community to follow suit. Ankara’s soft power in northern Cyprus would no doubt be outmatched by the political and economic influence that would be exported to the Turkish Cypriots by Turkey’s rivals, who may seek to socially engineer Turkish Cypriots to become a weapon against the Turkish mainland. If foreign interference in the TRNC is left unchecked, within a few years of gaining recognition, Turkish Cypriots might even be ideologically moulded to support the dissolution of their state and the surrender of the north to the south on unfavourable terms.

Ertan Karpazli is the Editor-in-Chief of Radio EastMed.
All views expressed by the writer are solely his own.

Support Radio EastMed on Patreon!

Radio EastMed is an online news portal launched in January 2020 that aims to bring you all the latest geopolitical developments from the Eastern Mediterranean.

We are a completely independent platform run entirely by volunteers. We have no affiliation to any state bodies, political parties, business lobbies, religious congregations, civil society groups or trade unions. We also do not receive any income from investors, sponsors or advertisers.

But in order to continue providing an outstanding service, Radio EastMed needs you, the supporters of free and fair media! Your generous donations will enable us to create jobs, hire interns and run practical training courses for young, aspiring journalism students from disenfranchised communities.

So please support us by becoming a Patron today! CLICK HERE to visit our page on Patreon and find out how you can help us provide an even better service. All donations, big and small, are appreciated.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store