NICOSIA — After decades of stalemate, international negotiators will try, once again, to restart talks between Greek and Turkish Cypriots over the divided eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus.
But this time, the dynamics have fundamentally shifted, with the Turkish side now pushing for a two-state solution instead of the decades-long goal of reunification.
The United Nations has been trying, unsuccessfully, to reunite the ethnically divided island of Cyprus since 1974, when Turkish forces invaded the northern part following a coup by Greek army officers who sought to unite Cyprus with Greece.
Turkish forces eventually seized over 30% of the island, and roughly 35,000 Turkish troops remain stationed there. In 1983, the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus unilaterally declared its independence but is only recognized by Ankara.
Negotiations between the internationally recognized Cypriot south, home to mostly Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians, and the breakaway north, which is predominantly Muslim, have ever been easy. (The last round of U.N.-sponsored talks collapsed in 2017.)
Yet one thing both sides have always committed to — officially, at least — has been that the whole point of sitting down together was to find a way to reunify their troubled island.
Now, that is no longer the case.
Since Ersin Tatar won the Turkish Cypriot elections in October 2020, his side of the conference table is now committed not to reunification, but to formal division.
“The Turkish Cypriot people are one of the two nations living on the island,” Tatar told Jane Holl Lute, the U.N. special envoy for Cyprus, in early December. The previous month, he told a Turkish TV channel that, “Two states is the easiest solution, because we already have two states on the island.”
This echoed statements by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who strongly backed Tatar in the Turkish Cypriot elections.
In November, Erdogan urged future negotiations to be held on the basis of “two separate peoples and states.”
This now leaves the very foundation of the U.N. talks in doubt — and failure here has also long impacted a range of other issues in the eastern Mediterranean. These stretch from Turkey’s long-stalled accession talks with the European Union (which have been blocked in large part because of the Cyprus impasse) to Turkey’s dispute with Greece, Cyprus and other neighbors over offshore hydrocarbons and maritime boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean.
Brussels is also closely watching Turkey’s increasingly assertive posture in the region — as seen in its backing of Azerbaijan to wrest parts of Nagorno-Karabakh back from Armenia — and Turkey’s ongoing importance as a buffer state between refugees from the Middle East coming to Europe’s shores.
President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, both of whom are very familiar with the region from the Obama years, could therefore be faced fairly soon with a newfound Cyprus problem.
“The shift in Turkish and Turkish Cypriot leadership has perplexed Biden and Blinken,” Enis Erdem Aydin, director of London-based political risk consultancy RDM advisory, and a former journalist with CNN Turk, told The Washington Diplomat. “They would very much have preferred if all this hadn’t happened.”
Decades of Disputes
While the island’s Greek Cypriot majority and Turkish Cypriot minority were long spread out across the island, Turkey’s 1974 invasion of the Republic of Cyprus (ROC) split the island along distinct geographic and ethnic lines.
The northern third of the island became home to almost all the island’s Turkish Cypriots, while the south became home to almost all the island’s Greek Cypriots.
Cementing the division was the unilateral 1983 declaration of independence establishing the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).
Since 1974, U.N. talks have tried to bring the two parts back together into a single, yet revamped ROC. This would be a bicommunal, bizonal federation known as the “BBF” that envisions two politically equally, self-governing communities under one sovereign entity.
The devil, of course, has been in the details. Disputes over the BBF’s governance have been one major area of disagreement, while territorial adjustments have been another.
The presence of Turkish and Greek troops on the island is also contentious. Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot side want some sort of Turkish military presence to continue — as a safeguard, given their minority status — while the Greek Cypriot side wants all the troops gone. (As Cyprus’s former colonial ruler, the U.K. still maintains military bases on the Cypriot side of the island.)
A newer disagreement has emerged over who gets the lucrative rights to drill for offshore natural gas reserves discovered in recent years in waters claimed by the ROC and disputed by Turkey. The Turkish Cypriots say they should jointly control them, while the Greek Cypriots want to defer any division of the spoils until after a comprehensive political settlement is reached.
The complex territorial disputes overlap with other major players as well. Greece, along with Israel, Egypt and the EU, all oppose Turkey’s claims. Isolated, Ankara — which argues that Cyprus’s maritime boundaries were drawn illegally at Turkey’s expense — signed its own maritime deal with the U.N.-recognized, Tripoli-based Government of National Accord in Libya, further complicating the region’s dynamics.
A final bone of contention is the guarantor states system, which Turkey wants to keep. When the Republic of Cyprus was created in 1960, former colonial ruler Britain, plus Greece and Turkey, were made guarantor states, with the right to intervene on the island to prevent Cyprus from joining Greece or Turkey. This was the basis of the 1974 Turkish invasion, which was triggered by a coup on the island by Greek Cypriots who supported unifying with Greece.
Over the last five decades, the U.N. has held repeated rounds of negotiations to resolve these disputes — all without success.
The most recent of these efforts was in 2017 at Crans-Montana in Switzerland. Hopes were high back then, particularly as the Greek Cypriot leader, Nicos Anastasiades, and the Turkish Cypriot leader, Mustafa Akinci, were both known to be strong advocates of the bicommunal, bizonal federation model.
Yet the talks still broke up without a deal, with many at the time saying this had been “the last chance.”
“This is the final conference,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu told reporters a week before those talks collapsed. “We cannot be negotiating these issues in this way forever.”
That sentiment has clearly continued in Ankara, too, although it was not shared by Akinci, who continued to try and revive talks.
Now, however, with Akinci’s defeat at the ballot box back in October — a victory that came after an unprecedented level of interference from Ankara — Tatar’s victory means the Turkish Cypriot side is now led by a man who strongly agrees with Turkey that it’s time to divide the island into two equal, sovereign states.
“When Tatar won the election, he made his first visit to Ankara,” Mertkan Hamit, an activist with the Famagusta Initiative, a Turkish Cypriot NGO, told The Washington Diplomat. “He is very loyal and will follow Turkey’s orders in any negotiations.”
Those negotiations had been due to resume following the Turkish Cypriot elections. Instead, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres is expected to call for informal “5+1” meetings early next month.
The “5” are the Turkish and Greek Cypriot sides and the three guarantor countries (the U.K., Greece and Turkey), along with the EU as the “+1.”
At this informal gathering, Tatar and Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu will table their proposals for a “two-state solution,” which is almost certain to be rejected by the other parties.
On Feb. 4, British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab said the U.K. is ready to help “break the logjam” and urged both parties to “demonstrate flexibility and compromise.”
“I think a failure to reach a settlement after so many efforts would benefit no one,” Raab said after talks with his Cypriot counterpart, Nikos Christodoulides.
But days earlier, Çavuşoğlu reiterated that any peace deal should be negotiated on the basis of two sovereign states, and that the U.N.-backed formula of federation is no longer on the table.
That may bring the talks to an abrupt halt. Yet it might also lead to a reassessment of what is and is not feasible.
“There is a disconnect between public statements and facts on the ground,” said professor Erol Kaymak of the Eastern Mediterranean University in Turkish Cyprus, “with more realistic assessments going on behind closed doors.”
This might mean that the parties — and this also includes the U.S. — will have to assess whether particular issues, such as maritime boundaries and hydrocarbon exploration, should be separated from a perhaps unattainable overall political settlement.
In any case, Marc Pierini, a visiting scholar with Carnegie Europe, told The Washington Diplomat that calls for a two-state solution have upended the negotiations.
“On Cyprus,” he said, “we are now in new territory.”
Jonathan Gorvett (jpgorvett.com) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and a freelance journalist specializing in Near and Middle Eastern affairs.