The Cyprus conundrum: A new direction?

How will the results of the Turkish Cypriot elections affect the Cyprus Problem?

A couple walk past a UN guard post at the fence that divides the Greek and Turkish Cypriots area in Cyprus
A couple walk past a UN guard post at the fence that divides the Greek and Turkish Cypriots areas in the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus on January 11, 2017 [File: AP/Petros Karadjias]

Earlier this month, Northern Cyprus held its presidential elections amid heightened tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean. On October 18, Ersin Tatar of the National Unity Party won 51.74 percent of the vote in a tightly contested runoff against incumbent President Mustafa Akıncı.

The election was perceived as a popular vote on how to proceed with the peace process with the Greek Cypriot side to resolve a collection of long-standing disputes known as the “Cyprus Problem”.

Cyprus gained independence from Britain in 1960 but descended into political turmoil and violent conflict between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots which divided the inter-communal Republic of Cyprus in 1963 and necessitated the deployment of United Nations peacekeepers the following year.

Formal negotiations for a political settlement between the two communities began in 1968 and have continued intermittently to this day.

Akıncı’s re-election in the second round would have signalled that the Turkish Cypriots preferred to work squarely within the established negotiations process for a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation through a less risk-averse approach.

But the majority of Turkish Cypriots voted for Tatar, indicating a preference for a more assertive approach to the talks, one that is more critical of the federal solution and less conciliatory at the negotiating table.

Whatever path the new president takes, however, his decision-making will be only a part of an extraordinarily complex picture which involves multiple actors, a decade-old “natural gas issue”, which has fuelled tensions in the whole region and a faltering peace process.

Tatar’s presidency

In Northern Cyprus, which is recognised as a state only by Turkey, there has been widespread frustration across the political spectrum with the endless cycle of unsuccessful talks. In a September survey conducted by Greek Cypriot newspapers, 53.8 percent of Turkish Cypriot respondents said they felt a lack of hope and despair over the political situation on the island, as opposed to 24.7 percent of Greek Cypriots. In a February poll conducted by Turkish pollster Gezici Research Company, 78.7 percent of Turkish Cypriot respondents said that they do not believe a deal can be reached with the Greek Cypriot side.

Ahead of the elections, Tatar, like all candidates, built on this frustration. While his opponent campaigned on continuing the negotiations process and avoiding aggressive moves so as not to lose international sympathy, Tatar asserted that Turkish Cypriot development should not depend solely on the stagnant talks and “lose another five years” on them.

Indeed, international sympathy for the Turkish Cypriots, acquired through years of maintaining a pro-solution stance, has not translated into any gains at the negotiating table with the Greek Cypriot side, which has the advantage of having international recognition and European Union membership.

Good relations with Turkey were also another important issue Tatar emphasised in his election campaign. According to the same Gezici survey, 61 percent of Turkish Cypriots wanted a president with good relations with Turkey, and 80.8 percent were in favour of it remaining a security guarantor for Northern Cyprus.

Based on the initial set of treaties that established the Republic of Cyprus in 1960, Turkey, Greece and the United Kingdom are “guarantors” and hold certain intervention rights if the established status quo on the island is upset. Turkey activated the provision in 1974 in response to a Greek-backed coup d’état that aimed to unite the island with Greece. The Greek Cypriot side views the guarantor set-up as outdated and wants it abolished.

Having won the election due to the electorate’s desire for change, Tatar now has to deliver on his promises.

The new president has emphasised the need to raise “alternative models” at the negotiating table and promoted a two-state solution “living side by side in cooperation”. What Tatar probably means is that even though Northern Cyprus is not internationally recognised, in practice there are already two states on the island, and so the talks should proceed based on this reality.

Tatar has also spoken of “sovereign equality”, indicating that he would prefer a greater devolution of power to the Turkish Cypriot side and a solution that takes the shape of a confederation (a union between recognised states) rather than federation. International recognition of Northern Cyprus would require the consent of the Greek Cypriots, who see it as anathema.

At the same time, becoming part of Turkey is not an option for most Turkish Cypriots and Tatar himself has not raised the idea. Turkish-Cypriots are adamant about their unique identity and independence.

The question is now how Tatar’s vision would fit into the established peace process which for decades has worked towards a federal solution, laid out in the High-Level Agreements of 1977-1979. They gave rise to the idea of a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation composed of two constituent states, a single international entity, and political equality between the two communities, though the two sides have consistently failed to achieve a final comprehensive settlement.

A complex picture

Apart from the disagreements of the Turkish and Greek Cypriots, the Cyprus Problem is also complicated by the interests of the various players involved. Turkey, Greece, the UK and the UN have all been part of efforts to resolve the Cypriot Problem since the beginning.

The EU became involved in 2004 when the South joined the union, without the North following the failed Annan Plan referendum, in which Turkish Cypriots (with Turkish support), voted yes and the Greek Cypriots no to a UN proposal to reunite the island.

One of the thorniest issues associated with the Cyprus Problem is the natural gas discoveries off the island’s coast, which has further internationalised the issue. Potential commercial development pathways, disputes over future revenue sharing, and overlapping maritime boundary claims (owing to the fact that Turkey does not recognise the Greek Cypriot-led Republic of Cyprus) have drawn into the dispute numerous other regional actors, as well as international oil and gas companies.

Wider regional spats between Turkey, France and the United Arab Emirates have seen the latter two conduct military exercises in the region. The United States had also recently overturned a long-standing arms embargo on the Greek Cypriots.

Although the natural gas issue has never been formally discussed in the negotiations, it has become a major source of animosity, mistrust and tit-for-tat moves, hindering the peace process. As former UN Special Adviser Espen Barth Eide has pointed out, “the hydrocarbons issue has now been linked to the Cyprus Problem … it cannot be unlinked.”

Even if some progress is made on the natural gas issue, the traditional stumbling blocks in the negotiations process remain. The UN-sponsored talks revolve around six areas: property claims, possible territorial concessions, federal power-sharing agreements, security guarantee arrangements, EU relations and economic matters.

The negotiations have been based on the principle that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. This means all six files have to be closed together in a final comprehensive agreement and any partial agreement today on a particular subject cannot be finalised. This has encouraged the sides to wait for favourable developments that strengthen their hand at the negotiating table, thus drawing out the process.

Official state-to-state cooperation between the South and the North has been avoided for fear of “normalising the division”, giving the North a degree of recognition and removing incentives to compromise.

Instead, local bi-communal technical committees cooperate over matters such as cultural heritage restoration, tracking down missing persons from the war, and more recently, public health. Such engagements have had little influence on the core parts of the settlement talks mentioned above.

At present, the UN is now preparing to resume the negotiations. The EU has backed the move, asserting that it is “of vital importance that the UN-led efforts for the Cyprus settlement are launched as soon as possible”. Tatar has also announced a multilateral conference to be convened by Ankara, although it is unclear if the Greek Cypriot side would agree to it.

Though there has been a long history of failure and despair in attempts to resolve the Cyprus Problem, hope, however faint, remains. The parties did, in fact, come close to a solution in 2017, where Turkey, in particular, had purportedly shown willingness to compromise on the issue of security guarantees through a significant reduction of its troops in Cyprus. Though Tatar himself has promised not to forego Turkish security guarantees on the island, the Turkish offer may still stand.

Only time will tell whether the many stakeholders to this long-standing dispute will finally come to an agreement in a win-win manner that finally alleviates a key point of tension in the region for all.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.