BACKGROUND: The election of Mustafa Akıncı to the presidency of the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) on April 19 has encouraged the Greek side to re-commit to the Cyprus peace process. As a political figure known for his decades long efforts to reunite the Turks and Greeks on the basis of a common Cypriot identity, Akıncı appears to be an ideal Turkish counterpart for Greek Cypriot president Anastasiades, but only if he genuinely wants a reunified Cyprus.
What sets Akıncı apart from other prominent Turkish Cypriot politicians is his commitment to increase the autonomy of Turkish Cypriots vis-à-vis Turkey; but also his proven aptitude to cooperate with his Greek Cypriot colleagues.
Akıncı began his political career as the mayor of Nicosia Turkish Municipality in 1976. The island and its capital city were divided after the Turkish military intervention in 1974; the intervention took place after the Cypriot president Makarios was ousted in a military coup that was backed by the military junta in Greece.
Akıncı’s tenure as mayor was marked by what became a renowned collaboration with the Nicosia Greek mayor Lellos Demetriades in implementing a common sewerage project and drawing a common Master Plan for the divided capital amid intense bi-communal hostilities. He sustained his pro-Cypriot political stance during his leadership of the Communal Liberation Party (TKP) during 1987 to 2003 and he subsequently founded the “Peace and Democracy Movement” in 2003, supporting the United Nations Annan plan to reunite Cyprus.
The Greek side’s rejection of the plan in a 2004 referendum did not dishearten Akıncı. He continued his political career as the leader of the “Communal Democracy Party” which is an offshoot of the “Peace and Democracy Movement.” With his election victory, Akıncı has finally obtained what he has sought during decades, a mandate from the Turkish Cypriots to engage in the reunification of the island.
Following Akıncı’s election, Cypriot president Anastasiades immediately decided to return back to the negotiation table that he left last October in response to Turkey’s natural gas survey within Cyprus Exclusive Economic Zone (EEC). Anastasiades suggested new “confidence building measures,” such as granting the Muslim monuments remaining on the Greek side to the Turkish Cypriot “Evkaf Foundation;” further, he suggested to unite the two sides’ soccer leagues and hiring Turkish-speaking officers at the Citizen Service Centers under his administration. Meanwhile, Akıncı suggested common car insurance and telephone coverage, noting that such concrete achievements could give a push to reunification.
The two Cypriot leaders got off to a good start; they seemed to be getting along well, making joint public appearances on both the Turkish and Greek sides and they concluded a baseline assessment allowing the official negotiations. To compare, it had taken Anastasiades over a year to come to the same stage with former Turkish Cypriot leader Derviş Eroğlu who represents the Turkish nationalist National Unity Party, (UBP).
IMPLICATIONS: Obviously, the swift responsiveness of the Greek Cypriot side to Akıncı’s election is due to his well-known commitment to a united Cyprus. Yet perhaps even more importantly, his electoral success is perceived by the Anastasiades government as the symptom of a new psychological environment in the Turkish north.
Since 2010, when a major economic crisis hit the northern part of the island, the relations between the Turkish Cypriot community and Turkey have deteriorated. The Turkish government has imposed strict austerity measures on northern Cyprus, which relies totally on Turkey for its economy. There is also an ideological aspect, as the secular life style that prevails among Turkish Cypriots and the religious conservatism of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) are at odds.
There have been reactions against the establishment of religious institutions and schools by AKP-affiliated circles that suggest that Turkish Cypriots are growing wary of Turkey’s influence. Although it is yet difficult to claim that there is a clear alienation among Turkish Cypriots from the “motherland”, a considerable part of them may well prefer being citizens of a reunified Cyprus – and thus EU citizens – rather than remaining uncomfortably dependent on a religiously conservative Turkey.
Confident in the message that was delivered by the voters, Mustafa Akıncı’s very first statement after his election affirmed such discomfort as he stated that Turkish Cypriots henceforth wished to consider Turkey as their “brother-” and not “mother-” land.
President Anastasiades stands to benefit from this new climate to stage-manage the reunification attempts; according to him, the outcome hinges utterly on Turkey. While feverishly investing in peace talks, Anastasiades did not back down from expressing that the main hurdle to a conclusive peace is the presence of 35,000 Turkish troops on Northern Cyprus and Turkey’s status as “guarantor” that allows it to intervene in the affairs of Cyprus. Deeming that he is not dealing primarily with Turkish Cypriots but with Turkey, the Cypriot president ultimately aims to increase pressure on Ankara, and unlike his predecessors, he is in possession of trump cards.
Since coming to power in 2013, the Anastasiades government has radically redefined the order of priorities of Greek Cyprus. This was prompted by the economic crisis in 2012 and the exploration of natural gas reserves in the South-eastern Mediterranean within the Cypriot economic zone.
The Cypriot government intended to effectively exploit the new resources, and to avoid making them a stake in the negotiations. The strategy resulted in the current energy diplomacy; the Greek Cypriot administration unilaterally manages the drilling and distribution of resources without seeking the consent of the Turkish Cypriots or of Turkey.
The main pillar of this diplomacy consists of new partnerships in the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly with Israel and Egypt. These are ideal partners as both countries have been at odds with the Turkey in recent years. While Cyprus has intensified cooperation with Israel and Egypt, Turkey has lost ground in the region.
The radical change is typically demonstrated by Egypt’s u-turn. Only two years ago, then Egptian president Muhammad Morsi had cancelled the maritime border agreement signed in 2003 and called for a new delimitation between Cyprus and Egypt with the participation of Turkey in its capacity as the guarantor country of the rights of Turkish Cypriots. The current Egyptian government has reversed this course; it has recommitted Egypt to the 2003 agreement and it has signed a unitization agreement with Cyprus to share commercial interests of natural gas reserves found in either side of their reciprocal maritime borders. Currently enduring a severe energy crisis, Egypt is also about to become the first customer for the 6 trillion cubic meters natural gas reserves in the Cypriot zone.
The Cypriot government took another important step recently by agreeing the terms of a new unitization agreement with Israel in order to jointly explore gas reserves on the adjacent Aphrodite (Cypriot) and Tamar (Israeli) fields. The two sides aim also to cooperate in the commercialization of their reserves with neighboring states, beginning with Egypt. Moreover, Cyprus and Israel contemplate new projects as selling gas-powered electricity to the EU through cables reaching Greece.
With more parties becoming interested in Cyprus’ maritime borders and resources, the reunification of the island has already become a key issue in the Eastern Mediterranean geopolitics. In this light, the emergence of a “Nicosia-centered” pole is likely to harm Turkey’s prospects, as for instance is indicated by Egypt’s sustained efforts to ensure that the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) removes the term 'Turkish Cypriot State' in reference to the TRNC, which holds observer status. Moreover, although so far without effect, the Egyptian effort is backed by several other member states, among whom the United Arab Emirates and Iran.
CONCLUSIONS: Eastern Mediterranean geopolitics together with the more assertive, independent-minded stance of Turkish Cypriots in favor of “reunification” mean that Turkey faces the most delicate stage of its engagement in Cyprus since 1974.
The Turkish AKP government had defined its Cyprus policy as being “one step ahead” of the Greek side; however recent developments indicate the opposite development. Being left with almost no allies in the region, Ankara lacks diplomatic support while the Cypriot government enjoys new partnerships in addition to its EU member status. Significantly, Turkey now faces the risk of forfeiting Turkish Cypriots’ allegiance, especially if the negotiations between the two Cypriot presidents, Nicos Anastasiades and Mustafa Akıncı, reach a successful conclusion. Both the EU and UN are hopeful with regards to the duo’s performance and have jointly set February 2016 as a target date for a final guarantors meeting where Turkey is also expected to participate.
Considering the complicated nature of the Cyprus problem and the long history of previous frustrations, a successful outcome of the peace process cannot be taken for granted. But geopolitical developments and the new political landscape on the Turkish Cypriot side limit Turkey’s margin of maneuver; Ankara will ultimately have to choose between consenting to other parties’ solutions or keep insisting on the established stalemate to the detriment of peace endeavors. The latter option would not only stigmatize Turkey; such a stance is not going to enhance Turkey’s geopolitical standing at this delicate moment when the Eastern Mediterranean region is being reshaped.
Ozan Serdaroğlu, Ph.D., is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Security and Development Policy’s Silk Road Studies Program in Stockholm, Sweden
(Image attribution: Wikimedia Commons, Boris Ajeganov)