Thorny issue of a divided island

Thorny issue of a divided island

Thorny issue of a divided island
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan his wife Emine, Turkish Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar and his wife Sibel pose for a picture in the Turkish-held north of the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus. (File/AFP)
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After Ersin Tatar’s election in October last year as president of northern Cyprus, the Cyprus question may be moving to a new stage. The Turkish government extended strong support to Tatar before, during and after the elections. Tatar and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan supported the Turkish Cypriots’ right to political equality, which is at the heart of the issue.

This principle was first emptied of substance in 1963 by Archbishop Makarios, then the President of Cyprus. The Greek Cypriots considering the Turkish Cypriots a minority, not politically equal partners.

In the early 2000s, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan drafted a plan for the solution of the Cyprus question, which entailed creating a federation of two states. The plan was strongly supported by the EU, whose leaders lobbied to persuade Erdogan, then Turkey’s prime minister, to encourage the Turkish Cypriots to vote for it in areferendum in April 2004. The EU leaders told Erdogan that if Turkish Cypriots voted for the Annan Plan, this might facilitate Turkey’s accession negotiations to the EU. Erdogan went along with this suggestion despite the strong opposition of all political parties in Turkey except his own ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

In the referendum, more than 75 percent of Greek Cypriots voted against the Annan Plan, while 65 percent ofTurkish Cypriots voted in favor, mainly thanks to Erdogan’s persuasion. The following month, Cyprus as a whole joined the EU, although EU law is suspended in northern Cyprus pending final settlement of the Cyprus issue. This is one of the important reasons for Erdogan’s negative attitude toward the EU.

Now, as a new factor, the UK, which supported the Annan Plan but has avoided direct involvement in the Cyprus question ever since, renewed its interest. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab visited both Greek and Turkish Cypriots to propose a new approach to the Cyprus question, circumventing some obstacles to the Turkish Cypriots’ accession to the EU through a formula different from the previous ones.

Raab’s plan envisages the creation of a new federation in Cyprus, composed of two sovereign “communal” states entitled to conduct foreign relations, become member of international organizations, sign agreements, and organize cultural activities and sporting encounters with teams from other countries.  This approach leaves unanswered the question of what will happen when the federal government opposes it.

If the circumstances warrant, Erdogan may step back and sit at the negotiating table and, as a strong leader, he still can sell this new approach to the Turkish electorate. Whether he will is difficult to tell.

Yasar Yakis

Other provisions in the UK plan look attractive at first sight, such as equal representation — one Turkish, one Greek president, with equal powers; and a council of ministers with nine members, six Greek, three Turkish. No doubt the British government is proposing these alternatives with the best of intentions, but experience suggests that the Greek Cypriots would do everything to make such an arrangement inoperable. 

Since Tatar’s election as president, the Cyprus question has gone through a  paradigm change between Turkey and northern Cyprus. Initially there was a milder approach, and the Turkish side said it would continue to explore the possibility of a partnership on condition of political equality. If Erdogan means what he says, this seems to have been overtaken by events.

The UN Secretary General plans a meeting on Cyprus in March with a 5+1 format (Turkey, Greece, UK as the guarantor powers; Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots as two main stakeholders; and the UN secretariat), which Turkey supports. Last week Greece and Cyprus said they would agree to a peace deal only if it werebased on UN resolutions. Two days later, Greek Prime Minister Kiriakos Mitsotakis said conditions were not yet ripe for a meeting with Erdogan, but it was important to keep talking.

This comment seems to have angered Erdogan. He said he could not meet Mitsotakis and, apparently deviating from the written text, added:  “Mitsotakis challenged me. How can we sit down with you now? Know your limits first. If you really seek peace, don’t challenge me.” He continued: “There is no longer any solution but a two-state solution. Only under these circumstances can we sit at the table over Cyprus. Otherwise everyone should go their own way.”

Will Erdogan retreat from this defiant position? He is a pragmatic and strong leader. If the circumstances warrant, he may step back and sit at the negotiating table and, as a strong leader, he still can sell this new approach to the Turkish electorate.

Whether he will is difficult to tell.

  • Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar
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