Turkish Cypriots hostage to peace talks

President Ersin Tatar may be Turkey’s man in North Cyprus, and that’s exactly why his plan to negotiate a two-state solution is doomed to fail.

Children play in a park in northern Nicosia along the UN-controlled buffer zone that runs across the island of Cyprus (Photo: Niel Hall).

On October 18th, Turkish Cypriots elected secessionist leader Ersin Tatar as president. Tatar won the run-off ballot with just under 52 percent of the vote, defeating his leftist rival Mustafa Akinci in what was probably the most tense election in the 37-year history of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), a breakaway state recognised only by Turkey. The election was marred by accusations from Akinci and his supporters of Turkey’s meddling in the democratic process to tip the scales in favour of Tatar, who will now take over his new role as president, having already served as prime minister for the past 18 months.

Ankara put little effort into hiding who its preferred candidate was ahead of the election. Just days before Turkish Cypriots went to the polls, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan released a joint statement with Tatar, announcing the opening up of Varosha, a deserted ‘ghost town’ in the suburbs of Famagusta. Prior to the war in July 1974 which saw the north of Cyprus come under Turkish control, the coastal town of Varosha boasted of its status as a tourism hotspot. However, after the war, it turned into an abandoned and derelict district locked away behind barbed wire and steel mesh fences. This remained the case for 46 years until President Erdogan, alongside Tatar, coordinated with the Turkish army to remove the cordon on the town’s beach and a few of its streets with immediate effect.

In a practical sense, the move to reopening Varosha achieved very little. There were no major preparations made to accommodate tourists. The buildings in Varosha are still empty and crumbling. Many of its disputed properties are still inaccessible to the general public, and with the coronavirus pandemic still wreaking havoc on travel and the world economy, the district is unlikely to experience any kind of investment or tourism boom anytime soon. On the day, a handful of curious visitors came to have a look around and take a few pictures for Instagram, only to realise that there isn’t really much to see.

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Yet for the Turkish nationalists in North Cyprus, particularly those who migrated there from Turkey after 1974, the image of Erdogan and Tatar standing side by side was enough to help reaffirm their belief in who was the right man to lead the TRNC. As for the more undecided voters, many of whom abstained from the first round of voting on October 11th, they were given a nudge in Tatar’s direction when on the same night as the election, a group of Greek Cypriot extremists protesting against the opening of Varosha carried out an attack on the Derinya crossing on the opposite side of the buffer zone. Incidents like this naturally push Turkish Cypriots more towards secession than towards reunification, rendering the rhetoric of pro-federalist politicians, such as Akinci, obsolete.

To add, Erdogan’s indirect endorsement of Tatar before the election sent a message to Akinci and his supporters, owing to the fact that Akinci was left out of the loop regarding Varosha. So sudden was the announcement that even Tatar’s right-hand man, deputy prime minister and foreign minister Kudret Ozersay, was not informed of the decision until just a few hours beforehand. The lack of consultation involved led Ozersay, who was also a candidate in the presidential election, to pull his centre-right People’s Party (HP) out of the government coalition that was led by Tatar’s right-wing National Union Party (UBP). The move basically indicated that even if Tatar was to lose the election, his close ties with Ankara would still make him the most powerful man in the TRNC and neither the president nor the coalition would be able to stop him.

Therefore, even if Akinci had won the election, he would have been made redundant from the peace process with the Greekk Cypriots. He would have been president in name only, while Tatar would have assumed the responsibilities as prime minister that are usually reserved for the head of state. This would have made it impossible for Akinci to deliver on his promise to realise the UN-endorsed bizonal, bicommunal federal plan for the reunification of Cyprus, which was adopted as a framework for negotiations between the island’s respective Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot authorities in 2014, a year before he was elected president. As a result, even Turkish Cypriots who under normal circumstances would have voted for Akinci, had to concede the fact that his every move would have been blocked had he stayed in office.

Turkey casts shadow over election

There’s no doubt that Turkey’s overbearing presence had an impact on the election result, but considering the recent tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean over natural gas exploration and maritime territories, there was nothing surprising about it. Turkey is currently being tested on all fronts. On the one hand Turkey has been forced to enter the conflict in Syria to prevent its entire southern border being surrounded by PKK-linked YPG militants, while on the other hand it faces the possibility of being excluded from the offshore gas bonanza taking place off its southern and western coasts, where Greece, Egypt, Israel and the Greek Cypriot administration of the internationally-recognised Republic of Cyprus have formed an anti-Turkish bloc backed by France. It is also being threatened by EU economic sanctions, which would further destabilise its already strained economy, and to make things worse, the war between Armenia and Turkey’s ally Azerbaijan has just reignited in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. As if that wasn’t enough, it seems that Turkey is also being phased out of Libya, which last year provided Ankara with a vital lifeline in the form of a maritime demarcation deal which served as an endorsement of Turkish claims to the Eastern Mediterranean. But with the recent resignation of Feyyaz al-Sarraj, the prime minister of Libya’s UN-backed government in Tripoli, it appears as though Turkey has been left to look on from the sidelines as France and Egypt take the lead in helping the two rival Libyan governments come to a common understanding.

For this reason, Cyprus now is Turkey’s only real chance of getting out of its immediate territorial waters, and the Turkish Cypriots hold the key to that. The problem is, however, that over the past 46 years since the Turkish military operation in 1974, the Turkish Cypriots, who half a century ago would have given anything and everything to be part of Turkey, have now grown disillusioned with Ankara’s policies. Had Turkey conducted a referendum in 1974 shortly after it sent its troops to Cyprus, the Turkish Cypriots in the north would have almost definitely voted in favour of annexation. But similar to today’s situation, Turkey proved to have the military strength to conquer new lands, but lacked the economic strength to endure possible sanctions for its actions. The end result was somewhat of a half-baked conquest, where Turkey had taken control militarily, not for the purpose of extending its sovereignty, but for the purpose of securing favourable terms for its withdrawal.

The aforementioned situation left Turkish Cypriots in a state of limbo, neither here nor there. A good number of them left for Britain and Australia, which offered better employment opportunities, while those who remained behind in North Cyprus became completely dependent on Turkey’s generosity, essentially trapped on a third of a small island that had come under international embargoes. At first they found ways to survive and get by, but over time they started to notice a change in the demographics of their society. Waves of migrants started to arrive from Turkey’s more underprivileged areas. A large proportion of the new arrivals came from Hatay, a coastal province on Turkey’s southern border with Syria. What’s unique about Hatay is that it was not originally included in Turkey’s borders when the country was founded in 1923. It was incorporated into Turkey as a province in 1939 following a referendum. Traditionally a melting pot of languages and religions, Hatay at the time witnessed a sudden increase in its Turkish Sunni Muslim population as migrants arrived from central Anatolia, seemingly in a bid to cement the province’s ties with the rest of Turkey.

Today, some argue that the reason why the new arrivals in North Cyprus predominantly come from Hatay is because these people had already voted to join Turkey once, so when the time comes, they may vote to join Turkey again. The difference is, however, that Turkish Cypriots were already on the whole Sunni Muslims who idolised Turkey. They didn’t necessarily need any more input from central Anatolia to reaffirm their commitment. What’s more, those who arrived from Hatay weren’t even Turks. The majority of them were Arabs, some of whom were Alawites. Many of their customs were different to that of the Turkish Cypriots, and the two populations didn’t mix as well as Turkey had perhaps hoped they would. And as new opportunities and rights were granted to the Turkish Cypriots within the framework of reunification negotiations, such as the right to claim their status as EU citizens, the chasm between Turkish Cypriots and mainland Turks widened. Whereas before 2004, when the Republic of Cyprus joined the EU, the Turkish Cypriots were entirely dependent on Turkey for their survival, after 2004, Turkey’s presence in Cyprus started to be regarded by some Turkish Cypriots as an obstacle to their progress and integration into the international community.

Turkey was unable to compete with the EU through the offering of financial incentives to lure Turkish Cypriots away from reunification. The only way Turkey could consolidate its dominance in the TRNC was to double-down on its influence over the democratic process and create the perception among Turkish Cypriots that reunification meant certain death and that those among them who supported it were traitors. Furthermore, the mobilisation of the 40,000-strong migrant community who had been granted TRNC citizenship would also play a role in boosting Turkey’s favoured candidates in elections. Owing to the fact that the migrant community is not being offered any solid guarantees in the event of the reunification of Cyprus, unlike their native Turkish Cypriot counterparts, they are highly unlikely to ever support efforts to reunite the island. They are more interested in the permanent secession of the TRNC, as the status quo offers promises to secure their access to properties and lands that they have been using since their arrival. All these factors came into play in this election, throwing Akinci’s prospects out of the window.

Politicians change, politics doesn’t

However, Tatar’s election doesn’t necessarily mean the end of reunification talks in Cyprus. Yes, Tatar openly advocates for a two-state partition, but we must not forget that he isn’t the first Turkish Cypriot president to hold this position. In fact, one could argue that negotiations with the Greek Cypriots have been most fruitful when the Turkish Cypriots were led by a nationalist leader. Let’s not forget that the bizonal federal plan came into being when Dervis Eroglu, another right-wing leader from Tatar’s party, was himself president of the TRNC. The reunification referendum that was held in 2004, ahead of the accession of the Republic of Cyprus to the EU, was conducted when the TRNC was under the leadership of founding president Rauf Raif Denktas. At the time, Denktas urged Turkish Cypriots to vote ‘no’ in the referendum, even though Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then prime minister, was encouraging Turkish Cypriots to vote ‘yes’. Denktas nonetheless allowed the referendum to take place, and had it not been for the Greek Cypriots rejecting then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s peace plan, Cyprus would have been reunited while Denktas presided.

Since its foundation in 1983, the TRNC has also had two pro-reunification presidents, Akinci being the second of them. In 2005, a decade before Akinci took office, Mehmet Ali Talat of the centre-left Republican Turkish Party (CTP) was elected on the same premise as his eventual successor. What’s more is that he served his first and only term while Demitris Christofias, a fellow leftist who also favoured reunification, presided over the Greek Cypriots. Yet talks made very little progress in this era, with the two leaders struggling to overcome the issue of land disputes. Then in 2015, Akinci came on the scene, adopting responsibility for the bizonal federal plan that had already been put in motion prior to his election. He carried the talks as far as Crans Montana in 2017, where the talks reportedly collapsed due to disagreements over Turkey’s continued involvement in Cyprus post-solution. This was despite Akinci and his Greek Cypriot counterpart Nicos Anastasiades enjoying an apparently warm relationship in the build-up to the talks.

Following Crans Montana, Turkey’s relations with Greece soured amid escalations in the region, predominantly surrounding hydrocarbon exploration off Cyprus. For Turkey, the situation has demanded a more loyal leadership in the TRNC, not one that can easily be swayed by incentives offered by rivals to Turkey’s regional ambitions. This put Akinci in a dilemma. He was faced with the choice of either staying true to his pro-federalist voter base in return for their continued support in his re-election bid, or betray his own principles for the sake of gaining Turkey’s favour. He chose the former option, knowing full well that if he had chosen the latter, he would have been more likely to lose his current supporters on the left than make new ones on the right. In fact, one could argue that towards the election he moved closer to the far-left in a bid to completely unite the left under his candidacy, which from his perspective was a logical maneuver because he stood more of a chance of making new friends on the far-left than losing old friends from the centre-left to his rivals. Nonetheless, pitting himself against Turkey was always going to be a gamble, and in the end it was Turkey’s support that gave Tatar the extra boost he needed to beat Akinci in the second round of voting, albeit by a small margin.

However, as observed in recent years, Turkish Cypriots have hardly ever got what they voted for. Under pro-reunification presidents talks have frozen, and under secessionist presidents talks have resumed. That’s most likely because Turkey is uncomfortable with proceeding with talks when it isn’t reassured of its control over the process. Now that Tatar is in charge, Turkey may feel more inclined to calm tensions and push Turkish Cypriots back to the negotiations table. As much as Tatar may personally oppose the idea of a bizonal solution, with the lack of any tangible alternatives, he may have no choice but to resume talks. If Tatar actually believes that Turkey will support his quest for a permanent partition that will equate to seeking international recognition for the TRNC, he is seriously mistaken.

The problem Turkey had with Akinci was that he was susceptible to influences outside of itself. Recognition for the TRNC would mean the arrival of competitors to what is essentially Turkey’s backyard, thus undermining Turkey’s control over it. Even if Turkey was to push for recognition, Ankara has very few allies in the world as it is, let alone allies who would risk facing sanctions for a place that offers very little return on investment. In a best case scenario, perhaps only Qatar has enough economic strength to overcome potential sanctions in recognising the TRNC. Even then, if Qatar was to do this, it would only do so as a favour to the Turkish Cypriots. In reality, however, Qatar would not sacrifice its existing relations with the Republic of Cyprus, which includes a licence to search for gas in the island’s waters. At the same time, Turkey would not want a nation more powerful than itself to get a foothold in the TRNC. It may encourage other allies, such as Azerbaijan and Pakistan, to recognise the TRNC, but they would be foolish to accept such an offer unless Turkey can somehow offset the losses they will incur through sanctions. Of course, Turkey does not possess that capability. The TRNC might have better luck reaching out to Lieberland!

It is also counterproductive for Turkey to abandon the peace process in Cyprus. Until the right conditions arise for Turkey to secure enough guarantees in Cyprus to justify the withdrawal of its troops, or, on the other end of the spectrum, Turkey grows powerful enough to carry out a Crimea-style annexation of the island’s north, it must continue putting on the front of being a peacemaker. Although Turkey has not been very successful in promoting this narrative outside of Turkey and the TRNC, it has nonetheless prepared a ready-made answer for those who accuse it of being an occupying force. If only for the sake of keeping up appearances, this argument is extremely important for Turkey’s international PR campaign as it stops it from falling into the category of a rogue state. Therefore, contrary to what pessimist speculators are saying in regards to Tatar’s election being the end of the Cyprus peace process, Turkey is actually now more likely to push for the resumption of talks, and like it or not, Tatar will sit down with his Greek Cypriot counterparts and carry on from where Akinci left off.

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

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