The Northern Cyprus Election’s Implications for the Prospects of a Settlement on the Island
The presidential election in October in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is only recognized by Turkey, very likely did not catch the attention of many around the world. However, the result in this part of the divided island could have geopolitical repercussions as the enduring Cyprus problem is at the core of several wide-ranging disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly recently over hydrocarbons.
Regional tensions began to swell again following the discovery of energy resources off the coasts of Israel, Cyprus, and Egypt, and the forging of new regional alliances such as the East-Med Gas Forum between littoral states, which excludes Turkey, Lebanon and Syria. Also, since strained relations with its Western allies and neighbors have isolated it in the region, Turkey opted to bolster its presence in the Eastern Mediterranean to break this “siege.” Turkey’s actions, which included signing a maritime jurisdiction delimitation agreement with the UN-backed Libyan government and launching exploration operations in disputed waters, provoked serious criticism despite its justifications that they were to preserve its own rights and those of Turkish Cypriots.
Amid such tension, Turkish Cypriots chose their fifth “president”—or the community leader, as the post is known internationally—in the person of Ersin Tatar, a right-wing, hardline candidate and former “prime minister” of Northern Cyprus. Tatar, backed by Turkey’s government, shaped his campaign around the idea that a bi-zonal and bi-communal federation is no longer a viable option. He also promised to mend relations between Northern Cyprus and Turkey, which have long been problematic.
Tatar’s victory sends signals to the Republic of Cyprus, Turkey, the United States, the EU, and the wider international community. As long as the current all-or-nothing mentality prevails on the island, it is unrealistic to expect a breakthrough in the Cyprus problem. But offshore energy resources could provide opportunities to trigger regional changes, especially with the encouragement of the EU and the United States. The incoming U.S. administration could play the energy card to bolster the United States’ waning presence in the region, as well as to encourage all involved parties to work toward a solution in the Cyprus problem.
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
The negotiation process to resolve the Cyprus dispute has stalled since the most recent failure in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, in 2017. Since then, the Cypriot leaders convened informally in Berlin in November 2019 just to reaffirm their commitment and determination to achieve a settlement based on a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation with political equality. Despite a more recent call by UN Secretary General António Guterres to restart informal talks after the election in the north, the prospects for tangible change are bleak.
It is clear that a change in the north’s leadership alone will be insufficient to break the deadlock. As long as the mentality of the “closed door” and “elite-level” format of negotiations prevails, in which “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” there will be limited prospects for peace. Instead, the unwillingness to compromise as well as mutual feelings of distrust will continue to prevent meaningful dialogue and attempts to mend the divided country. In this light, the electoral outcome in the north is a reflection of the Turkish Cypriots’ pessimism regarding near-term change rather than complete rejection of a solution.
Turkish Cypriots face several other looming issues in addition to the Cyprus problem, including a government crisis, a struggling economy, public-health challenges, and a crippled tourism industry. Although many of these issues are closely linked to the Cyprus problem, Turkish Cypriots have already witnessed firsthand that their eagerness for a solution has been insufficient to trigger improvements or changes. From their support for the Annan Plan in 2004 to the latest attempt in Crans-Montana, Turkish Cypriots did the best they could. They favor a comprehensive settlement and frequently reiterate this desire, as they have lived under international isolation for decades.
Failures and disappointments have long fueled a rise in nationalist discourse on the island. This year alone there have been unilateral actions: the closure of checkpoints under the guise of pandemic measures and the opening of the sealed-off beachfront of Varosha, which lies in Northern Cyprus. These and other events on both sides have fueled unnecessary tensions. Therefore, the election result should not come as a surprise.
Tatar is neither the first nor the last right-wing and hardliner politician in the north to support a two-state solution. On the contrary, Northern Cyprus has been governed by hardliners since 1983, in 2005–2010 and 2015–2020 when presidents who strongly supported a federal solution held office.
Tatar’s victory will undoubtedly have implications for the Cyprus problem and the path forward, considering his political move to open the Varosha beachfront ahead of the election. He is known for his support for a solution based on sovereign equality, preferably in the EU. During his election campaign and since then, he articulated conditions for an agreement with the Greek Cypriots, including the establishment of a temporary special committee on hydrocarbons. Backed by Turkey’s government, he supports a result-oriented negotiation process that would not be open-ended. “We have said over and over again that we will no longer negotiate for a federation on the Cyprus issue,” says Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, expressing the country’s hardline stance.
It will become clear in time whether it will be possible to convene an informal meeting with the Five-plus-UN parties: the UN, both communities, and the three guarantor powers of Greece, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. But it would be unrealistic to expect a breakthrough. In his first informal meeting with his southern counterpart, Nicos Anastasiades on November 3, Tatar reiterated his position in favor of a two-state solution. During Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Northern Cyprus on November 15, he also stressed that “a two-state solution must be discussed and negotiated on the basis of sovereign equality” by reminding both Turkey’s and Turkish Cypriots frustrations over the hesitancy of the Greek Cypriot side. These pre-negotiation statements by Tatar and Erdoğan can be seen as expressing readiness to take bold actions, especially in Varosha, in the event of further Greek Cypriot stonewalling.
However, now is exactly the right time for international facilitation and encouragement to keep the parties on track and avoid undermining the progress made thus far. Despite all failures in the elite-level negotiations, there has been significant progress in terms of implementation of confidence-building measures such as the opening of new check-points, exchanging artworks, interconnectivity of electrical grids, the interoperability of mobile phones and so on. All parties should keep in mind that achieving a sustainable peace requires long-term determination, significant daily efforts, and courageous moves by political leaders. Therefore, it may be more reasonable to encourage the parties to find common ground in the Eastern Mediterranean while the issue is also on the agenda of Greece and Turkey.
Energy Resources as Catalyst for Change
The discoveries of hydrocarbons off the coasts of Israel, Cyprus, and Egypt present opportunities and challenges for the littoral states and international actors.
In the absence of U.S. interest under the Trump administration, Turkey and Greece hurtled toward conflict last summer. Disputes between the two NATO allies over maritime boundaries illustrate the risk of regional escalation. After German-led de-escalation efforts, they agreed to return to the exploratory talks that they had initiated in 2002. But the tension surrounding Cyprus over hydrocarbons persists due to the Cyprus problem. The Greek Cypriot administration rejected the latest proposal by previous Turkish Cypriot community leader Mustafa Akıncı on July 13, 2019 to establish a joint committee on hydrocarbon issues with facilitated by the UN and observed by the EU.
Apart from its continuous calls to defuse tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, the UN has been hesitant to get involved directly in the hydrocarbons dispute. This offers the EU and United States an opportunity to wield their leverage and leadership by encouraging the relevant parties to collaborate in a resolution, using hydrocarbons as a catalyst. Although success with this option might seem difficult, it would undoubtedly be beneficial for all parties, including the EU and United States. Trump’s legacy will undoubtedly make President Biden’s job very difficult. However, the Eastern Mediterranean would provide him with a quick win in terms of reminding the region of the U.S. commitment toward the region as well as a trigger movement in the direction of a solution in Cyprus.
The EU can also play a facilitator role with its experience and knowledge. An ideal starting point would be to make the East-Med Forum more inclusive; for example, with the participation of Turkey, Lebanon, and Turkish Cypriots. The involved parties would reap multiple benefits from such a move including the lessening of tension in the region. Current regional developments confirm that attempts to exclude or punish only undermine regional peace.
Dr Cihan Dizdaroğlu (@CDizdaroglu) is a lecturer in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Kadir Has University. He was a Marie Curie fellow at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University.
Photo credit: Jose HERNANDEZ Camera 51 / Shutterstock