Right-turning Cyprus, hardly back on the unified track

The story (in Chinese) was first published in South Review Magazine, Issue 03/2021

This English version was translated from the Chinese original using DeepL, with the manual correction of some obvious mistranslations. I apologize for any mistakes made by this AI translation tool.

In recent months, the situation in the Mediterranean island of Cyprus has once again become a flashpoint for international public opinion. In a speech in early January, the “president” of the Turkish-controlled Northern Cyprus authorities, Esin Tatar, publicly called on the Greek Cypriot government on the southern side to “abandon unrealistic illusions”, saying that “a ‘two-state solution’ is the only way for people on both sides to live together peacefully on the island”.

Tatar, the “former Prime Minister”, was elected “President of Northern Cyprus” in October last year. Unlike former “President” Mustafa Akinci, who had been committed to the reunification of the North and the South, he advocated a “two-state solution” instead of a “federal solution”, with a pro-Turkish stance. His election is considered to have added a new dimension to the future of Cyprus and the Mediterranean.


Protracted North-South strife

With an area of just over 9,000 square kilometres and a population of just over 1 million, the political situation in Cyprus has long been complex. The members of the Cabinet are divided in proportion to the population of the two communities. Greece, Turkey and the United Kingdom, which have historical ties with Cyprus, act as “guarantors” for the implementation of the agreement. Behind the seemingly fair agreement is a tug-of-war between the three “guarantor powers”: Britain, the former colonizer, retains a large sovereign military base area on the island in order to maintain control over the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean. Greece and Turkey, the motherland of the two major communities in Cyprus, both see the nominally sovereign and independent State as their own.

The British retained large areas of sovereign military bases on the island even after the end of colonization

With the covert support of their respective backers, the two Cypriot communities embarked on a decade-long feud, with a succession of propaganda campaigns and even terrorist attacks. This was eventually brought to an end by the Turkish invasion of 1974: they quickly occupied more than a third of the northern part of the island and created the “Turkish State of Cyprus” under their auspices, which was subsequently renamed the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” in 1983, which is still not recognized by the international community. The division of Cyprus between the north and the south was formalized when the “Turkish Republic” was established.

After that, a Green Line, manned by United Nations troops, completely separated the north and south sides of the island. The Green Line runs through the centre of the old town of Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, and made it the last divided capital of Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was not until 2003 that the first crossing point on the Green Line was officially opened.

Northern Cypriots pictured in front of the Green Line in Nicosia, behind which is the Greek-controlled (South) Cyprus

The Annan Plan of 2004, led by the then Secretary-General of the United Nations, was the closest the Cyprus problem came to a solution: it envisaged a “federal state of two political entities” for Cypriots in the north and south. In the referendum, however, while the Turkish community in the north chose to support it, the Greek community in the south rejected it. Greek Cypriots at that time still imagined that the whole country would be brought back under Greek domination, as agreed in 1960.

After the partition of Cyprus, the Greek government imposed a strict embargo on the northern side. The international restaurant chain Burger King, for example, was once limited to operating in Northern Cyprus under the name Burger City. Today, Northern Cyprus is only accessible by air to Turkey and relies on Turkey for all supplies

The defeat of the referendum also scuttled the efforts of the North and South to join the EU together, with the Greek minority government on the South side opting for separate membership. Although the original inhabitants of both communities on the northern and southern sides of Cyprus were granted EU citizenship, EU law was applied only on the southern side, leaving the de facto divided Northern Cyprus as the most exclusive area within the EU jurisprudence.

The Karpas Peninsula in Northern Cyprus is the easternmost point of the EU jurisprudence, but the EU flag has never flown there

Reopening of the ghost town of Varosha

Last October, before the general elections in Northern Cyprus, Turkey suddenly announced the “limited reopening of the closed area of Varosha, where Turkish troops are stationed”, which was seen as a major support to Tatar, who was still a presidential candidate at the time. Immediately after his election, Tatar announced that he would gradually expand the opening of Varosha. In the three months since it was opened, more than 100,000 tourists have reportedly visited the once heavily guarded sanctuary.

Military restricted area fencing in Varosha

Varosha was once known as a European seaside resort, “the Jewel of the Mediterranean”. In 1974, when Turkey invaded Cyprus, the local Greek population and tourists were evacuated within hours, leaving an empty city for the occupying forces. Varosha has since been transformed into a ghost town.

Varosha Beach, the abandoned luxury resort

It is for this reason that the reopening of Varosha, in defiance of Security Council resolutions, was immediately rejected and condemned by the United Nations and many countries of the world. The President of Cyprus, Nicos Anastasiades, called it “an unprecedented provocation”.

Most of the properties in Varosha belong to Greek Cypriots, but the original inhabitants have not been allowed to return to their homes since 1974. Recently, the northern Cypriot side suddenly stated that it would respect the rights of the original inhabitants to these properties. This undoubtedly poses a new dilemma for the (South) Cypriot government: the majority of the Greek indigenous inhabitants care only about their return to their homes than about the vague “sovereignty of Varosha”. Once the Greek indigenous population acquiesces to the rule of the Northern Cypriot authorities over Varosha, it means that its repossession by (South) Cyprus will become impossible.

Street scene in Varosha, where the pre-1974 Greek sign is still legible

Erdogan’s ambitions

Turkish President Erdoğan, who has always taken a hard-line diplomatic stance in line with “Greater Turkey”, is considered to be the biggest driving force behind the outcome of the elections in Northern Cyprus. Erdogan, who has been trying to gain full control of Northern Cyprus, has been promoting a “two-state solution” and has been unhappy with Akinci, who supports a “federal solution”. Akinci has repeatedly accused Erdoğan of interfering in the elections in Northern Cyprus – an unprecedented public accusation by the Northern Cypriot leader against the Turkish president.

Erdoğan’s support for Tatar is not limited to the reopening of Varosha. At the outset of Tatar’s election last November, Erdoğan made a high-profile visit to Northern Cyprus to participate in the commemoration of the “37th anniversary of the independence of Northern Cyprus” and reaffirmed his support for the “two-state solution”.

During Tatar’s recent return visit to Ankara, the media published a scene of the meeting that was considered to be profound: in the photo, Erdogan is in the center, while Tatar and the “vice president” who are on the trip together are sitting on either side of Erdogan, as if they were employees listening to their boss; behind them, only the Turkish flag is visible, but not the There is no “Northern Cyprus flag” behind them. According to Turkey’s foreign policy, Northern Cyprus should be a sovereign state on an equal footing with it, yet this arrangement, with no regard for diplomatic protocol, undoubtedly demonstrates Erdoğan’s intention of “total control” over the Tatar government.

In his foreign policy towards Greece, Erdogan has similarly shown an unmistakable assertiveness: both the earlier Mediterranean oil and gas dispute and the previous forced conversion of the Hagia Sophia museum, which is important to both Greece and the Orthodox Church, into a mosque were considered blatant provocations against Greece.

A field of wrestling among the great powers, a crossroads of world geopolitics

Cyprus is located in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, surrounded by Greece/EU to the west, Turkey to the north, Israel to the southeast, and Arab countries such as Egypt to the east and south. Together with its former colonizer, Britain, its “NATO ally”, the United States, and Russia, which is part of the same Orthodox cultural circle, Cyprus is at the geopolitical crossroads of the world.

Previous negotiations on Cyprus have been conducted under the “5+1” framework, namely, the North and the South, the three “guarantor Powers” (Greece, Turkey and the United Kingdom), plus the United Nations. Due to fundamental differences in the positions of Turkey and Greece, no substantive progress was made in the negotiations for many years. The last negotiations broke down in 2017, which was the reason for the refusal of the Governments of Turkey and Tatar in Northern Cyprus to continue negotiations under the framework of the “federal formula”.

On 11 January, the UN Special Envoy to Cyprus, Jane Holl Lute, visited Cyprus and held separate meetings with the leaders of the North and South, the second such meeting since last December. This was the second similar meeting since last December. However, the fundamental differences between the “federal solution” and the “two-state solution” remained irreconcilable, as evidenced by the press conferences held on each side after the meeting.

Beyond the P5+1, the United States, Russia and even France and the European Union are also keenly interested in intervening in the Greek-Turkish dispute and the Cyprus problem, and on January 4, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolfe said that a Center for Land, High Seas and Port Security (CYCLOPS) would be established in Cyprus. The $5 million center will help train officials in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries in the latest techniques for border, customs, maritime and cyber security. He described the centre as an important outcome of the re-engagement of the United States in the Eastern Mediterranean and “the strong relationship between the United States and the Republic of Cyprus”.

At almost the same time, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zakharova lashed out at outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, saying he was “diverting” Russia from its traditional relations with Greece and Cyprus. Russia has maintained a deep traditional friendship with Greece and Cyprus due to their shared Orthodox cultural circles. Russia has always supported the Greek-Cypriot government’s territorial claims; it has also stood firmly by Greece on issues such as oil and gas exploration in the Mediterranean and the width of the Aegean Sea’s territorial waters, among other Greek-Turkish disputes. Yet NATO membership makes it inevitable that Greece will be interfered with by external forces in its relations with Russia.

In 2018, Greece’s then-ruling, pro-NATO Radical Left Alliance (SYRIZA) government had expelled two Russian diplomats and banned two others from entering the country. The Russian diplomats were accused of trying to bribe Greek officials and interfering in Greece’s internal affairs. And with a center-right New Democracy government coming to power in 2019, developing relations with non-NATO members, including Russia, has become a new direction for Greek diplomacy. The successful exchange of visits between the foreign ministers of Greece and Russia in 2019 and 2020, respectively, is considered a landmark event in the restoration of relations between the two countries.

Russia’s relations with Turkey are extremely complex. The two countries have long had difficulty reconciling their divergent positions on issues such as the Aegean Sea, Syria and the Naka region, which caused relations to reach their lowest point when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane in 2015. Yet the recent Turkish purchase of Russian S-400 air defense missile systems, despite US sanctions, is a sure sign that Erdogan sees Russia as an important partner outside NATO. Russia, for its part, also hopes to regain greater influence in the Middle East and the Mediterranean through Turkey.

Greece recently announced that it will solemnly celebrate the 400th anniversary of the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence and the 200th anniversary of its independence from the Ottoman Turkish Empire on March 25, in what is seen as a tough response to Turkish provocations since last year.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, naturally, is the guest of honor invited by Greece. Also joining Putin at the Greek Independence Day celebrations will be French President Emmanuel Macron. As a “dual ally” of the European Union and NATO, France has long maintained close ties with Greece. Recently the Greek parliamentary parties approved by a near-unanimous vote a plan to spend 3.5 billion euros to purchase 18 French-made Rafale fighter jets and accompanying missiles. The weapons will be used to “strengthen the deterrence of the armed forces”, a move widely seen as a response to the growing Turkish threat.

Relations between France and Turkey have been severely strained in 2020 amid a series of bilateral and regional conflicts, including the Prophet Mohammed cartoons controversy. However, just recently, Erdogan and Macron exchanged New Year’s greetings, showing signs of warming relations between the two countries. In a rare move, Macron addressed Erdogan as “dear Tayyip” and even used part of the Turkish language in the letter. He stressed Turkey’s importance to Europe and the need to develop positive relations, and suggested cooperation in “bilateral consultations, regional issues such as terrorism, Syria and Libya, and in the field of education.”

The sudden recurrence in relations between the two countries demonstrates both Macron’s eagerness to consolidate France’s position as the EU leader after Britain’s exit and Erdogan’s eagerness to repair relations with France and the EU at a time when he is mired in both an epidemic and an economic crisis.

Right turn for Cyprus, the two communities drift apart

The Cyprus dispute, much of its driving force, stems from the manipulation of the major powers behind it. Behind the protracted strife, Cypriots, who are ordinary people, are in fact not as hostile as many people think.

Before 1974, the two communities of Cypriots had lived together for generations, churches and mosques stood side by side in the same villages, and even intermarriage between the two communities was not uncommon. Their relationship, as depicted by British author Victoria Hislop in her novel The Sunrise, was almost fused into one. And even now, more than 40 years after the division of Cyprus, the two communities still retain a sense of identity with each other.

I travelled to Cyprus twice, in 2016 and 2020, and interviewed a number of local people on the issue of identity. A local university teacher of Greek origin clearly stated that he identifies only as a “Cypriot”. He only considers Cypriots as his fellow countrymen, regardless of whether they are Greek or Turkish, than Greeks across the Mediterranean.

His views are typical of almost everyone I met in Cyprus, Greek and Turkish alike. Several young Cypriots even said that they had been in “relationships across borders and nationalities”. The Cypriots (both Greek and Turkish) are also significantly more secular than the Greeks and Turks, and care less about the historical religious differences between the two communities.

However, the victory of Tatar, who advocates a “two-state solution”, in the general elections in Northern Cyprus is a clear indication that the population of Northern Cyprus is experiencing a dramatic “right turn”. The mistrust between the inhabitants of both sides of Cyprus has deepened sharply in the wake of the epidemic, the Mediterranean dispute and the Turkish intervention, signalling that “nationality” may replace “statehood” as the main identity of Cypriots in the future.

At the same time, however, the opposition to Tatar in Northern Cyprus and the desire to return to a “federal solution” cannot be underestimated. In last year’s elections, Tatar had only 3 per cent lead over Akinci. In the recent prime ministerial elections, Tatar’s National Unity Party, but also through three rounds of voting, and a coalition of two other parties, just barely reached the threshold of half of the cabinet. It remains to be seen whether this situation will cause a new round of division in northern Cypriot society and whether a new round of conflict will arise between those who support the “federal solution” and the “two-state solution”.