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[ANALYSIS] Erdoğan could step back from Turkey’s Cyprus stance for the sake of EU ties

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Fatih Yurtsever*

The “Cyprus problem” — also known as the Cyprus conflict, Cyprus issue, Cyprus dispute or Cyprus question — is a complex dispute involving the Greek Cypriot community in the southern part of Cyprus and the Turkish Cypriot community in the north. The island of Cyprus, located in the Mediterranean, is divided into two main sectors: the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus, inhabited primarily by Greek Cypriots, and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC), which is recognized only by Turkey. The UK also retains sovereignty over two military bases on the island.

At the heart of the conflict is the disagreement between Greek and Turkish Cypriots over the political status and future of the island. But the implications of the dispute extend far beyond the island itself. The guarantor powers under the Zurich and London agreements — namely Greece and Turkey, and to a lesser extent the United Kingdom — play a significant role in the ongoing negotiations. The United Nations is mediating these negotiations to find a solution for the island’s reunification. In recent years, the European Union has also become involved in the complex issue, adding another layer to the negotiation process.

Turkey underwent a significant shift in its Cyprus policy following the unsuccessful compromise talks in Crans Montana, Switzerland, in 2017. At an informal 5+1 conference in Geneva April 27-29, 2021, representatives from the UK, Turkey, Greece and the Turkish and Greek Cypriot communities and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres discussed potential solutions to the Cyprus problem.

Turkey presented its roadmap to the United Nations for solving the issue.

The secretary-general will propose that the Security Council adopt a resolution recognizing the two parties’ equal international status and sovereign equality. This resolution would lay the foundation for a cooperative relationship between the two existing states. Upon assurance of equal international status and sovereign equality, negotiations under the supervision of the UN secretary-general will begin. These talks aim to establish a time-bound, result-oriented cooperative agreement that both parties find acceptable. The negotiation topics will include the future relationship between the two independent states, property, security, border adjustment and relations with the EU. Turkey, Greece and the UK will support these negotiations. The EU may also participate as an observer if deemed appropriate. As part of any agreement, the two states will recognize each other, with the support of the three Guarantor States (UK, Turkey, Greece). Any agreement resulting from these negotiations will be presented for ratification through separate simultaneous referendums in the two states.

After the Cyprus Peace Operation conducted by Turkey in 1974, the island of Cyprus was divided between Greeks and Turks. Due to the de facto partition and the inability to reach a consensus between the parties, the KKTC was established on Nov. 15, 1983. However, according to United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions 541 and 550, the KKTC is not officially recognized by any country other than Turkey.

UNSC Resolution 541 states that the “declaration of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus as an independent state is incompatible with the 1960 Treaty concerning the establishment of the Republic of Cyprus and the 1960 Treaty of Guarantee. Therefore, the attempt to create a Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is invalid and will contribute to the worsening of the situation in Cyprus.” The relevant portion of UNSC Resolution 550 reads as follows:

“The Security Council,

            – “Gravely concerned about the further secessionist acts in the occupied part of the Republic of Cyprus which are in violation of resolution 541 (1983), namely, the purported exchange of ambassadors between Turkey and the legally invalid ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ and the contemplated holding of a ‘constitutional referendum’ and ‘elections’, as well as by other actions or threats of actions aimed at further consolidating the purported independent State and the division of Cyprus,

            – “Condemns all secessionist actions, including the purported exchange of ambassadors between Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot leadership, declares them illegal and invalid, and calls for their immediate withdrawal;

            – “Reiterates the call upon all States not to recognize the purported State of the ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ set up by secessionist acts and calls upon them not to facilitate or in any way assist the aforesaid secessionist entity;

            – “Calls upon all States to respect the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, unity, and nonalignment of the Republic of Cyprus; …”

Despite the UN Security Council resolutions, no country has officially recognized the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus to date. Therefore, it may be unrealistic to expect all conditions of the roadmap Turkey submitted to the UN secretary-general to be fulfilled. During the Crans Montana talks, Turkey proposed a gradual withdrawal of its troops and considered negotiating its right to unilateral intervention, a privilege from its status as a guarantor. However, these negotiations were contingent upon reaching a compromise on other issues.

The Greek Cypriot side, on the other hand, remained adamant on key negotiating issues such as the division of territory, property rights and political administration, and was unwilling to compromise. This inflexibility led Turkey to adopt a tougher approach to the Cyprus negotiations after the Crans Montana discussions.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan secured victory in the runoff presidential election on May 28. This triumph provided him with an important opportunity to counter his image as an authoritarian leader, particularly in the US and EU countries. In particular, commentary in the Western press suggesting that the election wouldn’t have gone to a runoff if Erdoğan really were a dictator created a favorable environment for improving relations with the US and the EU.

Turkey is currently facing an economic crisis and needs foreign investment to recover. An injection of capital from EU countries, especially Germany, depends on the revival of Turkey-EU relations and concrete steps taken by the Erdoğan government. The EU’s interest in extracting natural gas from the eastern Mediterranean, south of Cyprus, and transporting it to EU countries in the most economical way is paramount. However, the unresolved Cyprus issue is hampering the implementation of large-scale gas exploration and transport projects by EU companies such as Total and Eni.

Therefore, the resumption of negotiations on the Cyprus issue would accelerate the realization of alternative natural gas pipeline projects in the eastern Mediterranean, facilitating the exploration and transport of gas from southern Cyprus to the EU. Although the Erdoğan government proposed a five-point roadmap to the UN secretary-general in 2021, it is likely to withdraw its condition for the establishment of two sovereign states in Cyprus in order to rejuvenate relations with the EU and attract investment to Turkey. As a result, negotiations on the Cyprus problem could resume.

* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.

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